2018 Saltwater Reels
Saltwater reels face tough conditions. The reels will be soaked in salt water—sometimes dirt-filled saltwater—and knocked around boats, rocky shorelines, and gritty sandy beaches. So they must be durable and highly reliable even after days or weeks of use and abuse. They need to be big enough to hold plenty of backing—at least 150 yards, though 200+ yards is better—and heavy enough to provide good balance on the rod, yet not so bulky or heavy that they throw off casting efficiency.
Finding the right balance of these sometimes competing requirements can be tough. Fortunately, our hardy team of testers did the work to provide detailed information on a new crop of saltwater reels.
By unanimous consent of our team of testers, the Sage Spectrum MAX 7-8 earned the Best in Class Honors for 2018 Saltwater Reels. The Spectrum MAX drew rave reviews for its durability and functionality. The reel balanced well on every rod it was affixed to, and though it had the largest arbor in the class, it was one of the lightest tested. In short, the Sage Spectrum MAX 7-8 beat its competition in nearly every category and seized a decisive win for the Best in Class award.
Unlike many outdoor products, in specialty fly reels, lighter isn’t always better. A good saltwater reel needs to balance out its rod. The reel should be a nice counterpoint to the rod swing during a cast, helping to relieve some of the strain that can develop after long hours of casting heavy lines. So, the best reel isn’t necessarily the lightest, though it’s seldom the heaviest either. Such is the case with this year’s crop of reels.
The Sage Spectrum MAX 7-8 fits that middle-weight range, and it proved an exceptionally well-balanced reel on every rod we attached it to. The Spectrum didn’t include any unnecessary weight, so it was light enough to reduce arm fatigue in casting, yet it had enough mass to balance even tip-heavy fast-action rods. The Orvis Mirage also fits this range well, performing nearly identically to the Sage on most rods in terms of balance and casting comfort. The Hardy Ultralight lived up to its name. The Hardy worked wonderfully on medium-action rods when targeting smaller species such as bones and sea-run cutthroat, but it was outmatched on big, powerful rods (like the Sage Salt HD) when targeting heavy salmon. The Pflueger Supreme, meanwhile, felt uncomfortably heavy at times, throwing off the casting strokes of some rods by making them too butt-heavy.
Spool size & line retrieval
The size of a reel is closely associated with the reel’s weight—smaller is generally lighter—but reel size is most important because of its effects on line capacity and line retrieval speeds. Because saltwater anglers are usually targeting species of fish that are fast and powerful, those fish can take off with a lot of line once they feel the bite of a hook. That means good reels must have adequate backing to let those fish tire themselves out on long runs without breaking off. Typically, a saltwater reel will hold no less than 150 yards of backing, though 200+ yards is better. That means a large spool diameter, which also helps with line retrieval speeds. A bigger diameter arbor on the spool means more line is retrieved with each crank of the handle. The Orvis Mirage IV offers the fastest line retrieval based on our timed tests, just nudging out the Sage Spectrum MAX. But both of these reels offer great reserves of backing (over 200 yards each) and fast pick-up. The Hardy Ultralight holds a mere 120 yards of backing behind an 8-weight line, and its arbor size is the smallest in the class, so retrieval is also the slowest. The Pflueger Supreme, meanwhile, swallows up a ton of backing thanks to a wide spool and a narrow arbor (the diameter of the spool’s core). When fully loaded, the Supreme can pull in line efficiently, but a small difficult-to-hold crank handle prevented testers from really getting great retrieval speeds.
Durability is a vital consideration given that these reels will be used in some of the harshest possible fishing conditions—immersion in corrosive saltwater, exposure to endless grit and grime, and use on rugged shorelines and wave-tossed boats. The Sage Spectrum MAX shone brightly during these tests. Testers abused this reel mercilessly, showing that is truly one of most durable reels our team has ever tested. It was dropped, booted, and stepped on aboard boats. The reel showed no signs of abuse. Indeed, after weeks of heavy use, it was hard to tell that the test sample wasn’t a show model! Likewise, the Orvis Mirage IV absorbed substantial abuse without affecting its performance. The Mirage sports a sealed drag system incorporating carbon fiber and stainless components for weight savings and durability and saltwater conditions. The Pflueger Supreme held up well to most abuse, though its unique spool cartridge insert showed some indications of damage. The Hardy Ultralight, despite its featherweight design, proved remarkably rugged and durable.
With fast, powerful fish being the target of most saltwater anglers, the drag system of a saltwater reel gets a lot of use, so it must work efficiently and effectively. Sage’s sealed carbon drag system on the Spectrum MAX proved wonderfully effective. The large control knob was easy to adjust with a simple push of a finger, and testers praised the numbered scale — which is also indented for touch-control — so locking in on a prior setting proved easy. Orvis’ sealed drag system on the Mirage also worked flawlessly. The Orvis system can be minutely adjusted, and once set, the drag stayed put—there was no “drag drift” even when salmon ripped line at remarkable speeds. The Pflueger Supreme worked well, but was somewhat susceptible to grit-infiltration, making its durability suspect. Hardy offers a good sealed drag that proved problem free and efficient, though it had some indications that it could ‘drift’ out of setting when hard-used by big fish.
Fit & finish
When spending anywhere from a few hundred to nearly a thousand dollars on a reel, it should look as good as it performs. And good design helps enhance good performance. The Sage designers produced a very good looking reel in the Spectrum MAX. And the styling is functional, too—all testers praised the design that leaves the broad rim of the reel’s spool exposed. That feature made palming the reel during hard runs easy and efficient. The Pflueger Supreme proudly displays a unique and innovative design element: the line-cassette system on the spool that allows for fast line changes. The reel also sports a clean, attractive overall design. The Orvis Mirage boasts a modern take on a classic reel design. The precision machining of the reel components, backed by the bright hard-anodized finish, give the reel an artistic look without distracting from the performance of the Mirage. Hardy’s Ultralight MTX, meanwhile, enjoys a sleek modern design that makes the most of the reel’s lightweight components.
The test team that evaluated this group of reels included saltwater guides, outdoor photographers, and fish advocates from a variety of non-profits group. Each tester used the reels for several days in a variety of conditions. When possible, multiple testers fished together for side-by-side comparisons and discussions. At other times, we each carried two or more rods outfitted with test reels when they ventured out, so they could fish the reels back-to-back in identical conditions for stronger comparisons.
Proving that everyone is different, each tester declared different likes and dislikes among the reels, but the strengths — and weaknesses — of each reel clearly revealed themselves over the course of the tests.
What Is A Specialty Reel?
The category of specialty fly fishing reels encompasses an array of products, from simple click-and-pawl dry fly reels to heavy geared reels needed to haul 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 immersion 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 reviewing 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.