Home Fishing How To Choose A Best Fly Reel For Saltwater Fishing

How To Choose A Best Fly Reel For Saltwater Fishing

Photo of rod, reel, and fly of salt water setup.

Last update: 29.06.2017. Added images and important notes.

To learn more about fly reels in general check out our “What Is The Best Fly Reel In 2017: Top 5 Reviewed” guide.

 

Saltwater fly fishing gear is among the stoutest, most bomb-proof fishing gear you can find — this is particularly true for saltwater fly reels.

You can get away with a cheap fly reel for freshwater with little consequence but if you want to land your saltwater quarry, it’s wise to treat your saltwater fly reel as a serious investment in your fishing success.

So what should you look for in a good saltwater fly reel?

In this article, we answered that question and recommended four of the best saltwater fly reels currently on the market to help you in your search.

 

Important Factors to Consider 

Orvis Vortex VO2 Fly Reel
Orvis Vortex VO2 Fly Reel

Corrosion-Resistant Materials 

A large fish can put a reel under tremendous stress but nothing ruins a reel faster than exposure to the destructive powers of saltwater.

If proper measures aren’t taken, saltwater will creep into every little crevice and pretty soon the working parts of the reel will be eaten away.

In the past, fly reels used in saltwater had to be scrubbed and rinsed after each use, often disassembled to clean the inner workings. But now, fly reels made specifically for saltwater have all those anti-corrosion precautions built into their designs.

Most modern saltwater fly reels are made of machined aluminum that is then anodized to increase its durability and increase its corrosion resistance.

So as long as you buy a saltwater-specific fly reel, there isn’t much maintenance or cleaning you have to do to keep it corrosion-free. Still, a quick rinse with freshwater is always a good idea.

 

Sealed Drag

fishing with sealed drag fly reel

The component that is most vulnerable to damage on any reel is usually the drag. It is, however, also the most relied on part when it’s time to fight and land a big fish.

And while corrosive saltwater is a primary enemy of reel drag performance and longevity, sand, dirt, and other grime can be destructive as well. That’s why all the best fly reels for saltwater feature fully sealed drag systems to cut off from the outside world.

A good sealed drag system is safe and secure, impervious to any grit a saltwater reel might encounter during a day on the flats.

 

Disc Drag, NOT Click and Pawl

cork disc
Cork disc

It’s important that your reel has the right kind of drag system in the first place. But since there are only two different types of drags used in fly reels, making the right choice isn’t difficult especially when choosing a saltwater-specific reel.

Disc drags offer a more efficient and powerful means to tame a fish.

A set of discs or washers made of various materials — cork, Teflon, Rulon, carbon fiber, etc. — are pressed against the gearing of the reel, applying pressure to the spool, thereby slowing it down.

Since the primary purpose of a reel is to put pressure on a fish to reel it in, you should pay extra close attention to the drag systems of the reels you’re considering.

Look for drags that offer poundage that is appropriate for the species you’re targeting. Also, you want the drag to start up with minimal resistance — when a fish starts pulling, you want the line to peel off smoothly or you run the risk of a break-off.

NOTE: Although disc drags have become increasingly popular across the board, you can still find many excellent freshwater fly reels that use old fashioned click and pawl drag systems. They rely on a clicker that drags along the reel’s gearing to apply pressure to the spool. They make a cool sound but don’t do much to stop a strong fish.

 

Large Arbor 

In fly reel lingo, the term “arbor” refers to the diameter of the spool. All the ideal fly reels for saltwater feature large arbors, the main advantage is its increased line retrieval rates.

A large arbor reel allows you to make fewer cranks to regain your line, which is critical when fighting fish that can easily take hundreds of feet of line before you realize what happened.

 

Strong Frame 

Hatch saltwater fly reel

When the full weight of a 150-pound tarpon is on the line, a huge amount of stress is placed on the reel. When too much pressure is put on a reel, its frame can torque and bend out of shape.

To cope with the forces of a big fish, a good saltwater reel should have a sturdy, stiff frame. Those that are made to fight big fish are designed to create the maximum amount of strength and stiffness with the lightest weight materials.

 

Plenty of Backing

Most fly lines are only 100 feet long, a length that fast-swimming saltwater fish can steal in a few seconds. So to make sure you don’t get spooled, your reel must be loaded with plenty of backing.

Thin braided Dacron line is the most common material used for fly reel backing. It’s durable and cheap.

Thanks to its small diameter, hundreds of yards can be added to a fly reel spool without taking up much space. That way, a fish can run all day, and you won’t run out of line.

 

What Do Other Experts Think?

Davin ( flatswalker.com ): Davin profile photo

Davin hails from Cayman Islands. Davin blog consists for everything fly fishing: his old and new journal entries, reviews, news and instructional video series like “Rev Challenge” which focuses on fundamentals on casting a fly rod. Davin is also a bonefish guide.

“There are 3 gold standards for saltwater fly reels: 1) Durability, 2) Reliability and 3) Speed.

You need an anodized aluminium frame, sealed drag, and large arbor. Anodization will prevent all the other parts—screws, clips, fly-rod handle, etc—from reacting with the saltwater and corroding the reel. Poor anodization leads to things like reel handles coming off mid-fight.

Reliability includes things like no drag-slippage if you accidentally drop your rod/reel. It also means low maintenance (basically a quick rinse is all a professional guide has time for) and being fairly noob-proof. Newbie saltwater anglers don’t understand that you shouldn’t dunk the reel or set it on a piece of coral to untangle the tip, etc. That’s not something that matters in fresh water where corrosion isn’t an issue.

Finally SPEED. This for me is almost as important as durability. A small reel—one with a small arbor—means you have to work so much harder to keep tight to fish that are crazy-stupid-fast and have a tendency to turn and run back at you. Small reels make you feel like you’re fighting a fish on a pocket watch: stylish, but old-fashioned and pointless.”

 

Yellow Dog Team profile photoIan ( yellowdogflyfishing.com ):

Ian has been involved in a fly fishing industry since the early 1990`s, he is the co-owner of Yellow Dog Fishing Adventures which helps you to book and plan a perfect fly fishing vacation without no extra cost for you. 

“There are many determining factors when entering a retail environment to purchase a new fly reel. First of all, always try to purchase products MADE IN THE USA from your local specialty fly shop. Let’s keep our hard earned money in the USA, so your fellow Americans can be successful as well. I fully realize this is almost impossible nowadays, so when you can, buy USA.

The most important trait I look for in a saltwater reel is a sealed drag system to keep out sand, salt, and debris from the intricate internal machinery that allows you to fight the powerful saltwater game fish. It is vital to our fisheries to land fish quickly, so a safe release is ensured. A smooth and powerful drag is the single most important aspect to landing more fish, and in a shorter amount of time. Your reel will get dunked, banged around, and exposed to the harsh elements when saltwater fishing, so having an enclosed, sealed drag system will prevent 90% of the issues reels face in the salt.

Then the reel should have no parts that can fall off when removing the spool from the frame. Oftentimes, you need to find the end of your leader (if it is buried with in the fly line), or the fly line tangles, so being able to quickly remote the spool is paramount. Dropping some tiny screw in a boat or the ocean is not good. I love the fact that the reel foot on all Hatch Reels is machined into the frame of the reel. That additional step in the machining process is rare today. The screws that attach the reel foot to the frame typically stay tight, but when they loosen over many years of hard use (and they will), it will drive you crazy. You tighten the screws, they eventually strip, and then your reel clicks and shits every time you cast or reel. Yes, you can send the reel back to the manufacture to have the screws replaced, but that is a hassle. I prefer hassle free fishing.

Having a lightweight reel is a challenge in the salt, since you need durability and strength. Lugging around a behemoth of a reel is tiring when wade fishing the endless flats of our favorite destinations. Hatch has a state-of-the-art machine facility in California and they have created a reel that is ultra-light, yet very strong.

Then there are the aesthetics of a reel. I shoot tons of photos for Yellow Dog. Having a cool looking reel is like having a gold medal or first place trophy in the photo. Anglers taking pics of important fish always include the reel. This is to prove it was caught on a fly, so why not have a sexy reel to enhance the photo. Hatch accomplishes all of these important details of a saltwater reel, so you will have a career of hassle free fishing. ”

 

Outdoor Empire Recommendations

ModelNautilus XL Max
Nautilus XL Max

Redington Behemoth
Redington Behemoth

Orvis Mirage LA VII Shallow
Orvis Mirage LA VII Shallow

Hatch 7 Plus Finatic
Hatch 7 Plus Finatic

Line8/99/1011-137-9
Diameter4 in4.4 in5 in4 in
Weight4.7 oz10.8 oz11.7 oz8.6 oz
CapacityWF8+175, WF9+150 WF10F/240yds/30lb
WF11: 350, WF12: 325, WF13: 300WF7F-300, WF8F-275, WF9F-250
Sealed DragYesNoYesYes
Price$$See HereSee HereSee Here

 

Best for the Money  

Nautilus X-Series

Nautilus XL MAX

The best saltwater fly reels on the market are highly engineered pieces of equipment so they tend to can get pricey. But don’t let those high price tags scare you off. Get a Nautilus X-Series reel and call it a day.

For its price, it is right in the middle of the saltwater reel price range. Regarding quality and performance, it’s among the highest-end reels out there. Here are a few reasons why.

1. It’s made of CNC machined anodized aluminum — check corrosion resistance and durability off the list.

2. It has a fully sealed drag system that features carbon fiber and SCF-X Teflon discs that are completely maintenance-free.

3. Although Nautilus doesn’t provide a particular force rating for the drag, it starts up buttery smooth and can be cranked down to slow down runners.

Perhaps, the most intriguing and performance-enhancing aspect of the Nautilus X is its open-framed design. The x-shaped frame is extremely stout but minimal, resulting to one of the lightest saltwater-ready reels on the list.

You won’t find any big-game sized Nautilus X-Series reels, but the 8/9 size should cover the majority of your inshore and flats fishing pursuits.

 

Specifications 

Available Line Weights: 3/4, 4/5, 6/7, 8/9
Diameter: 4″ (8/9)
Weight: 4.7 ounces (8/9)
Frame and Spool Material: Machined anodized aluminum
Drag Material: Carbon fiber and Teflon
Sealed Drag: Yes

Learn more about the Nautilus X-Series.

 

Best Cheap Saltwater Fly Reel

Redington Behemoth

Redington Behemoth

Ever since saltwater-specific fly reels hit the scene, anglers could expect to spend several hundred dollars on a good reel. But with Redington’s release of the Behemoth, saltwater fly anglers have a reel option that’s budget-friendly.

As its name implies, it is a big reel designed for chasing big fish. Its greatest claim to fame is a carbon fiber drag system that delivers 30 pounds of drag pressure. That’s enough to put the brakes on just about anything you hook into.

Thanks to a one-of-a-kind deep-V spool design, it is also big in terms of line capacity, holding way more than enough backing along with your thickest shooting head fly lines.

But as you might expect, the Behemoth’s super low price has a catch:

1. Unlike most saltwater fly reels, the Behemoth is made of die-cast aluminum instead of machined aluminum. This isn’t ideal but producing die-cast reels is vastly cheaper than machining reels. This makes its low price possible.

2. Although its drag is powerful, it isn’t sealed. We did say that a sealed drag is important on a saltwater fly reel, but not having it sealed isn’t as bad as it might seem.

As long as some extra care is taken to keep it out of the sand, its drag should perform for years. Just be sure to rinse it with freshwater after every outing in the salt.

Despite these two drawbacks, the Redington Behemoth is a high-performance reel that should be at the top of any angler’s wish list who wants to get into saltwater fishing for as cheap as possible.

 

Specifications

Available Line Weights: 5/6, 7/8, 9/10, 11/12
Diameter: 4.4″ (9/10)
Weight: 10.8 ounces
Frame and Spool Material: Die-cast aluminum
Drag Material: Carbon fiber
Sealed Drag: No

Learn more about the Redington Behemoth.

 

Best for Tarpon

Orvis Mirage LA VII

Orvis Mirage LA VII Shallow

Tarpon is a bucket list specie for any angler with a pulse. And when it’s your turn to battle the Silver King, you better be sure that your reel is up to the task.

So why not use one that was designed specifically with tarpon in mind? — the Orvis Mirage LA VII.

The primary factor that makes it so good for tarpon fishing is its extra-large arbor for ultra-fast line retrieval. The Mirage LA VII is available in either a shallow or a deep spool.

For tarpon, it’s the shallow spool you want as it offers 11 inches of line pick up per revolution. This is also known as the “freak” spool. And Orvis’ reel designer, a devout tarpon angler himself, designed the spool specifically for chasing his favorite species.

The Orvis Mirage LA VII has everything else you’d expect from a top-tier saltwater fly reel:

  • machined aluminum body and spool
  • sealed carbon fiber drag system
  • other little details geared towards big-game fly anglers

An easy-to-miss detail is the reel’s handle shape designed to allow fly line to slip off and not get caught. Another is the extra-grippy knurling on the drag knob along with positive click drag adjustment, giving you a tactile feel of how much you’ve cranked down the drag.

It costs a bit more expensive but is worth it when a once-in-a-lifetime fish is on the end of your line.

 

Specifications

Available Line Weights: 3-5, 5-7, 7-9, 9-11, 11-13, 13-15
Diameter: 5″
Weight: 11.7 ounces
Frame and Spool Material: Machined anodized aluminum
Drag Material: Carbon Fiber
Sealed Drag: Yes

Learn more about the Orvis Mirage LA VII.

 

Best for Bonefish

Hatch 7 Plus Finatic

Hatch 7 Plus Finatic

Capable of reaching speeds of 40 miles per hour, bonefish put the drag of any fly reel to the test. Though they aren’t the largest saltwater species, you have to show up prepared for a nasty fight with a reel that won’t quit — the Hatch 7-Plus Finatic.

With its reel foot and frame machined from a single solid block of aluminum, the Hatch 7-Plus Finatic is very rigid and sturdy, creating a reel that stays straight and true even under intense stress.

Additionally, the drag housing is machined directly into this single-piece frame construction, fully sealing in the reel’s carbon fiber drag system.

NOTE: This innovative design reduces the total number of moving pieces, drastically minimizing potential points of failure.

Its spool is a true large arbor design, allowing for good line retrieval rates. However, a separate spool with a mid-size arbor is available for purchase, making the reel adaptable for fishing styles other than saltwater.

If you’re getting your 8 or 9-weight rod ready for a trip to Belize or the Bahamas, make sure it’s bonefish-ready by strapping on the Hatch 7-Plus Finatic.

 

Specifications

Available Line Weights: 7-9
Diameter: 4″
Weight: 8.6 ounces
Frame and Spool Material: Machined anodized aluminum
Drag Material: Carbon Fiber
Sealed Drag: Yes

Learn more about the Hatch 7 Plus Finatic.

 

What reels do other saltwater fly anglers use?

These might be our picks, but this does not mean there aren’t any other great saltwater reels out there. So, we decided to contact a couple of fly bloggers and ask them what reels they currently use.

Tom from saltwaterexperience.com

Tom is co-host of successful television show “Saltwater Experience” which has ran for 11 seasons and covers all things related to saltwater fishing from catching tarpons, sharks to choosing gear. Tom has also a Q&A section up on his site you can submit your fishing related questions to.

“I use old Abel 4N for tarpon and 3n for everything else. There are lots of lighter reels on the market with large arbors, but I like the Abels.”

Philipp from toothycritters.net

Philipp is fly angler from Austria, Europe. His blog covers variety of topics, mainly saltwater fishing trips, but also trout and pike fishing. He also reviews fly gear occasionally. Definitely check out Philipp blog if not for anything else but for awesome photos that accompany his posts.

“I’m currently using Nautilus reels and I’m very satisfied with them. Mainly because I’m using them already 4 years without having a problem but also because they are built with some thoughts behind. They are light, durable, strong and nice looking.”

Davin from Flats Walker

“While there are a lot of options for saltwater fly reels, day in and day out I’m fishing the Lamson Lightspeed. It’s light, large (fast retrieval), holds in adequate amount of backing and has an anodized surface that’s second to none. I’ve fished my first one since sometime in 2001 or 2002 and have a couple others that have held up just as well. Still works just like the day I bought it AND looks almost as good.

My second favorite in terms of reliability, durability, size and speed is the Ross CLA. It’s also very easy on the pocketbook. I will admit that the drag isn’t as “fully sealed” as it claims to be, but is definitely more sealed to water slippage than the venerable Able Super series. Dunk one of those and you’re in for a unpleasant surprise.”

Ian from Yellow Dog Fly Fishing

“The evolution of the saltwater reel has been impressive over the past decade. I come from a retail background when saltwater reels were heavy, cumbersome, and failed often after extensive use. I’m also kinda hard on gear, hence my nickname the “Doctor of Destruction” from my Breckenridge Outfitters days. If you traveled to the salt without a backup reel “back in the day” your trip could be ruined due to failed parts. The brand of reel that has stood out to me personally are Hatch Reels.

I will never forget when they first entered the fly-fishing scene at the Denver Fly Fishing Show in 2005. The economy was in the tank, the industry was flat, and other reel company came out with a high end product. No matter how nice the guys behind the Hatch booth were, I thought there was no way they would survive the cutthroat retail business in a struggling economy. I had just sold my fly shop in Colorado, and was full time with Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures . My first task at Yellow Dog was to create a Bahamas program, so I spent months visiting the islands where I had learned to saltwater fly fish. John and Danny from Hatch asked me to test some of their reels, since I would be in the field for extended periods of time. I was happy to help since they were such good people. That following year I fished the Bahamas extensively, explored Belize and the Yucatan, so the eight weight reel Hatch loaned me got pretty worked over. To really test the reel I never once cleaned it in fresh water (sorry John and Danny). Saltwater is very corrosive, so besides a few rainstorms the reel was given a severe punishment.

To my amazement the reel never failed. All other reels I had previously fished in the salt would of never made it without constant cleaning and oiling. I used the Hatch for many years and it never once needed to be refurbished. The crank knob seal did stick after a few years, but a little scrubbing with a toothbrush and some oil it worked fine. Hatch has solved that issue. I ended up giving the reel to a guide in Cuba and have since seen it in his guide boat, and still working perfectly! I was 100% completely wrong about my initial impression of Hatch Reels back in 2005. It is the only reel I have fished for the past decade. I fully stand behind the reels, leader and tippets, pliers, nippers, and new fly lines. We even have loaner reels from Hatch and rods from Thomas and Thomas and Winston for our Yellow Dog clients. This equipment is constantly in the field and gets pounded. The Hatch reels stand up to this constant use in the saltwater.”

 

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Leonardo Dukes
Leonardo is an experienced fly fisher who has lately taken on lesser-known Japanese fishing technique - Tankara. His number one life-long passion is still fly-fishing which has enabled him to relax, enjoy the nature and spend quality time with family. Also, the fly fishing is one of the best excuses for travel you ever find.

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