January 07, 2022
This article was originally titled "Sharpened by Salt" in the 2022 Gear Guide issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
Saltwater is corrosive, the fish are stronger or pound-for-pound more powerful than anything you’ll see in fresh water, the weather can be insane, and your opportunities can be fewer and far between. With tropical flats fishing, you may have flown across the country or around the globe to get there. You took time away from your job and your family. So when everything finally comes together and you get that shot you’re looking for—a permit, GT, bonefish, or tarpon—the last thing you want is an equipment failure. It makes no sense to spend $10K on a fishing trip, and then show up with the wrong fly line, an inferior rod, or a reel you bought because it was on sale.
A lot of effort goes into finding these fish. You can go to the best lodges, pick the perfect tides, hire the best guides, but as Flip Pallot says, the last 60 feet of your journey is up to you. Having the right gear can help you with that last 60 feet, and that’s why the saltwater environment is the ultimate proving ground for fly-fishing tackle. The conditions are difficult, but the rewards can be huge.
And it’s not just rods, reels, and lines that make the difference. Your outerwear, packs, and accessories can be deal makers or deal breakers. I’ve seen paying guests sit out days at the lodge because their saltwater wading boots chafed their skin, which got infected. I’ve had partners sit out the best part of the tide because of sunburn, and boatmates who couldn’t see the fish coming because they didn’t have the right lenses to match the conditions. Don’t be that guy (or gal). If you’re gonna do it, do it right. Ask questions beforehand, bring the right gear, and above all, practice. You are your most important asset.
Patagonia Guidewater Backpack
We play in a wet environment, but we tend to carry a lot of stuff we’d like to stay dry. Patagonia’s new Guidewater Backpack is a 29L waterproof and submersible pack for your phone, camera, laptop, lunch, fly boxes, and whatever else you need to stay dry. This is the pack for wading the clear dorado rivers of Bolivia, wading bonefish flats in the Bahamas, or hiking into a remote corner of Yellowstone National Park. Every single day, there’s a chance you could swim, and an even greater chance you’ll need to ride out a downpour.
The updated zipper is waterproof, dustproof, and slides easily, with a much wider opening than Patagonia’s previous waterproof backpack so it’s easier to extract what you need. Exterior holsters allow you to easily carry a net and also strap on a rod tube or a wading staff securely. My favorite part of this pack is the laptop/tablet pocket, and a zippered interior stash pocket that helps keep you organized. With the pocket stowed, it’s perfect for passports or cash on long trips. Patagonia also smartly designed the stash pocket so you can affix it to outside so you don’t have to open the zipper to access fly boxes and other accessories while you’re fishing.
The Guidewater Backpack won the Fly Fisherman Gear Guide's Best New Pack award for 2022.
G.Loomis NRX+T2S Fly Rod
One-piece rods have been popular choices in saltwater tournaments for years, but they are difficult to transport. The “tournament configuration” of the NRX+ T2S means it has a 22" butt section, and an 86¾" tip section for a total length of 8'10". It’s still a long rod tube, but more in the realm of skis and golf clubs, and much more economical and sensible for shipping, checked luggage, or fitting into a rental car. The single ferrule is before the first stripping guide, so the extra buildup isn’t noticeable while casting, as it is when the joint is in the center of a two-piece rod, and the potential for a weak spot is also moved to the strongest part of the blank. Micro-tapers closer to the tip help the rod load quickly for casts close to the boat, but it’s also got incredible reserve energy in the butt section for driving long casts into the wind. G.Loomis’s Dynamic Recovery Technology basically increases the effective top and bottom ranges of the rod—sort of like going from cassette tape to digital audio. The 8- to 12-weight rods have two Titanium SiC stripping guides, RECoil snake guides, and a low-glare matte black finish.
The NRX+T2S won the Fly Fisherman Gear Guide's Best New Saltwater Rod award for 2022.
Thomas & Thomas Sextant Fly Rod
The design team at Thomas & Thomas took advantage of a brand new carbon fiber material (and resin) to build its new flagship saltwater series, but when I talked to VP of Business Development John Wolstenhome about the new Sextant family, he was more excited about how the rods were put together, rather than what went into them.
“We try to let the rods speak for themselves, rather than bombard our customers with technology talk,” said Wolstenhome. “It’s the recipe that’s important. It’s like when a chef prepares a fine meal—all the best chefs have access to essentially the same ingredients, but it’s how they put them together that makes the difference. It’s the same with rod design—it’s the tweaking, and the knowledge, and the fishing experience that you pour into it.”
Just days after the Sextant series was released, I fished with Capt. Joel Dickey, one of the sous-chefs who helped “tweak” Sextant prototypes for performance on the flats of the Florida Keys. We fished for bonefish, permit, and tarpon using 8-, 10-, and 11-weight Sextants, and one thing that stood out to me was the continuity throughout the series. All three rods shared a recognizable smooth, transitionless loading, and powerful, precise delivery to overcome wind and the complexities of moving tides, targets, and the boat. In flats fishing, the fly has to be in the right spot—often very quickly—and the Sextant does that in spades at typical flats ranges of 40 to 80 feet.
Tournament-winning Florida Capt. Justin Rea, Seychelles guru Keith Rose-Innes, and Dubai outfitter Capt. Nick Bowles were also influential in developing this complete saltwater series in rod weights 6 through 12 to be capable of taking on any tropical species in any ocean around the world.
The Sextant has a deep blue gloss finish with teal trim wraps, durable cork composite on the butt and foregrip, an uplocking machined anodized aluminum reel seat with a matte titanium finish, titanium frame stripping guides with slick silicon nitride inserts, and nickel-titanium RECoil snake guides.
Orvis Blackout 8'5" Fly Rod
A longer truck takes wider turns. Likewise, a shorter fly rod cuts tighter corners, making it easier to change directions at the bow of the skiff, and make one-shot deliveries to bones or redfish coming from unexpected angles. This 8'5", 8-weight was designed for flats fishing, but it’s a good choice anytime you’re in a boat, whether you’re chasing pike or striped bass. Of course, a shorter rod helps you tire fish quickly for a quick and safe release.
Fly Fisherman contributing editor Hilary Hutcheson took this rod on assignments to Ascension Bay, Mexico; Punta Gorda, Belize; and Ragged Island Bahamas, and tested it in every possible condition. She used the 8-weight to catch bonefish, barracudas, and snappers and said the rod is nimble in any fast-paced saltwater situation: “The ability to make super-accurate, split-second shots as a fish changes direction or speed is key, especially around features like mangroves, logs, or rocks,” she said.
Douglas Outdoors SKY G - 8-weight Fly Rod
Trout fishers were impressed with the SKY G when Douglas Outdoors came out with 4- and 5-weight models in 2020, but the company’s premium rod seemed a little bit like a teaser or an appetizer. It was delicious, but where was the rest of it? Finally, Douglas Outdoors has added an 8-weight to the SKY G family to whet the appetites of saltwater fly fishers. After testing it on the bonefish flats and mangrove channels of Boot Key and Coupon Bight, I believe it will leave saltwater fly fishers wanting even more.
The rod is light (3.6 ounces for an 8-weight), loads quickly with little effort, and launches tight loops capable of cutting through wind, your constant companion on the flats. Designed by Douglas Outdoors’s Fred Contaoi, SKY G mixes graphene particles into the carbon fiber resin to make it stiffer and stronger without adding weight. Douglas Outdoors calls this GTEC construction. The result is a rod that punches over its head in terms of swing weight. It holds up to long casts of 80 feet on a bonefish flat, but it’s also easy to bend and load at closer distances.
The first saltwater-ready SKY G has REC Titanium shape memory CEREcoil stripping guides with zirconia inserts, REC Titanium RECoil snake guides, a machined aluminum reel seat with double uplocking rings with nylon bushings, and section alignment dots paired with the line weight printed on the top three sections, so you don’t end up storing your 8-weight tip section with your 5-weight SKY G. (This has actually happened to me several times.) The rod sock that fits inside the powder-coated aluminum tube is a moisture-wicking mesh and foam that seems more protective (like bubble wrap) but it’s also easier for air to pass through. If you travel with multiple rods and no tubes, just the sock on this rod is an upgrade.
Pescador on the fly El Jefe Packable Fly Rod Combo
The El Jefe Packable Fly Rod Combo includes a 6-piece IM12 carbon fiber rod with AAA cork, and titanium-coated snake guides from Pacific Bay; a machined aircraft-grade aluminum reel preloaded with backing and a floating fly line; a double-sided silicone-insert fly box with 24 flies; and a Go Pack Sling Pack. When the El Jefe Combo arrives, you have everything you need to fish except waders and boots.
The travel rods fit in 22-inch tubes, and come in 3- to 8-weight combos, so you have some choices to make. The 4-weight is perfect strapped to a backpack for alpine trout, the 5-weight easily fits inside your luggage for out-of-state trout, and the 8-weight is just as easy to stow for a bonefish trip in the Bahamas.
These are beautiful rods, with a matte black finish, glossy black wraps, alignment dots on each section, an extra rod tip, and a machined aluminum reel seat with a hardwood insert. They are light, high-performance, fast-action rods that are built for adventure, bigger flies, long casts, beating the wind, and above all for packability. The rod alone is worth the $400, so the El Jefe Combo is a no-brainer.
Cubalaya Fair Chase Click Pawl Reel
When compared to our forefathers, it’s obvious that fly fishers have gained many advantages. Polyurethane fly lines, fluorocarbon tippet, breathable waders, high-modulus carbon fiber rods, disk-drag reels, and the list goes on. All have worked to give us technical superiority. The new Fair Chase Click Pawl levels the playing field a bit with a burly, CNC-machined saltwater reel with a simple click pawl drag system. The springs are much stronger and the pawls are larger than your $20 childhood reel, but it works the same way. The Fair Chase makes an incredible sound when a fast saltwater fish rockets toward the horizon, but there’s not much stopping power here. It’s up to you to palm the exposed outer rim. Fair Chase reels come sized for line weights 6-8 or 9-12. They are machined from aircraft-grade 6061 T6 aluminum in Chicago on Haas equipment and are Type III anodized. They use Igus iglide self-lubricating bushings and stainless steel hardware throughout, but they require some maintenance. It’s important to rinse the reel after each use, and keep the pawls lubricated. When the pawls eventually do wear down, you can send them back to Cubalaya Outfitters for replacement.
Abel ROVE Reel
To “rove” means to travel constantly, and Abel’s newest reel series will assist you along the way, whether it’s searching for big rainbows in Kamchatka, salmon in Alaska, GTs in Cosmoledo, or billfish in Panama. The ROVE replaced Abel’s Super Series, which has been a company mainstay for 22 years, so this is the biggest, baddest reel on the Abel roster.
Like the Super Series, ROVE uses the tried-and-true unsealed cork drag system, which has few moving parts and is easy to clean and/or service in the field. Unlike the Super Series, the ROVE has a modern, partially ported design, leaving a solid space for artwork on the top third of the frame, and an elegant open space where you can see “framed” laser-etched artwork on the reel’s internal drag plate. When the drag plate spins, you get a moving kaleidoscope of fly patterns.
The reels come in sizes 5/7, 7/9, 9/11, and 11/12+ with spool diameters and arbor widths designed for maximum capacity. The ROVE 7/9, for instance, has a width of 1.07", diameter of 4.23", weight of 8.5 ounces, and holds a 9-weight saltwater line and 330 yards of backing. The 11/12+ Rove has a diameter of 4.97 inches. It’s the largest reel Abel makes, with capacity for a weight-forward 12-weight line and 400 yards of 30-pound-test Dacron backing. In other words, when you show up with a ROVE, you ain’t playing around. They are bombproof, beautiful, and will stop any fish you throw a fly at.
ROVE reels will be available in March 2022 in all of Abel’s solid and satin colors, satin fade, and three new Casey Underwood artist designs for an extra $225 called Drift, Swing, and Salt (blue satin Salt shown here). As usual, the mixing and matching of artwork and colors is endless, which is why so many Abel reels are one-of-a-kind.
The ROVE won the Fly Fisherman Gear Guide's Best New Saltwater Rod award for 2022.
Greys Tital Reel
Greys was founded in 1968 by Malcolm Grey in the town of Alnwick in England’s far north. Originally known as “Greys of Alnwick,” the firm quickly established a reputation for making high-quality rods, reels, and other equipment. Legendary British tackle maker House of Hardy acquired Greys in 1999, and today, both Hardy and Greys are part of the Pure Fishing family of companies.
Greys tackle has proved popular with fly fishers in the U.K. and Europe, where the company has established a reputation for quality and technological innovation—as well as non-stratospheric prices. Hoping to capitalize and expand on its long-established appeal across the pond, Greys is now bringing multiple products to the North American market, and leading the way in this push is the new Tital fly reel, which Greys describes as its “flagship” model. The Tital won top honors for “Best Fly Reel” at the 2021 International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades (ICAST) show in Orlando, Florida in July 2021. Voters at the show praised the large-arbor Tital reels for their sleek and modern industrial design, high-quality machined bar stock aluminum construction, and simple and secure spool release mechanism, as well as their smooth and powerful sealed carbon-disk drag system.
“Winning an ICAST award validates the hard work, planning, research, and development that goes into creating a great fly reel,” said Greys Director of Fly Fishing Jim Murphy. “The Greys brand has been an exciting brand in the hands of European anglers for years, and it’s exhilarating to introduce such an innovative brand to the American audience.”
Whether you’re pursuing brook trout in little-known mountain streams; bluegills in a neighbor’s farm pond; smallmouth bass on the Shenandoah River; coho salmon on Alaska’s Lost Coast; muskies and northern pike in the Upper Midwest; striped bass on Cape Cod; or barracudas, permit, and tarpon on the flats of the Florida Keys, Greys has a Tital reel sized to match, and at a price that won’t break the bank. It’s available in four sizes, to match 3/4-, 5/6-, 7/8-, and 9/10-weight rods and lines. —Bill Bowers
Airflo Superflo - Ridge Tech 2.0 Fly Line
In what may be the biggest product introduction of 2022, Airflo not only came out with a completely new slate of saltwater lines, they also revamped their texture technology, which means Airflo’s Ridge lines—first introduced in 2006—are no longer. The new Ridge Tech 2.0 creates raised linear “bumps” along the length of the line, but compared to original Ridge lines, there are about 50% fewer of them, with wider gaps between the ridges. While the original Ridge technology created a series of sharp high points, the new Ridge Tech 2.0 has more rounded edges, so your line works like a train running along the tracks, and the guides on the fly rod contact only these rails to create less friction compared to a perfectly smooth, round line. The result is a quiet line, “texture” you almost can’t feel with your hands, wide gaps that can’t collect dirt, and a faster line that flies through the guides. Each line has the same number of ridges from end to end, so the ridges have wide gaps on the fatter belly portion of the line, and they are more tightly spaced on the running line.
Airflo put the new Ridge Tech 2.0 on all of its five new Superflo saltwater lines for 2022: Flats Tactical Taper, Flats Universal Taper, Flats Power Taper, Redfish, and GT Gangsta. The lines all come on spools made from skimmed, recovered ocean plastic. All Superflo lines use Airflo’s low-stretch Power Core, something that’s especially important in saltwater lines where you are often casting farther, and setting the hook over greater distances, with larger-diameter hooks, and into harder mouths. Ridge Tech 2.0 is also now available in three freshwater lines—the Superflo Universal Taper, Power Taper, and Tactical Taper are available with and without it.
Airflo's Ridge Tech 2.0 won the Fly Fisherman Gear Guide's Best New Fly Line award for 2022.
RIO Products Elite with SlickCast Fly Line
In 2020 RIO released its newest fly line coating—a potent elixir of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), plasticizers, and lubricants intended not just to taper and weight the line, but to control its stiffness and its slickness so the line sails through the guides as easily as possible. The newest technology, called SlickCast, was added to all of RIO’s Elite series trout lines: Gold, Grand, Perception, and Technical Trout.
SlickCast was a bright spot in the 2020 trout season—it was easier to mend, shoot, and stayed cleaner than previous RIO lines. According to RIO’s Simon Gawesworth, the coating produces “the least amount of friction ever measured on a fly line,” and the coating stays slicker for longer.
A slick-shooting line is also important when you’re making long casts in tropical conditions, so saltwater fly fishers waited with bated breath to get their hands on the new SlickCast coating as well. That wish was granted in early 2021, when RIO released its Elite Flats Pro, Bonefish, Tarpon, Permit, and GT lines to the saltwater world.
We tried the 10-weight RIO Elite Permit line in the Florida Keys and didn’t catch a permit, but the line carried dumbbell-eye crab patterns through 15-knot winds, and turned over the leader with no hiccups. It was slick as advertised—perhaps even more noticeably slick in a saltwater environment, where sand and grit and a hot skiff deck can all conspire to make a regular line feel sticky or even abrasive.
Ross Purnell is the editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman.