As I was scrolling through my Instagram feed one day this past summer, I came across something that caught my attention. This was something I’ve never seen before. A saltwater specific click and pawl fly reel? Now that was something I had to learn more about. For those who don’t know, a click and pawl fly reel is a reel with no drag system. Before modern drag systems were invented, fly reels were given “drag” by a gear and a spring-loaded “clicker”. Now, I’ve seen modern fly reel companies make click and pawl fly reels before, like the Ross Colorado, or the Abel TR, but those are both geared toward trout. The idea that someone would fish a reel with no drag system, for some of the baddest fish in the ocean amazed me.

Cubalaya Fair Chase

Well, the idea wasn’t too crazy after all because a few weeks later, I had a Cubalaya Fair Chase in my hand, and False Albacore were blitzing all around me. It didn’t take long to hook into one of those small tuna, and man, that reel SCREAMS! I ended up breaking the fish off during a blistering run, but that’s all it took to get me hooked. Over the next month or so, I chased more albies, caught plenty of Striped Bass (including my biggest ever), and Bluefish on the Fair Chase. After we worked out some kinks, this reel was amazing, and I couldn’t be more pumped to be a part of its journey!

Over the summer, we found some time to talk with Mike Widdes, the man behind Cubalaya Outfitters about his new reels.

A backwater beast on the Fair Chase

FL: What/Who is Cubalaya Outfitters?  

Mike: Cubalaya Outfitters is a newly-established manufacturer of technical, outdoor gear with a heavy emphasis on fly fishing.  We are a husband and wife team based out of Chicago, Illinois, and started our company with the intention of immersing ourselves in the sporting community we have come to know and love.  We have taken a step back, evaluated the greater fly fishing equipment industry, and applied our specific know-how in a meaningful, performance-driven way.   

The pull of a Cow Bass

FL: What does Cubalaya mean?

Mike: A Cubalaya is a beach chicken, simply put. Cubalaya are a breed of chicken native to Cuba, easily identified by their long, pronounced tails, aggressively curved beaks, fierce eyes, and vibrant coloring. Cubalaya run rampant in a long-time favorite fishing destination of ours, Key West, and have become so closely aligned with our origin story that it only felt right to immortalize the Cubalaya in positioning it as the face of our brand.  

FL: What is the story behind the Fair Chase reel?

Mike: The Fair Chase concept came to mind while fishing tarpon with our friend and guide Captain Lenny Leonard in Key West. We hooked into a proper fish and got it to hand, but also managed to lasso the bow eye of the skiff, wrap my fly line around my pliers, and send a pile of knots through the rod guides. After releasing the fish I asked Lenny how this could possibly get any more difficult, and we laughed. But that moment racked around my brain; it was a challenge that I just couldn’t shy away from. In creating the Fair Chase we simply wanted to effectively connect the angler back to the fish once the eat was provoked; this is of course not a new concept, but the Fair Chase represents an analog-style of reel that has seemingly become lost on the world of high-powered, sealed-drag systems, especially in saltwater. We took issue with literally taking a hand out of the fight and watching the reel do all the work. In developing the Fair Chase we aimed to level the playing field, reconnecting the fish to the angler without so significant a mechanical advantage in favor of the angler. Use of the Fair Chase requires finesse from the angler, as well as an understanding of line pressure and rod angle. These reels are built tough and with salt exposure in mind, constructed out of 6061 T6 aluminum and 316 Stainless Steel.  The reel has a large palming surface on the spool edge for easy pressure adjusting with your hand, and two winding knobs clear of the palming surface for fine-tuning the pressure with your thumb along the inner edge. The reel foot is offset in order to balance the weight from left to right, and we also designed a double clicker that can be used as a single if desired. An oversized one-way bearing allows the angler to easily switch the reel from left to right hand. In bringing the Fair Chase to fruition we’ve utilized a minimalist, utilitarian design ethos – simplifying and streamlining with durability and continued performance as paramount. As fly fishermen, we inherently love to make our lives difficult, and our rigorous product development effort has been no different.

FL: What sizes does the Fair Chase reel come in?

Mike: The first Fair Chase to come to market is a five-inch diameter, 9-12 wt. While designed with salt in mind, it has proven to be an excellent spey/switch reel and all-around freshwater fishing reel. A downsized, 6-9 wt version will also be available for order following the 9-12wt.

Cubalaya Fair Chase

FL: Tell us a bit about your manufacturing process. 

Mike: Every product we offer is designed and manufactured in-house at Cubalaya Outfitters in Chicago using Haas Automation mills and lathes. We designed our reel from the ground up; the entire process, from CAD/CAM modeling to physical product output, raw bar to finished product, is handled here on-site. Consolidating our efforts under one roof has enabled us to maintain tolerances properly and improve the product from within, rather than having to rely on an unfamiliar outside supplier. The only sourced parts involved in the manufacture of the Fair Chase is the anti-reverse bearing, as well as a few stainless steel screws and our springs.

What is the most badass fish that has been caught on your reel?

Mike: So far we’ve had them on tarpon, sharks, bonefish, and jack crevalle. We’ve reeled-in our shop dog Barley too, and he’s pretty badass. (And of course Striped Bass and Bluefish!)

Striped Bass

FL: Other than the Fair Chase reel, what else does Cubalaya Outfitters make?

Mike: Right now we’re full steam ahead on the Fair Chase reel. All hands on deck. As any reel manufacturers will attest, the manufacturing and development process is exhaustive and all-encompassing. On the accessory side of things, we do offer our Palm Thief Guide Belts, machined in-house, and providing more than enough grip to keep your drawers up and waders nice and snug. We also have some exciting technical apparel coming through the pipeline, which will be available for purchase in the very near future. 

FL: Where can people find your reel and what is next for Cubalaya Outfitters?

Mike: You can find us online at www.cubalayaoutfitters.com and on social media @cubalayaoutfitters.  

What’s next? We will continue designing, manufacturing, and fine-tuning the highest-quality equipment we possibly can. We will continue to listen and learn from the anglers around us, we will continue to push ourselves and our products, and we absolutely, endlessly will continue to look forward to that next time in the water. 

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