Fisherman Casting a Fly Fishing Line

Top 7 Best Fly Fishing Reels (Comprehensive Buyer’s Guide)

Fly fishing reels come in many sizes and designs for different scenarios…

Which style you choose is completely dependent on what kind of fishing you’re planning on doing, but there is a running theme when it comes to getting the best ones.

After considering all the options our top picks were…

You’re going to want a strong, durable, well-made reel that’s corrosion-resistant and has the drag power you need.

But how do you know this from a simple list of features on a website?

It’s hard and that’s why we’ve made this review of the best fly fishing reels – to make your choice a little easier and more informed.

Our Top Three Picks

These are our favorite reels from the review, each one with its own unique benefits.

All-Rounder

Orvis Hydros Sl Fly Reel

This reel from Orvis raises the bar a bit. They decided to add a super large arbor, making your pickup speed phenomenal at 8 inches per second, and even higher on big models.

Orvis Hydros Sl Fly Reel

The best all-rounder is about being able to handle any fishing situation while being good value for money.

The reel for this is the Orvis Hydros SL.

It’s had a lot of thought put into its design, from its super-large arbor, brilliant drag and excellent line capacity to its quality materials — there isn’t a situation it won’t handle. 

Best on a Budget

TFO NXT Large Arbor Fly Fishing Reel

TFO makes great products and this one has hit the mark too. To start with, the reel is amazing value for what it is, it should really cost twice the amount for the quality you’re getting.

TFO NXT Large Arbor Fly Fishing Reel

The best on a budget category is about price vs quality.

We’re looking for a reel that does the basics well with a low price tag.

The TFO NXT is amazing value for money, it should cost way more!

It’s a high-class reel that is perfect for freshwater and can even handle the salt. 

Editor’s Choice

Hardy Ultralite CADD Fly Fishing Reel

This reel is a survivor thanks to how it’s made. The reel in constructed from anodized machined bar-stock aluminum that makes it virtually bomb proof.

Hardy Ultralite CADD Fly Fishing Reel

The ‘Editors Choice’ is exactly what you think…

Simply my favorite reel based on my experience where budget isn’t a consideration.

The Hardy Ultralite CADD will last a lifetime and catch anything you put in front of it.

Every aspect is made with such high quality and thoughtfulness, it’ll be hard to find a better reel on the market. 

Our Top Choices of Best Fly Fishing Reels

Here are all the top reels we reviewed.

We’ve lined out our top picks for fly fishing reels and pitted them against each other.

Each one’s a winner in its own right and they all have their different strengths…

Best on a Budget

TFO NXT Large Arbor Fly Fishing Reel

TFO makes great products and this one has hit the mark too. To start with, the reel is amazing value for what it is, it should really cost twice the amount for the quality you’re getting.

TFO NXT Large Arbor Fly Fishing Reel

TFO makes great products and this one has hit the mark too.

To start with, the reel is amazing value for what it is, it should really cost twice the amount for the quality you’re getting.

…the reel is amazing value for what it is, it should really cost twice the amount for the quality you’re getting

It’s made from die-cast aluminum which as we said before, means it’s prone to dents and scrapes…

But you’re not going to find a CNC machined aluminum reel in this price range.

Drag System

The reel has a sealed multi-disc drag system.

The drag is super smooth and engages immediately when pulled — there’s no slip or delay.

The drag is sealed meaning you could take the reel into saltwater but it only comes in two sizes, the maximum being a 6/8wt.

You’ll have to limit yourself to targeting smaller species like Bonefish. 

Ergonomics

The reel is light, feels nice in the hand and the drag knob is easy and smooth to adjust…

The reel is light, feels nice in the hand and the drag knob is easy and smooth to adjust.

It comes as a large arbor for a good pick up rate and with sufficient line capacity.

The spool is meant to be designed to be quick-release but it’s actually really hard to get them out and you’ll have to apply a lot of pressure.

Not ideal if you’re fishing a lake and need to switch between floating and sinking lines often. 

The retrieve is smooth but there is some resistance as the spool isn’t free.

This may bother some people, but I don’t mind it.

TIP

The reel can be fished with left or right-hand wind and it’s easy to switch from one to the other.

Specs

Pros

  • A smooth and sealed multi-disc drag.
  • Good for salt and freshwater.
  • Great value.
  • Light and easy to cast with.

Cons

  • The spool is hard to remove.
  • Small resistance on the retrieve.
  • Only available in two sizes

Best All-Rounder

Orvis Hydros Sl Fly Reel

This reel from Orvis raises the bar a bit. They decided to add a super large arbor, making your pickup speed phenomenal at 8 inches per second, and even higher on big models.

Orvis Hydros Sl Fly Reel

They decided to add a super large arbor, making your pickup speed phenomenal…

This reel from Orvis raises the bar a bit.

They decided to add a super large arbor, making your pickup speed phenomenal at 8 inches per second, and even higher on big models.

Spool

The spool is also cut with a V for added line capacity, and the line capacity is huge. This isn’t so important if you’re trout fishing but if you hook a big salmon or a 12lb bonefish, having all that backing is going to help you relax. 

Versatility

Oh yeah, this reel has been made for every situation and it comes in sizes for it too, from 1-11wt.

The drag is a sealed multi-disc system that is super smooth on engagement and has the lasting power to handle most saltwater species.

The body is made from CNC machined aluminum, so it’s tough and durable. 

This reel is priced with incredible value, there are reels out there that costs twice as much and won’t give you what this does. 

It’s hard to find a negative about this reel, the only thing is the resistance on the retrieve due to the spool not being free.

This will stop you from tapping the spool to clear any unwanted line during a fight, which is one of the fastest ways to do it.

Fortunately, the super large arbor does help, but if you have a permit rushing at you you’ll want that line cleared. 

Specs

Pros

  • Super smooth drag on startup and beyond.
  • This reel can be used in every situation.
  • High quality.
  • Big line capacity.

Cons

  • Resistance on the retrieve.

Redington Crosswater Fly Reel

This reel is the perfect choice if you’re just getting started with freshwater fly fishing. It’s priced as an entry-level reel but has the technology of something a little better.

Redington Crosswater Fly Reel

the perfect choice if you’re just getting started with freshwater fly fishing…

This reel is the perfect choice if you’re just getting started with freshwater fly fishing.

It’s priced as an entry-level reel but has the technology of something a little better.

Durability

The reel itself is made up of a light composite material, basically plastic.

This keeps the price down and it won’t corrode, but it does make it a little delicate.

It won’t break from regular fishing, but it’ll break if you’re rough with it.

The handle can snap off and the reel falls apart in cases when people are being mean to it.

The reel comes in a range of sizes and will handle anything from trout to bass and small panfish…

The reel comes in a range of sizes and will handle anything from trout to bass and small panfish.

The largest model will handle the smallest of saltwater species but it wasn’t designed for that…

The drag is sealed and uses a multi-disc system. It’s smooth, strong and will handle the freshwater species you’re after — maybe even the odd bonefish. 

Less is More

The best thing about this reel is that it’s super simple and is perfect for any level of fly fisherman.

The only technical things are the handle and drag system, that’s it.

The spool is a large arbor for a good pick up and it has a decent line capacity.

There’s quite a gap between the spool the frame which the line often gets caught in.

This does get very frustrating and there’s no way of fixing it. 

Specs

Pros

  • Great value.
  • Simple, excellent reel for beginners.
  • Sealed smooth drag.

Cons

  • Made from plastic.
  • The handle can snap off.
  • A large gap between the spool and frame.
  • Not very durable.

Orvis Clearwater Large Arbor II Reel

This is an entry-level reel in terms of price from Orvis, however that isn’t the case when it comes to the quality.

Orvis Clearwater Large Arbor II Reel

constructed from die-cast aluminum which is great for corrosion-resistance…

This is an entry-level reel in terms of price from Orvis, however that isn’t the case when it comes to the quality.

It’s constructed from die-cast aluminum which is great for corrosion-resistance, just not for durability.

Unfortunately, it’ll dent and scratch easily, but if it was made from machined aluminum it would be a lot more expensive. 

Drag System

The drag system is robust and consists of a multi-disc Rulon and stainless steel system.

The drag isn’t sealed and you’ll have to maintain it if you plan on fishing in saltwater.

It comes in 4-9wt sizes, meaning you can fish for smaller inshore species, but not the big guys.

The drag is nice and smooth when it engages which is one of the most important things.

It’s unlikely you’ll use the drag for trout, but if you’re fighting a steelhead or bonefish on a light leader, that initial engagement is key to stop your tippet from snapping. 

This is a great freshwater reel with a good price tag that will last a long time with care… 

The spool is tough, but you can feel a little wobble around the handle if you’re paying attention.

It’s nothing to worry about, but it may get on the nerves of a sensitive fisherman.

You can pick up line real quickly with this reel, it’s light for easy casting and switching from left to right-hand wind is simple. 

Specs

Pros

  • Smooth powerful drag.
  • Corrosion-resistant and durable.
  • Handy drag knob.
  • Great value.

Cons

  • Not the best for saltwater.
  • It comes in limited sizes.
  • Will dent with die-cast aluminum.
  • The drag isn’t sealed.

Sage Spectrum C Fly Reel

This is a reel that you can use for anything from trout to steelhead fishing, but it’s not quite up to saltwater standards. It’s made from die-cast aluminum with a powder-coating for increased durability and corrosion resistance.

Sage Spectrum C Fly Reel

Sage Spectrum C Fly Reel

This is a reel that you can use for anything from trout to steelhead fishing, but it’s not quite up to saltwater standards.

It’s made from die-cast aluminum with a powder-coating for increased durability and corrosion resistance.

Sage has taken die-cast and made it a little better.

This reel will stand up better to scrapes and dents than other die-cast reels.

It’s not just made from die-cast though, the handle and drag knob are made from machined aluminum for some added robustness.

If you’re looking for a Sage reel that won’t break the bank this is a great choice — just don’t try and catch a big saltwater fish with it… 

Your line will come in quickly thanks to the large arbor and there is no resistance on the spool, so slapping it to get your loose line in quickly is very effective.

The spool is easy to pop out, you simply push with even pressure from the drag side and it slides out. It’s also very simple to change from left to right-hand retrieve. 

Reel Drag

The drag is a fully sealed carbon disc system.

It starts up very smoothly without any stopping points.

The drag knob is comfortable and the adjustments are small so you can set the perfect drag for your situation.

go from zero drag to full in just over one revolution…

You can also go from zero drag to full in just over one revolution, which is key if you’re using heavy tackle and need to stop a fish from snagging you.

The drag, however, has very little stopping power and it won’t cut it for a lot of saltwater species.

NOTE

Tests show it to have 2.2lbs of pressure on the maximum setting, which might just be enough to handle a bonefish, but not much more. 

Specs

Pros

  • Smooth, strong sealed drag.
  • Good for fresh and small saltwater species.
  • Improved die-cast aluminum.
  • Durable and corrosion-resistant.

Cons

  • The drag isn’t very powerful.
  • Die-cast aluminum, although improved does reduce the durability.

Okuma SLV Fly Reel

This reel comes in a wide range of sizes from 2-11wt and is designed to be used in all environments. It comes at an awesome price, but you’re going to lose some features and’ll have to look after it a lot to keep it alive.

Okuma SLV Fly Reel

designed to be used in all environments…

This reel comes in a wide range of sizes from 2-11wt and is designed to be used in all environments.

It comes at an awesome price, but you’re going to lose some features and’ll have to look after it a lot to keep it alive. 

Durability

The reel is made up of die-cast aluminum to keep the price down, but this does reduce its durability as die-cast aluminum is a bit soft.

Just look after it and you’ll be ok.

Reel Drag

The drag is made of a cork and stainless steel disc system — quality materials usually found in higher priced reels.

It’s smooth and strong, but it’s hard to find the right drag setting as the increments go up very quickly.

I wouldn’t adjust your drag while fighting a fish as it’s quite easy to go too far and end up breaking it off.

Once you do find the right drag setting, it works like a charm.

TIP

The drag is also not sealed and if you plan on buying an 11wt for saltwater you’ll have to do regular maintenance on it. 

The reel is light and lovely to cast with, but it can be a little fragile for some.

If you drop it, it’ll dent and you could end up losing a days fishing because of it. 

Spool

The spool is a large arbor for a quick pick up and it’s super easy to change spools or switch from left to right-hand retrieve.

There’s also a large gap between the spool and frame and your line can easily get trapped in there.

This gets really annoying when you’re fishing as you’ll have to pop the spool out to fix it. 

Overall it’s a solid reel for the price and once you get used to it’s quirks it can be a great buy. 

Specs

Pros

  • Drag is smooth and powerful
  • Great value
  • Lightweight
  • Corrosion-resistant

Cons

  • Drag isn’t sealed
  • Hard to find the right drag setting
  • A large gap between the spool and frame.
  • Can be a little fragile

Editor’s Choice

Hardy Ultralite CADD Fly Fishing Reel

This reel is a survivor thanks to how it’s made. The reel in constructed from anodized machined bar-stock aluminum that makes it virtually bomb proof.

Hardy Ultralite CADD Fly Fishing Reel

constructed from anodized machined bar-stock aluminum that makes it virtually bomb proof…

This reel is a survivor thanks to how it’s made…

The reel in constructed from anodized machined bar-stock aluminum that makes it virtually bomb proof.

If there was a reel in the world I’d have to choose to bounce across a concrete floor and be ok, it would be this one!

That being said, for all its durability and corrosion-resistance, it’s real heavy.

You’ll feel the weight while you’re casting, but you get used to it over time. 

Reel Options

The reel comes in a range of sizes from a 2wt-12wt and it’s perfect for any situation.

The carbon composite multi-disc drag system engages flawlessly and it has the power to handle any fish. I’d happily hook a marlin with the largest model.

drag knob is easy to use, with well placed increments that are easy to see…

The drag knob is easy to use, with well placed increments that are easy to see.

You can also go from zero to max drag in one turn, perfect for saltwater fishing where you’ll need that quick stopping power. 

Spool

The spool is an extra-large arbor for an amazing pick up speed and is easily swapped in and out.

Hardy have included a captive spool release system that stops any critical parts from popping out. It’s also very easy to switch retrieve sides, just a simple turn of a knob and you’re done. 

If you want a reel that can do anything and will last forever, this is the one! 

Specs

Pros

  • Very durable
  • Corrosion-resistant
  • Hugely impressive drag
  • Easy to use
  • Zero to max drag in less than one turn

Cons

  • Very heavy
  • It’s expensive

What to Look for in a Fly Fishing Reel?

Here’s a guide to the key factors you need to consider when you’re looking for a fly reel…

Weight

Whenever you’re buying rods and reels, you need to make sure they match up and the same goes in fly fishing.

I’m sure you’re already aware of this, but for any beginners out there, make sure you buy the right weight reel for your rod. 

TIP

In fly fishing the rods and reels use the same weight system so it’s really easy. If you have a 7wt rod, then you’ll need a 7wt reel. 

The weight of your rod and reel are linked to what you’re trying to catch…

The higher the weight, the more powerful the rod and reel will be and therefore the bigger the fish they can handle.

Here’s a simple guide for weights to species.

  • River trout fishing – 3/4wt
  • Lake Trout Fishing – 5/6wt 
  • Large trout/salmon/bass – 7wt
  • Bonefish – 8wt
  • Permit and medium tarpon – 10wt 
  • Large Tarpon and offshore species – 12wt 
Fly Fishing Reel
Fly Fishing Reel

Arbor Size & Line Capacity

Arbor is fly fishing speak for your spool.

Fly reels can come in a range of small to large arbors and the best choice is usually large.

The larger the arbor, the larger the diameter of your spool, the faster you can wind your line in and the more line you can fit on there.

This means your retrieve rate and line capacity are both increased by having a large arbor, making it the obvious choice. 

TIP

It’s not always necessary to have a large arbor though.

If you’re fishing for small fish and don’t need the retrieve rate or the line capacity, a medium to small arbor reel will be fine. 

Drag

Most fly reels these days come with drag but some don’t.

Whether you need a drag or not and how powerful it needs to be, depends on what you’re fishing for.

If you’re fishing for trout in a river, you probably will never use your drag, but it’s useful to have a little pressure on the spool.

NOTE

If you plan on fishing in saltwater, without a good drag, you won’t land any fish. 

Catching Bigger Fish

If you’re targeting big fish in the salt that pull hard, be sure your reel has the drag to handle them and the conditions that they live in.

Some drags come sealed and others don’t.

when fishing in saltwater, it’s better to have a drag that is sealed…

As a rule of thumb, when fishing in saltwater, it’s better to have a drag that is sealed as this will stop dirt and salt from getting into the drag system, making your life a lot easier in terms of maintenance.

If the drag is unsealed, you’ll have to spend time looking after it. 

Durability & Frame

Almost all fly reels today are made from aluminum.

There are two ways to shape aluminum, either by die-casting or CNC machining.

Reels made from die-cast aluminum tend to be less durable and prone to dents or scrapes.

CNC machined aluminum reels are much tougher and can handle being bashed around…

CNC machined aluminum reels are much tougher and can handle being bashed around.

That being said, there are a few exceptions to the rule but generally speaking, CNC is best.

RECOMMENDATION

The last thing you want is to drop your reel by a river, dent the spool and be done for the day. You’ll want a reel that can shrug that kind of stuff off. 

Sound

Fly reels can come with a sound or without and the choice is up to you.

Personally, I don’t need a sound and prefer not to have one.

If you love the sound, then go for it but don’t buy a reel based on it, the sound it makes should be your last consideration.

Conclusion

Out of all the reels we have looked at, here are the best of the bunch…

All-Rounder

The best allrounder is the Orvis Hydros SL…

This reel is great for any situation from salt to freshwater and comes in every size to do it.

The drag is sealed, smooth and powerful. The reel is durable, corrosion-resistant and has a lightning-fast retrieve. All this for a solid price. 

Best on a Budget

The best on a budget is the TFO NXT…

This reel does more than most budget reels and will last a lifetime if you look after it.

It’s well made with a sealed smooth drag that you can even take into saltwater. You can’t beat that for the price. 

Editor’s Choice

The ‘editors choice’ is the Hardy Ultralite CADD…

This reel is in a class of its own, which isn’t unusual as Hardy reels go.

It’ll be with you for the rest of your life and snag some amazing catches you might not have managed without it.

All the reels in the review are some of the best fly fishing reels on the market today.

I hope this has helped you narrow down your choice and you find the right reel for you.

Go for quality plus a reel that will handle your chosen species and you won’t go far wrong. 

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