How to pick a fly reel — And why I choose the Sage TROUT

by | Feb 11, 2020 | 37 comments

Let’s be honest. A trout angler does not need a world class drag on a fly reel. And the avid fly fisher quickly realizes that even the largest trout in the river may be subdued with good fish fighting tactics — rod leverage, side pressure and smart angles. When someone offers up a story about a river trout that took them into the backing, it usually dates back to their first few seasons of inexperience on the water. (I have a few of these stories myself.) Fact is, we don’t chase trout for their super-strength. It’s not the fight that attracts us, but their selectivity, beauty and the remarkable places where trout take us.

So for many fly fishers, the reel is really the last thing to spend money on. A fly reel certainly needs to do the basics, like hold line and operate smoothly enough. But beyond that, what else matters?

I have an answer for that. And it’s different than the answer I gave ten years ago.

My needs are specific. And yet, there are thousands of anglers, like you and me, who have the very same requirements. On many days, I’m a long liner. A tight liner. A Mono Rig guy. And all the euro nymphing, contact system anglers out there have the same needs. (More on that below.)

After many years of searching and struggling with imperfect solutions, I found my first choice in a fly reel. It’s the Sage TROUT, full cage. Now let me tell you why it’s perfect for us.

 

** Note ** Links for buying the Sage TROUT reel are at the end of this article.

 

Trevor. Winter. Hooked up.

 

A good all around fly reel has these things . . .

Durability

Cheap reels are fine, as long as they hold up for a while. But if you put in any time on the water, there’s no point in buying something that doesn’t last. Sooner or later you’ll break your fall on some hard rocks with the reel in your hand. The frame bends easily on the cheap stuff. So, durability is a necessity.

Honestly, strength and resilience are the first requirements for all my outdoor gear. Boots, waders, vests, tools — a truck. Fishing isn’t a hobby for me. It’s what I do. There are plenty of dirt cheap options for the hobbyist angler who fishes a few times a year. But that’s not us. So I recommend avoiding things that fall apart.

Smooth Drag

Don’t get too carried away with this one. Truth is, (almost) every fly reel I pick up these days has a good drag. Sure, some of them are a little stiff on startup and others are super smooth from start to finish. But they all get the job done. The only time I have issues with a reel’s drag, these days, is when something is wrong with it. Water and fine sand can do a bad number on a drag system. Sealed drags are an industry buzzword these days, and for good reason. They’re nice.

A good drag system isn’t complicated. Most of what you’ll find are variations of disc drags. And they all work to stop your trout — yes, even the biggest trout.

In truth, the drag is not necessary. I’ve had four main reels in my lifetime, along with a few others that were mistakes. And my first go to reel was an old Orvis Click and Pawl Clearwater. I learned to palm the spool, because there was no drag system. And I miss that reel. I still spend a lot of time with my drags set light on modern reels, forcing myself to palm the spool on even some of the bigger trout. It’s fun. Truth is, my largest wild fish to date (twenty-six inches) was landed all those years ago with that Orvis Clearwater.

Counterbalance

Thinking about my first reels reminds me of another important feature. A good reel needs a counterbalance on the spool, 180 degrees from the handle. Almost all reels have one these days, but that first Clearwater didn’t. And when the twenty-six inch beast took off, the reel rotated fast enough that the whole thing shook in my hands like it was about to explode. Ever driven on tires that are badly out of balance? Same thing.

Large Arbor

My first two reels were standard (small) arbor. And I remember when I found myself in the market for another fly reel. My friend, Sawyer, told me to get with the program and buy a large arbor reel. Why? I wondered. What’s the big deal? Sawyer convinced me that line pickup was much greater with every revolution of the spool, but I still figured it didn’t matter much.

I was wrong about that. Large arbors are excellent, not just for fighting fish, but for all the time spent reeling in line throughout the day. It matters. A large arbor is nice. And as we’ll see below, it becomes critical for the long liner.

 

Stealth Silver

A Sweet Sound

Come on now. You know you love a good clicker.

The sounds of my Clearwater and Battenkill reels were created by the metal leaf springs on the inside. These days, most disc drags are inherently silent. But thank God the manufacturers know how much we all love to hear the reel sing as a trout peels off line. Most clickers are small plastic or metal pieces on the inside of the reel, next to the drag. Completely cosmetic (to the ear), they are useless in terms of function. But a good reel should sound j-u-s-t right.

Incidentally, the clicker adds to the the reel a certain mechanical feel — a pulsing, pleasing dotted line that expands and contracts as you or the trout change the speed of the spool’s revolutions. Can you tell that I love a good clicker?

So, these are the qualities every good fly reel should have: durability, smooth drag, large arbor, counterbalance and a sweet sound.

But if you are into tight lining, you have a few more specific needs — whether you realize it yet or not.

A good long liner’s reel has these things . . .

Large Arbor

We already mentioned this up above, right? Sure, but when you’re long lining, now it’s critical.

Small spools hold the line in tighter coils. You can get away with that on a fly line, because most lines have a limp, braided core. But the tight line angler may use mono leaders of thirty feet or more, and monofilament holds a coil more than fly line. It has memory. Experienced long liners stretch their leader at the beginning of every trip, but if that leader is then reeled up in small coils on a small arbor reel, that’s just asking for trouble — especially in colder weather.

Full Frame / Full Cage

Long liners, delight! The fly fishing industry is finally waking up to the reality that you would like a full cage reel.

What’s a full cage? The frames of standard reels have an outer rim, but not an inner rim. The spool attaches, and the line lays over the lower brace. Like this:

 

Old school. Lamson Konic. Standard cage. Notice how the line feeds when the spool is attached. (I put a lot of miles on this reel.)

 

But a full cage reel has an inner frame as well. So the line goes through an opening in the frame. It looks like this:

 

Full cage Sage TROUT. Notice where the line feeds through.

 

Why is this important? Because the mono pull-through is a problem. If you have any experience with leaders that are long enough to keep the fly line on the spool, then you’ve likely experienced the mono-pull-through. It’s a question that I address repeatedly, and I wrote a full article about it a while ago.

READ: Troutbitten | Stop the Mono Pull Through

It happens because the line is thin enough to jump through the crack that exists between the spool and the frame. But remember, with a full cage reel, there is no crack for the line to jump through. So it can’t happen.

The average fly reel was not designed with thin lines in mind. So a Mono Rig with a twenty pound butt section may find that crack all too often. Even comp fly lines pull through on many reels where the gap is wide, because comp lines are still thin enough to cause a problem.

This is the troublesome crack on a standard reel. This is where the pull through happens. (This regular fly line cannot get through, but a comp line can, and twenty pound mono can.)

 

For many years, the only full cage options readily available were too heavy to match a trout rod. They were built for Spey fishermen who also needed a full cage solution to prevent thin lines from jumping into the crack.

Yes, Spey fisherman also realized a long time ago that fly line sucks.

READ: Troutbitten | The Mono Rig and Why Fly Line Sucks

But reels of six ounces or more are usually too heavy to balance out a trout-sized fly rod or to be comfortable casters.

My first full cage solution was recommended to me by Pat Weiss. It was the Sage 3850, and I’ve mentioned it on Troutbitten many times. It’s a good reel. Most of the 3850’s were gobbled up on ebay, and the price of these out-of-production reels continued to rise.

Now, finally, Sage produces the TROUT reel. It has a full cage design, and it’s a much nicer reel than the 3850 in all respects. (The TROUT has a nice clicker too, while the 3850 was, sadly, silent.)

A full cage reel all but eliminates the trouble with the mono-pull-through. The line cannot pass through any crack in the front, because there is no crack to jump into.

The extra rim does make a full cage reel slightly heavier. But that’s alright, because the extra weight helps to balance out the longer rods that long liners use.

If this all sounds just perfect, you should be aware that a different kind of pull-through can still happen on any reel. Somehow, in some unfathomable way, the line may find a path through the inner crack, where it ends up behind the spool and against the back of the frame. This is odd, but it happens. And when it does happen, easy removal of the spool is a key feature.

Easy Off

There are two methods of holding a spool to the frame: friction and mechanical. I’m more a fan of the latter. I like some kind of a release. Some reels have a small tab or lever, while the Sage TROUT spool screws on from the center. That’s nice.

Contrarily, fly reel spools using the friction method are usually easy to remove in warm weather. But when the mercury drops below freezing, the friction system can be difficult — very difficult. I’ve spent up to fifteen minutes on some reels, trying to pry the spool, with cold fingers, from a colder frame, alternately warming my hands and the spool with hot breath. That’s a lousy waste of time.

The Sage TROUT

With all of that to consider, the Sage TROUT has everything I want in a fly reel. It has what every fly reel should have: durability, smooth drag, large arbor, counterbalance and a sweet sound. And it has the special things that long liners, tight liners and euro nymphers need: a full cage design with easy, reliable spool removal.

I spent many years shrugging at the question of what reel to buy. And the best I could do was to pass on info about the 3850. But now, I’m happy to share a strong recommendation for the Sage TROUT. It comes in three sizes, but I like it in the two smaller sizes. Sage calls these sizes 2/3/4 and 4/5/6.

 

** Note **  The partnerships and the support of this industry are part of what keeps Troutbitten going. You can read my policy on gear reviews HERE. And if you decide to buy the Sage TROUT reel below, Troutbitten receives a commission of the sale, at no additional cost to you, when you click through links. So thank you for your support.

 

Buy the Sage TROUT Reel HERE

 

 

The Balance Thing

Real quick, just to wrap up: For many years, the industry was obsessed with lightweight fly reels. But the average reel for trout grew so light that it didn’t truly balance an average rod.

For me, the rod should balance at the front of the cork, right where my most-forward finger rests. And, notably, the line should be out through the guides while testing this balance. Because, well . . . we fish with line through the guides. Whatever your system is, balance the reel in a real situation. I’m not obsessive about balance, but I do want it close.

Either the 2/3/4 or the 4/5/6 Sage TROUT reel balances nicely with every fly rod I own.

Fish hard, friends.

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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37 Comments

  1. Full cage sounds nice. But $375 for something to hold line and balance my rod? No thanks. I hate mono pull through as much as anyone but I’ll guess I’ll just deal with the 2-3 times it happens every outing. I have sage reels for the salt where I do need a smooth sealed drag, but come on ….$400 for a trout reel? Where I fish I almost never have to put a trout on the reel. Would be nice if a company could make a fully machined reel with full cage for cheaper, surely it can be done? I’m sure it is a nice reel for those who will put the $$$ down.

    Reply
    • Greg, I get that mindset. I fished for decades with reels never more than a couple hundred bucks — usually less. Look at the pic of that Lamson Konic up above. That was my main reel for many, many years.

      I do have a couple things to mention though:

      — You don’t have to put up with the mono pull through. Check out the other article, linked to above, for ways to prevent it. The pinky cradle is the most reliable.

      — I put almost every trout on the reel. Not to fight them, necessarily, but because I believe good line management is a good habit.

      — Let me know what your search for a full cage option on the cheap turns up. I don’t believe you will find it. (Remember that it also has to be light enough). Again, the 3850 is a good option. However, they are hard to find now. And they often sell for more used than they sold for new.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
      • Yes I use those tips, used to get the pull through a lot more in the past. Personally I am fishing small high gradient freestones where a foot long fish is a rarity, personally I feel it is waste of time and unnecessary to repeatedly put small fish after fish on the reel. I know there are no cheaper full cage options around currently, but with the increasing popularity of tightline nymphing with long mono leaders I’m hoping other reel manufacturers will take notice and put out some other options. I need a reel close to 4.5 to 5.5 oz (with backing plus line) to balance my rods properly, most common problem is reels are too light these days. Don’t see a weight listed in the specs for this reel, I always look at that before I buy a reel.

        Reply
          • I’m not sure if it was mentioned above/below or how timely this remark is, but regarding Greg’s wish for a manufacturer to take notice of the increased demand at a pricing point that’s more reasonable, there is an alternative.

            Echo makes a new product that both solves the pull through & price issues. The Echo Shadow Click, large arbor, 4/5 @ 2.9 oz & 2/3 @ 2.36 oz (?) with an ‘adjustable capture line guard’ (which solves the pull through problem) & ~$99 on average- a much more reasonable alternative to the Sage & other more expensive reels mentioned above.

            I’m not sure if that’s too light for you Greg after you fill the arbor but it might be worth a look?

            I personally don’t own this equipment but it did come up in my search as an alternative (I’m looking for some new gear so have been trolling Dom’s reviews). Cheers & Tight Lines all!

          • Good stuff,

            But those reels really are too light to balance most all the the rods we use for tight lining. I had a Sage Click. Sweet reel, but at 3 oz, it was far too light. Yes, even after the arbor was filled. I know we can add lead tape and lead core trolling line, but doing that makes the reel seem clunky to me. I’ve done with some other reels.

            Cheers.
            Dom

      • Hi, Dom. Great content.
        My Larson Konic might be older than my grown children, but I’m partial to it (almost as much as my children) less the mono pull through. With that, I’ve found a budget, full framed, decent drag reel that some of your readers may appreciate…it’s the Loop-Q. Had it out yesterday and really like it. Thought I’d share.
        Take care.

        Reply
        • Thanks, Anthony.

          Two things that I’d caution about:
          — The lightest Loop Q is a half ounce heavier than the mid sized TROUT. And Sage offers a TROUT reel that is a full ounce lighter.
          — You love that Konic because it lasted so long. Same here. Mine was like a tank. But you’ll have to spend more than a day with the new Loop reel to learn its ins and outs.
          🙂

          Cheers.
          Dom

          Reply
  2. FYI Dom: The amil that contianed the link to this story was titled “Tight Line Nymphing — How Much of this is Feel?”

    Reply
    • Hi Charles,

      Thank you. I know. It’s an error on the back end of the subscriber email send. Static vs dynamic settings. I’m working on it.

      I do appreciate when anyone reports errors.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  3. I’ve been looking for a reel similar to a Redington Zero or Sage Click that has a full cage to get rid of the pullthrough issue, Both are around 4″ reels and weigh 3 oz so there is room for a full cage without making it weigh a ton. Is there enough of a market for a click drag reel with a large arbor and full cage weighing around 5 oz to sell a thousand?

    Reply
    • +11 on this one. Totally agree. I would LOVE a full cage click and pawl. And yes, honestly, the Sage Click is an excellent reel. I had one for a while, and I almost put in in my recommendations for the GEAR section. But it’s just too light to balance of any of my reels. Kinda crazy. I’d love for them to add a full cage option to that.

      Realistically, though, most people won’t buy a click and pawl. And the market for a full cage is smaller too.

      You and me, Pete!

      Dom

      Reply
      • Pfleuger Medalist is full cage but that arbor is so little. Does mono jump happen on the Sage Click? Or the lamson speedster?

        Reply
        • Hi there.

          I’m sorry, but I don’t know for sure about either of those reels. But I believe you will find the mono pull through happens on nearly every reel that’s not full cage. That’s been my experience. Some of the high end Ross reels avoid the problem, for the most part, though.

          Cheers.
          Dom

          Reply
          • Hardy Ultraclick UCL is a full frame clicker.

    • I’m currently looking into the new echo click reel. For a hundred bucks I think it will do the trick

      Reply
  4. I’ve been eyeballin that Sage Trout 4/5/6 for a few months now and I got close up look at it at the Edison show. I’m going to upgrade from the Cortland 10’6” 3 weight and Lampson Liquid (great drag) reel, to an Orvis Recon 10’ 4 weight and the Sage Trout 4/5/6. I think the Recon will help my streamer and dry fly game. Whatya think Dom?

    Reply
    • I’d go with the Thomas & Thomas 10’6″ 4wt Contact over the Recon. It’s pricier, but I have found it to be a shockingly good dry fly/dry dropper rod. Nice for dead drifting streamers and really casts the mono rig well.

      Reply
      • Thanks Jason I’ll check it out.

        Reply
    • Hi Louie,

      I really like the Orvis Recon 10′ 4 weight. The TROUT 4/5/6 will balance is well.

      Jason mentions the T&T contact, and if you can spend double the money, then I agree it’s an excellent rod — maybe the best for what it does. The extra six inches kinda hurts its streamer capability to me, but it still works. Overall, I think it has the best tip of all the euro/comp style rods. If they made it in a ten footer, it would likely be my favorite rod ever.

      You can find my write up on my favorite rods over in the GEAR section:

      https://troutbitten.com/shop/gear/

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
      • Yea I heard the T&T’s are top knotch. I might spring for it due to the more sensitive tip. You know what they say? Buy once cry once. Thanks Dom!

        Reply
        • I meant to say 10’8″ 3-wt.

          Reply
      • I basically just nymph on my home water, and I only use the T&T Contact 10’8″ 3 wt. It’s a fine rod.

        Reply
  5. Bought me a recently discontinued Lamson Speedster HD that balances perfectly with my 10’8” rod. Sadly not made anymore but this one should hold me for a while. Was tempted to buy a backup but these are pretty reliable especially given the amount I fish.

    Reply
  6. My Hardy Marquis does great as a click and pawl full cage reel. I’ve owned mine for 30+ years but if you had to buy one today they’re no bargain to purchase either.

    Reply
  7. For all the varied requirements we have it is a good thing that there are so many options of quality reels. No clicker for me. I really like a silent reel & if a reel I am considering has one I see if it can easily be disabled. Reel balance, very important. Small diameter, yes.
    Another good article, thanks.

    Reply
  8. I’ve handled one of the Sage trout reels at a shop, and what a nice reel. Very nicely made, with looks similar to the old Sage 500 series, one of my favorite older reels. I just wish they made it in a spring and pawl version, but I doubt we’ll ever see that. I guess I’ll go back to scouring the auction sites looking for my favorite old clickers.

    Reply
  9. Just found your blog Monday and have been soaking everything up. I’ve been out of fly fishing for near 20 years. Man have things changed.
    Definitely going to give the Mono Rig a shot. Think it will be perfect for the small streams I fish in my area.
    As a side note…and I want to stress that I’m NOT a paid shill! But perhaps readers might find interest in Danielsson fly reels. You can find them online and I’ll leave it at that.
    Tight lines and THANK YOU for an exceptional blog. Cheers, Jeff

    Reply
    • I agree the Daniellson reels are fantastic. They definitely do not ever suffer from mono pull through. The price is right in the $150-160 price range, extremely well built. Very light. They do not have a click but they have a pleasing hum. Very large arbor size – the dry fly and nymph are the most applicable for most folks – but the petite midge model is just the ticket for my 9.5’ custom cts 9.5’ 1 wt euro on small streams. Give them a shot they are a nice “under the radar”alternative.

      Reply
  10. Finally the reel I have been waiting for. My buddy literally said he was going to stop tight lining with a mono rig (or euro line for that matter) because of the mono-jump… he put it in much harsher words than that 😉
    We found this article today and both ordered one immediately. Thanks for the great article and great find.

    Reply
    • Cool. I do love it.

      Please let me know how it works our for you guys.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  11. Dom . . . I just learned about the Sage Trout reel last night, I thought the classic look with the modern sealed drag is a great idea, and I am even more sold on it after reading your great article today . . . the only question I have is if you think the 6/7/8 Sage Trout can handle Great Lakes Steelhead . . . most of the steel we catch range between 22 and 28 inches, but it’s not uncommon to get a few over 30 inches every year, and my favorite Sage reel so far has been the 6080 . . . the drag system appears to similar to the Spectrum LT, so hoping it should be sufficient, but wondering what you think . . . thanks . . . Dan

    Reply
    • Hi Dan,

      Yes, I have high confidence that the drag will hold whatever you throw at it.

      Send me pics of the big ones.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  12. Hey Dom just wanted to let you know I recently purchased a Sage Trout 4/5/6 from my favourite fly shop in Turangi NZ (Trout fishing Capital of the World) next to the Tongariro river. It’s quite big water and average fish in the spawning runs are about 4lbs. The Sage Trout Certainly proved it’s worth first time out, so thanks for the guidance. Sorry but it’s difficult for us to purchase large ticket items from overseas with Covid and customs duties. Anyway you can claim the kudos for the recommendation. Thanks for the help. Warm regards Stay well and lots of tight lines

    Reply
  13. Hi Dom, After going through your reviews I am sold on getting the Recon 10ft 4wt. I’m on the fence trying to decide about the Sage Trout or the somewhat newer fulll framed Sage ENS reel which weighs in at 4.9oz but comes with three additional weights, each of which can be fine tuned by mounting in 6 distinct positions on the arbor might allowing very fine tuning of the rod balance. Have you had a chance to look at or try the Sage ENS reel yet and would you think it would balance well on the 10ft 4wt Recon?

    Reply
    • Either are great choices and will balance that Recon. I actually like the ESN a bit more. It’s just an aesthetic thing.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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