Sage Spectrum MAX $450-500
The SPECTRUM isn't just the best reel Sage makes, it's the best reel Sage has ever made, and it comes in three "flavors": the Spectrum, Spectrum LT, and the Spectrum MAX. The size ranges overlap a great deal as there is a 5/6 version of each type. The Spectrum LT is machined and built with a drag system that emphasizes light weight and economy. The Spectrum is the workhorse of the series for line sizes 3/4, 5/6, 7/8, and 9/10. The MAX is Sage's best big-game and saltwater reel, and it's the one our field tester spooled with an 11-weight line to pressure giant peacock bass out of heavy cover in an Amazon River tributary. We found that the extremely wide pentagon-shaped base of the sealed drag hub creates an extremely rigid connection so there's zero wobble or warping when the reel is working under maximum pressure. The best part of the reel is the one-revolution drag knob that is easy to handle and manipulate with sweaty, sunscreen-covered hands. A complete numbered revolution goes up to 20, and there are 40 indents so you can quickly set your drag to, say, 16.5 after stripping line from the reel for your first cast. The MAX is available in sizes 5/6, 6/7, 7/8, 9/10, and 11/12, in three colors including squid ink to match Sage's new SALT HD fly rod. sageflyfish.com
Nautilus GTX $1,300
The new GTX from Nautilus isn't a new reel series with different capacities and dimensions. It's a single serving of whoop ass meant to torment the biggest fish in the ocean and subdue them.
The 5-inch-diameter reel is 1.1 inches wide, 8.7 ounces, and holds 500 yards of 60-pound braid. It's designed for strength and rigidity, yet airy so your line and backing dry quickly when it's being stored. The spool and frame might look similar to other Nautilus reels but the guts of this stopping machine are completely different.
The GTX brake mechanism has a pressure spring that is sandwiched between two aluminum disks. These floating disks—under pressure by the spring—rotate in unison against an oversized carbon fiber disk on one side, and an epoxied sandwich of cork/Kevlar/carbon fiber on the other.
Cork in a Nautilus drag? It sounds like sacrilege, but according to Nautilus owner Kristen Mustad, the combination of compressible cork, rigid Kevlar to evenly distribute the force and dissipate heat, and carbon fiber for the friction surface creates the smoothest drag Nautilus has ever produced—and it stays smooth all the way up to 30 pounds of stopping pressure. nautilusreels.com
Cheeky Limitless $325-$525
We successfully field-tested the Cheeky Limitless 475 on 150-pound arapaima in the Guyana jungle, tarpon in the Florida Keys during an epic worm hatch, and multiple Belize flats species. Wherever you want to go, it's a solid reel with a modern esthetic and functional design.
The 475 has a 4.75" diameter and sells for $475—all five reels in the series follow the same price/diameter scheme with sizes from 3.25" up to 5.25" and $325 to $525. In a world where you get what you pay for, it seems like a great reel costs about $100 per inch.
The 475 we tested cranks 14.75" of line per revolution at full capacity and weighs only 10.9 ounces. The deep backing channel holds an enormous amount of backup (more than you'll ever need) and the sealed disk drag system never failed despite sand, grit, suncreen, and repeated dunkings. cheekyfishing.com
Waterworks-Lamson Cobalt $570-$800
Amid the current profusion of fly reels on the market, it's hard to imagine much new being brought to the table. But Waterworks-Lamson builds a number of noteworthy innovations into the saltwater Cobalt (5/6 to 11/12). Even looking at the Cobalt, you sense something slightly unusual — the spool and frame ports are asymmetrical, some larger than others to distribute mass in a way that eliminates the need for a separate spool counterweight. Less visibly but more significantly, the inside and outside diameters of the case are machined on different centerlines, putting less material at the bottom of the frame and more at the top, underneath the reel seat, where it does more good by adding strength and stiffness—no small consideration in fighting powerful, hard-running saltwater fish.
Much, in fact, about the Cobalt addresses strength and toughness. The MICRALOX finish offers twice the durability and 55 times the corrosion resistance of standard Type II anodizing. In protection from the degradations of saltwater, there's no such thing as overkill.
A spool held to the spindle with a nut for a more secure mount replaces the familiar pop-out design. The drag is a super-sized version of Waterworks-Lamson's signature conical brake (as smooth and reliable as any I know), built specially for the Cobalt with a carbon alloy friction surface for heat stability at high RPMs. Completely sealed, it requires no lubrication and remains waterproof to 30 meters. The drag adjusts in half-pound increments through a 12-pound range, but you can change the window from 0 to 12 pound, or 2 to 14 pound if you prefer to match the requirements of your target species. (It entails tools and loose parts; I'm not anxious to try in the field.) Once you've dialed it in, you can mark specific settings on the drag knob and instantly adjust from stripping tension to fighting tension with repeatable, reliable results.
Tarpon are a bit hard to come by in Oregon, so I took the 11/12 model to an estuary for a shot at fall Chinook during one of the worst salmon returns in memory. The fishing lived down to my expectations; the reel exceeded them. The frame proved commendably rigid—no flexing or twisting or play when you bear down on it. It felt like a full-cage frame. I had a particular interest in how it would behave with a monofilament running line behind a shooting head since this setup can cause problems with many single-sided reels; the thin mono can sneak through gaps between the frame and spool and end up outside the reel, wrapped over a frame pillar. But I never had the slightest problem. I have only one, very minor, quibble—the drag knob, which I find found stiff to operate—though this may well relax with extended use.
Decidedly not a scaled-up trout reel, the Cobalt is engineered for heavy lifting and longevity, built from the ground up specifically for big dogs in the salt. waterworks-lamson.com
Abel SDF $420-$800
Abel came out with its first Sealed Drag system in 2015. Those were midsize reels we can think of as version 1.0. In the following year, Abel changed nearly everything and produced the larger and beefier Sealed Drag Salt (SDS), to handle the rigors of larger gamefish, hot sweaty conditions, and a grittier, more corrosive environment.
Response to the SDS was so overwhelmingly positive that Abel reverse-engineered what they had achieved back into a smaller package called the Sealed Drag Fresh or SDF, available in 4/5, 5/6, and 6/7 sizes. Compared to the original, this version 2.0 has a much larger and positively featured drag knob; users can switch from right-hand to left-hand retrieve; it's also wider, with a larger arbor for quick line pickup; and because of the arbor design, the release knob is much easier to grab and twist. The SDF 5/6 weighs nearly an ounce less than its predecessor, and the drag range is three times larger so it's easier to fine-tune your drag for situations with small flies and/or light tippets.
The impervious stainless steel against carbon fluoropolymer brake system is smooth and provides a ridiculous amount of drag—more than you'll ever need for trout, but then, with this kind of reel, why limit yourself to trout? abelreels.com
Ross Evolution R Salt $600
The original Evolution R has a braking system derived from 7 stacked stainless steel and carbon fluoropolymer disks. What's better than a little cowbell in a great song? How about more cowbell? The new Evolution R Salt has a 16-disk drag system that produces nearly 30 pounds of drag. The large frame-integrated drag knob makes it easy to turn up the volume. Instead of one counterbalance, the Salt R has two smaller offset counterbalances to reduce vibrations when line is being ripped from the reel, and a reel handle machined from canvas phenolic rod. It comes in diameters of 4.08", 4.43", and 4.75" to suit 7/8, 9/10, and 11/12 fly lines. rossreels.com
Redington i.D. $90
Personalizing your reel is no longer expensive or permanent. The new Redington i.D. is a cast aluminium reel with a flat matte black finish where you can affix one of 34 different decal options to represent your personality. The decals are only $1 and can showcase your home state, favorite species, pop art, or make a political statement on the importance of public lands. If you get tired of one sticker, or your mother doesn't like the "strip, strip, set" exotic dancer motif, you can stack the decals neatly to cover up the previous one. It's much easier than a tattoo removal. redington.com
Orvis Mirage USA $525-$850
All of Orvis's top-end rods like the Helios 3 are designed, manufactured, and assembled in the USA. And now, Orvis's best reels are, too.
The reels aren't made in the same Manchester, Vermont, shop where Orvis's bamboo and graphite rods are finished, but they are made in a nearby machining shop that has decades of experience producing precision aerospace parts. (The owner of the machining company is a longtime fly fisher and Orvis fan with a lifetime dream of manufacturing the world's best fly reels.)
The newly designed Orvis Mirage comes in sizes II through VI to handle line weights 3 through 14, and is packed with some serious technology—like a patent-pending ball-and-ramp drag adjustment so you can make fine adjustments on the low range and quickly ramp up the pressure at the high end. The drag knob turns 350 degrees from minimum to maximum, with 30 accuracy detents, and a dead-end stop at exactly 10 pounds of drag.
The drag mechanism is sealed multiple times for redundancy, has a strong, lightweight titanium shaft, and 34 total carbon fiber and stainless steel drag surfaces for a smooth drag with no startup inertia.
The handle is machined aluminum, and the entire frame and spool have type III military-spec scratch-proof anodization. While it's not quite as light as some reels in its class, it has a tough, durable feel and finish, and a smart, functional tactile design that makes your hands feel right at home the minute you pick it up. orvis.com