The Best Fly Reels
When testing fly reels, our lead tester coordinates a team of amateur and professional anglers − including other outdoor journalists, photographers, fishing guides, fish biologists and game wardens − to use the reels mounted on a variety of rods. These set-ups are then fished in a variety of conditions in a broad range of locations. We fish small creeks, big western rivers, small warm-water potholes and deep mountain lakes. Testers dead-drift small dry flies and strip-in large streamers. The fly reels are loaded with weight-forward floating lines as well as sink-tip and straight sinking lines.
We have broken fly reels coverage into two core categories: Fly Reels for Trout Fishing and Specialty Fly Reels. General-purpose trout rods and reels represent the largest component of the fly fishing market, and so are our primary focus in testing reels is in the Trout Fishing category − reels suitable for 4- to 6-weight lines. In this specialty category, we look at reels designed for two-handed spey fishing, reels suitable for long saltwater lines, and even some purpose-built for warm-water species like bass and panfish.
The Sage Spectrum Max earned top scores from every tester in this year’s class. The Spectrum MAX offers great performance, with unmatched durability. The spool size is large enough to keep it near the top of the line-retrieval ratings, and the Spectrum MAXs weight is one of the lowest in the class. In short, Sage has designed a reel that’s light, efficient, durable and easy to use. The price is significant, but it’s not the most expensive. The result is a Best in Class winner.
The Orvis Mirage IV Reel earned rave reviews from test team members thanks to its incredible durability and smooth drag system. We bounced the reel (and rod) off a 20-foot drop onto volcanic rocks on the southern coast of Maui, with no loss of functionality, and only a few minor scratches. The Mirage’s balance on the rod also drew testers’ praise. The strongest drawback to the Mirage is its cost, but though the reel carries a premium price, it delivers premium performance.
The Pflueger Supreme QRS series presents an intriguing concept — cassette-based line management for fast, affordable changes from floating, to sinking-tip, to shooting lines. The idea of simply popping an inexpensive polycarbonate line cassette off the reel spool and dropping in a replacement with a different line is great. Pflueger’s implementation of that idea is okay, but there are some limitations. For those on limited budgets, or for anglers who only rarely get out into the salt, the Supreme QRS is a workable alternative to owning multiple reels or reel spools. But it’s not the best solution to the problem of needing multiple line systems.
The Hardy Ultralight MXT is a lightweight reel suitable for moderate saltwater fishing action. Smaller than other reels in the class, the Ultralight MXT worked well in pursuit of bonefish and sea-run cutthroat. But it is marginal when matched against more powerful fish like Permit and Salmon. The small arbor resulted in slower line retrievals, and less backing – just 125 yards of 20 lb back as opposed to the 200+ available on others in the class.
The Sage Spectrum earned near perfect marks from myself and the review team after exhaustive testing in a variety of conditions and situations. I found the Spectrum a wonderfully reliable tool, no matter how badly I treated it. Dunked into murky sand-filled waters? No problem. Dropped over a bridge on concrete below? Still works perfectly with hardly a scratch. Booted around the bottom of the boat for a day or so? Drag was still perfectly tuned for smooth operation. The Spectrum is the lightest reel in this class, with the second-biggest arbor size. I couldn’t find a better reel this season, and my team of testers unanimously agreed – it is the Best in Class Trout Reel for 2018.
The Cheeky Limitless earned praise from everyone who used it – I especially appreciated the reel’s durability and toughness. I tend to bang around a bit when I’m wade-fishing, and my gear gets bumped, bashed, and ground into river grit on occasion. The Limitless took ample abuse and still performed flawlessly. The drag offered smooth control of the line even after being ground into a sandbar, and the large arbor hauled in line quickly. However, the Cheeky did weigh a bit more than others in the class, and it was the highest priced as well. But all in all, the Cheeky Limitless proved it is a solid performer in the trout reel category.
The Orvis Hydros SL II Reel was a favorite of many of our test team members, in large part because of its weight, durability, and smooth drag system – though the asymmetric design of the drag control knob raised concerns with some. The Hydros’ balance on the rod was a strong point in its favor, and the Hydros proved to be reliable even after rough handling in gritty situations, such as hiking in to fishing locations in the high desert of Eastern Washington.
The Redington i.D. reel provides good functionality with a unique flair for fashion thanks to its customizable nature. The smooth, blank face of the i.D. accepts preprinted vinyl decals so users can highlight their own personality with their reel design. Though that fashionable design capability of the reel gets the most attention, the reel’s performance is worth noting as well. While it is a tad heavy compared to others in the class, the i.D. offers good line management at an affordable price.