Tackle Test: The Best New Fishing Rods and Reels for 2020, Ranked and Rated

We put 40 of the hottest new rods and reels, from spinners and baitcasters to dry-fly sticks, through their paces. These 16 models won the showdown

Honesty is the best policy. When I ask someone what they think about a rod or reel, I want the good and the bad. A true answer comes with time. In a perfect world, you’d fish a piece of gear for an entire season before judging it, but sometimes you don’t have the luxury. That’s why when we test tackle, we strategically design a crash course that does the best possible job of telling us how every rod and reel will hold up in the long run, and how it will perform when it’s fished hard and rough, because that’s how we use our gear all season long.

This year, we’ve expanded our test categories beyond bass tackle to include light trout and panfish spinning tackle, as well as fly rods and reels. It’s all been put through the same rigorous paces for the sake of one goal: helping you decide how your money is best spent, whether you’re gearing up to fish a reservoir or a quiet mountain stream.

All of our testing was carried out on the water in the real-world scenarios this tackle was meant to fish. We considered how it stacked up based on the manufacturer’s specs and claims, and, more important, how we evaluated its performance, construction, and value as hardcore anglers.

Angler holding a large Lake Martin bass.
Test-team member Steve Kennedy with a Lake Martin bass. Pete Robbins

How We Test

On the Lake

In the sponsor-driven madness of the pro bass tours, it can be hard to find someone ready to give you an honest appraisal, but I had an ace up my sleeve. Not only is bass pro Steve Kennedy a three-time winner on the Bassmaster tournament trail and a nine-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier, but he’s also a mechanical engineer who is attuned to how things work and infinitely curious about why they succeed or fail. He’s also one of the rare pros who rejects most sponsorship opportunities. To test all the rods and reels in the bass category, Kennedy and I spent two days on Lake Martin in Alabama, where we put a hurting on suspended spotted bass, as well as a bunch of largemouths, stripers, and crappies. All of our conventional reels were spooled with 30-pound braid, and spinning reels were spooled with 15-pound braid. Aside from dry-land testing to measure casting distance and controls, Kennedy and I used a variety of techniques on the water to ensure all rods were tested with the lure weights and styles that met their factory ratings. Although we caught plenty of fish, to really test the drags, I used a lawn tractor. We attached the lines to the rear bumper and took off in both long, straight shots and short, staccato bursts. —P.R.

Read Next: Tackle Test 2019: Best New Fishing Rods and Reels, Ranked and Rated

Trout next to a fly fishing reel
One of many trout caught during the fly-rod test. Joe Cermele

On the River

To test the trout and panfish spinning outfits, as well as the fly rods and reels, I spent two days on the South Branch of the Raritan River in New Jersey. The fly-rod portion of the test was carried out at a private fly-only club, which ensured every rod and reel would have a chance to show me its stuff while pitted against trout weighing up to 10 pounds. All rods and reels were 5-weight models, and all were spooled with the same weight-­forward floating line. Each outfit was used to cast dry flies, weighted nymph rigs, and streamers measuring up to 4 inches to gauge their versatility.

Spinning rods and reels
The arsenal streamside in New Jersey. Joe Cermele / Field & Stream

All spinning reels were spooled with 4-pound fluorocarbon and tested in the Lockwood Gorge section of the river—a mile-long stretch with a diverse array of features, from long, glassy runs to boulder-strewn pocket water. Here, each outfit had a chance to throw small inline spinners, ¹⁄16- and ¹⁄8-ounce jigs, and 2-inch floating minnow lures. Dry-land casting portions of the test were conducted in fields marked out to 70 feet, and I used hula hoops for targets when accuracy-testing the fly rods. I tested spinning- and fly-reel drags with the help of a trusty power drill, and all fly-reel drags were tested wet and dry to gauge the quality of their seals. —J.C.

Spinning Rods & Reels

Spinning rod and reel combos on a deck.
Spinning rod and reel combos on a deck. Dan Forbes

1. Editor’s Choice

Reel: Daiwa Kage LT • Price: $200

I had trouble wresting this reel out of test-team member Steve Kennedy’s grasp. The 2500 size weighs a mere 6.2 ounces, and everything about it is light and feathery. The premium cork knob provides a distinctive look and maximum comfort. The drag is buttery-smooth, with no hesitation at startup and no unevenness anywhere in the process. Kennedy liked the fact that it still has an anti-reverse feature, which is commonly left off these days to reduce weight and keep a reel sealed.

Rod: Falcon Expert • Price: $200

We were impressed by the rod’s lightness—not just in terms of absolute weight, but also in how it balanced easily with a variety of reels. While fishing darter head worms and small swimbaits for bass suspended over 40-foot depths, we were able to feel them hitting on the fall and on the semi-slack line of a secondary drop. The tangle-free guides made braid-to-fluoro combinations eminently manageable, and I particularly liked the extended foregrip of premium cork in front of a blank-through reel seat. —P.R.

2. Great Buy

Reel: Shimano Sienna FG • Price: $30

For less than the price of a spool of premium fluorocarbon, this reel will get you into the finesse game. It’s heavier than some of its competitors, and at 9.5 ounces for the 2500 size, you’ll need to pair it with the right rod for balance, but the propulsion line management system delivers lengthy casts. While other reels in this price range seem cheaply made, this one is likely to hold up over time. The drag was remarkably smooth for a reel coming in at one-sixth the price of Shimano’s top-end Stradic.

Rod: Dobyns Fury • Price: $120

While the 7-foot Fury we tested appeared bulkier than other test rods, once in hand, it was surprisingly light and exceptionally well balanced. Kennedy dinged it a bit because it didn’t have the larger foregrip he likes, but he noted it was remarkably sensitive—particularly for its bargain price point—and could be successfully used for a wide range of techniques. With an underspin tipped with a fluke, we could get solid hooksets and easily take control of a spastic spotted bass or the occasional striper. —P.R.

Also Tested: Bass Spinning Reels

Shimano Stradic FL

The Stradic series has been eclipsed by true enthusiast reels like the Stella, Sustain and Exsence, but those reels come with much higher price tags. The silver frame on this new version doesn’t stand out in the field, but the performance is rock solid. Tested against the tractor, the drag never skipped a beat, either on straightaways or stop-and-go runs. It’s a bit heavier than some other premium reels at 7.9 ounces in the 2500 size, but this reel feels super-smooth and is built to last. Beat it up and it will continue to perform.

  • MSRP: $199.99
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Drag: Excellent
  • Reliability: Excellent
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Excellent
  • Construction: Excellent
  • Aesthetics: Good
  • Innovation: Very Good
  • Value: Very Good

Abu Garcia Elite Max

This black and silver package weighs only an ounce more than reels costing several times more, and Abu Garcia has packed in a lot of value. The spool is textured so that it can be loaded up with braided line with no slippage, and the rocket spool lip design and line management system make for easy casting. This reel just feels solid, from opening and closing the bail, to the rubberized knob on the handle. You can get a lighter package and more bearings for an extra hundred dollars, but balanced with the right rod this reel is a value proposition.

  • MSRP: $69.99
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Drag: Very Good
  • Reliability: Very Good
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Good
  • Construction: Very Good
  • Aesthetics: Good
  • Innovation: Good
  • Value: Very Good

Enigma Ippon

This reel feels sturdy, albeit a little heavy, at first, and with a solid anti-reverse and nine bearings it seemed to be a bargain at less than a hundred bucks. One nice feature is that the spool is textured so that you can spool braid straight on without backing and not experience line slippage. That same spool is oversized, so line should peel off on the cast. Unfortunately, the bail was a little squirrelly. More significantly, the nut holding the otherwise-comfortable EVA knob on the handle fell off into the boat. That might be understandable out of the package, but even after retightening it came loose again, this time falling into the depths of Lake Martin.

  • MSRP: $99.97
  • Distance: Good
  • Drag: Good
  • Reliability: Poor
  • Line Management: Good
  • Controls: Poor
  • Construction: Poor
  • Aesthetics: Good
  • Innovation: Good
  • Value: Fair

Also Tested: Bass Spinning Rods

Shakespeare Ugly Stik Carbon

Purists and self-appointed experts may scoff at the Ugly Stik name, but this red-blank iteration of the longstanding series handles itself well. It’s lighter than its predecessor and remarkably sensitive. A day after fishing for deep suspended bass with a rod that cost four times as much, I switched the reel over the Ugly Stik and didn’t really lose much sensitivity. I could still feel subtle bites and any difference in my lure’s action. At first I did not care for the “cutouts” atop the reel seat, but eventually I found a way to rest my thumb in one that was remarkably comfortable. The one thing I didn’t like is that the threaded ring holding the reel in place, which tended to work itself loose.

  • MSRP: $79.95
  • Distance: Good
  • Reliability: Very Good
  • Line Management: Good
  • Controls: Good
  • Construction: Good
  • Aesthetics: Good
  • Innovation: Good
  • Value: Excellent

Abu Garcia IKE Finesse Series

Kennedy competed against Mike “Ike” Iaconelli for many years and noted that the striking purple sheen of this rod makes it stand out in a crowd. He liked the extended EVA foregrip, too. For a rod that’s mid-range in terms of price, it features solid feature, including a Fuji reel seat, and avoids the mini guides so common today, which is a blessing for middle-aged eyes. While exceptionally sensitive for vertical or short-range presentations, this rod rated for 3/32 to ½ ounce lures did not load quite as easily for longer casts as the Falcon or the Dobyns.

  • MSRP: $149.99
  • Distance: Good
  • Reliability: Very Good
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Good
  • Construction: Very Good
  • Aesthetics: Excellent
  • Innovation: Very Good
  • Value: Good

Enigma HPT Gen3

The appearance of the bright yellow guide wraps and refined Toray Carbon blank suggest a product worthy of a far higher price tag than the critical hundred-dollar mark. Enigma delivers a well-balanced and attractive product that will handle a variety of finesse presentations. It’s not quite as sensitive or light as some of the much higher priced options, but it’s not far off the mark. Kennedy found himself more drawn to other rods, but each time I put this one back in his hands, he didn’t miss a beat, and was surprised at how effective this rod was with all but the most “finessy” of light line presentations.

  • MSRP: $99.99
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Reliability: Fair
  • Line Management: Good
  • Controls: Good
  • Construction: Good
  • Aesthetics: Good
  • Innovation: Good
  • Value: Good

Baitcasting Rods & Reels

Baitcasting rods and reels on a deck.
Baitcasting rods and reels on a deck. Dan Forbes

1. Editor’s Choice

Reel: Abu Garcia Revo EXD • Price: $300

This is a gorgeous reel (as long as you’re cool with the color purple). It’s not just form over function, however. It excelled at casting small baits accurately, and as you might expect from a 6.7-ounce model, it crushed our distance casting test. It also brought a remarkable amount of brute strength to the field. We were surprised to see an oversize handle combined with the smaller frame, but that initial incongruence hints at 11 bearings under the hood and 20 pounds of tractor-proof drag.

Rod: G.Loomis IMX Pro • Price: $335

G.Loomis was one of the first companies to consistently build bass rods with specific techniques in mind, and it has continued to advance the long-standing IMX series in the Pro lineup. Everything about them is refined, from the high-quality cork to the Fuji rod seats and K Frame Alconite guides. The blank loaded crisply and responded well to both reaction lures and those requiring sensitivity. And while a $300-plus stick can hardly be called a bargain, a handful of these rods in medium-heavy actions would cover a wide range of bases for any bass angler. —P.R.

2. Great Buy

Reel: Shimano SLX 150 DC • Price: $190

Just a short decade ago, Digital Control technology (which uses a microcomputer to prevent backlash) was available only in reels costing more than $500. When it hit the market, the bass crowd went wild. Then, Shimano brought it into the Curado lineup at $250. With the SLX, the company pushed the retail price under two bills. Miraculously, this reel is actually lighter than its predecessors—­probably because it has fewer bearings—but Kennedy says it would still “be pretty hard to backlash this thing.” This is a reel he feels he could use on tour and not miss a beat.

Rod: Phenix Maxim II • Price: $119

The camouflage EVA foam on the handle might not be every angler’s cup of tea stylistically, but combined with the exposed underside section of the blank, it provides a remarkably comfortable grip and incredible sensitivity at a very reasonable price. Indeed, with the carbon-­fiber scrim of the blank, this looks like a rod that should cost much more, and it performs like one. Anglers who want a slow, tapering action might not like it, but it’s super-lightweight and ultra-sensitive, and I found myself picking it up far more than I’d expected. —P.R.

Also Tested: Baitcasting Reels

Daiwa Tatula Elite

Kennedy was wary at first of Daiwa’s TWS T-Wing system, a unique levelwind that pulls away on the cast to minimize friction. We saw no sign at all that it would fail to operate during the course of a normal fishing campaign, but he suspected that under stress it might be an unnecessary complication. Otherwise, this reel handled well, and while at 6.7 ounces it weighs less than many of the competition, it simultaneously holds more line. The handle knobs are comfortable to the touch and the cast controls are straightforward, making for an easy day on the water.

  • MSRP: $239.99
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Drag: Very Good
  • Reliability: Good
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Very Good
  • Construction: Very Good
  • Aesthetics: Good
  • Innovation: Very Good
  • Value: Good

13 Fishing Inception Sport Z

Love it or hate it, the neon green exterior of this reel is eye-catching, and it weighs a mere 6.9 ounces. It still feels solid to the touch and never faltered through hard days of fishing under varied conditions. Making it even more intriguing, it offers a dedicated protective hook hanger and the ability for customization through 13 Fishing’s “Trickshop.” It wasn’t the furthest-casting reel nor the smoothest of the bunch, but it wasn’t far behind either. At this price point it’s a steal, especially if you dig the color.

  • MSRP: $150.00
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Drag: Good
  • Reliability: Very Good
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Good
  • Construction: Very Good
  • Aesthetics: Excellent/Poor (no in-between with this one – totally a matter of personal preference)
  • Innovation: Excellent
  • Value: Excellent

Lew’s Speed Spool LFS

This is the “lunchbucket” offering from Lew’s, a sub-hundred-dollar offering that feels like you could take a sledgehammer to it and still go fishing. Available in three different gear ratios, with nine stainless steel bearings and one roller bearing each, you could outfit yourself with a half-dozen of these and be prepared for any bass fishing situation. We didn’t love the handle knobs, but otherwise the controls and features are proven and efficient, if not necessarily groundbreaking.

  • MSRP: $99.99
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Drag: Good
  • Reliability: Excellent
  • Line Management: Good
  • Controls: Good
  • Construction: Very Good
  • Aesthetics: Fair
  • Innovation: Fair
  • Value: Very Good

Also Tested: Baitcasting Rods

Dobyns Champion XP Crankbait Series

This glass “crankbait” rod is not the ideal for maximum sensitivity, nor was it intended to be. With the slower taper of a fiberglass blank, this rod provides tremendous versatility for larger moving lures, allowing fish to engulf fast-moving meals and enabling hooks to stay pinned on a fish that surges at the boat. It’s become the go-to rod for many anglers’ Chatterbait purposes, and is also superior for big spinnerbaits and square bill crankbaits. The blue accents are classy and the tangle free guides with Alconite inserts allow for maximum efficiency on both long casts and pinpoint roll casts.

  • MSRP: $239.99
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Reliability: Excellent
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Very Good
  • Construction: Very Good
  • Aesthetics: Excellent
  • Innovation: Excellent
  • Value: Very Good

13 Fishing Omen Black

Among 13 Fishing’s lineup of colorful reels and varied fishing clothing, the Omen Black stands out for its simplicity. It combines a matte black blank with a white butt section between the split grips. Nevertheless, it performs like a rod that costs at least a hundred dollars more. We pitched Senkos with it, slow rolled spinnerbaits and burned swim jigs, and it handled all conditions with ease. It doesn’t feel quite as crisp as the Loomis, or as moderate as the Dobyns, but it occupies a valuable in-between ground. With ALPS guides and quality cork, the company didn’t cut any corners with this rod.

  • MSRP: $130
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Reliability: Very Good
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Very Good
  • Construction: Very Good
  • Aesthetics: Very Good
  • Innovation: Good
  • Value: Excellent

Daiwa BLX JDM Sensitive Casting Rod

“JDM” in this case means “Japan Domestic Market,” which signifies that it has been built to the standards of that country’s exceptionally demanding consumers. Indeed, Daiwa has loaded it up with premium cork and Fuji Silicone Carbide guides, and the “cross carbon” fibers give the blank a distinct feel and appearance. The rod performed well as we fished it with heavier line to both swim a large jig and to flip it into downed trees. It’s substantially lighter than its bulky frame might indicate, but with so many quality options at half the price, the hefty price tag may make it tough to swallow for all but the most avid Daiwa fans.

  • MSRP: $439.99
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Reliability: Very Good
  • Line Management: Excellent
  • Controls: Very Good
  • Construction: Very Good
  • Aesthetics: Very Good
  • Innovation: Very Good
  • Value: Fair

Fly Rods & Reels

Fly rod and reel combos in a stream.
Fly rod and reel combos in a stream. Dan Forbes

1. Editor’s Choice

Reel: Ross San Miguel • Price: $596

One of the sexiest reels I’ve ever fished, this revamp features a fast, click-free intake, which really came in handy for keeping up with bigger fish. Its slimmer arbor design helped it balance well on the rod, and it was easy to make minute adjustments to the sealed drag during the heat of battle. The canvas Micarta handle was a unique touch that offered an excellent grip for wet hands.

Rod: G.Loomis NRX+ • Price: $795

This rod cast like a dream and maintained stellar accuracy well past 50 feet. What I liked best about it was that its dainty tip section delivered dry flies and nymphs beautifully, allowing me to keep great contact with the latter. But the 5-weight model had just enough middle and backbone to throw moderate-size streamers and really let me lean into bigger trout without worry.

2. Great Buy

Reel: Lamson Guru S • Price: $260

Weighing in at just a hair over 4 ounces, the Guru is light and easy to fish all day. Better yet, it doesn’t sacrifice power and precision to achieve that feel. This reel features a larger arbor but a narrower spool, helping to create the perfect tool for everything from floating lines to heavier sink tips. The concave drag knob made for quick, precise adjustment when a few big trout surged.

Rod: Orvis Recon II • Price: $498

With the Recon, Orvis took components from its top-shelf Helios series and adapted them to this all-around series that carries a lower price. While the rod is a bit beefier than some of the others, I was impressed by its ability to deliver dries accurately, then switch to a heavy nymph rig and turn the weight smoothly. It’s got lots of muscle but won’t overpower smaller fish. —J.C.

Also Tested: Fly Rods

Douglas Sky G

Douglas is a relative newcomer in the fly rod market, and the Sky G is the most advanced model they’ve made to date. It’s chock full of innovative features like titanium recoil guides, and titanium stripping guides with zirconia inserts, helping ensure it has a long life in your arsenal. The blanks are crafted from G-Tec material, which the company claims is stronger than steel. This rod was arguably the finest caster in the test, with the ability to make extremely accurate presentations out to 60 feet and recover flawlessly. The only knock against it was that it feels perfectly designed for dry fly presentation, but lacked a little punch when paired with weighted nymph rigs and streamers. If you’re devoted to sippers, this rod will up your game. But if you’re looking for the perfect all-around 5-weight this may not be the one for you.

  • MSRP: $795.00
  • Distance: Excellent
  • Accuracy: Excellent
  • Recovery: Excellent
  • Reliability: Excellent
  • Controls: Very Good
  • Construction: Excellent
  • Aesthetics: Very Good
  • Innovation: Excellent
  • Value: Good

Sage Trout LL

I was skeptical about including the 9-foot, 5-weight Trout LL in this test, as Sage openly admits that this new series was design for delicate dry fly presentations. With that in mind, I expected it to only shine in dainty deliver tests. I was pleasantly surprise. This rod has a slower action, reminiscent of fiberglass but without being overly “floppy.” While it presented dry flies smashingly, I noticed that this bit of softness aided in turning over nymph rigs, and while it certainly didn’t deliver conehead streamers like a fast 7-weight, it still got the job done. What I liked best was that soft action during a few fights with some thick trout. The slower bend did a great job of absorbing the energy during sudden speed bursts, which is a huge plus when you’ve just tied into a 20-plus-inch trout with a dry on a light tippet.

  • MSRP: $800.00
  • Distance: Excellent
  • Accuracy: Excellent
  • Recovery: Excellent
  • Reliability: Excellent
  • Controls: Very Good
  • Construction: Excellent
  • Aesthetics: Very Good
  • Innovation: Very Good
  • Value: Very Good

Temple Fork Outfitter Axiom II-X

In several ways, the Axiom II-X outshined the others in innovation. It was designed for power over delicacy, which means even the 9-foot, 5-weight model had features like a fighting butt more commonly found on heavier outfits. True to the company’s claims that this model was designed for the Western big-water trout angler, it delivered large streamers and heavy nymph rigs like butter. Not only could it throw them farther than all the other rods, it was incredibly accurate. Personally, I love the rod and would gladly sub it into my rotation of “meat sticks” even though the vast majority of them are 7-weights. Of course, the Axiom II-X also laid out a dry fly exceptionally well, but because the all-around usefulness of the rods played into final decisions, I see this one as a “specialty rod,” not the rod that easily transitions from a massive tailwater to a quiet mountain stream.

  • MSRP: $349.95
  • Distance: Excellent
  • Accuracy: Excellent
  • Recovery: Excellent
  • Reliability: Very Good
  • Controls: Excellent
  • Construction: Very Good
  • Aesthetics: Very Good
  • Innovation: Very Good
  • Value: Excellent

Also Tested: Fly Reels

Orvis Hydros III

With a larger arbor than your standard 5-weight reel, the new Hydros is a great choice for the angler that will occasionally push the limits of a 5, perhaps using it on water rife with above-average browns, or even big smallmouths. It would easily handle sinking lines, and while it performed well with a standard floating line, there was something about it that felt a bit less precise than some other reels in the test. I found the drag adjustment capabilities slightly clunky. The company claims it requires only one ¼ turn to adjust, but I found I needed to crank it a bit more to achieve the minor pressure changes I wanted during a few trout tussles.

  • MSRP: $239.00
  • Drag Dry: Very Good
  • Drag Wet: Very Good
  • Reliability: Excellent
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Very Good
  • Construction: Excellent
  • Aesthetics: Very Good
  • Innovation: Very Good
  • Value: Very Good

Pflueger Supreme

It’s fair to say that Pflueger may no longer be the first brand that comes to mind in fly reels, and that’s a shame, because they are still making some very solid, very affordable reels; the redesigned Supreme being one of them. With a fully sealed drag and bar-stock aluminum construction, the Supreme can go toe-to-toe with any similarly priced reel on the market, and may even outshine a few in terms of drag. This reel battled several large rainbows during our test, letting me put heat on with the drag while maintaining a hiccup-free line pay out. It has just the right amount of weight that makes it feel like a short drop won’t bend the frame out of round, but it’s not too heavy to fish all day. My only quibble: I wasn’t a huge fan of the skinny threaded bolt that holds the spool to the frame. It takes a little jiggling to get it lined up, and if those threads ever stripped, you’d have problems.

  • MSRP: $259.95
  • Drag Dry: Excellent
  • Drag Wet: Excellent
  • Reliability: Excellent
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Very Good
  • Construction: Excellent
  • Aesthetics: Very Good
  • Innovation: Very Good
  • Value: Very Good

Cortland Crown

Cortland has been such a staple in the fly line market for so long that I was surprised to see them jump into the reel game with the Crown. They make no claims about it being the most innovative reel ever made, recognizing that it’s an affordable workhorse above all else. I thought for the price it was a pretty solid reel. It’s not flashy or overly designed, but its wide range of drag settings caught my attention during a few fights. A slight click or two made a noticeable difference in pressure, giving it just a hair more or less gas when needed. Dry the drag was very smooth, and while it performed well wet, it was a touch slower, but not critically so. Overall, it’s a great starter reel and I’m confident it will provide many seasons of dependability.

  • MSRP: $189.95
  • Drag Dry: Very Good
  • Drag Wet: Good
  • Reliability: Very Good
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Very Good
  • Construction: Very Good
  • Aesthetics: Good
  • Innovation: Good
  • Value: Very Good

Ultralight Rods & Reels

Ultralight fishing rods and reels in a stream.
Ultralight fishing rods and reels in a stream. Dan Forbes

1. Editor’s Choice

Reel: Shimano Stradic FL • Price: $200

You probably don’t need this much engineering and power for perch, but as an angler who loves workhorse gear, I’m not complaining. It’s a silky-smooth operator on both the drag and rotation fronts, and it’s built like a tank. Shimano’s X-Protect water-repellent coating is a huge plus because occasional dunkings are par for the course when I’m tromping around a trout stream. With 7 pounds of max drag, this reel will take on the biggest brown in the creek.

Rod: Fenwick Techna • Price: $200

The 5-foot-8-inch model we tested proved Fenwick’s ability to go high-tech, creating one of the most sensitive, responsive trout sticks I’ve ever fished. Features like the sloping Seaguide XO guides make a noticeable difference in distance and accuracy, but the beauty lies in Fenwick’s use of a new-wave resin, which significantly increases blank strength without adding weight.

2. Great Buy

Reel: Okuma Avenger ABF • Price: $50

The 500-size Avenger we tested is the smallest reel on the market with a bait-feeder feature. While that might make it a touch clunky for a reel this size, I saw the feature as a nice bonus, perfect for dead-sticking PowerBait or waxworms for light-­biting trout and panfish. The spool holds only 80 yards of 4-pound monofilament, but considering the application, you shouldn’t need more. The reel may not have flung a hair jig as far as others, but in close-quarters pocket water, it was right on target and completely effective.

Rod: Bass Pro Shops Panfish Elite • Price: $80

The slower, very responsive tip detects subtle bluegill bites, but it also delivers light spinners smoothly and accurately on the trout stream. It particularly shined when high-­sticking light jigs in faster water. The tip allowed me to feel every tic over the bottom. The EVA split grips and skeletal reel seat also made this rod comfortable to fish. —J.C.

Also Tested: Ultralight Rods

Daiwa Kage Ultralight

We tested the 5-foot, 6-inch, 1-piece Kage, and it was a true thing of beauty and precision. The only reason it was knocked from Editor’s Choice contention is that it feels and fishes like a specialty rod. In other words, it simply wasn’t the best all around, but where it shined, it shined brightly. The Kage has an incredibly slim, sensitive tip, making it by far the most effective rod in the test for fishing and delivering super light jigs. I even tied on a 1/32-ounce jig just to see if it kept the same contact, and every tick telegraphed instantly. The Kage worked well for firing small Panther Martins, too, and that needle-thin tip let me really feel the thump of the blade. But in the jerkbait test, that tip was a mild hindrance, not really allowing me to snap the lure as well as I could with a faster rod.

  • MSRP: $199.99
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Reliability: Excellent
  • Line Management: Excellent
  • Controls: Excellent
  • Construction: Excellent
  • Aesthetics: Excellent
  • Innovation: Excellent
  • Value: Very Good

Eagle Claw EC2.5

Over the years I’ve found that when it comes to short rods, one-piece models tend to perform the best. The EC2.5 bucked that opinion, as it maintained excellent feel and castability for a two-piece rod measuring 5 feet, 6 inches. It had the flex and loading power to send a small jerkbait all the way across the river, yet the tip was plenty sensitive enough to feel a jig working the bottom through faster runs. My only grievance was that when the reel was tightened in place, the exposed threading at the head of the foregrip rubbed my finger all day, making the rod mildly uncomfortable to fish.

  • MSRP: $69.99
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Reliability: Very Good
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Good
  • Construction: Good
  • Aesthetics: Very Good
  • Innovation: Good
  • Value: Very Good

All Star ASLite

Though designed and touted as a “light” rod, the 6-foot model we tested was definitely a bit beefier than you’d probably want for a panfish and trout rod. Not that it didn’t deliver; it’s fast and very capable of putting light lures in small target zones. It’s speed and heft made it shine with jerkbaits, but as a jig stick, it was a bit overpowering. Truth be told, this would make a great small-water smallmouth rod, but if your local river has an abundance of true trophy browns—browns that like to eat larger plastics and plugs—it has the sensitivity to register the hit quick and the backbone to yank those hogs out of the nastiest root snarls.

  • MSRP: $129.99
  • Distance: Excellent
  • Reliability: Very Good
  • Line Management: Excellent
  • Controls: Excellent
  • Construction: Excellent
  • Aesthetics: Very Good
  • Innovation: Very Good
  • Value: Very Good

Also Tested: Ultralight Reels

Abu Garcia Revo MGX

The MGX came very close to taking top honors as Editor’s Choice in the test. Its construction is rock solid, and I particularly liked the Everlast bail system, which features a thicker, more durable bail arm. Many smaller trout-sized reels don’t take a beating well, because they’re designed with smaller, more delicate parts, but I’m confident that the MGX will survive many seasons of abuse. Performance wise, the drag and tolerances were smooth and tight, but the higher price point hurt its overall standing. While it’s a very well-made reel, it’s costly for a bluegill/rainbow reel.

  • MSRP: $314.95
  • Distance: Excellent
  • Drag: Excellent
  • Reliability: Very Good
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Very Good
  • Construction: Excellent
  • Aesthetics: Excellent
  • Innovation: Very Good
  • Value: Good

Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Signature Series

For just shy of $100, you’re getting a solid little reel here. However, in terms of performance, it was very middle-of-the-road. It tested well, but lacked that stand-out feature that could have elevated it higher on our list. Like the Abu MGX, a beefier bail arm was a perk, but it hiccupped a bit in our drag test upon initial engagement. Ten bearings made the reel a smooth operator, and a solid one-piece aluminum frame means you’ll probably get a few season of hard knocks out of it before retirement.

  • MSRP: $99.99
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Drag: Very Good
  • Reliability: Good
  • Line Management: Very Good
  • Controls: Very Good
  • Construction: Good
  • Aesthetics: Very Good
  • Innovation: Good
  • Value: Very Good

Pflueger Trion

Pflueger’s Trion series has been around for a long time, though it was completely revamped for 2020. It’s hard to beat the price of this reel, and if you’re not planning on being rough, I think it’s a great choice. The reel did have its shortcomings, most noticeably in line management. This reel threw more loops and wind knots than any other. The drag was very smooth once fully up and running, but in initial engagement, it stuttered just a bit. It balanced well and was comfortable to fish, but the tolerances overall were noticeably less tight than some of its competitors.

  • MSRP: $42.99
  • Distance: Very Good
  • Drag: Good
  • Reliability: Good
  • Line Management: Good
  • Controls: Very Good
  • Construction: Good
  • Aesthetics: Very Good
  • Innovation: Good
  • Value: Very Good