2003's Top Rods & Reels

See which new fishing gear rated best in our test of 10,000 casts.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Click Here for More [XLINK 440380 "Drag Test Results"]

Okay, all you fishing gearheads, it's time again for outdoor life's annual tackle wring-out-the big one aimed at giving you the inside scoop on 2003's hottest new rod and reel introductions.

Once again we stuck with all-new or truly reengineered equipment (in one case a reintroduced series that had been out of production for years) but chose models that will have the broadest application for freshwater and nearshore saltwater fishing. You'll also find a few specialty products to intrigue you, products that fill a very focused niche and hopefully one you've been dreaming someone would fill for a long time.

HOW WE TEST TACKLE
The products on which we report go through hundreds of casts, actual fishing use and some hard eyeballing. For rods we weigh important factors like perceived in-hand weight and general ergonomics, including handle fit and length and balance when fitted with a reel (tip heavy is not good).

We evaluate near and far casting accuracy with an eye toward the fishing technique for which the rod was designed. Workmanship such as guide wraps, finish coat, reel-seat fit and quality are graded, as is cork quality. Not only is cork with lots of pits and scoring less attractive, but it compromises the integrity of the entire grip, decreasing its longevity. We consider guide type and quality, too.

Reels are analyzed for overall operating smoothness of all functions, even line spooling, and of course cast performance. For bait-casters we look at ease of cast control accessibility and adjustment and whether the system actually does what it's supposed to. Workmanship is graded for tight tolerances and in-hand fit, plus we score materials used in construction. Our initial look at drags considers a wide range of adjustment in small increments-not a drag that goes from near zero to total lockup at a fractional turn of the control. There's lots of improvement needed here.

We were overwhelmed with the number of new rods and reels this year, and because of it only the highest-scoring product from each brand within each rod and reel category appears here (You'll find the full test on our Web site, www.outdoorlife.com). The products themselves helped winnow the selection; we've included only those items that scored "good," "very good" or "excellent." All others were dropped. When scoring the above-mentioned criteria we used a scale of 1-100. A score of 60-69 was deemed "fair," 70-79 was "good," 80-89 was "very good" and 90-100 was "excellent."

All-New Drag Test
This year brings a new dimension to our reel testing with the introduction of "Dragenstein," a high-tech, multitasking beast of a test machine designed by robotics systems expert Skip Halterman (see Fishing, December/January). Besides revealing the naked truth about drag performance, Dragenstein uncovered a slew of engineering oddities-clues that if followed will help reel makers build even better products.

Forget gypsy fortune-teller predictions and promotional hype; the tests will give you a clear picture of how long a reel will last and how you should fish it. You'll find the results for each reel tested on our Web site. Fishermen and also reel makers need to take a hard look at this material. Just as a teaser, for bass reels the tests determined whether a drag would really haul a fish from cover, how heat affected long-term performance and what heat did to drag. For light fishing, we found which drags operated easily within 15 to 25 percent of line-break strength. There's much more.

Readers who would like a favorite reel tested can have it done for a small charge by contacting Skip Halterman at 800-752-7132. A full drag report for each reel that we tested is also available from Halterman.

Finally, manufacturers tell you what their target is for a specific productA rod or reel that is off the mark for intended use is scored accordingly. And for all products we consider the price-value quotient. Are you getting the best for your buck or not?

Our test site this year was the Lucky Star Ranch in Chaumont, N.Y. (315-649-5519; www.luckystarranch.com), where owner Josef Kerckerinck zur Borg-a titled baron, no less-and his attentive staff fed us all too well. It was sometimes difficult to focus on testing as heavy-racked whitetails and exotic deer emerged from the woods and sauntered to the lake. While casting hookless rubber practice plugs, bass and pike repeatedly struck; in the end we put on real baits to catch them-in the interest of testing, of course.

Gear Test Control Tackle
For consistency, all of our test spinning rods were fitted with Quantum Kinetic KT30PTi reels, while Quantum Accurist AC500CX's were the control reels for tested bait-cast rods. That way reels would not influence the tests. Likewise, to make sure rods were not affecting test reels, all reels were fitted to Shimano Clarus CSC-60M-2 casting, or Clarus CSS-60M-2 spinning, rods. These are 2-piece, 6-foot, medium-action rods with fast tapers-good representatives of an "average" rod.

Each reel was spooled with the same line-12-pound-test Original Stren for the casting reels and 8-pound-test Stren Magna Thin for spinning reels.

There still remains some subjectivity when choosing tackle, depending on your experience and the fishing you do. As you'll see, our test team brought a variety of backgrounds and likes to the table, but in the end you'll need to use this guide as a starting point when you try out the new gear for yourself before you buy.

SPINNING REELS
Spinning reels are getting better in both their internal and external construction and what you get for your buck. You'll also pay less, in general, for a spinning reel than you would for a bait-cast reel, which is understandable, considering the latter's greater complexity. Though it has become somewhat of a cliché and smacks of advertising hype, what we found in this year's models is a definite increase in smooth operation. That means it's both easier and quieter to crank the reel-with or without a fish on-and to close a bail, and the oscillating spools do their in/out thing evenly and without gritty sounds-unless you've dropped the whole shebang in the kitty-litter box, and even that won't hurt at least one debris-shielded model. (We tried.) The reason for this operational slickness has to do with more bearings stuck about everywhere you can imagine and, equally important, precision-cut and precisely aligned gears that should stay that way.

To keep those gear trains in line, more spinning mills feature metal bodies these days. Less expensive composite bodies are fine, however, if you don't expect to be wrenching brutish fish from heavy cover or cranking deep-digging baits that, say, a muskie or large salmon might snarf.

High-Tech Coatings
Just about every good spinning reel now flashes (literally) titanium-nitride (or some variation thereof) coating on parts like spool lips and line rollers, which is a good thing to protect line and also the reel parts from grooving over time. Speaking of part protection, while some makers employ titanium or other flex materials on bails subject to deformation in transit or from being stepped on by your fishing buddy, Daiwa has taken a different approach with its Capricorn CA2500 model. This baby features what's called an Air Bail, a hollow tubular stainless-steel bail that looks as though it's quite resistant to damage.

Aluminum spools are still the best way to go if you'll be doing any kind of hard fishing, and you'll find them now even on less expensive models like Shakespeare's Intrepid 4335, which incidentally was a very long-casting unit. Manufacturers have been toying with tapers on those spools to produce more even line lays and to avoid line ganging up at one end of the spool or other. Pflueger's Solara 5740 with its double-tapered spool is a case in point. But aside from spool design, oscillation has a lot to do with precision line wrap, slower being better as it avoids gaps that allow line to dig in underneath previous wraps.

On larger models designed for light-tackle saltwater fishing, you'll find the anti-reverse switch has disappeared. The Penn Slammer 360 and Shimano's Stella 5000FA are cases in point. This switch always provided a point for saltwater entry and thus encouraged dreaded corrosion. In case you hadn't noticed, in recent years the use of one-way (roller) bearings, which enhance hook- setting by eliminating that small moment of rotor/handle back play, has also had a disadvantage. The one-way bearings make closing the bail by simply cranking the handle more difficult, if not impossible, with the line roller in certain positions. To compensate, most of us simply reach over and close the bail manually.

Two new or reengineered models promise to be great for finesse presentations both for walleyes and bass. Our Great Buy, the Tica SA 2500, falls in that category, though it's drag could be smoother, and the Mitchell 308X Gold was all around a real smoothie.

BAIT-CASTING REELS
Bait-casters have historically been the heavy truckers of the fishing world. Despite their levelwind-mechanism weak point and more complex operating systems, the basis of their design-a winching drum-is inherently a stronger engine design than that of spinning reels, on which line is wound around a fixed spool via a winglike bail. No argument that spin reels excel in handling the lightest lines and lures, but bait-casters are fast moving into that territory.

Levelwinds Lighten Up
The ability of bait-casters to handle ever lighter assignments comes from several factors-like better and more ball bearings, lighter spool material and better drivetrain support and design. In top models like Daiwa's TD-X103HSDF or Shimano's Calcutta CTE-50GT, spool shafts that float on ball bearings with the pinion gear disengaged and also supported so as not to touch the shaft during casts, greatly reduce friction. Tighter tolerances between parts and better spool-flange design also permit use of lighter lines on these reels.

There's a trend toward centrifugal-cast brakes that can be adjusted via an external dial. Quantum led the way here and has had time to tune the concept on the new E650PT model. You'll also find it on the great Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Mörrum IVCB. The other trend in centrifugal braking is back to the mechanical: multiple- usually six-brake "shoes" that slide on pins during the cast. More manufacturers are improving access for adjusting these systems via swing-away side-pln those spools to produce more even line lays and to avoid line ganging up at one end of the spool or other. Pflueger's Solara 5740 with its double-tapered spool is a case in point. But aside from spool design, oscillation has a lot to do with precision line wrap, slower being better as it avoids gaps that allow line to dig in underneath previous wraps.

On larger models designed for light-tackle saltwater fishing, you'll find the anti-reverse switch has disappeared. The Penn Slammer 360 and Shimano's Stella 5000FA are cases in point. This switch always provided a point for saltwater entry and thus encouraged dreaded corrosion. In case you hadn't noticed, in recent years the use of one-way (roller) bearings, which enhance hook- setting by eliminating that small moment of rotor/handle back play, has also had a disadvantage. The one-way bearings make closing the bail by simply cranking the handle more difficult, if not impossible, with the line roller in certain positions. To compensate, most of us simply reach over and close the bail manually.

Two new or reengineered models promise to be great for finesse presentations both for walleyes and bass. Our Great Buy, the Tica SA 2500, falls in that category, though it's drag could be smoother, and the Mitchell 308X Gold was all around a real smoothie.

BAIT-CASTING REELS
Bait-casters have historically been the heavy truckers of the fishing world. Despite their levelwind-mechanism weak point and more complex operating systems, the basis of their design-a winching drum-is inherently a stronger engine design than that of spinning reels, on which line is wound around a fixed spool via a winglike bail. No argument that spin reels excel in handling the lightest lines and lures, but bait-casters are fast moving into that territory.

Levelwinds Lighten Up
The ability of bait-casters to handle ever lighter assignments comes from several factors-like better and more ball bearings, lighter spool material and better drivetrain support and design. In top models like Daiwa's TD-X103HSDF or Shimano's Calcutta CTE-50GT, spool shafts that float on ball bearings with the pinion gear disengaged and also supported so as not to touch the shaft during casts, greatly reduce friction. Tighter tolerances between parts and better spool-flange design also permit use of lighter lines on these reels.

There's a trend toward centrifugal-cast brakes that can be adjusted via an external dial. Quantum led the way here and has had time to tune the concept on the new E650PT model. You'll also find it on the great Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Mörrum IVCB. The other trend in centrifugal braking is back to the mechanical: multiple- usually six-brake "shoes" that slide on pins during the cast. More manufacturers are improving access for adjusting these systems via swing-away side-pl