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