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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.