The common refrain among freshwater fly anglers is that your reel doesn’t matter, but when it comes to saltwater fly reels, that statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. Saltwater alone will test your gear to its limits, never mind the size and power of the fish that call it home. When your reel is covered in sand, soaked in corrosive salt, and the drag screams as backing strips from your reel, you’ll be glad you picked the right gear for the task.
To help you find a reel that will handle the salt, I tested some of the best saltwater fly reels and interviewed guides who use them every day. After that testing, here are my top picks:
Why It Made the Cut
Packed with all the quality elements of the Nautilus X-Series but on the beefier, tougher NV-style frame, the NV-G is a reel specifically designed to tackle big, fast fish in any environment. The Giga spool design allows for faster line pickup and drying, making this reel ideal for wet-wading flats and chasing the most demanding inshore species.
Key Features (NV-G 9/10 size)
- Weight: 8.3 ounces
- Backing capacity: 225 yards of 30 pound
- Diameter: 4.5 inches
- MSRP: $865
- Light, open-frame design
- Fast line pickup
- Fast drying
Made of anodized machined aluminum with a fully sealed drag, the NV-G has the same quality components as many other high-end saltwater reels. The overall design is made for targeting big inshore gamefish on the flats. Like the X series, the NV-G eliminates weight while adding strength. The Giga spool technology is a difference maker, allowing the reel to pick up line exceptionally fast (15 inches per turn on the NV-G 10).
Fast line pickup is critical when fighting lightning-quick species like permit that can change direction on a dime. The CNC machined spool design also keeps the backing and line away from the arbor, allowing it to dry significantly quicker. This is a great feature to have on a reel geared towards wet wading, as it helps eliminate corrosion over time. Overall, the Nautilus NV-G is the perfect reel for a serious flats angler looking to chase big fish day in and day out.
Why It Made the Cut
The Mirage LT is 30 percent lighter than the original Mirage while keeping the same corrosion-resistant build and smooth sealed drag. It also comes at a significantly lower price than the original, making it the perfect option for a casual inshore angler heading out for a day of mixed-bag fishing.
Key Features (size 7/9)
- Weight: 5 ounces
- Backing Capacity: 200 yds
- Diameter: 4 inches
- MSRP: $479
- Carbon and stainless steel disc drag
- Adjusts from zero to full drag in a single drag knob rotation
- Made in the USA
- Sealed carbon and stainless steel drag
- Moderate price for quality
- Not meant for larger saltwater fish
Made of aluminum with a carbon and stainless-steel sealed drag system, the Mirage LT provides all the important elements for saltwater fly fishing at a reasonable price point. I think it’s ideal for an 8-weight rod you’ll use in fresh and saltwater reel because of its weight and design.
Requiring zero start-up inertia, the Mirage LT is incredibly smooth and provides a great light tackle fight while also being capable of playing larger fish should you hook into something unexpected. I used this reel for light-duty inshore fishing for speckled trout, redfish, and striped bass, and found it light enough to cast all day while still being durable enough to handle the rigors of salt. It doesn’t hurt that it comes in an appealing variety of colors and has a beautifully unique asymmetrical design, differentiating it from similar reels in the category. -K.H.
Few fish put you into your backing faster than a false albacore and they’ll destroy lesser drag systems. I put the Mirage LT through the albie gauntlet and it had no issues slowing down the hard-charging fish. During the fight the fighting butt was comfortable, but I found the reel handle too small and its polished surface was hard to grip. -Scott Einsmann
Why It Made the Cut
A good, sealed drag system and corrosion-resistant construction are great features to have in a saltwater fly reel. The TFO BVK SD provides both at a significantly lower price point than similar reels in the class.
Key Features (8wt)
- Weight: 5.2 ounces
- Backing capacity: 205 yds
- Diameter: 4.1 inches
- MSRP: $240
- Fully-sealed drag
- Delrin and stainless-steel drag
- Easily swamps from left to right-hand retrieve
- Low-maintenance, sealed drag
- Not as smooth as higher-end reels
TFO is known for providing anglers with quality gear at lower-than-average prices. The BVK SD is their attempt at doing this for the saltwater angling crowd, and it succeeds admirably. Made of anodized aluminum with a fully sealed Delrin and stainless-steel drag system, this reel provides the key features needed by saltwater anglers while avoiding the typical high price.
While it’s a little heavier than competing saltwater reels, I didn’t find it overly bulky and it fits well with many heavier rods needed for saltwater fishing. This reel also provides a higher-than-average line capacity. I don’t recommend it if you’re planning on casting all day, every day, but If you’re looking for a quality reel for casual use that is capable of handling anything the salt can throw at you, the BVK SD is the perfect option.
Why It Made the Cut
Inshore flats fishing is a very specific game, one that requires very specific reel features. Based out of Miami, Nautilus reels were born to play the flats fishing game, and their X series is the best and most affordable reel suited for the task. Incredibly light and durable with a silky smooth, tightly sealed drag, the X is made for stalking speedy fish on the flats.
Key Features (XL Max 8/9 size)
- Weight: 4.7 ounces
- Backing capacity: 150 yards of 20-pound Dacron
- Diameter: 4 inches
- MSRP: $435
- Sealed Teflon and carbon fiber disc drag
- Light open-frame design
- Incredibly smooth
- Well sealed
- The open frame can allow grit to enter the reel
Available in brushed titanium or black anodizing and a cornucopia of custom color options, the Nautilus X series are machined for heavy-duty saltwater use. I found the sealed Teflon and carbon fiber SCF-X disc drag system second to none, providing smooth and reliable drag during the blistering runs and salt-drenched sessions that flats fishing is known for. The drag handle is also substantial, allowing for quick and easy adjustments that are valuable during fights with fish like permit and bonefish. The lightweight, open-frame design is straightforward in appearance but is surprisingly technically complex.
The design removes unnecessary weight and eliminates components that might hold saltwater and corrode faster while providing the rigidity required to withstand severe abuse. The reels also incorporate the Giga arbor design, which features a ridge system that allows airflow through the line and helps dry backing faster. All these elements illustrate how tailor-made the Nautilus X series is for flats fishing, which is often a saltwater-soaked wading endeavor. The only downside I found is the open frame can allow a small amount of grit into the reel frame. But, the easy-to-remove spool and simple, sealed design create a quick and painless cleaning process. Overall, the Nautilus X series is a bulletproof flats fishing machine perfect for serious anglers chasing bonefish, tarpon, and permit.
Why It Made the Cut
Let’s face it, fly fishing, particularly saltwater, can be expensive, and it’s hard not to feel sticker shock when looking at the cost of most big-game reels on the market. The Redington Grande is by far the most capable and reasonably priced of the best saltwater fly reels that will hold up to serious abuse.
Key Features (9/10/11 size)
- Weight: 11 ounces
- Backing capacity: 275 yards of 30 pound
- MSRP: $379
- Sealed carbon fiber drag
- Easily converts between left-hand and right-hand retrieve
- Good value
- Fully sealed
- Good line capacity
Made of CNC machined and anodized T-6061 aluminum and fully sealed, the Grande has every characteristic of a high-end saltwater reel at a fraction of the price. This reel provides enough backbone to handle just about any fish you’ll run into because of its carbon fiber drag system and oversized palming rim.
The Grande also has a few features that separate it from the pack, even from some higher-priced competitors, most notably the larger arbor V-Spool design. The Grande has a canal that allows this reel to hold an exceptional amount of backing. While that may not be so important when chasing smaller species, being able to cleanly stack as much backing as possible can be critical when chasing giant, speedy fish like GT, tarpon, and tuna.
As expected with the price point, there are a few downsides to Grande when compared to high-end reels in its class. The reel’s weight is the biggest drawback, as this reel is significantly heavier than most other reels in the category. This is undoubtedly a disadvantage if you plan on casting all day long. That said, if you balance the reel properly with one of the best saltwater fly rods, the weight isn’t as much of a negative as it could be, especially if you’re sight fishing and only casting intermittently.
Overall, the Redington Grande is an excellent option if you’re looking for a quality reel at an affordable price capable of handling anything that swims.
Why It Made the Cut
Let’s get it out of the way; this reel is incredibly expensive. That being said, expense goes out the window when your only quarry is the biggest and most powerful gamefish on the planet. The Model 9700B is a top-of-the-line, high-tech, high-function reel designed to tackle marlin and other blue water species.
- Weight: 16.5 ounces
- Diameter: 5.5 inches
- MSRP: $2,400
- Fully sealed with o-rings, proprietary carbon/Teflon lip seals
- Full-contact carbon-fiber drag system that uses “button technology” eliminating start-up friction
- Large drag knob
- High quality
- One turn drag knob
- Exceptional seal
Mako has a well-deserved reputation for quality. While the 9700B has all the usual features required for reels in this category, like a quality seal and anodized aluminum construction, the attention to detail and function separates it from the crowd. Fully sealed with o-rings and a unique carbon/Teflon lip system, this reel is as airtight as possible. Combined with a carbon fiber drag system and a unique button technology that eliminates start-up friction, the 9700B is designed to be as smooth and fluid as possible. The oversized drag knob itself is a feat of engineering, allowing the angler to adjust from minimum to maximum drag in a single turn.
Perhaps the biggest difference in quality that sets the 9700B apart is the anodizing process that Mako uses to strengthen and protect the reel. Called “Type III” anodizing, this process is responsible for much of the reel’s hefty price tag. This superior form of anodizing is what lends the reel its exceptional durability and rigidity, allowing it to stand up to both the rigors of extreme blue water fishing, as well as time. If you’re chasing the fish of a lifetime on the fly, this reel is your best bet for achieving the task.
How to Choose a Saltwater Fly Reel
As with any gear, the right choice is usually decided by how often and where you’ll use it. Here are a few key points to consider when you’re making a choice.
Salt is relentless in its ability to corrode, and the more often your reel is exposed to saltwater, the more durable it will need to be. If you’re only making a few trips a year, you can probably get away with something lighter-duty. If you spend almost every day on the salt, you’ll want something built for the task. Corrosion-resistant materials and a sealed drag are at the top of the list of important features to consider and are a must for any reel to truly be considered made for the salt.
Location and Fish Species
Other important factors are where you’ll be fishing and what you’ll be targeting. The world of saltwater fishing is vast and varied, and the type of gear required for each situation is equally prolific. If you’re focusing on smaller inshore fish like speckled trout or schoolie striper, your reel won’t have the same requirements as one made for targeting hundred-plus pound tarpon. That said, it’s important to consider the most intense fishing your reel could conceivably encounter, regardless of your target species. If you’re fishing for speckled trout and a bull redfish cruises by, you’ll probably want a reel that could be used for both.
Q: What kind of line should I use for saltwater fly fishing?
The type of line you use is all about where you’ll be fishing. If you’re flats fishing, most people prefer a floating line. An intermediate line can be a good middle ground for a wide variety of situations. Sinking line is rarely used but can be good for very specific situations, like dredging over structure. For the most part, saltwater fly fishing is a game of speed and accuracy, so you’ll want something quick casting that allows you to accurately present a fly to a moving fish in a short window. Also remember, it’s very important to wash and treat your line if using it in a saltwater environment on a regular basis. This can help avoid cracking and wearing, making it last much longer.
Q: How should I clean and maintain my reels?
Unlike the best fly reels for trout, even the best saltwater fly reels need maintenance. It’s important to remember to gently wash your reels with fresh water after each use in saltwater. Most reels on this list have a very high-quality seal, so you likely won’t want to open and oil and grease them often. However, if you start to notice any sort of performance degradation, opening the reel and cleaning it with proper reel oils and cotton swabs can help keep it smooth.
Q: What are the most important elements of a saltwater fly reel?
While many features can make some reels better than others, all saltwater fly reels need to have a fully sealed drag and be made of non-corrosive material like aluminum. Generally speaking, as long as a reel has these two elements, it can be safely used in saltwater.
Saltwater fly fishing is the ultimate fly-angling experience, with a host of species and ways to chase them. It’s also the toughest on gear. Having a reel that’s suited for the task is critical, and all of the best saltwater fly reels on this list are designed to face the challenge. While you can’t go wrong with any of them, if I were to pick one reel to chase anything that swims in salt, the Nautilus NV-G would be the choice. It’s the perfect balance of durability, smoothness, and design.