Just in case you missed it, here are some highlights from the Fly Fisherman Gear Guide 2018. If you're curious about the products we named as "Best New Freshwater Rod" or "Best New Saltwater Reel" you can find Gear Guide 2018 at newsstands nationwide or on-line at: osgnewsstand.com
Patagonia Middle Fork Packable Waders
There have been packable waders before, but the problem has always been the bulky neoprene feet. Neoprene doesn't weigh all that much, but you haven't made "packable" waders if the foot is exactly the same. Instead of a haircut, what you've done is trim around the ears.
Patagonia has changed the playing field with its new Middle Fork Waders ($350, patagonia.com) by securing a new proprietary rubber material for the feet. There are no seams in either foot piece, and the four-way super-stretchy material is extremely durable for its weight. In large part due to the changes to the foot material, these waders weigh 1.6 pounds (with the wading belt) and roll into a sack that is about the size of a water bottle—and you don't have to stuff the waders into the sack like an oversize sleeping bag; the waders roll and fit in the carry sack easily.
The waders are made from 3-layer material in the upper (with a breathable membrane and recycled nylon face material), and 4-layer material in the lower wader (also with recycled nylon), so these aren't just the most packable waders on the market, they are the only ones we're aware of that are made from recycled material.
Middle Fork waders have a lightweight chest harness you can use to roll down the waders into waist-highs on hot summer days. Although "stripped down," these waders still have the essential TPU waterproof inner pocket for your cell phone. You can use your smartphone without removing it from the waterproof pouch.
Orvis Ultralight Wading Boots
If you spend time clambering up the headwaters or bushwhacking the tribs, you know the wisdom of paying close heed to what gets slung on your shoulders, strapped to your waist, or hung around your neck, shedding superfluous ounces to lighten the load. But the heaviest excess baggage that you're hauling may actually be those bomber-weight guide boots on your feet. They do the job, but why lug those gunboats around when there's a more practical alternative?
The new Orvis Ultralight Wading Boots ($170, orvis.com) whittle down weight in a couple of ways. First, designers simply eliminated material by cutting down the ankle height and streamlining the profile. Second, they judiciously substituted lighter materials for heavier ones with an eye to minimizing reductions in security or strength. The upshot is a pair of boots that comes in at 44 ounces (size 10), ½ to ¾ pound less than heavy-duty boots. Your legs will feel the difference before the end of a long day.
The supple uppers, constructed of mini ripstop nylon reinforced with strong Clarino microfiber, snug down securely and conform closely to instep and ankle for good stability. Foam padding throughout gives a cushiony comfort with a fit and feel more like light hikers than typical wading boots. You give up some foot protection against the really bruising knocks, but the savings in weight go a long way toward easing the pain.
The lug soles have a hard rubber on the perimeter for durability and a more flexible sticky rubber down the center for slippery surfaces. They deliver great bite on the trail, even on loose rock and muddy slopes. On greasy streambeds, however, performance is only so-so, which is precisely what I think of all lug-sole wading boots; they simply don't grip like felt. But when you're trekking the boonies, you'll probably negotiate as much dry ground—where felt gives no traction—as underwater rock; lugs are a reasonable compromise. And you can always retrofit them with screw-in studs (I did) for better footing.
It wasn't possible to put enough miles on these before deadline to get anything more than an initial impression of durability, which is so far favorable. The wraparound toe- and heel-guard material, a lightweight, spray-on compound (think truck bed liner) shows no hint of cracking or delaminating. There's no sign of stretch or fatigue where the uppers meet the sole; loss of firmness there can allow your foot to shift laterally, after which mainly unpleasant things happen.
A less obvious but equally useful application for these boots is with fins in a pontoon boat or float tube. With less weight, more flexibility, and a trim profile that decreases water resistance, the Ultralights reduce leg fatigue. Add the advantages of light, low-bulk boots in air travel and you've got a pretty useful package.
Simms G3 Guide Vest
A redesign of one of the most popular vests ever made, the new G3 Guide Vest ($250, simmsfishing.com
) boasts a staggering 24 pockets of all sizes, suitable for any box you can find. It provides a comfy ride with cushioned, stretch mesh shoulders and a padded rib knit collar. This vest, complete with two built-in retractors, a backside net carry, and a Teflon finish on Cordura ripstop nylon, suits gearheads and guides alike. The two hook fields are enormous, and with a third-hand rod holder, reel sling, Velcro chest tab, and easy access to oversize compartments, this is a hatch-matcher's delight. If it doesn't fit in this vest you don't need it on the water.
Anglers who track developments in tackle have undoubtedly noticed the uptick in application-specific fly rods in recent seasons, a steady but fairly minor trend typically involving the annual appearance of a new streamer or muskie stick here, a couple of Euro nymph rods there. But this year G.Loomis doubled down on the idea in a major way with its fast-action IMX-PRO Series ($500-575, gloomis.com
), a selection of 15 "purpose driven designs" tailored to the specifications of professional fishing guides to optimize performance with particular techniques. Most are trout models; all use Conduit Core in the lower half to shave weight for better casting comfort and increased power.
According to Red Kulper of G.Loomis, "Conduit Core is a new scrim/resin combination that rod designer Steve Rajeff used in the bottom half of the rod to reduce weight (most significantly) in the butt section of the rod, noticeably improving swing weight when compared to rods without the new scrim. The reduction in mass improves the transfer and distribution of energy, and boosts the rod's recovery rate."
I spent some time with the 9' 5-weight. The feeling of rod weight placed back toward the grip and the crisp, responsive top end make it a pleasing match for anglers who enjoy tip-casting quick, tight-looped darts. With a standard 5-weight line it lays out small to midsize dry flies smartly with sufficient forgiveness in the tip to protect lighter tippets. But this rod really comes into its own when used for applications that have become standard operating procedure in today's trout fishing, particularly in the West: drilling out big, foam-bodied patterns; wind-resistant drys; bulky or heavier streamers; hopper/dropper setups; and indicator rigs—the primary purposes for which the rod was designed. And for this heavier lifting, you'll profit from bumping up a line size (or size and a half) to bring the middle of the shaft into play and better turn over bigger payloads. On a very windy day, I even strung up a standard 7-weight; the rod handled it quite neatly at short to middle distances.
These more dynamic fishing techniques require a rod that can deliver the freight without taxing your arm unnecessarily, folding up, or bouncing around under a load. The IMX-PRO showed none of these deficiencies and proved particularly advantageous in fishing from a drift boat or raft; you can pick up a fly and set it back down quickly instead of watching prime water slide by while you strip in line and false cast. You can tighten up loops for throwing dry or unweighted flies, or open them up for chucking the dangerously weighted stuff that's best kept a safe distance from the rod tip. Even with the energy loss inherent in wider loops, the rod summoned the muscle to close the deal. And it has a nice balance in the hand for imparting action to bulky flies designed to push water, for stack mending, or for any technique entailing quick, repetitive wrist motions.
I can't speak to all 15 rods in the series, but the 9' 5-weight does just what it's supposed to. It offers some versatility, and though not my top choice for a general-purpose rod, it facilitates fishing techniques and circumstances so widespread in trout fishing these days that the rod rises above a narrow, niche, specialty stick.
Cortland Ultra Premium
Cortland calls this stuff "top secret" but the secret is officially now out of the closet. The diameters are dead-on (we double-checked all the diameters with a micrometer), it knots and seats against the fly better than most fluorocarbons, and it's stronger. It comes in 30-yard spools ($20, cortlandline.com
) or in 100-yard spools for $50.
Thomas & Thomas Exocett SS
The successful Thomas & Thomas Exocett saltwater series turned heads when it hit the market two years ago, and showed it has more that just technology and slick components. The series hits an appetizing balance between weight and power, where the casting is so tactile and rewarding, it's almost surprising to feel the power in the rod when it's time to do the dirty work of lifting and pulling—
perhaps part of the reason the Exocett has become a common fixture at some of Earth's most challenging saltwater locations. But an interesting thing happened with this "saltwater" series. I started to also see it in the hands of fishermen in Africa with tigerfish, cradled under the bellies of golden dorado in the freshwater streams of Bolivia, and in my own hands fishing for taimen in Mongolia. The Exocett, it seems, isn't just for salt water.
With that in mind, rod designers at T&T came up with the newest iterations called Exocett SS ($825, thomasandthomas.com), two 8'8" rods with steep taper at the tip end, so they have extra lifting power for sinking-tip lines, and for casting heavier short-head floating lines. I used the 350-grain Exocett SS at the annual Cheeky Schoolie Tournament, and throughout the day used increasingly larger flies (to keep small stripers off my fly) and heavier sinking tips (to sink below small stripers) and while I never did find bigger stripers, I did find there was almost nothing this rod couldn't handle. For heavy lifting, carrying short lengths of heavy heads, and for drilling large flies into a headwind, the Exocett SS (also available in a 250-grain version) is also perfect for muskie and pike fishing; largemouth bass in heavy cover; for snook under the lights, docks, and other structure; and for baby tarpon snacking within the mangroves.
Saltwater fishing isn't just about catching tarpon, bonefish, and permit from the platform of a flats skiff. It's about blue-collar fish like striped bass from a New Jersey jetty, corbina in the wash of the California surf, snook under the dock lights, and tripletail hanging around crab pot markers. I first used a 10-weight CRUX ($400, redington.com
) to put the boots to several 25- to 30-pound jack crevalle, and then was pleasantly surprised to find out the fast-action CRUX isn't strictly a saltwater rod. It comes in line weights from a 10 down to a 7'6" 3-weight.
CRUX rods have slim-profile rod blanks and what Redington describes as a "line speed taper" with greater lifting power and stiffer tips to pick up and carry line, or drive powerful casts into the wind. With the 10-weight, I found a rod strong enough to quickly pressure jacks away from shrimp boat rigging, land them quickly, and get back in the game. In a shoot-out with a pile of jacks there are usually casualties, but even though the 10-weight bounced against boat gunwales, wrapped around the outboards, and became entangled in the trim tabs a few times, it held up—and even landed a few unintentional sharks.
In the smaller line weights the rod is still a workhorse, and that extra tip strength pays dividends for mending and nymphing with a strike indicator, and for streamer fishing big rivers. The "angled key grip" made from composite cork material gives you extra durability right where you need it. The reel seats are saltwater-safe anodized aluminum with built-in hook keepers and line ID printed on an enlarged reel foot hood. Each rod section has alignment dots, and the rods come in a lined Cordura rod tube with sewn dividers.