For most fly anglers, saltwater fly fishing is viewed as a proving ground or a right of passage in the sport. Saltwater fly fishing typically requires a bit more skill and knowledge to be successful, and the target species require a bit stronger gear to chase. Arguably the most important piece of that gear is a good fly reel; one with a strong, reliable drag system, a large arbor, and plenty of backing capacity. These factors, which will be discussed later in the article, are important because saltwater fish tend to be stronger and meaner than their freshwater counterparts, so you need to be able to trust that your gear won’t fail when you need it the most.
How to Choose a Saltwater Fly Reel
So, if you are reading this, you are probably in the market for a saltwater reel, or curious and want to learn more. The first step to buying a saltwater reel, or just about any piece of fly fishing gear in that matter, is knowing what types of fishing you plan on doing and what species of fish you intend to target. This matters because you have to decide what weight setup you will buy. If you are like me and you’re mainly targeting Striped Bass, Bluefish, and False Albacore in the northeast, I would recommend a 9 WT setup. If you plan on chasing bonefish on islands with palm trees, you might opt for a 7-8 WT. Other important factors that are determined by what you plan on chasing are drag capabilities and backing capacity. When you target stronger, meaner fish, your reels drag system needs to be pretty top-notch, which is convenient because most reels companies out there today have pretty amazing drag systems. You also want to make sure that you have plenty of room for backing on the spool. For most situations in the salt, 175-250 yds are just fine.
Once you figure out what size reel you need, you have to find out what your budget is. The beauty of the fly fishing industry right now is that there are so many great options. You can find a great reel for a couple of hundred bucks, and if you feel inclined you can buy your dream reel with a top of the line product.
Recommendations, by price point:
Top of the Line ($700+)
The Abel SDS is for those anglers who enjoy the finer things in life. This reel has a beefy, fully sealed drag system that won’t have a problem stopping any fish you throw at it, a large arbor, and super tough components. Though these features are amazing, they are not what set the SDS, or any Abel reel apart, it’s all in the customization. In addition to a great reel, you can really make the SDS yours by ordering special customizations such as fish patterns and colorways. It is no doubt that Abels are always some of the best, cleanest looking reels on the water.
This reel is a TANK. With one of the beefiest drag systems in the industry and backing capacity for days, the Hatch Finatic is a go-to tool for many hardcore anglers and guides. Coming in at $650 for the 7+ (7-9wt) and $800 for the 9+ (9-11wt), it is no secret that Hatch isn’t giving these reels away, but don’t let that deter you. There is a reason why the price of these reels are so high, and that reason boils down to dependability. Whenever I screw my fanatic into my reel seat, I never think twice about it, I trust that it will do its job every time.
The Siegler fly reel is possibly one of the most innovative products I’ve seen come out of the fly fishing industry, ever. Not only does this reel have a sweet-looking design, but it has the most ingenious drag system on the market. Obviously, to be up on this list with the Hatch Finatic and the Abel SDS, the Seigler has to have a ridiculously strong drag system, but that’s not what makes it special. What makes this reel special is a feature that allows anglers to pre-set their drag. This allows anglers to get their max drag to be just below their tippet class, so you can adjust your drag mid-fight without taking your eyes off the fish. Also, to add to this amazing system, Seigler ditched the traditional drag knob and created a lever drag (yes, a lever). I’ve never personally used this reel, so I can’t fully compare it to other industry leaders, but from what I’ve heard and seen, this reel is a fully capable workhorse that would be at home is any hardcore saltwater angler’s arsenal.
The Ross Evo R Salt is a great saltwater reel. With super light-weight design and a very impressive fully sealed drag system, not only does this reel give you a great bang for your buck, but also a great bang for your ounce. To go along with the drag system, Ross designed a new drag “knob”, specifically to make palming the knob easier and more efficient. I’ve personally landed my fair share of striped bass and False Albacore on this reel, and the first words that come to mind are “light” and “smooth”.
The Nautilus CCF-X2 is an all-around great performer. Nautilus really focuses on their drag systems, which really shines through on the CCF-X2. This reel is equipped with a super strong and super smooth drag that engages quickly. As Nautilus says, this reel is made for fish fighting, and it really is. The CCF-X2 gives you everything you need in a saltwater reel, so you can focus on your job, hooking the fish!
The more I researched for this piece, the more I realized how expensive fly reels are, and how good of a deal Cheeky is giving out. Unlike many of the reels highlighted in this piece, the limitless isn’t fully machined, which some anglers view as a downside, but it doesn’t really bother me. Unless you plan on routinely dropping your reel on pavement from 15 feet up, or maybe running it over with your car, there won’t be an issue. With a silky-smooth retrieve that allows for quick line pick up, this reel is a great option for most inshore applications.
Budget Fly Reels ($150 to $300):
When I look at this reel, the first thing that comes to mind is backing capacity. The Grande has a V-shaped spool, which allows for much more space for the backing. Reddington has also added a fully sealed, carbon fiber drag system, which is similar to what you would find on a reel twice, or even three times the cost. The quality drag system, high capacity, and awesome price make this a great reel for someone looking to get into saltwater fly fishing.
The Nautilus X has sometimes been listed as the best all-around saltwater fly reel for its price. According to Nautilus, this reel is “Designed for lightness, strength, smoothness, and speed”, which is pretty much all you can ask of any reel, let alone one at this price point. Coming in sizes ranging from 3wt all the way to a 9wt, this reel screams flats fishing and will be at home on any inshore waters.
The Orvis Hydros boasts one of the largest arbors in its class. Large arbors allow for very quick line pickup, which is helpful when fighting saltwater fish. Another great feature this really has is zero startup inertia. This means that the transition from clearing your line after you’ve hooked a fish, to get it on the reel will be as smooth as possible. When using lighter tippets, startup inertia can be a big problem, so the fact that the Hydros has none is a definite pro.
Now, these are by no means every saltwater fly reel or even every reel we would recommend, but this should serve as a guideline and a starting point for anglers interested in the world of saltwater fly reels. If you have any more questions about what reel may be right for you, reach out to your local fly shop, they know the most about your surrounding waters and have a great feel for what’s on the market.