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.
A good all around fly reel has these things . . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
T R O U T B I T T E N