2018 8-Weight Fly Reel Shootout and Review: What's the best saltwater fly reel?
2018 8-Weight Fly Reel Shootout and Review: What's the best saltwater fly reel?
Trident Fly Fishing is a full service fly shop. We spend a lot of time testing gear and writing shootouts to give you all of the tools to make your next trip a success. We are not a blog, or a review site, and there are no ads. 100% of our funding comes from your gear purchases, so if this shootout helps you on your next fly fishing adventure, please support us by buying your next fly reel from us.
Remember back when we released our first 8-weight reel shootout in 2013? Yeah, we barely remember it ourselves. So, it was high time we redid it. In fact there is no reel that's in production that was in our original shootout.
This year we've upped our game big time. We tested 37 reels across 13 categories - including 3 all new categories! We even had 5 new brands participating in what we believe is the largest and most comprehensive apples-to-apples reel test that's ever been done. It involved 100s of hours of work to not only test everything, but review each and every reel. We hope you enjoy it.
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.
How we chose reels for our test
We take comments from our readers very seriously (you should leave some at the bottom). One of the most common remarks about each of shootouts is, "I can't believe they didn't test <my favorite reel>." So, as we do for each and every one of our shootouts, we asked virtually EVERY reel manufacturer to send us a reel.
Our goal is to test as many reels as we can, so, 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.
What makes a great 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 saltwater 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.
I feel like I'm surprised each and every time by the winner of our shootout. This year we tested 37 reels and one came out on top. The competition was incredibly tight this year and we really put forth a lot of thought in order to declare a champion.
Ultimately, the Nautilus CCF-X2 8/10 edged out the competition. Of course it's got a great drag with tons of power and adjustability, but it's also got a super fast retrieve and the best ergonomics. It wasn't a blowout victory by any means, but the CCF just did a little bit better across multiple categories and came out victorious.
While I was surprised by our winner, I was definitely not surprised by our best buy. The Orvis Hydros SL has a massive drag with tons of adjustability (actually the best in the test), fast line pickup, and, of course, a really great price. You can buy 2 for the price of one CCF (almost)!
We felt that it would be unfair to the makers of some really great reels to be left out, so we've come up with a matrix of reels that are excellent and may fit your needs better than the CCF or Hydros if your preferences are a little different than ours.
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 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. We awarded double points in 5 key performance areas. All three of our key performance factors got double points. 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, we wanted reels that had AT LEAST 8 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 it was the Abel SDS that was the Ferrari of this test topping out at over 25lbs of drag!!
Usable Drag Strength - New for 2018
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 Hatch - it requires very little torque to set it all the way to max drag, and therefore 100% of its drag is usable.
Winner:Hardy Fortuna XDS
Half Drag - New for 2018
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: Orvis Hydros SL
Free Spool - New for 2018
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 SL
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.
When we started these tests, we found that startup inertia was a big differentiator. 5 years later, that's no longer the case. Most of the reels earned full points here. There was one reel that totally destroyed the competition though, and we awarded them 2 extra points (read the review to see why).
Arbor Size and Retrieval Rate
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.
For those of you who don’t know, the arbor refers to the mid-section of the spool. Think of the hole in the donut. Following the analogy, the larger the diameter of the hole, the larger the arbor. Almost all of the fly reels we tested claim to be “large arbor”, but we discovered that there was quite a variation between reels.
The 3-Tand TF-70 was the smallest at 1.8 inches. You could almost fit this entire reel through the arbor of the absolutely enormous Loop Opti Speedrunner.
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 .75 cubic inches. That’s how much space 75 yards of 20lb Dacron backing takes up. The formula is:
Not surprisingly, the results were very similar. The 3-Tand was the smallest at 7.8 inches per turn, taking 50 more turns to reel in a fly line than the top reel) that's a lot of turning:
Winner:Loop Opti Speedrunner, 11.88 inches per turn
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 Ultralite MTX
Bigger reels are more flexible. They hold more line and give you more options – like being able to put a 9 or 10-weight line on an 8-weight reel. More importantly, you're never going to have to worry about line piling up on a reel that holds 200 yards of backing. We calculated 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 “8-weights”, there is clearly no standard here. The largest reels could hold over 600 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:Loop Opti Strike
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:Waterworks-Lamson Force F3 SL II
Sound is an important, yet often under appreciated, 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. As all of the reels had quick change spools, we didn't bother evaluating it this time around.
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. Our favorite handle came from Nautilus. The CCF and the NV-G share a handle that's fantastic!
Drag knob: When a fish is cruising into open water and you've left your drag wide open, nothing is more important that getting that adjusted back to a fishable level. Nautilus also won this one with the CCF sporting a knob that's not only large and easy to hold on to, but has a great texture to give you added grip.
Finish (a.k.a. The Drop and the drag)
We wanted this test to be as complete as possible. To do that, we needed to test the durability. So, we dropped each reel 3 times from a height of 3 feet (about the same height as the average tailgate) onto pavement. After all, who hasn't dropped a reel? We then dragged each reel along the pavement for a total of 9' to simulate what would happen to a reel if you placed it on a rock to do some rigging. In each review, we'll talk about divots (holes caused by the drop), scratches (mostly caused by dragging) and damage, which can take the shape of a bent frame or anything that would cause the reel to stop functioning normally.
When we revisited our testing criteria this year, one of the toughest decisions was about whether or not we should include price, and if so, how many points should it get. This time around we landed on not including price. We found that it was distracting from the test and decided to let you make your own decisions on value.
Note: these results got a little out of hand again and they'll probably be easier to view if you download the pdf here.