Best Fly Reel Bang for Buck

Waterworks-Lamson-Speedster-FrontThis is bargain economics week, I think. Earlier, I discussed the sweet spot of the fly rod market and how to get the most bang for your buck. Well, what about fly reels?  It helps to understand a few basic terms; to accomplish that I’m going to link you back to my old American Angler article on reel drag design, and assume you’re familiar with the basics going forward.

The first thing to understand is that there are reels and then there are reels.  For trout fishing, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and almost any other kind of freshwater fish (including steelhead) that you might catch on a 7 weight or lighter fly rod, the only truly critical factor in reel drag is that you have something.  At that level the drag primarily serves to prevent backlash of the line from over-spinning on a fast run.  If you’re especially prone to fishing for large fish with light tippet (like 6X in Arkansas tailwaters), you might want to ensure that your drag is as smooth as possible–has the lowest startup inertia, usually accomplished by buying a high end disk drag reel–but in terms of raw force, you are only going to be exerting a pound or two of pressure on any running fish.

That all changes once you hit the 8 weight and up rod class.  Here, even relatively small fish like two pound bonefish are capable of melting the core out of an inadequate reel.  This is the category in which disk drags become more or less required, and the more drag surface you can get ahold of, the better.  For light saltwater you’re still ok with gear drag reels and reels with their disks mounted inside the arbor of the spool.  But for heavy saltwater, tarpon, bluewater, you definitely need to be thinking of a full sized disk drag with maximum available brake surfaces, whether synthetic carbon fiber/rulon or old-school traditional cork.

Where’s the sweet spot? I am a big fan of the used market for reels, but because the best reels tend to hold their value (See the 20 year old Ross San Miguel series, currently selling for more than original MSRP on eBay, or any Hardy Perfect-based reel model), the used market doesn’t offer as much of an unexploited advantage as it does with fly rods.  Here I think you want to look at economies of scale on the manufacturing side, and a great example is Lamson.

Lamson (as you’ll learn if you listen to my podcast with owner Ryan Harrison), arose out of the bike market.  They have very intelligently designed one basic drag system, and they did it in a unique 3D way.  Imagine a pair of washers pressed together.  That is a classic disk brake system for a fly reel drag.  One washer slides against the other and the more pressure you put on the dial, the harder they are to turn.   But what if you want to make a large arbor reel?  Now you don’t have a big inner space on the frame-side to hide those brakes in.  Some designers simply shrink the size of the washers, creating less drag surface.  Others create a “stacked washer” system using smaller washers, like a roll of coins, crammed down the middle of the arbor of the reel.  This achieves an equivalent drag surface to two big washers, but is not as efficient, because each drag surface moves independently.  In practice stacked washer drags work fine to generate a given pound force of drag but tend to be somewhat ratchety and uneven–unsmooth, if you will–in their adjustment and performance.  They also have high startup inertia to get all those drag surfaces spinning from a dead stop.  Lamson’s solution is the most creative of all, because they take the two big washers and fold them into a cone shape that creates the same equivalent drag surface area but will fit geometrically into a thin central reel arbor.  Here’s their design:

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See how the Rulon cone mates up with the machined metal drag surface?  That’s a lot of drag area in a small cylinder.  That’s smart.

Even better, because Lamson uses the same drag from the top to the bottom in their line, you as a consumer benefit.  Their lowest-price gear, the Guru and Konic, has the same drag as their high end stuff, the Speedster, which I personally find to be gorgeous.

Personally, I have a lot of fly reels but don’t actually own any Lamsons.  But this is what I usually recommend when someone comes to me looking for a fly reel recommendation.  I believe Lamson’s simplicity of design, achieving a large drag surface area in a small space, plus their economies of scale in using the same drag top to bottom, creates a pricing advantage that you as the consumer benefit from.  Put another way, Lamson’s reels, especially on the low end, are pretty clearly underpriced.

reel-9plus-clearred-back-770x710There’s a caveat, however.  When it comes to the big dogs–heavy saltwater–innovations like the 3D conical drag start to fall behind pure brute force simplicity.  This is also the market where performance truly matters: what good does it do you to save $300 on a fly reel if that reel fails you when you’re tied into a Venezuelan tarpon that it cost you $3500 just to get a fly to?  For the high end market, I continue to believe high end reels are appropriate: Abel and Tibor are proven big game equipment for traditionalists who like cork drag reels (said to have lower startup inertia, although that’s debatable).  When it comes to high end synthetic drag reels, which is where all the movement is in recent years, to my mind the clear leaders are Nautilus and Hatch.  Both Nautilus and Hatch make expensive, gorgeous, arguably overly complicated reels, but they get the job done at a very high level.

And they have been innovating hard in recent years.  Even within Nautilus’s own line, the difference in smoothness of the drag operation between the older CF series and the new NV series, which makes use of some titanium parts, is pretty stark.  I have hundreds of hours of striper fishing on both Nautilus CF and NV reels, and I recommend the latter even though it is significantly more expensive.

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Bottom line: For trout and light saltwater, it pays to do your research and identify a market advantage.  Innovative drag design, favoring simplicity and interchangeable parts from top end to low end of a line give you as consumer a pricing advantage.  Lamson offers the best example of this I know of at the present time.  In the heavy duty market, premium reels are worth the coin.  If you’re going to tug on Superman’s cape, you better be ready for the ride.

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