In fresh water, every cast is a chance to wipe the slate clean and start over. The beauty of a stream or lake filled with trout or bass is that mistakes are easily forgiven. You can take your time to get it right. And most often, no one is watching.
Some days in the salt can also be that easy, where acres of stripers consume anything you throw out there, or the bonefish want to pounce on anything they see, but mostly it's not like that.
A great day of tarpon fishing is often measured in "shots," not numbers of fish landed. Every minute you stand on the bow waiting and watching, the pressure rises as you realize you may not get many chances. And when your shot comes, you've got a moving tide, crosswinds, and traveling fish to complicate matters.
To make matters worse, your fishing buddy is likely watching, awaiting his turn. The guide is calling the distance and direction, his voice strained with anticipation. Let's not kid ourselves, it's a pressure cooker, and we're all likely to blow it—and blow it badly—at least some of the time.
Those times when you are up to the task, the last thing you need is for your gear to let you down. A line that wilts in tropical heat? Fail. A reel that chokes and backlashes? Fail. Or a rod that is too slow and clunky to deal with the fast pace and high demands for single-shot accuracy? Fail.
The good news (or bad news) is that today's best saltwater tackle won't let you down. The top rods, reels, and lines are designed by world-class saltwater fly fishers. They know the performance requirements, and they build to far exceed them. That excessive and obsessive fly-fishing passion leaves us with the rods and reels we can take with confidence to the most challenging fishing environments on earth. From there, it's up to us.
G.Loomis Pro-1 $725-$815
Proprietary lightweight, stiff graphite, 3M Matrix Resin, REC Black Ion Recoil guides, and tapers designed by the world's greatest competitive caster made NRX saltwater rods a common sight from the flats of Key West to reefs in the far Pacific. Our editorial staff has caught tuna, tarpon, bonefish, permit, snapper, barracuda, striped bass, false albacore, and numerous other species with 4-piece NRX rods, and then the rods became obsolete. Well, kind of. The new Pro-1 series has saltwater rods from 8- to 12-weight but they are undeniably lighter and stronger than regular NRX rods because they are 1-piece rods with no ferrules. Ferrules add weight and are the natural weak points of any rod. Remove them and you've got a better casting and fishing tool. Because you can't pack them in your luggage, they aren't practical in many instances, but they are awesome. We looked into it, and you can check 1-piece rods onto a plane as luggage just as you would skis or golf clubs.
Hardy Proaxis 1 $660-$750
Hardy's saltwater rods were designed by Andy Mill, the world's top tournament tarpon angler, and author of A Passion for Tarpon (Wild River Press, 2010). The 4-piece Proaxis rods (from 6- to 12-weight) took advantage of the latest nano silica resins, Recoil titanium guides, and won wide acclaim from saltwater veterans, but now Hardy has made them even better. One-piece Proaxis rods are 8'10" and come in 8- to 12-weights for everything from bonefish to sailfish. With no dead spots created by ferrules, they cast even smoother, and feel even lighter in the hand.
Orvis Helios 2 $850
The Helios line of rods was retooled to feel lighter in the hand (more of the weight closer to the handle) and to be stronger and more impact resistant. Our tester used a 12-weight Helios 2 to catch tarpon and a 10-weight for permit at Turneffe Flats Lodge in Belize, and he said the new tapers also provide more casting punch and lifting power than the old Helios. 'After stupidly playing tug-of-war with an accidental Goliath grouper, and finally breaking it off on 80-pound-test fluorocarbon, I'd pit this rod against anything including tuna, arapaima, and amberjack. I dare you to break it on a fish. ' On the permit flats he said, 'I had dozens and dozens of great shots with heavy crabs, and I put it right on the button more times than I can attribute to my casting skills. Instead of the guide yelling 'that's behind the fish!' I've been hearing 'that's perfect!' ' Eight saltwater models from 6- to 12-weights will be available in January 2013, with five additional models coming in April.
Sage TCX $780-$815
A few years ago, Sage rod designer Jerry Siem tweaked the original TCR (Technical Casting Rod) to create a super-fast-action rod with greater sensitivity, and better fishing performance at shorter distances. But let's not fool ourselves — the TCX is still a rod best suited for long casts, and powerful, well-timed strokes. Our tester regularly uses the 9', 7-weight for bonefish,and sent this report from Andros: 'My most memorable impression came after I noticed a large shadow lurking near the mangroves, and changed to a long, oversize barracuda pattern. The 'cuda was 60 feet away but the TCX overcame a 15-knot 'breeze ' and delivered a perfect cast to a moving target. ' Our testers have also used TCXs for largemouth bass, Deschutes steelhead, Atlantic salmon in Iceland, and trout in Chile and Colorado, demonstrating impressive versatility. It's obviously not just a streamer rod. TCX 4-piece rods are available in 4- through 10-weight single-hand models and three two-hand models.
Scott S4s $775
Scott's saltwater powerhouse rod series uses X-Core technology — a combination of materials and design that translates into a rod with a larger-diameter shaft and thinner walls. Current industry trends have rods going with narrower and narrower shafts, but the trade-off is relatively thicker rod walls. Scott says rods with thinner walls and a larger diameters are stronger, track better for accuracy, and are more sensitive. Scott has also gone above and beyond the call of duty in protecting the S4s from the corrosive effects of salt water. The S4s has titanium guides, and Military Spec III anodization which uses sulfuric acid to hard anodize the aluminum at thicknesses from 0.0005" to 0.006". In other words, it's impervious not just to salt but to nicks, scrapes, and scratches. The are 12 models ranging from 6- to 12-weights.
St. Croix $450-$520
Built in sizes to handle everything from puppy drum and Ascension Bay bonefish (6-weight) to tuna, tarpon, and amberjack (12-weight) St. Croix's premium saltwater rods have the same IPC and ART technology as the freshwater rods by the same name, but with maximum-power butt sections for top-of-the-food-chain casting and lifting. With the difference in power and casting actions, bluewater color, and saltwater components, it's hard to visually recognize these rods as members of the Legend Elite Family, but they definitely feel different in your hand. Our tester said that unlike some overly stiff saltwater rods that take the joy out of casting, 'This rod loads up like a fly rod should, tip casts when the fish are close, and doesn't collapse when you need distance. '
Saltwater Fly Rods