The Best Specialty Fly Rods

Saltwater fishing consistently ranks as one of the fasting growing segments of the fly fishing market, and a 9-foot, 8-weight rod might be the most versatile configuration available for salt enthusiasts. With that in mind, we set out to find the best new rods for the category.

To thoroughly test and evaluate a host of rods, we recruited a solid team of testers. Nearly a dozen individuals committed significant time to this endeavor. We had guides, salt-water junkies, novice anglers, and committed enthusiasts checking out new rods from Sage, Orvis, Redington, Thomas & Thomas and a couple others. We dropped one rod from testing after we found unforgivable flaws (poorly fit ferrules) and held back another after its maker indefinitely postponed its production and release date.  In the end, four new models — all 9-foot, 8-weight rods — made it through our testing processes.

The test team used these rods in a variety of locals and conditions. We fished for bonefish in Belize, Mahi Mahi in Hawaii, salmon and sea-run cutthroat in Puget Sound, and even bass and carp in the warm pothole lakes of Eastern Washington. We cast the rods with floating lines as well as heavy sinking lines. We threw light surface poppers, weighted jigs, and bulky crab patterns and streamers. Each rod was fished for at least a week, though most got more use as the team forced themselves to “work” diligently with the rods.

This year’s roundup of rods shows that the saltwater category of specialty rods continues to evolve in all performance measures. The rods in this group feature some of the most accurate, furthest-casting rods we’ve encountered to date.

Review Year
Best in Class
Overall Rating
Price
Name Overall Rating Ratings The Good The Bad Price
Orvis Helios 3D 8-Weight 9′ Fly Rod
93
Best in Class
2018
Weight/balance 9
Fit in hand/grip 9
Casting accuracy 9
Casting distance 9
Fish-on performance 9
Versatility 8

Good casting distance

Very accurate casting

Good fit and balanced casting

Good versatility

Made in the USA

Expensive

Unattractive graphics on rod base

Not the lightest rod

MSRP
$898.00
BEST DEAL
Sage SALT 890-4
90
Best in Class
2016
Weight 8
Fit in Hand / Grip 8
Casting Distance 8
Casting Accuracy 9
Fish-on performance 8
Versatility 9

Good versatility

Excellent casting distance & accuracy

Sensitive feel on ‘take’

Made in the USA

Pricy

Heavy swing & total weight

MSRP
$850.00
BEST DEAL
Sage Salt HD 890-4
90
Weight/balance 9
Fit in hand/grip 8
Casting accuracy 8
Casting distance 9
Fish-on performance 8
Versatility 8

One of the longest casting rods in the test

Good power & fish control

Well balanced

Made in the USA

Limited accuracy

Limited versatility

Can be difficult to cast, especially for novices

Expensive

MSRP
$950.00
BEST DEAL
Orvis Recon 908-4
88
Weight/Balance 8
Fit in Hand / Grip 9
Casting Distance 8
Casting Accuracy 7
Versatility 8
Fish-on performance 8

Good versatility

Good ‘strike’ sensitive in tip

Moderately priced

Made in the USA

Average casting distance

Felt ‘butt heavy’

Not as accurate

MSRP
$425.00
BEST DEAL
Orvis Superfine Glass
87
Best in Class
2014
Weight 6
Fit in Hand / Grip 9
Casting Distance 8
Casting Accuracy 9
Versatility 8
Value 7

Shorter rod length works well on small streams with brushy banks

Stiff butt section helps work big fish caught on light tippets

Good casting accuracy within 40-foot range

Soft presentations possible within 30-35 feet

Good price-to-performance ratio

Made in USA

Soft presentation not as easy to achieve as some of the other rods in this class

Fiberglass rod weighs a bit more than graphite rods

Casting distance compromised by shorter rod length

MSRP
$395.00
BEST DEAL
Scott Meridian MS908-4
86
Weight 8
Fit in Hand / Grip 8
Casting Distance 10
Casting Accuracy 9
Versatility 4
Fish-on performance 7

Excellent casting distance

Great power in windy conditions

Good accuracy at longer distances

Made in the USA

Can be difficult to cast

Heavy swing-weight

Highest price

MSRP
$865.00
BEST DEAL
N/A
G.Loomis PRO4x 1088-4 Saltwater
86
Weight 8
Fit in Hand / Grip 8
Casting Distance 8
Casting Accuracy 8
Versatility 9
Fish-on performance 5

Versatile

Good accuracy

Better than average distance

Reasonable price

Made in the USA

Lacked power to combat windy conditions

Felt soft when tied into big fish

Less sensitive in feeling the strike

MSRP
$360.00
BEST DEAL
N/A
Redington Butter Stick
85
Weight 6
Fit in Hand / Grip 8
Casting Distance 7
Casting Accuracy 8
Versatility 7
Value 9

Beautiful butter-colored rod

Capable of delicate presentations of small, medium and large dry flies

Can be used effectively to fish nymphs or double-fly rigs

One of the least expensive rods in the class

Limited casting range

Not made in the USA

Slightly heavier than graphite rods in this class

MSRP
$249.95
BEST DEAL
Thomas & Thomas Exocett 908-4
84
Weight/balance 7
Fit in hand/grip 8
Casting accuracy 7
Casting distance 7
Fish-on Performance 8
Versatility 7

Low swing-weight

Good accuracy

Strong butt & mid-section for fighting fish

Good line control & decent accuracy

Comfortable & secure grip

Made in the USA

Expensive

Loses accuracy as casting distance increases

Fast action performance can be difficult to master by novices

MSRP
$895.00
BEST DEAL
Redington Predator 890-4
83
Weight 8
Fit in Hand / Grip 8
Casting Distance 6
Casting Accuracy 7
Versatility 7
Fish-on performance 7

Great price

Good fighting action

Accurate casting

Great feel in hand

Modest casting distance

Modest tip sensitivity on ‘set’

One of the heaviest rods in class

Not made in the USA

MSRP
$280.00
BEST DEAL
Redington Vice 890-4
81
Weight/balance 7
Fit in hand/grip 7
Casting accuracy 6
Casting distance 7
Fish-on performance 7
Versatility 7

Modest price

Good fish control

Well balanced

Easy to cast

Good versatility

Limited accuracy

Limited casting disance

Not American made

MSRP
$200.00
BEST DEAL
Sage Circa
77
Weight 8
Fit in Hand / Grip 7
Casting Distance 7
Casting Accuracy 10
Versatility 3
Value 2

Slim rod blank is stunning in design and form

Soft, accurate fly presentation

Good reach/distance for a slow-action 4-wt

Lightweight

Made in the USA

Most expensive rod in the class

Least versatility in the class

Longer length can be a hindrance on small streams/brushy back-casting range

MSRP
$775.00
BEST DEAL
Orvis Superfine Touch
76
Weight 7
Fit in Hand / Grip 8
Casting Distance 6
Casting Accuracy 7
Versatility 2
Value 6

Full flex design allows to very soft presentation

Stiffer near-grip lower butt section helps bring in larger, hard-fighting fish

Easy to achieve accurate casts at mid-range (up to 35–40 feet)

Made in the USA

Not suitable for anything but shorter, gentle casts

Lacks versatility

Relatively expensive

MSRP
$495.00
BEST DEAL
LL Bean Pocket Water
71
Weight 5
Fit in Hand / Grip 4
Casting Distance 5
Casting Accuracy 3
Versatility 6
Value 8

Least expensive in the class

Medium action better matches the normal casting stroke of most anglers

Stiffer medium-action rod allows helps control bigger, heavier flies

Faster action taper means less precise presentations of small flies

Somewhat heavy for its size

Accuracy is sacrificed for added power

Not made in the USA

MSRP
$205.00
BEST DEAL
N/A
Orvis Helios 3D 8-Weight 9′ Fly Rod

The Orvis Helios 3D performed every task asked out it with precision and easy. The Helios blanks offer greatly reduced vibration in the casting motion, making this family of rods among the most accurate, and furthest-casting, rods we've tested. The 8-wt Helios 3D takes advantage of that design to the fullest, making it the most accurate distance casters in the test. The rod's price is steep, but the performance is unmatched, making it a rod everyone should at least consider when looking for a new salt-water stick.

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Sage Salt HD 890-4

The Sage Salt HD is a high-powered weapon when it comes to slinging line. The Salt HD is capable of hitting great distances with little effort, thanks in part to Sage’s propriety Konnetic composite materials. This proprietary compost material gives the rod great power at a low weight. As a result, a long day of casting heavy saltwater flies won't leave anglers' arms so fatigued that they can't lift a cold beer on the beach. But though the Salt HD offers great range, it does lose a bit of finesse and accuracy in the cast, making a bit less effective when precision is needed as well as pure power.

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Thomas & Thomas Exocett 908-4

The Thomas & Thomas Exocett 908-4 meets challenges of a variety of salt-water fishing situations. The rod is better than average across the board, with its strongest suit being its ability to power accurate casts in the mid-range distances. The accuracy of the cast drops off at longer distances, but the fast-action rod can throw a lot of line when called on to do so. The Exocett is a good all-around option for those looking for a nicely finished American-made salt-water rod.

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Redington Vice 890-4

The Redington Vice 890-4 offers solid saltwater performance at an affordable price. The Vice's fast-action design gives the rod power and decent casting range with the control needed to wrestle big, powerful fish into the boat. The Vice fails to win any performance category, but performs well in each, earning props as a good do-it-all option for anglers looking for a single saltwater rod without breaking the bank.

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Sage SALT 890-4

The Sage SALT is the brand’s premiere saltwater rod and it represents the brand well. The Salt throws a lot of line with minimal effort, and it throw it accurately. The Salt benefits from the Konnetic composite technology developed for Sage’s other premium rod series (the ONE and the Method). That Konnetic composite material provides great longitudinal strength, with minimal vibration during the ‘swing’, which results in good power and accuracy. But it carries a hefty price tag for that advanced technology. 

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Redington Butter Stick

Redington’s Butter Stick was dubbed the “rod with the most appropriate name” by our team. The rich yellow Butter Stick features a slick, smooth casting action and, thanks to its soft tip flex, a soft presentation on the water. The rod sports enough stiffness in the butt section to be able to step-up and perform if pressed into service as a nymphing rod when the need arises. That puts it ahead of all the graphite models in this class in terms of total functionality.

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Specialty Fly Rod Review: 2018 Saltwater Rod Results

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Saltwater rods tend to be designed 6-weight to 12-weight lines and built to handle the stress of the corrosive environments of briny waters. We focused on 9-foot 8-weight models since this configuration provides the most popular, and most versatile, performance for a wide variety of species and conditions..

Weight/Balance

Casting an 8-weight rod all day, frequently in bright sun and high temperatures can be exhausting Swinging that run, loaded with heavy lines and big flies, products a lot of arm strain over the course of hundreds of casts and false-casts. So ensuring the rod is both well-balanced and fits comfortably in hand is vital. Fatigue aside, the action and sensitivity of the rod influence how it reacts when hooking, and landing, fish.

The Orvis Helios 3D (H3D) boasts a great swing-weight, making it the most comfortable in this group to cast all day. As a result of that great balance, and comfortable fit in hand, the H3D was able to ensure your last cast of the day was long and accurate as the first. The Sage Salt HD was a close second in comfortable casting comfort and performance. The Salt HD moves efficiently through powerful casts, delivering long-range presentations with modest effort. The Thomas & Thomas Exocett, meanwhile, was about the same physical weight as the Salt HD but felt a touch heavier thanks to a slight butt-heavy swing weight. The Redington Vice, meanwhile, felt the heaviest, with a chunk butt that, though it provides good power when handling hooked fish, produced considerable arm-fatigue by the end of the day.

Fit In Hand/Grip

A quality 8-weight rod should be comfortable both in casting and in fish fighting performance. The grip must fit snugly in hand, without strain or ‘over-gripping’. The fighting butt should function effectively when needed, meaning it should be big enough to be gripped firmly enough to provide leverage against big, strong fish. But that grip should also be compact enough that it doesn’t interfere with normal casting.

All the rods in this class worked well for our testers. The Sage Salt HD had a particularly comfortable grip, but the Orvis Helios 3D, the Redington Vice, and Thomas & Thomas Exocett also provide solid comfort and rod control, both in casting and in fighting.

Casting Accuracy

The entire fly rod market has made great leaps forward in casting accuracy over the last several years, and this group of Specialty Rods has proven that performance improves continues today.

The Orvis Helios 3D proved to be the dominate rod in the accuracy ratings. Like its lighter trout-fishing cousin, the 5-wt H3F, the 8-wt salt-water H3D incorporates new materials and production methods in a design that nearly eliminates side-to-side oscillations in the rod during that casting stroke. That results in a huge increase in casting accuracy and casting distance. Though not on par with the H3D, the Sage Salt HD comes in a close second in accuracy, especially at middle distances (50-60 feet). The T&T Exocett is better than average while the Redington Vice presented the least accuracy in the class, though it was still greater than many of the rods available just 5 years ago.

Casting Distance

In many saltwater situations, the ability to throw out a long cast is more important than making it pinpoint accurate. When bonefish are finning through an open stretch of salt flats, they are looking forward but also staying wary of dangers. So, a close approach will drive them away. To catch them, you’ll need to cast to them from a distance.

The Sage Salt HD powers line faster and further than the other rods in the test. The use of propriety composite materials and a fast-action taper on the blank creates a powerful cannon of a salt-water fly rod. Whether throwing basic floating lines, or heavy sink-tip lines, the Salt HD excels in outdistancing its competitors.

The Orvis H3D essentially matches the Salt HD in distance — the best casters on the test team could hit the same distance targets with both, but the moderately skilled casters on the team found the Sage slightly better at distance. But the Orvis offers an unmatched combination of accuracy at distance. The Thomas & Thomas Exocett came up a little short of the distances achieved by those two, and the Redington Vice just short of the T&T reach.

Fish-On Performance

After a fish hits the presented fly, the rod changes from a casting tool to a fish-control tool. Here, the goal is to bring the fish to hand efficiently, with a little stress to the fish as possible. With these desires in mind, we evaluate the strength of each rod’s butt section. It needs the power to lift strong, hard-fighting fish from the depths, and keep them moving toward you. But we also considered the finesse of the upper sections of the rod, since controlling the fish also means keeping it attached to your line, and too much brute power could break off a strong fish. So the rod must offer some finesse, and fine control to let the fish have its head when it makes aggressive runs. So in testing, the team ‘feels’ how the rod acts as land fish.

The Orvis H3D provided exception control, thanks to a forgiving tip and a powerful butt section. The combination of finesse and power resulted in the lowest rate of break-offs of any rod in the group. The Sage Salt HD was also a wonderful tool for controlling a hooked fish, though its performance leans a bit to the pure power side the equation — which is actually the most helpful of the two. The Redington Vice was all about brute strength and firm control of hard-driving fish. There’s not much finesse in this rod when it comes to landing fish. The T&T Exocett, meanwhile, offers good strength in the butt, but the tip sensitivity allowed testers to feel the fishes move almost before it made them. That meant taking a little more time to land the fish, but it also meant less stress during the fight.

Versatility

Saltwater comes in a myriad of forms, and there are literally hundreds of saltwater fish species that will take a fly. So a good saltwater fly rod must be versatile. To check the rods’ potential in handling a range of conditions, we used them in a wide-range of conditions, chasing a host of different fish. Much of the testing occurred in the warm salt environments of Hawaii and Belize, but we also pursued salmon, steelhead and sea-run cutthroat in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. To really stretch the testing, we also pushed the rods into service in fishing for bass on the lower Snake River, and carp in the potholes of the Upper Columbia Basin.

With its unrivaled blend of accuracy and casting range, the Orvis H3D proved impressively versatile, performing well in all environments, and in casting all line and fly configurations.

The Thomas & Thomas Exocett also did well across the range of conditions, though it wasn’t as good at long-distance casts in big, open water as some of the others. The Sage Salt HD was able to hold up well in most situations, though most testers found it far too powerful for the smaller sea-run cutthroat and bass pursuits. The Redington Vice performed equally well in all tasks — a perfect above-average jack-of-all-trades rod.

Review Conclusion

Specialty Rods comprise just a small segment of the fly fishing market (itself just a small part of the broader fishing community. Though Saltwater Rods are a large part of that Specialty category, the market is still small compared to the more general outdoor products markets. As a result product evolution takes time in Specialty Rods, but innovation does occur. This season, Orvis continues to impress with its remarkable new Helios family of rods. The saltwater version of the Helios 3D pushes casting accuracy and distance forward by orders of magnitude. Orvis employed years of exhaustive research to pinpoint where in a rod accuracy was compromised and then engineered solutions to those problems. The end product, the Helios 3 series, features greatly reduced rod oscillations during the casting stroke, resulting in unmatched accuracy.

Methods

The test team that evaluated this group of rods included saltwater guides, outdoor photographers, and fish advocates from a variety of non-profits group. Each tester used the rods for several days in a variety of conditions. When possible, multiple testers ventured out together for side-by-side comparisons and discussions. At other times, we each carried two or more rods out onto the water to fish the rods back-to-back in identical conditions for stronger comparisons.

Proving that everyone is different, each tester declared different likes and dislikes among the rods, but the strengths — and weaknesses — of each rod clearly revealed themselves over the course of the tests.

What Is A Specialty Rod?

We have broken our core fly rod coverage into two categories: Fly Rods for Trout Fishing and Specialty Fly Rods. Specialty fishing rods cover a broad category that encompasses everything from two-handed spey rods, to delicate dry fly wands. The category also includes things like dedicated saltwater rods and simplistic tenkara rods.

Two-handed spey and switch rods represent one of the fastest growing segments of the fly fishing market. The two-handed casting stroke allows anglers to throw long casts with little to no back-casting clearance. Switch rods typically range in length from 10 feet to 12 feet, while spey rods can be 11 to 15 feet in length. Both rod types require two hands to cast, and a specialty line designed specifically for the unique casting strokes needed for these long, powerful rods.

Saltwater rods tend to be designed 6-weight to 12-weight lines and built to handle the stress of the corrosive environments of briny waters. Salt rods usually feature rust-resistant line guides and reel seats, and stiff butts and mid-sections to help fight powerful ocean-based fish.  In testing saltwater rods, we focused on the most common configuration: 9-foot, 8-weight rods.

On the other end of the special spectrum, slow-action dry fly rods toss lightweight lines — 3- and 4-weights being most common, though some featherweight rods will go down to 1-weight lines. Those rods deliver those line lights gently so anglers can present delicate dry flies to easily spooked fish. In specialty dry fly rods, distance performance takes a firm back seat to accuracy and feel in our ratings.

For the ultimate in specialty rods, we look at Tenkara fishing. These unique rod designs date back thousands of years, prior to the advent of reels. For tenkara rods, the focus is on strength and flexibility. In tenkara fishing, the fixed-length line is tied directly to the tip of the long (up to 14 feet) rod. The rods must have the strength to cast that fixed line, as well as the sensitivity to feel the ‘take’ when a fish hits the fly.

Despite the impressive breadth of the specialty fly rod category, the market for these rods is remarkable shallow — though most rod designs fall into the category, less than half of all rod sales from this pool. As a result, these designs are updated far less frequently than those in the trout rod category, and new designs here typically evolve out of the work done on trout rod designs.