Tackle Test 2004

A panel grades this year's best new rods and reels.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

We're back, as promised, with our annual field test of the year's newest rods and reels. Tackle makers have worked a double play by incorporating new materials into their products while implementing some long-asked-for design changes. The happy result is gear that will race to the top of your gotta-have list. The huge number of new products again required that we focus on tackle that works for the most popular freshwater and inshore-saltwater assignments. Within that parameter, we included both general and technique- specific equipment. Many manufacturers have specialty items we just didn't have room to cover; if you want to know more about the 13-foot river salmon/steelhead spinning rods from Rapala and G. Loomis, for example, you'll have to dig into their catalogs.

Our Testing Program
New products that are simply cosmetically updated versions of last year's existing rods or reels are not included in this tackle test. We also eliminated gear that failed to score an overall "good" rating in our test, which was based on 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. We gave every manufacturer that sells rods or reels in the U.S. a chance to participate.

The test team included a panel of Outdoor Life editors, plus a guest tester, Brooke Hidell, a guide whose livelihood depends on the tackle he uses. From April to October Hidell targets landlocked salmon, lake trout and smallmouth and largemouth bass. He took us out morning and evening so we could give the tackle an in-the-field test. He got us into some big smallies. (Brooke Hidell; 207-415-3787; www.mainelandlocked.com)

Tested products are examined for key features before we put them through the wringer with hundreds of practice casts followed by some real-world fishing. This year we asked the manufacturers for more information on product materials and specific explanations of what species and techniques the rods or reels are intended for. In some cases we felt the product was better for lighter or heavier fishing than the manufacturer recommends, and we tell you so.

Before casting the test reels, we took a hard look at workmanship, including tolerances, ergonomics and access to brake controls.

Since one of the factors that determines cast performance is even line spooling, we indicate which reels have this feature. Also, because many bass fishermen like drags that can be ratcheted down for heavy work, we hand-tested each drag; in a few cases, we found reels that would not lock down, and we make note of them here.

Rods were checked first for finish coating, reel-seat fitting and guide wraps. Aesthetics we left to you. Besides being important for near- and far-casting accuracy, a rod that fits snugly in your hand is vital for repetitive casting. Some rods have larger cork handles than others. Some feel light, and indeed are; in other cases the rod just feels lighter because it has a better balance than similar models. We note all of our impressions in these areas.

Guide types help to determine the cost of a rod. The best guides stand up well to abrasion and are very forgiving to line. Guides found on commercially produced rods from top-of-the-line down include SiC, Alconite, Hardloy (or Hialoy) and Aluminum Oxide. New REC Recoil guides are made from Nickel Titanium; they're totally noncorrosive and have excellent wear resistance. Cheaper guides are often made from steel plated with chrome or gold tone. We list these, but naturally we couldn't test for them.

To maintain consistency, all spinning rods were fitted with Quantum Catalyst 30 PTi reels, which feature advanced ThinLine aluminum bodies. Our bait-casting rods sported Abu Garcia Ambassadeur C4 series classic round-style reels. All the reels were fitted to 6½-foot Shimano Clarus two-piece rods with Fuji graphite-nylon reel seats. We usedtren's MagnaFlex on the casting reels and Stren's Easy Cast on the spinning reels.

Innovations: Reels
Spinning Reels
It's rare today to find a professional bass fisherman who doesn't have a spinning outfit (or a few of them) in his boat. Spinning tackle is mostly reserved for light-lure assignments and ticklish chores like skipping lures under docks. These finesse-fishing techniques require a spinning reel that can stand up to rigorous use. High-quality gears are the first thing to look for, plus shaft and frame-support systems that won't warp under the torque of heavy loads. Quality materials and engineering in those metal reels have allowed downsizing and reduced weight-the svelte ThinLine aluminum bodies of Quantum's PTi series and compact profile of St. Croix's Avid AS2000 are prime examples. Even in the most reasonably priced reel packages, like Shakespeare's Catera 6630, manufacturers are including spare spools of aluminum rather than the graphite-nylon mix extra spools used to be made of.

Larger drag surfaces, originally found only on heavy-duty saltwater models, are now being used on lighter reels. Fin-Nor's MegaLite MLX3000 is a good example. There are some other changes that you may or may not like. Even-line spooling is a key factor in cast performance. An S-shaped track, as on Daiwa's TDA2500 model, is one way to achieve that. The lack of an anti- reverse lever on a few reels will upset some, but those models are intended for saltwater and freshwater fishing, and the anti-reverse switch has always been a magnet for saltwater corrosion.

Bait-Casting Reels
There's an often-heard gripe from manufacturers who put high-quality bearings in bait-casting reels: Some competitors use high numbers of low-quality bearings to produce what's called "good store action." Customers who spin an inexpensive reel and feel silky smooth movement are often hard-pressed to plunk down more money for a high-end bait-caster, especially when the cheaper reel sports an extra bearing or two. Trouble is, when you put some of the low-end reels through heavy use, they don't last even a season. For a more casual angler, or for light-duty fishing, many of the lower-priced bait-casters are just fine, but if you get out there more than a dozen times a year you should ante up for at least a mid-priced reel. The test chart will tell you which is the best deal.

You also need to look for tight tolerances of fitted parts. If you plan on casting light lures with light lines, modern bait-casters are up to the job, especially those with spool shafts that float on good ball bearings and pinion gears that disengage in free spool.

The trend toward six-pin centrifugal brakes (anti-backlash systems) has continued, and the ability to fine-tune those systems proved to be even better this year. For example, Shimano's Calais CL100A comes with two spare brake shoes for that purpose. Brake-shoe access is getting better with simple sideplate locks. The best swing away but are still attached, so there's no risk of dropping them overboard. Most of those sideplate accesses are found only on low-profile reels, which are more comfortable than traditional round-style reels but hold less line.

Innovations: Rods
Spinning Rods
This year we found yet more technique-specific spinning rods. There are now rods made for everything from small trout and walleyes to tarpon and mega muskies. In the past, a rod that flexed like a whip was deemed to have good action. Although it's true that rods with flexible upper sections are easier to cast accurately-unless you load them with a heavy lure-they shouldn't be as whippy as a cat-o'-nine-tails. Depending on its intended application, a rod should have a sensitive tip and a stiff butt section to set hooks better.

Crankbait rods usually have a soft action in the midsection and a powerful, stiff butt. A rod with a very light, flexible tip that quickly transitions into a pretty stiff middle and yet stiffer butt is a fast-action rod, good for feeling subtle bites and working various plastics. In other words, a rod's action can be tailored to its application. We tested each according to its designation.

For drop-shotting tiny plastic worms, there's been a trend toward shorter rear handles, reversed reel seats and short fore grips. You'll find these features on Rogue's Drop Shot DS693S and seven of the G. Loomis Bronzeback rods. The combo moves the reel forward, which allows you to hold the rod at its fore grip. With all the weight forward, the rod tip's weight is neutralized; as a result, when you jiggle your lure, you only feel the weight of the bait and rig.

Rod handles are continuing to be tweaked. For example, it was good to see the regionally popular Tennessee handle appear on Lamiglas's Certified Pro XS663TN. The handle is all cork and requires you to attach your reel using stretchable tape (black electrical tape is traditional). And a unique grab-on handle is featured on the Airrus SPS661M spinning and SPC661MH casting rods we tested. It has a removable butt extension; use it for long casts with crankbaits or Carolina rigs, remove it for close-quarters work around structure.

Casting Rods
Last year we reported on light-action casting rods that are being built to match bait-casting reels made for light lures. That trend has continued in some interesting new areas, but this year there are also a number of new rods on the spectrum's other end. We're talking tackle you could almost use as a vaulting pole. This is a good thing considering the continued onslaught of exotic vegetation in some waters, plus the need to run big baits into deep places.

Series have continued to expand with technique-specific rods. One such stick is All Star's Frog Rod (above), which is made for one type of lure. Cape Fear's ADV189-70C, made with the company's six-sided construction for heavy tackle, is another example. Longer rods are also becoming more common. The previously mentioned All Star and Cape Fear rods are 7 feet 2 inches and 7 feet, respectively. The Rogue Mag Bass MB4C is part of an entire family of 7-foot 11-inch bass rods.

More rod builders are cashing in on the growing popularity of near-shore and in-shore saltwater fishing. You'll find their wares in both casting and spinning models. In general, these rods are built to cast light plastics, jigs, topwater lures and natural baits. erful, stiff butt. A rod with a very light, flexible tip that quickly transitions into a pretty stiff middle and yet stiffer butt is a fast-action rod, good for feeling subtle bites and working various plastics. In other words, a rod's action can be tailored to its application. We tested each according to its designation.

For drop-shotting tiny plastic worms, there's been a trend toward shorter rear handles, reversed reel seats and short fore grips. You'll find these features on Rogue's Drop Shot DS693S and seven of the G. Loomis Bronzeback rods. The combo moves the reel forward, which allows you to hold the rod at its fore grip. With all the weight forward, the rod tip's weight is neutralized; as a result, when you jiggle your lure, you only feel the weight of the bait and rig.

Rod handles are continuing to be tweaked. For example, it was good to see the regionally popular Tennessee handle appear on Lamiglas's Certified Pro XS663TN. The handle is all cork and requires you to attach your reel using stretchable tape (black electrical tape is traditional). And a unique grab-on handle is featured on the Airrus SPS661M spinning and SPC661MH casting rods we tested. It has a removable butt extension; use it for long casts with crankbaits or Carolina rigs, remove it for close-quarters work around structure.

Casting Rods
Last year we reported on light-action casting rods that are being built to match bait-casting reels made for light lures. That trend has continued in some interesting new areas, but this year there are also a number of new rods on the spectrum's other end. We're talking tackle you could almost use as a vaulting pole. This is a good thing considering the continued onslaught of exotic vegetation in some waters, plus the need to run big baits into deep places.

Series have continued to expand with technique-specific rods. One such stick is All Star's Frog Rod (above), which is made for one type of lure. Cape Fear's ADV189-70C, made with the company's six-sided construction for heavy tackle, is another example. Longer rods are also becoming more common. The previously mentioned All Star and Cape Fear rods are 7 feet 2 inches and 7 feet, respectively. The Rogue Mag Bass MB4C is part of an entire family of 7-foot 11-inch bass rods.

More rod builders are cashing in on the growing popularity of near-shore and in-shore saltwater fishing. You'll find their wares in both casting and spinning models. In general, these rods are built to cast light plastics, jigs, topwater lures and natural baits.