Tackle Test 2011

Ceramic drag discs shiver and composite rods groan as monofilament is stretched to its sinew. It's "Fish on!" as another thundering Cajun bull redfish makes wake for freedom. Two hours south of the Big Easy, the briny bayous and bays of Buras, Louisiana, teem with epic reds capable of putting a hurt on even top-class rods and reels. Which is precisely why we took 2011's best new bass tackle there last fall and put it through the ultimate torture test. Here's how the field played out. Tip of the Month Don't leave your fishing rod in a hot vehicle. Overheating will soften the resin and change the properties of the rod. Got a great gear tip? E-mail us at olexperts@bonniercorp.com
The Test Team Dr. Todd Kuhn is a regular on the professional bass tour. He holds a doctoral degree in engineering and has been fishing for more than 40 years. Gerry Bethge is Outdoor Life's Deputy Editor and has decades of fishing experience in both salt and freshwater. Captain Jamie Harris guides on Florida's Mosquito Lagoon. Captain Harris is the Chief Mate on NASA's Freedom Star booster retrieval ship. John Taranto is Outdoor Life's Gear Editor. His homewaters are the backwoods lakes of northern Ontario, where his family has a camp. Captain Ryan Lambert is owner and operator of Cajun Fishing Adventures. Captain Lambert spends more than 320 days a year on the water.
Home Base Cajun Fishing Adventures is Located in Buras, Louisiana, about an hour and a half south of New Orleans. CFA provides anglers with arguably the nation's best redfish and speckled trout fishing, not to mention the most comfortable accommodations in the area, and gourmet meals before and after long days on the water.
BAIT-CASTING REELS Quantum Smoke Rating: 4 stars Hits: From its matte black exterior to its satin argent accents and trick graphics, the Smoke is runway-fashionable. But don't be mistaken by its look of stealth; beneath the surface art beats the heart of a plow horse.
This black beauty is extremely nimble, tipping the scales at a feathery 6.2-ounces. When saddled to a light stick, the reel washes into the background; your only recollection of its presence is through subtly pleasant tactile sensations.
Ceramic discs handle drag duties, while an eight-bearing drive train delivers liquid-like casts and fluid 6.3:1 cranking. The time-tested micro ACS cast-control system maximizes casting distance, while virtually eliminating backlashes. Generous soft-touch EVA knobs nestle nicely in hand, providing creature comfort while performing grunt work. Misses: While it's hard to find flaw with a reel this good, the screws holding the right side plate were sharp to the touch. Bottom Line: A rarity in baitcasters: a combination of value and performance sure to bring smiles to scores of fishermen this year. [ $199; quantumfishing.com ]
Shimano Caenan Rating: 4 stars Hits: This reel is a sleeper by any account. The understated Caenan will overwhelm you with its simplicity and sheer performance. Equipped with a 6.5:1 retrieve ratio, it might not be a burner, but it falls perfectly into what we consider a very "useable range."
High-density EVA grips delight fingers during long cranking sessions and resist slipperiness when wet. The monolithic frame-to-component interfaces are tight and fuse seamlessly.
The Caenan handled ultra-light baits with ease under less than favorable wind conditions. While other manufacturers tout eight or more bearings, the "Shimano Six" (as they were affectionately dubbed by the test team) were the smoothest of the field. Misses: The partial thumb bar might take some getting used to for clumsy thumbs. Bottom Line: One of the most functional reels at any price. [ $90; shimano.com ]
Pinnacle Optimus XLT Rating: 4 stars Hits: The XLT's 7.3:1 gearbox burns baits, while 10 double-shielded ball bearings and one roller bearing keep cranking velvety. Dual casting controls--magnetic and centrifugal--dial in the casting braking systems.
The bright gold finish is a titanium nitride deposition; while adding sparkle, it's also more durable than painted coatings. The XLT utilizes a multi-stack drag with cross-woven uni-directional carbon discs, which we found up to the challenge of the chunkiest redfish.
A "quick-flip" button on top of the right side plate will appeal to the flippers and pitchers. Mashing it engages the drive gears instantly, without having to turn the crank, for instantaneous hook sets. Misses: Casting controls can be a bit finicky. Bottom Line: A well-equipped reel with plenty of bells and whistles, worth the modest price tag from an up-and-coming industry player. [ $180; pinnaclefishing.com ]
Abu Garcia Revo Premier Rating: 3.5 stars Hits: The Revo is billed as the world's lightest aluminum low-profile baitcaster. We noticed immediately how compactly this reel fishes, with its inwardly swept handle and pleasantly palpable side plates. The star drag is accessible by a fingertip. Dual casting controls dial in the reel for almost any lure weight and rod action.
A 10-bearing system (nine stainless steel bearings plus one corrosion-resistant anti-reverse bearing) keeps everything turning smoothly. A polished aircraft-grade spool with anodized highlights holds a respectable 145 yards of 12-pound-test mono. The ergonomically designed knobs are EVA foam, which are firm as well as comfortable.
Audible clicks on the friction casting control are a tremendous improvement over the click-less industry standard. Misses: We'd like to see the retail price tamed a bit. Bottom Line: A beautifully executed reel that will draw legions of fans from the bass faithful. [ $280; abugarcia.com ]
Daiwa Zillion Type R Rating: 3.5 stars Hits: The Type R will draw double takes in any avid bass-fishing crowd. Its sleek styling, progressive graphics and starkly contrasted black-and-chrome components are scintillating eye-candy. The ultra-fast 7.3:1 gear ratio (retrieving 32 inches of line per turn) blisters baits and seemingly leaves contrails on the water.
An all-aluminum frame is a solid foundation, one that minimizes energy loss through frame torque and twist. A beefy drive train is supported by 11 high-speed ball bearings that calm retrieving and casting bumps.
Luxury appointments include a trick all-carbon in-swept handle, infinite anti-reverse, a perforated aluminum spool and dual casting controls. Misses: The deeply recessed magnetic casting-control button is difficult to adjust. Bottom Line: Tremendous high-end engineering that translates into one sleek top-fuel performer. [ $400; daiwausa.com ]
BAIT-CASTING RODS E21 Carrot Stix Rating: 4 stars Hits: Fiber extracted from carrot cellulose is infused with high-modulus graphite to make a blank that is both strong and lightweight. Twelve micro guides with SS304 frames and hard chrome-plated inserts distribute line along the 7-foot 3-inch blank, paying it out smoothly and straight.
Typically rods of this length hobble along, working baits with the refinement of a boat paddle. However, this Carrot handles confidently, more like a sub-7-foot rod. And while it's rated medium-heavy action, it is versatile enough to handle a wide variety of baits.
An oddly abstract split reel seat permits the hand to wrap the exposed blank, adding to the rod's surprising sensitivity. A vivid orange polyprism holographic topcoat and lifetime warranty put an exclamation mark on this total-performance package. Misses: The hook keeper is in desperate need of a makeover. Bottom Line: A crisp performer built on a bio-fiber-enhanced platform, which offers power, control and uber fishability. [ $199; carrotstix.com ]
Quantum Smoke Rating: 4 stars Hits: The Smoke might be easily overlooked, as nothing immediately reaches out and grabs you. But its black matte finish and dark graphics shadow the raw horsepower under the hood.
Fuji micro guides with hardened inserts quietly transfer line along a wonderfully well-balanced blank. The soft-touch Fuji ACS reel seat offers unexpected comfort. The split grip, with its EVA foam, is easy on the paws, while the HSX70 high-modulus-graphite blank handles casting and fish-hauling duties with surprising ease. The action is laser-engraved on the butt―no squinting to read the fine print. Misses: Given its medium-action rating, we'd like to see a bit more tip action. Bottom Line: As well thought out a rod as we've seen in years, especially given its bargain-basement price tag. [ $129; quantumfishing.com ]
Duckett Micro Magic Rating: 4 stars Hits: This brilliant, gleaming caster sports a blank crafted from multi-modulus TK, and is amply populated with 12 micro-guides, which contribute to its symmetrical parabolic flex. An extra-long split grip helps lengthen casts and increase leverage when you're maneuvering uncooperative finned foes.
The blank is exposed at the bottom of the Fuji handle, increasing sensitivity. The double-A cork throttle is dense and ergonomically contoured.
The Micro Magic feels like an extension of the casting arm, delivering laser-sharp casts to diminutive targets near and far. Misses: The hook keeper is unnecessarily huge. Bottom Line: You'll be amazed at how much rod $159 will buy you. [ $159; duckettfishing.com ]
St. Croix Legend Xtreme Rating: 4 stars Hits: This 7-foot 2-inch offering features a remarkable action--one well suited to creeping creature baits, cranking for suspended schoolers or dragging Carolina rigs across deep gravel. Power is transferred along the super-high-modulus blank by stainless recoil guides, which are uniquely capable of taking a beating while retaining their form and function.
A Fuji ACS reel seat, machined-aluminum wind check and split grip round out the exhaustive list of accoutrements. A limited lifetime warranty covers this American-built beauty. Misses: We'd like to see a bit more cork length on the handle. Bottom Line: A great all-around rod capable of handling any number of bass-specific assignments. [ $380; stcroixrods.com ]
Am. Rodsmiths Team Series Rating: 4 stars Hits: Team Series offerings are technique-specific rods designed by touring pros. Our Danny Morehead worm/jig rod came equipped with SS304 titanium-coated stainless steel guides.
The design team thoughtfully eliminated the handle's foregrip, thereby reducing weight and allowing the user to directly manipulate the raw blank for increased sensitivity. A hybrid IM-10 58-million-modulus blank anchors the design, while the reel mounts directly to the rod blank.
As with the spinning version of the Team Series rods, the baitcasters have V17 Tour Grips, which become super tacky when they get wet--nice for the occasional downpour or sweat-producing heat. Misses: The foregrip has sharp edges. Bottom Line: A hard-working, American-made rod that's stout enough to aptly handle worming and jigging duties. [ $160; americanrodsmiths.com ]
SPINNING REELS Pflueger Patriarch Rating: 4 stars Hits: The Jurassic Pflueger moniker (circa 1881) remains relevant as it continues to churn out performers. The Patriarch's nine tightly articulating drive bearings smoothly lay line onto a radically ported and polished spool. A carbon spool arbor lightens the line bed while serving as a foundation for 200 yards of 8-pound-test mono.
The 40-Series cast magnesium body, rotor and side plate are light as well as structurally sound. Inside, the guts are impressive, with a solid titanium main shaft (30 percent lighter and 43 percent stronger than stainless) at the epicenter of this dynamo.
A titanium-coated roller assures abrasion-free line care, while baying pesky twists. Quality is evident as techie materials meld in seamless perfection, establishing a new benchmark in the freshwater spinning reel class. Misses: The reel's stem could use some manicuring to whittle down its sharp edge. Bottom Line: An exceptionally lightweight machine that impressed on every level. [ $200; pfluegerfishing.com ]
Penn Battle Rating: 3.5 stars Hits: This crossover reel is capable of flinging freshwater fluoro and spooling up salt-sopped superbraid with equal ease. A full-metal body and side plate houses heavy-duty gears in perfect alignment.
Spooling line is easy, thanks to a nifty rubber spool strip (see "Innovations" sidebar, page tk). Beefy components abound and are up to the challenge of the strongest adversary. The machined and anodized aluminum spool and smooth drag are of signature Penn pedigree.
A stainless main shaft offers a solid architecture to this stout machine. Six sealed stainless steel ball bearings keep things spinning like silk, while the infinite anti-reverse affords solid hook-sets without pesky gear lash or lag. Misses: At 11.6 ounces, this Penn lumbers a bit. Bottom Line: The frills-free spooler is priced right, while its ability to handle both fresh and saltwater assignments adds to its appeal. [ $100; pennreels.com ]
Shimano Stella 1000FE Rating: 4 stars Hits: Shimano reels are more often than not examples of engineering brilliance, and the Stella is no exception. Over-the-top features include a titanium-coated spool lip for enhanced castability and a waterproof drag, which keeps the line pay-out clean and crisp no matter how nasty the conditions.
We found the Stella the smoothest spinning reel we tested, due in part to the double-bearing-supported pinion gear and the 14+1 shielded anti-rust bearing system.
Shimano's anti-corrosion surface treatment is the best in the business, minimizing corrosion when exposed to salt. The aluminum frame and graphite side plates are light, and the Septon handle grips deliver expected Shimano comfort.
A thread-in machined aluminum handle, one-piece bail wire, graphite rotor and spare spool are added niceties. Misses: $700 will buy you a cartful of tackle…or a Stella. Bottom Line: Legendary Shimano performance that sophisticated fishermen will appreciate. [ $700; shimano.com ]
Pinnacle Performa XTPEF40 Rating: 3.5 stars Hits: A cold-forged ported aluminum spool, with cross-drilled skirt, improves balance while reducing weight. A sealed waterproof drag housing, most often seen on higher-end reels, keeps water, moisture and impurities away from the inner workings. The 7+1 bearing system is smooth, and the 5:1 retrieve ratio was plenty fast. At 10.4-ounces, the XT manages its weight well.
We liked the push-button quick-fold handle, as well as the line roller, which is accessible for cleaning with the removal of a single screw. Misses: The handle, with its plump ribs, is odd to the touch and has a bit of wiggle. Bottom Line: Pinnacle continues its climb in a very competitive market with well-equipped offerings at a reasonable price. [ $100; pinnaclefishing.com ]
Abu Garcia Revo Premier Rating: 3.5 stars Hits: The Abu Revo Premier comes from an impressive spinning reel family tree, one featuring the likes of the legendary Abu Cardinal. The Revo was one of the prettiest reels in the field; special machining accents sparkle like holiday lights. Add clean lines and Euro-styling and this reel demands attention.
Beyond the glitter, the Revo's whopping 11 bearings, one-piece aluminum gearbox and carbon-matrix drag operate cleanly. The bail is particularly well engineered, offering one of the crispest closures in the field. The large, wide bail wire picked up line no matter how slack it hung, a great feature for limp-line finesse-bait fishermen. The drag is infinitely adjustable, capable of quickly taming fish with bad attitudes. Misses: The price tag left us a bit unsettled. Bottom Line: A quality reel worthy of a look from those searching for a compact spinner with plenty of high-end features. [ $250; abugarcia.com ]
SPINNING RODS St. Croix Legend Xtreme Rating: 4 stars Hits: The Legend Xtreme is a no-nonsense work of angling art. Functionality permeates the design, as evidenced by stainless spring guides--a necessity for heavy-handed anglers prone to rough play with their toys.
A forward-mounted hook keeper lets fingers fondle the blank, sensing subsurface subtleties that other rods overlook. The wet-look translucent pearlescent finish soothes the eyes.
The natural cork/soft EVA-foam-blended butt is easy on the body when mind-numbing hours are spent flicking and skipping plastics around docks.
Beyond its skin-deep beauty, the Xtreme is all business, boasting a high-modulus, high-strain graphite blank and translating that "just-right" feel and balance that often escapes other rods. Misses: The cork grip mid-section has a slightly sharp edge. Bottom Line: Though premium-priced, the Xtreme is the complete casting platform that will glean "favorite rod" status from those who fish it. [ $360; stcroixrods.com ]
Duckett Micro Magic Rating: 4 stars Hits: The Duckett Micro Magic design team hit the ground running with Duckett's first foray into the rod market. The frost neon white blank stands out in a crowded field, as does the Micro's on-water performance.
This rod balances perfectly, with eight micro-guides, a stripper guide and two truss-braced guides clustered on the blank.
Sublime pallid white guide wraps dissolve into the blank, while bright red anodized machined winding checks bling-out the handle and butt sections. The power-hump grip provides a solid foundation and helps leverage mossbacks bent on making haste into cover. Misses: The exposed reel seat threads are distracting and uncomfortable. Bottom Line: This rod insists you fish it; once you've got it in hand, you won't put it down. [ $159; duckettfishing.com ]
Kistler Z-Bone Rating: 4 stars Hits: The Z-Bone is built on a blank designed by legendary rod guru Gary Loomis. Kistler doesn't paint its blanks, instead leaving them in "raw carbon," which makes them lightweight and increases sensitivity at the tip.
Our Z-Bone demonstrated astonishing sensitivity, deciphering the faintest nibbles and garnering praise across the board.
Minute attention to detail, like an EVA cover on the forehand grip, adds to the Z-Bone's appeal. With its medium-heavy action, anglers tossing heavy jerkbaits and twitching plastics in slop will find this rod just the prescription. Misses: It will cost you a whole lot of "bones." Bottom Line: The Z-Bone should springboard Kistler to national prominence. It's a rod worthy of a test drive, no matter the cost. [ $420; kistlerrods.com ]
G.Loomis NRX Rating: 4 stars Hits: The NRX is built using a high-modulus graphite and nano silica matrix resin system billed as better, stronger and faster than that of its competitors (see "Innovations" sidebar). Boil down the techno-babble and you're left with an incredibly light and sensitive rod with synergistic components and a great tactile feel.
The NRX is outfitted with Fuji titanium deposition single-foot recoil guides and proprietary high-density cork grips--top-shelf components consumers expect on a Loomis. We loved the retro handle, reminiscent of a ringed "Tennessee," only improved by decades of technology. The new split grip helps narrow the gap when casts call for two hands. Misses: The NRX price tag will be hard to swallow for most. Bottom Line: The NRX is a heavily anticipated fishing rod, one that will find favor with savvy anglers who won't settle for anything less than G. Loomis quality. [ $475; gloomis.com ]
Falcon HD Rating: 3.5 stars Hits: The Falcon HD is a purpose-minded spinning rod. A 100-percent graphite blanks anchors the design, while quality Fuji aluminum oxide insert guides and reel seat complete the package. Reminiscent of rods built a few years prior, the HD offers fisherman a value-packed rod at a value price.
We liked how quickly the rod became "familiar" after we picked it up. With its medium action and 6-foot 6-inch length, the HD is long enough to manage most lighter baits with confidence. The HD, with its retro 7-inch full cork rear and foregrip, fits user hands amazingly well and made easy work of delicate finesse bait maneuvers. Misses: Rated for 1/4- to 1/2-ounce lures, we would not recommend fishing baits in the higher end of this range, as the rod loads a bit. Bottom Line: An old school workhorse for cost-conscious consumers wanting a custom feel at a real-world price. [ $69; falconrods.com ]
Innovations Four game-changing design elements and component construction techniques. Micro Guides have been available in Japan and Europe for some time, migrating to the U.S. through custom rod builders in recent years. These diminutive eyelets offer several advantages over larger guides, including less build weight, increased casting distance, a smaller blank footprint (leading to a more natural bend) and ease of stowage.
The rubber spool strip on the Penn Battle eliminates the frustrating free-spinning line loop that precedes every re-spooling operation. The rubber strip anchors the first line wrap using friction, keeping it stationary as more line is added.
After years of near-miss attempts, manufacturers have finally cracked the code and fashioned ethylene vinyl acetate, or EVA, foam into useable reel knobs. Today's knobs are molded of ultra-high-density EVA, then laser or water-jet cut to exacting tolerances. The result is lightweight, durable and ultra-comfortable reel handle knobs.
G.Loomis has developed a blank from advanced carbon nano tubes, some 25,000 to 30,000 times smaller in diameter than a human hair. They are infused with a specially formulated silica matrix resin that is lighter than traditional resins. The proprietary new NRX blank is denser and stiffer, while retaining great feel and helium lightness. Because of this remarkable advancement, we have bestowed our Innovator Award on the NRX.
Inside the Test Tackle manufacturers represented at the 2010 International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades (ICAST) show were invited to submit new products for our test. Each manufacturer was limited to one entry per category. Bait-casting reels were spooled with 12-pound-test Berkley Trilene XT monofilament; spinning reels with 10-pound-test Berkley Trilene XT mono. Each test rod and reel was mated with a control reel or rod. Special thanks to Pure Fishing, which provided older-model Abu Garcia and Pflueger rods and reels for this purpose. All of the test tackle was fished for hours by each panel member. Testers rated and scored equipment in categories including aesthetics, ergonomics, construction, sensitivity, casting, drag, line management, fish-fighting performance and price/value. In an effort to eliminate peer influence, evaluators were not allowed to compare notes or discuss the test tackle. Scores were totaled and averaged. Items were then given a letter score in three subcategories and an overall score based on a four-star system. The top five finishers in each category are featured in this round-up.
Here are all of the scores together.