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As Bonefish season rapidly approaches, we're preparing for tropical weather and long days on the flats. Winter in Maine means it's time to restock on Simms sun shirts and Trident buffs. And that it's also time to break out the tropical fly lines and your favorite flats rod. The Grey Ghosts are hungry.
And the right fly reel will help you feed them. True, maybe the fly rod is more important for presenting a fly and convincing a Bonefish to eat, but a reel is paramount in bringing them to hand. If you're wondering which fly rod is best for Bonefish, we've already tackled that topic here. We've also written about the best fly line for Bonefish here.
There are a ton of options when choosing a fly reel for Bonefish. Saltwater fly reel innovation has made manufacturing techniques and materials incredibly affordable. That means you no longer have to spend $700 for a saltwater-safe fly reel (though you still can... and in some instances, you should). Quality saltwater fly reels in the $200-$400 price range do exist and feature drag systems and reel designs that are capable of handling Bonefish.
But Bonefish are deceptively spunky. It's intuitive that you need a reel with a strong drag system to fight a Tarpon (read our post about fly reels for Tarpon here). Tarpon are massive. But Bonefish are small... a trophy fish is 10-12lbs. So do you really need the best saltwater fly reel on the market with the strongest drag system in the universe? You'd be surprised by the answer... let's dive in.
Before getting all Bonefish-y, it's worth dropping in my snippet about choosing a fly reel that fits your fly rod. It's necessary to match the size of the reel to the size of the rod you're using. This may seem intuitive but it's worth mentioning: if you're fishing an 8wt fly rod (and an 8wt is the most popular rod choice for Bonefish), choose a 7/8 or an 8/9 sized fly reel.
I'll start here because this is probably the most relevant consideration when choosing a reel for saltwater fly fishing. Yes, your reel should have a sealed drag. At the very least. But you don't really need to worry about that because most saltwater reels (almost all of them) are built with a sealed drag.
What you should be more worried about when choosing a reel for Bonefish are start-up inertia and max drag. Reels with a cork drag are known for having low start-up inertia, but they're generally not sealed. Reels with a sealed drag have come a long way in terms of start-up inertia. And, in fact, most reels have respectable start-up inertia (we tested in our 8-Weight Fly Reel Shootout). If you're looking for a reel with the lowest start-up inertia, check out the Einarsson Invictus... it won the 'start-up inertia' section in the shootout.
We had a max drag section in the shootout, too. Because the shootout was geared toward 8wt fly rods and 8wt rods are the most common for Bonefish, I'll reference the shootout often in this article. Which reel has the highest max drag? The Abel SDS. The SDS is a phenomenal reel, no doubt about it. And other reels with top-notch drag systems like the Hardy Fortuna XDS are incredible pieces of machinery. But you don't need over 25lbs of max drag on Bonefish. They're just not that feisty. A host of other reels with lower max drags fight Bonefish adequately.
Let's consider overall reel weight and max drag mutually exclusive for the sake of clarity (they're not, of course). If you could have a reel with a huge max drag but a lot of weight or a reel with a low max drag and lightweight design, you should land somewhere in the middle for Bonefish. You don't need a drag that'll stop a Tarpon or a reel as lightweight as some trout reels on the market; you should focus on a happy medium. Sure, there are reels out there that are incredibly lightweight with a seriously high max drag (the Lamson Cobalt comes to mind), but they're not totally necessary.
Decreased reel weight allows the angler to comfortably cast all day long. This is important when fly fishing for Bonefish but not as important as it is when fishing for a species that requires blind fishing tactics. Because Bonefish are often sight-fished and stalked on the flats, anglers aren't constantly casting. Therefore, a rod with an insanely light swing weight and a reel with a light overall weight aren't necessarily a huge deal. You don't really have to worry about casting fatigue with Bonefish (as much as, say, trout).
What's the bottom line here? You don't need to spend $895 on an Abel SDS to catch a Bonefish. It's nice to have a reel with a solid drag system and a lightweight build but you don't have to go over the top. Plenty of saltwater reels on the market will do the job.
If you're wondering about the performance of your favorite 8wt fly reel, see our 8-Weight Fly Reel Shootout. This shootout is also a great place to look if you know what you're looking for in a reel and you want to match those parameters with a brand and reel model.
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