How to Choose the Best Fly Reel for Tarpon
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Ahhhh the famous Silver King. Similar to Permit, Tarpon drive anglers into a wild frenzy of frustration, anxiety, and exhaustion. Seriously, large Tarpon are incredibly difficult to wrangle on a fly rod. Tarpon have a way of humbling even the most experienced anglers with their 100+ lb size and their infamous leaping line rips. Even when all the variables are in the angler's favor they're still one of the toughest fish to catch on a fly rod.
So it's almost a necessity to have the very best gear if you want a chance at a 100+ lb Tarpon. Skills aside, the right gear and a bit of luck go a long way. If you hook up to a big Tarpon with an old reel that's rusted and worn... good luck. I'd take the Tarpon over the fly reel every time.
If you have a reel with a strong drag system, quick line pickup, and a durable design, however, you may stand a chance. The same goes for a fly rod (and if you haven't read our post about how to choose a fly rod for Tarpon, find it here). Which fly reels are the very best? If you know anything about saltwater fly fishing you may know some of the big names like Hatch and Nautilus. These reels are a stellar choice for stopping Tarpon but there are other reels to add to the list, too. We're going to hash it all out so you can get out on the water and have a better chance at that fish of a lifetime.
Let's start with the basics. 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 11wt fly rod (and an 11wt is the most popular rod choice for Tarpon), choose a 10/11 or an 11/12 sized fly reel.
Perhaps the most important consideration in a Tarpon reel...
Yeah... duh. But in all seriousness, you have to have a strong drag system to bring in a Tarpon. Seems obvious, right? Just choose the reel with the strongest drag. Well, it's not really that simple to test a reel's max drag. Sure, some manufacturers report one (and it's nice when they do) but how do you figure out which reel has the strongest drag?
If we were fishing 8wt rods and reels, you could consult our 2018 8-Weight Fly Reel Shootout to find a reel's max drag. And, even though we're not fishing 8wt reels for Tarpon, there's a lot to be learned from that shootout. When it comes to larger 10-12wt reels, saltwater-specific reels often have the strongest drag. The Tibor Signature Series falls into this category. Although the reel is incredibly expensive, it has one of the strongest drag systems on the planet and is made specifically for the saltwater angler.
Other saltwater-specific reels that have sufficiently strong drag systems include the Galvan Grip, Hatch Gen 2 Finatic, and the Lamson Cobalt. Again, these reels are expensive but a drag system that quickly and efficiently slows down/stops a Tarpon is a necessity. Tarpon just aren't worth your time if you don't have a fly reel with a solid drag system.
Retrieval Rates or Backing Capacity?
Should I choose a reel with a mid-arbor or large-arbor and why?
Great question. Surely you need increased backing capacity for such a strong fish, especially if you're targeting the big ones. But you definitely need to be able to pick up line quickly to keep up with the Tarpon's aerial leaps and blitzing direction changes. And a fly reel that has increased backing/line capacity (a reel with a mid-arbor design for example) generally has lower retrieval rates. Which should you prioritize?
Retrieval rates are more important, and here's why. Tarpon are most often targeted from a boat. That means if they start tearing the backing off of your reel, you can chase after them in the boat. This is helpful and gives anglers a fighting chance when hooking these fish. Tarpon also generally make one or two long runs. If you can keep the fish on the reel without running out of backing for the first one or two runs, you're going to have a chance of landing it.
And what's going to help you capitalize on that chance? Picking up line quickly and bringing the fish to the boat as soon as possible. Reels with stellar retrieval rates and a superlarge arbor design include the Loop Opti, Orvis Hydros SL, and Ross Evolution R Salt. These reels will make chasing the fish, controlling the fish, and managing line much easier because of their high retrieval rates.
Ok, I know what I'm looking for. Now, which reel should I go with?
The section we've all been waiting for...
The aforementioned reels are solid options. A few more reels I'd add to the list are the Abel SDS, Hardy SDSL, Nautilus CCF X2, and the Hardy Fortuna XDS. These reels are really made for big game including the largest, meanest Tarpon. Again, match the reel weight with your chosen rod weight. You can't go wrong with any of the reels in this article.
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