Choosing the Perfect Steelhead Fly Reel

I love fly reels, so much so that I have several of them on display in my living room. It took a while, but I finally convinced my wife that fly reels pass for fine art.

For some, a reel is just a line holder. But for me, when the perfect reel and rod come together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

For the upcoming steelhead season, I wanted to set aside my Mako 9500, line it up for salt (I day dream about chasing bonefish, permit, and reds once COVID allows) and pick up something new for steelhead. My Mako 9500 was paired with my 7wt Echo Compact Spey, which worked fine, but I wanted to fish with something a little more classic. Something with some mojo. Additionally, I have a 13′ Sage X 8wt with a Hardy Marquis Salmon 2. The plan was to swap the Marquis from the Sage onto the Echo and put the new reel on the X.

I like classic things, almost to a detriment. My main duck hunting shotgun is a Remington 870 (though I must confess, I sure would love a Benelli Super Black Eagle 3). I don’t own an acoustic guitar that has a cutaway or electronics (which makes it less than ideal when playing live shows). Whether it is fishing gear, guitars, or guns, I am drawn to the tried and true classic models. Admittedly, as a rule, I don’t shy away from the latest and greatest, but there is a special place in my heart, almost a passion, for gear of my grandpa’s year. In the case of my new steelhead reel, I was 90% sure it was going to be a clicker reel – technology that has been in reels since before the 1900’s, but I still entertained the thought of a reel with a drag, as long as it felt right.

Abel TR Reel
Abel TR click-pawl reel. Amazing on my Winston Pure 4wt.

The last two reels that have been added to my living room collection were a Hardy Marquis, and most recently, an Abel TR 4/5. The high of a big fish ripping line off a clicker is hard to match. True, there isn’t going to be drag beyond what the click and pawl reel provides, but it is enough. If you need more, you can always palm the reel – bringing the fight between you and the fish to a personal level.

With the general idea of what I was trying to accomplish, I settled on a handful of reels and spent way too much time researching them on the internet. While I am sure I would be happy with any of them, I agonized over choosing the perfect reel – studying marketing materials, message boards, and product reviews. If money were no object, I would hands-down purchase a Saracione Mark V, but I needed to be semi-reasonable with my wallet. That’s why I narrowed my search down to:

  1. Hardy Cascapedia
  2. Hardy Perfect
  3. Hardy Bougle
  4. Abel Super 11/12
  5. Abel Classic Spey (if I could find one used, since they aren’t currently in production)

The Abel Super 11/12 and Cascapedia both have drags, which was both an attractor and a deterrent. If I picked up something with a drag, the reel could be more versatile. I could have it as a backup reel if my salt daydream is ever realized. The Super would definitely be a fantastic reel for spending time poling around the flats or sight casting to bonefish from the beach. While the Cascapedia has the iconic satin alloy frame with serpent counterbalanced handle, the new production reels have mixed reviews on the drag, so it got crossed off my list quickly.

Abel Classic Spey
Abel Classic Spey

Deciding now on a click reel, I had to chose among the Hardy Perfect, Hardy Bougle, and the Abel Classic Spey. I REALLY love the look of the Abel Classic Spey. With the Abel quality and understated design, the Classic Spey would be a killer reel. Everyone familiar with the reel has nothing but great things to say about it – except “good luck trying to find one.” Try as I did, I never saw a used one pop up – despite the months of scouring Google and endless eBay searches. Perhaps I’ll be in the right place, at the right time, someday, and be able to bring one home.

With the Abel out of the picture, the decision was now down to either the Hardy Perfect or Bougle. Both gorgeous reels. Both with a revered history. But only one would be perfect – The Hardy Perfect. What is to be said about the Hardy Perfect that hasn’t been said before? Introduced in 1891, the Perfect brings all kinds of steelhead mojo. Fifteen ball bearings and time proven check systems for silky control. I decided on getting the 4″ version, though I spent more than a couple minutes considering the Taupo 3 7/8″ version. I felt like the 4″ would give me the greatest range of diversity.

While the Bougle is no slouch, I opted for the Perfect because I felt it would better balance my longer 13′ 8wt. The porting on the Bougle has it weighing in at 7.9oz compared to the Perfect’s 11oz. I’m sure the Bougle would have done just fine, but I wanted to feel like I was fishing with a piece of history, back to a time before people were saying “the fishing just isn’t like it used to be.”

Have you agonized over the perfect fly reel? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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