2023 Tarpon & Big-Game Reel Mini-Shootout
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We're baaaaaack. After a nearly 4-year hiatus, we're proud to bring back one of our favorite topics: finding the best fly reel.
This year we've upped our game big time (see what I did there?) and we've brought our hallmark reel shootout to the world of tarpon and big game fishing. After all, is there any type of fishing that needs more drag than big game fishing?
As this is a mini shootout, we didn't try to test every reel. Frankly, most reels just aren't suited for big game fishing and it would have been a colossal waste of time. Instead, we took the best of the best reels from our last 8-weight shootout, plus a few other reels we really wanted to check out. This resulted in a list of 13 of the very best tarpon and GT fly reels ever made. (Before you ask us why Abel and Tibor weren't included, it's because we asked and they didn't send us a reel.)
As with all of our reviews, we'll try to remain as objective as possible, and we’ll give you all of the raw data to draw your own conclusions, if you wish. But, we’re also going to tell you which reels we like best. After years of hard work, we hope you enjoy it!
We'd love to hear your feedback on this test, and if you have some time, please leave us a comment at the bottom, and don't forget to check out the other posts in our great fly fishing blog.
PS - if your favorite reel wasn't included and you'd like to see it tested next time, CLICK HERE, to send an e-mail to your favorite manufacturer so that next time we can test it. But if you still want to tell us that you "can't believe [we] didn't test <your favorite reel>," leave us a comment. We won't get that upset about it. Probably.
What makes a great big game saltwater fly reel?
Our testing has evolved a lot since the first time we did our 8-weight challenge. But, one thing hasn't changed; we started by asking ourselves one question: What makes a great big game fly reel?
As we've grown in our testing, this question has gotten a lot more complicated. Fundamentally, we're still looking for the same things: a great drag, fast line pickup, light weight, and good ergonomics.
This year, in quite a twist, we ended up with a 3-way tie. If you had asked me, before I tested any of them, which would be the best, I would have said it would be one of these 3. With that said, each of these reels has 1-2 fairly minor downsides that made it impossible to pick a winner.
The Hatch Iconic 9 Plus is a perennial favorite. Hatch has won shootouts before and we're pleased to see them back at the podium. This year the Iconic didn't really stand out in any way, but rather plowed its way to the top by being rather good at everything. If you want an all-around, do-anything reel, this is it. If they had only kept the old Finatic sound...
The Mako 9600B is also very well-rounded but performed much better than the Iconic across the board. Its drag is great, its pickup is great, and it feels great.... but it's really heavy. 50% more weight kept it from being a solo winner. For sight fishing tarpon in the keys, this one probably takes the cake.
Rounding out the winner's circle is the Nautilus GTX. If you can manage to find one, the GTX offers much of what you'll get with the Mako in a much lighter package. Unfortunately, the GTX's drag only offers about one-third of a turn of real adjustability - not enough for our liking. For Geets and other situations where you're not worried about lighter tippets, this reel is ideal.
Note: these results got a little out of hand again and they'll probably be easier to view if you download the pdf here.
The Raw Data
Again, it's probably easier to read the pdf here.
Reel Notes and Drag Strength Graphs
95% of this section is redundant with what we've already covered in other reel shootouts, so we've moved it to the bottom.
Just like all of our reel tests, all spool measurements were taken using a digital caliper, and weights were captured using a digital scale.
Testing drags, on the other hand, is tough, and your boga grips just aren't going to cut it. But it's also what makes this test worth reading. For this year's test (and all going forward), we purchased our own universal testing machine (thanks Admet!). It's the only way to really understand what's happening at a scientific level.
Each reel was then filled with 50 yards of 30lb Dacron backing and then mounted to our universal testing machine. The backing was then attached to the load cell. We then set the machine in motion and measured the force nearly 1000 times per second.
All reels were tested with backing only. We found that when fly line was on the reel, it shifted around too much to get consistent results. Rigging Matters.
In order to prioritize what was most important, we changed our scoring a bit this year. Here are the categories:
Max Drag Strength
Max drag is our hallmark test category. It's been with us since the beginning and is what differentiates us from other shootouts. It also differentiates reels in terms of technical performance. No one would drive a Ferrari if it topped out at 75 MPH. We view drag strength as the 'top-speed' in our test. That said, this is a BIG GAME shootout, and we wanted reels that had AT LEAST 12 lbs of drag, and we penalized reels that didn't meet this benchmark.
We measured drag strength by tightening the reel to the tightest we could reasonably get it with our fingers, then attaching the reel to our UTM and averaging the force after the reel hit its peak (about 2 inches). The top reels had over 20lbs of drag, but to everyone's surprise (including our rep at the time), the reasonably priced Redington Grande took home top honors with an insane 41lbs of drag!!
Winner: Redington Grande
Usable Drag Strength
While Max Drag is the mark of technical performance, Usable Drag Strength is the actual amount of usable drag that the reel has. It's the amount you could comfortably dial in while fighting a fish. We measured this by marking the max point (from above), and then dialing it back 1/4 turn EXCEPT when the reels had drags that were easy to turn all the way to the max drag point. A great example of this is the Mako - it requires very little torque to set it all the way to max drag, and therefore 100% of its drag is usable.
Winner: Ross Evolution R Salt
Sure, it's important to have a lot of drag, but it's equally (if not more) important to have a drag that's adjustable. Why have 2 turns of drag when the reel is going to free spool after one turn?
For this category, we started with our Max Drag point, then dialed it back exactly half of the range of the drag. In an ideal world, we'd like to see exactly 50% of the drag at this point, but what we found was that drag force ranged from 2-62% of Max Drag. We awarded points based on how close reels got to 50%. Here's a graph that further illustrates why a linear drag is better than a non-linear one.
Winner: Hatch Iconic
Have you ever been out on the water when that big fish sneaks up on you just as you get to a spot? You turn down the drag to strip line off your reel as quickly as you can to make that critical first cast only to find that your neatly wound up line has been turned into a birds nest? Ok, maybe it's just me...
What prevents a reel from free-spooling? Having enough drag to slow it down (or some other mechanism - more on that in the individual reviews). We were looking for about .4lbs of drag and surprisingly, no reels actually hit this. The best reels got pretty close on either top end or the bottom end.
Winner: Orvis Hydros
If you troll the fly fishing forums, there's a lot of talk about start-up inertia - and with good reason. But let's back up. What is start-up inertia? All drags work in essentially the same way - two plates create friction which slows the spinning of the spool. There are two types of friction: static - when the drag isn't moving - and kinetic - when a fish is pulling on the drag. Start-up inertia is the initial force required to get the drag started. So, it's actually a bit of a misnomer. It should actually be called "static friction". So... who cares?
Because static friction is greater than kinetic friction, it causes a drop in drag force immediately after the fish starts pulling on your line. Here's what it looks like on a drag graph:
You'll notice that this reel requires over 2 lbs of start-up force. If we're using 8 lb test tippet, we now need to set our drag to a maximum of 5-6 lbs so that it doesn't break the tippet. Effectively, we're losing 25% of our drag strength. Because all forces are exacerbated at higher speeds, imagine how much drag is lost with a fish traveling at 15-20 miles per hour.
Today, most reels have nearly no startup inertia. When you're cherry-picking reels for a mini-shootout... there are even fewer. Because of that, we reduced the number of points for this category. Still, the Sage Thermo was slightly better than the rest, so we gave it an extra point.
Winner: Sage Thermo
In terms of pure performance, retrieval rate is one of the most important and noticeable features of a fly reel. When a fish turns and starts swimming toward you, you need to reel as fast as you can to keep the fish on. It also means fewer turns to bring in that trophy or just reel up as you change spots. Therefore, bigger IS better, as they say.
But what we really care about is line pickup, and, therefore, that’s what we scored as part of the test. To get this, we needed to determine the circumference at a backing volume of 4.25 cubic inches. That’s how much space 250 yards of 30lb Dacron backing takes up. The formula is:
For many years, the trend in fly reel manufacturing was to make the arbors larger and the spools wider. Why? It helps keep the weight down and gives you a fast retrieval rate. This comes at a price, however, which is you having to act as a level wind every time you reel in your line so that the line doesn't pile up. This was disputed in another review, so if you'd like more information on narrow vs wide, check out this article.
Winner: Hardy Fortuna Regent
Extra backing can mean the difference between landing that fish of a lifetime and heartbreak. In this category we calculated the estimated volume using the following formula:
This calculation isn’t exact because some of the spool designs featured arbors that weren’t flat, but it does give us a basic idea of reel capacity. While all the reels we tested were “11-weights”, the largest reels could hold over 450 yards of backing.
It's also worth noting that some of the volumes are italicized. These reels have triangular spools and we had to come up with a whole new formula to calculate this. Since you're here to read about fishing not integral calculus, I won't bore you with this, but please know we did our best to give you a reasonable estimate (read: please don't send me an e-mail about it).
Winner: Sage Thermo
As fly fisherman, we’ve become obsessed with weight. Rods are pushing the limits, some weighing in at less than two ounces. Reels are getting lighter too. Why are lighter reels better? As rods get lighter, you need lighter reels to balance them. Moreover, when you’re casting all day a lighter outfit is easier on your arms. If you make 100 casts in a day, every ounce works out to over 6 extra pounds you need to move.
Winner: Orvis Hydros
Sound is an important, yet often underappreciated, part of a fly reel. Drag sounds provide a lot of feedback when fighting a fish, which is useful, but they also add to the excitement of catching a fish that makes a great run. At Trident, we prefer reels that have both an incoming (when reeling in) and outgoing (when the fish is taking the drag) sound.
Look & Feel
We can talk about fly reel performance all day long, but when it comes down to buying a reel, look and feel is just as important. That’s why top reel manufacturers offer dozens of custom colors and 100s of possible combinations. This is purely subjective, but there's unlikely to be many people who prefer the feel of a Redington over a Tibor. So, we gave you our opinions on the matter.
We introduced ergonomics in our 5-weight shootout. Which is to say, how well is the reel designed from a human interaction standpoint. You interact with the reel at 3 key points: the handle, which you are in contact with most, the drag knob, which is used less frequently, but often requires quick and easy access, and the spool change, which is obvious. We deducted 2 points for reels without a spool that could be easily changed.
Handle: The best handles were fairly long - they move your knuckles further away from the spool so you're never touching it. They are also wide enough to be comfortable.
Drag knob: When a fish is cruising into open water and you've left your drag wide open, nothing is more important than getting that adjusted back to a fishable level. While it's huge and, perhaps, unsightly, the Sage Thermo has HANDS DOWN the best drag knob.
This category was removed from this test. Mako didn't want us to beat up their reels. And let's face it, no one ever dropped a tarpon reel on concrete anyway.
Thanks for taking the time to read our latest shootout. We appreciate your support. We'd love to hear your feedback on this test. Leave us a comment below! Once again, thank you for reading! Don't forget to check out the other posts in our great fly fishing blog.