The Best Specialty Fly Reels

The category of specialty fly reels encompasses an array of products, from simple click-and-pawl dry fly reels to heavy geared reels needed for hauling in deep-diving ocean fish.

Saltwater fly reels represent one of the biggest segments of the specialty reels. These reels must be built to handle the rigors of continual exposure to — and emersion in — saltwater. To limit the ravages of corrosion, saltwater reels are generally constructed from machined aluminum with stainless steel components in areas that require the added strength and durability of a harder metal. When review saltwater reels, our testers look for features such as sealed drag systems. A sealed system prevents both rusting and debris obstruction from degrading the drag components. The best saltwater reels can be easily pulled apart for thorough rinsing after a day of fishing.

Good spey reels feature many of the same features as are found on saltwater reels. But because spey casting covers such remarkably long distances, spey reels must be capable of holding a higher volume of line. For this reason, many spey reels are a bit wider than the standard reels used by single-handed casters. They also sometimes feature geared spools so that each crank of the reel handle turns the spool multiple times — with more line stretched out between the angler and the fish, it’s helpful to have a geared reel to speed retrieval.

At the other end of the class, the best dry fly reels are pretty simple devices. Given that most of them are designed for lightweight lines (4-weights and lighter), the primary function of the reel is line containment and control. Most fish caught when using a dry fly rod/reel are retrieved by simple line stripping rather than ‘putting them on the reel.’ Given this, the drag system is used mostly to control the line as it’s played out during casting actions. So, a lightweight, inexpensive simple click-and-pawl system (basically, a simple leaf-spring ‘clicking’ against a toothed cog) works well.

When evaluating specialty fly reels, we look at the quality of construction and durability of each product, as well as the reel’s functionality and ability to fulfill its specific target use.

Review Year
Best in Class
Overall Rating
Name Overall Rating Ratings The Good The Bad Price
Sage 4650
Best in Class
Weight 9
Drag Performance 8
Line Pick-up 10
Ease of Spool-Changes 7
Durability / Abuse R... 9
Value 6

A lightweight large-arbor reel

Efficient, fast line pick-up (retrieval)

Smooth, trouble-free drag system

Simple friction-release spool change-out

Looks and feels oversized to some testers, especially when used on mid-sized rivers with modest-sized fish

Most expensive reel we tested

Orvis Access Mid-Arbor
Weight 9
Drag Performance 9
Line Pick-up 6
Ease of Spool-Changes 6
Durability / Abuse R... 8
Value 10

Lightweight, well-balanced on a rod, especially the lightest rods in the 4- and 5-weight class

Adjustable for left- or right-hand retrieve mode

Machined from bar-stock (as opposed to being cast from molten metal) for greater durability/strength

Smooth click-drag system with carbon-fiber rings for smooth drag adjustment

Smaller arbor means slower line pick-up

Spool release is difficult to use if you have large fingers or are wearing gloves

Orvis CFO II
Drag Performance 7
Line Pick-up 5
Ease of Spool-Changes 8
Durability / Abuse R... 8


Classic look matches well with bamboo or fiberglass rods

Made in USA

Small spool size means slower line retrieval


Simple drag

Sage 4650

The Sage 4650, and its cousins in the 4600 series, are some of the most technologically advanced reels we’ve seen. A sealed graphic design virtually ensures a problem-free drag system, the frame is about as light as we could imagine for a reel this size, and it is built with the best and most durable material. The only downside (rated for 5- and 6-weight lines) is its overall size and price.

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