Buying Right: Saltwater Fly-Fishing Tackle

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Hardware and Software, February 1997

Buying Right: Saltwater Fly-Fishing Tackle
By Donovan Webster

As I gear up for prime saltwater fly-fishing season--when tarpon begin rustling from murky depths and migrate inland, making themselves all too available--I'm reminded of my grandfather. He was among the first generation of anglers to take his sport from fresh to salt water. In the 1950s, using what was then called a trout rod, he plied the seas for snook, blues, stripers, bonefish, and permit on the fly. That rod, a nine-foot fiberglass noodle nearly as thick as my wrist at its butt, couldn't compete today. But in the last ten years, thanks to light yet exceptionally strong graphite rods, sophisticated reels, and low-friction fly lines, my grandfather's version of saltwater sport has faded to anecdote--as has its aristocratic mystique. These days, anyone possessing a decent cast can catch saltwater gamefish that are faster, brawnier, and more skittish than anything in freshwater. In some places, you can even wade off the beach to fish, freeing you from the pricey services of a guide. Here's the tackle you'll need to get started this spring.

If you're just getting your, uh, feet wet, the two-piece Fish Eagle FT rods from Cabela's ($220-$250; 800-237-4444) are fine. Like all saltwater rods, they're larger at the butt and more powerful than freshwater ones. They feature many elements of premium wares--graphite construction, wrapped and lacquered line guides, cork grip--albeit without museum-quality touches. For instance, the reel seat is fashioned of anodized aluminum rather than wood. But whether you choose the version with eight- or nine-weight line, for courting bonefish in the tidal flats, or the 12-weight rod, for lifting sulky monsters from the open sea, these nine-foot offerings from Cabela's give you moderately fast action and a heavy-duty fighting butt.

Avid anglers know Sage's four-piece RPL+ system rods for their fast action. My favorite eight-weight model is probably the 886-4 ($485; 800-533-3004), slightly shorter than standard at eight and a half feet and possessing a quicker stroke than even its Sage brethren. It shines when casts need to be especially nimble and precise--such as when I'm after spooky snook in the Florida mangrove backcountry. All Sage rods have internal ferrules, meaning that at the joints, the lower sections fit securely into the top sections. For heavier quarry, Sage's innovative ten-foot 10100-3 ($500) for ten-weight line allows your back-cast a higher ride above the dune grass when fishing off the beach.

Scott High Performance Fly Rods' Tactical Series ($475-$485; 800-728-7208) is within a whisper of perfection among today's saltwater tackle. The lightest graphite rods on the market, they also have a smooth action at their tip--great for punching casts into the wind--a nonreflective gray finish, and the most comfortable cork grip available. Though all saltwater rods in the Scott series are nine-foot, three-piece designs with internal ferrules, they cast with a feel that no other multisection rod can match. Whether you settle on the eight-weight STS908/3, the ten-weight STS9010/3, or the 11-weight STS9011/3, you're selecting a work of precision art.

The System 2 series from Scientific Anglers/3M is for fishermen more concerned with cash flow than gewgaws. For a low-cost reel of noteworthy quality, the Model 89, for eight- and nine-weight line, and Model 1011, for ten- and 11-weight, are superior ($190; 800-525-6290). Constructed of corrosion-resistant cast aluminum and outfitted with a train-stopping caliper disc drag brake, System 2 reels handle the job in yeoman style.

For salty speed demons like bonefish, the best reels may be the Rapid Retrieve series by Abel. The 3NRR ($625; 800-848-7335), beautifully crafted from top-grade aluminum, has a large-diameter spool, so it slurps slack line in a hurry, and since the spool is wider, the line is less prone to twisting and kinking. That's nice when a hooked bonefish streaks across a pale tidal flat and then pauses to gather its wits. And when you do need to apply the brakes, you'll appreciate the power in the 3NRR's precisely machined disc drag. Think of the Abel as modernist sculpture: spare, beautiful, perhaps overly expensive, and yet practical.

The classic, however, is the Billy Pate Fly Reel, made since 1976 by machinist-cum-fly-fishing-celebrity Ted Juracsik in Oakland Park, Florida. The anti-reverse Billy Pate, now from Tibor Reel (954-566-0222), ended the age of knuckle-busting backlash, since running fish could no longer send the handle spinning uncontrollably. The eight-, nine-, or ten-weight Bonefish ($450) and the ten-, 11-, or 12-weight Pate's Tarpon ($485) are fashioned from solid aluminum. They feature a cork disc drag brake and a backup pawl in the ratchet so you'll never be left in a bind. The additional hardware makes them considerably heavier than the Abel Rapid Retrieve reels, but then they're designed to catch bigger fish. Which is why Billy Pate reels have garnered more than 20 world records.

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