Photos by Travis Rathbone
Our experts evaluated and rigorously tested a boatload of all-new, innovative tackle–rods and reels, lures and lines, electronics and more–on lakes and streams across the country. This is the equipment that withstood every trial and earned their final approval.
Awarding this year’s Best of the Best involved some tight calls. The number of product introductions was modest, but the overall quality was unusually high, even in lower-priced gear, and particularly in core tackle–rods, reels, and lines. Here are the very best. By Ted Leeson
Nautilus CCF-X2 6/8 Reel
Simply put, this 6- to 8-weight reel is all business–intelligent engineering executed in top-flight materials for light saltwater or heavy freshwater work. The heart of the matter is a fully enclosed cork-and-carbon-fiber disc brake protected by proprietary seals that exclude water, sand, and salt. With a large disc surface and hybrid-ceramic bushings, the reel has an impressively low startup inertia (the company claims less than 1 percent) at all settings. The oversize drag knob, a blessing for wet or cold hands, takes the brake from free spool to lockdown through a six-turn adjustment window that allows exceptional fine-tuning of the resistance. Self-lubricating, long-lasting thermoplastic spindle bushings shave weight and are inert to corrosion. The large-arbor reel picks up an impressive 12 inches of line with each revolution. Extensive porting and a single-sided frame bring this reel in at a comfortable 7.6 ounces, making it a nice match with today’s superlight rods. But the frame is plenty sturdy for fighting the big boys and shows no flexing or racking, even at high drag settings.
MSRP: $435; nautilusreels.com
Scott Radian 8’6″ 4-Weight Fly Rod
A good all-purpose trout rod balances often contradictory characteristics–short-line presentation and distance delivery, finesse and power, tippet protection and backbone, and the ability to deliver small and large flies. It’s a tall order, but the Scott Radian 8-foot 6-inch 4-weight pulls it off. The fast-action rod feels light in the hand, more like a 3-weight, but there’s lots packed into it. It can summon the juice for longer-range casts, lobbing indicator rigs, and slapping the banks with big wind-resistant hoppers. But it also excels at short range, exhibiting none of the stiff clubbiness or other performance drawbacks that often characterize fast sticks. It has a great touch that puts the fly down right where you aim, and it stays true at progressively longer distances. The sensitive tip recovers quickly with no residual vibration to steal distance or compromise accuracy. Scott has taken pride of late in its rod aesthetics, and that shows here. It’s a handsome package and fishes beautifully.
MSRP: $795; scottflyrod.com
RIO Perception Fly Line
Improvements in floating fly-line materials have largely addressed line coatings–the big culprit in durability and flotation problems. But innovation in the Perception series goes beneath the surface to a new ultra-low-stretch core that prevents line elongation under tension. This absence of stretch greatly aids line pickup and allows for more precise mending. The line is built on a very castable, all-purpose taper that can throw a wide variety of fly types and sizes.
MSRP: $90; rioproducts.com
Orvis Gale Force Boat Bag
The movable interior partitions of this semirigid bag aren’t the typical wimpy foam dividers that can let gear migrate but, rather, are rigid plastic panels that secure in a track around the inside perimeter. They stay in place and keep contents separate. Clear zippered pockets inside the lid keep phone and camera at the ready. It resists water entry when unzipped and kept all my fly gear dry on float trips.
MSRP: $249; orvis.com
There’s no rule that says quality has to cost an arm and a leg, and our rod and reel winners prove it. Both take advantage of modern technology and materials, and both are in the price range of the weekend angler. By Joe Cermele
Quantum Tour MG
Weighing a mere 5.4 ounces, Quantum’s Tour MG fell in the middle of the road pricewise compared with others tested–but good luck finding another genuine magnesium baitcaster for under $300. To help keep things compact, Quantum completely enclosed the six-level brake-weight adjustment knob inside the side plate, which pops open easily with the push of a button. Fine-tune its capabilities with a few clicks of the outer-spool tension knob, and you can dial in to any lure weight, style, or presentation with pinpoint accuracy. This reel also delivers small lures without a hint of backlash.
MSRP: $280; quantumfishing.com
Cabela’s Tournament ZX
As bass techniques constantly evolve, many rod manufacturers are not just producing a set of sticks in different lengths and actions, but whole series of specialty rods tailored to every specific bass lure and method, from drop-shotting to frog pitching to jerkbait twitching. Once, only high-end builders made these custom sticks, and they’d cost you plenty. Now Cabela’s has a series that offers the diehard bass fisherman a rod of high quality to match his or her favorite bait or presentation style–but that won’t drain the savings account.
I tested all of the casting models of Cabela’s Tournament ZX series, but the 6-foot 9-inch Jerkbait/Topwater rod was my favorite. Before I even made a cast, the comfortable Winn Grip handles–a material most often found on golf clubs–impressed me. On the water, in the rain, no less, the grips proved their worth, providing excellent control with wet hands. The weight and sensitivity of the blank felt comparable to rods that cost quadruple the price, allowing me to keep perfect contact with baits during the entire retrieve.
MSRP: $100; cabelas.com
Both of this year’s winners provide fishermen with more feel, more power, and more reliability in a smaller, lighter package. By Joe Cermele
Shimano Stradic CI4+
When you first pick up a Stradic CI4+ 2500FA, it might fool you into thinking it’s a stream-trout reel. In actuality, this compact 7-ounce spinner is intended to take on the biggest bass and walleyes you can find, and it shines in situations that require a finesse presentation and lighter line.
To test the drags of the spinning reels this year, I didn’t chase walleyes or bass, but local carp that are usually willing to gobble a piece of corn. The Stradic’s drag took the first run of a 10-pounder without a hiccup, and the extra-sensitive knob made smooth work of adjustments on the fly. Most impressive were the overall tolerances; there was no torquing or binding like you often get when really putting heat on a smaller reel that’s battling a fish with shoulders.
In terms of casting, I tested all the reels with 8-pound monofilament and paid particular attention to wind knots and line twist. On a breezy day, slinging everything from hair jigs to stickbaits, the Stradic outperformed the others, throwing no loops or twists. If light tackle is your game, this reel will deliver the goods.
MSRP: $230; fish.shimano.com
Lew’s Speed Stick 365 Carbon Nanolar
There are four spinning rods in the 365 line, and our tester was the 7-foot medium-action model. From the start, this rod felt different. It had a noticeably weighty butt section that tapered away into a light, sensitive blank. In other words, backbone for setting, lifting, and fighting power, but a top end capable of keeping you in contact with lures during the subtlest presentations. During my testing, it performed almost like two rods in one, morphing with the task at hand. While bumping tubes and drop-shotting in a hole, I could feel every tick of the bottom. If I snagged up and lifted to pull free, it was as though all the power shifted to the butt section, and it felt like a much stouter rod than I was using only seconds earlier. For $100, it’s hard to beat the 365.
MSP: $100; lews.com
LURES & ACCESSORIES
Selecting the criteria by which to judge this little-bit-of-this, little-bit-of-that category can get complicated. But the single trait shared by the two winners is ingenuity with purpose. One will get you more fish right away, and the other will keep everything that you need to get more fish organized, corrosion-free, and dry season after season. By Joe Cermele
Rapala Scatter Rap Crank
Lure companies have been experimenting with lip styles for decades, but when it came down to it, basically a lip was a lip was a lip. Then Rapala broke the mold–or rebuilt it, anyway–with this year’s Scatter Rap Crank, featuring the new Scatter Lip. With a scoop shape similar to a shovel, this simple yet innovative crankbait naturally skitters, switches direction, and changes its vibration on a straight retrieve. What that mimics is the behavior of a distressed baitfish almost to perfection. Over the summer, I worked one for river smallmouths, focusing on those holes where you know big fish live but are notoriously hard to catch. During three trips, I pulled bass from these spots within 10 casts. Considering that every local angler pounds these holes, it told me Rapala may just have developed something that really stands out. The Scatter Raps are made of balsa wood and are available in
MSRP: $9; rapala.com
Flambeau Ultimate Tuff ‘Tainer
Give a run-of-the-mill plastic tackle tray enough time and eventually the corners will crack, the snaps will break, and the dividers will warp. These are all problems solved by Flambeau’s Ultimate Tuff ‘Tainers, and they’ll only cost you a couple bucks more than those el cheapo trays. These boxes are gasketed and watertight. The seal is so strong it actually hisses like a fresh coffee can when you crack open the clamps, which are much stronger than traditional snaps. Reinforced corners are a big plus; they easily passed our drop test, even with heavy weights loaded into the trays. The dividers are Flambeau’s patented Zerust dividers, which have a polymer coating that inhibits rust and corrosion. Stick a small model in your pocket and wet wade worry-free. Fill the larger boxes and never sweat whether a few drops of water will rust out your stickbait arsenal. Ultimate Tuff ‘Tainers come in four sizes and eight models.
MSRP: $8.50-$16.25; flambeauoutdoors.com
Along with last season’s regionally heavy rains came a deluge of new outerwear–particularly stuff to keep you dry, but also to keep you warm, or cool, or securely shod, or well organized. In the large pool of equipment nominated, here’s what rose to the top. By Ted Leeson
Simms G3 Guide Stockingfoot Wader
Old name, new wader. This redesign begins with a Gore-Tex five-layer fabric (exclusive to Simms) from the mid-thigh down, giving significantly improved breathability and excellent durability for brush busting or approaching spooky fish on your knees. For suppleness and upper-body mobility, the upper is a three-layer Gore-Tex Pro Shell. This chassis is tricked out with features designed by people who actually fish. A smart, flip-out chest panel has dual grommeted tippet sleeves, a reinforced dock for pin-on tools, and a large pocket with zip access front and rear for fly boxes or accessories. When you factor in the additional large stretch-fabric compartment and utility tabs on
the wader front, you can pretty much carry a day’s worth of tackle and dispense with a vest or chest pack altogether. The reach-through hand-warmer pockets are welcome, the microfleece lining is comfy in the chill, and storm-flapped openings prevent rain entry and (hallelujah!) won’t catch on oar handles.
MSRP: $500; simmsfishing.com
Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Weight Zip-Neck and Bottoms
This next-generation Cap uses a new Polartec Power Dry High Efficiency fabric developed specifically for Patagonia. The base layer is thinner and less bulky than previous versions, but warmer and more breathable–ideal for cold-weather angling that involves periods of exertion (like hiking) alternating with intervals of low activity (like not catching fish). It also checks those annoying aromas of personal funk.
MSRP: $99 and $79; patagonia.com
Cabela’s Gore-Tex Guidewear Bass Angler Jacket and Bibs
Almost inevitably, rain gear involves a tradeoff. Hard-wearing, heavyweight stuff restricts motion and in hot weather will braise you in your own juices; cooler, more supple ultralight suits don’t give long service. The Guidewear jacket and bibs, however, sensibly balance ruggedness with easy mobility to provide superior wind and water protection in a shell.
The 75-denier Gore-Tex three-layer laminate is remarkably tough, and the design promotes durability by keeping seams (and seam tape) out of high-wear areas such as knees and elbows. At the same time, the fabric offers high breathability for hot-weather wear and a comfortable flexibility for easy movement around a boat. It’s an ideal three-season weight with features that focus squarely on utility. Waterproof YKK zippers, a three-point adjusting hood, hook-and-loop cuffs, and storm-flapped thigh-high leg zippers seal out the elements. Five pockets on the jacket and five more on the bibs keep a generous selection of tackle and tools right at hand. An internal waist adjustment on the bibs helps corral excess fabric for a good fit, and a grippy facing holds suspenders in place. Reflective fabric strips, top and bottom, increase visibility for safety. In terms of function, nothing’s missing and nothing’s wasted.
MSRP: $300; cabelas.com
Simms Headwaters Large Sling Pack
Bandolier-style sling packs are an immensely practical–and increasingly popular–alternative to vests, chest packs, and lumbar packs. They’re less restrictive, more comfortable, and more versatile. And this is a particularly functional incarnation of the concept; it doesn’t just store your tackle but keeps it organized as well. Sleeves in the main compartment hold boxes of flies or lures and accessories and prevent them from jumbling together at the bottom. A big exterior pocket puts three or four additional boxes (or other gear) at your fingertips. A second, compression-molded exterior pocket (with still more tackle sleeves) unzips to form a drop-down tray that serves as a rigging station–a handy feature for wade fishermen. The wide, padded sling strap slides smoothly over your shoulder for easy access, and a waist strap stabilizes the load when hiking or wading. Smart.
MSRP: $120; simmsfishing.com
Staying ahead of the game in the world of electronics is no easy feat, whether you’re talking TVs or fishfinders. Garmin, however, rises to the challenge, producing one of the most impressive all-in-one units on the water today. It’s so far out in front that it makes you wonder what they could possibly come up with next year. By Joe Cermele
Garmin GPSmap 741xs
Garmin’s GPSmap 741xs operates via touch screen much like an iPad or iPhone, and it even has the same pinch-to-zoom technology. This may seem like overkill, but on a rocking boat, or when it’s cold, or when you’re running 70 mph across the lake, fumbling with buttons and toggles is no fun. The unit comes preloaded with Garmin’s full array of saltwater maps as well as 14,000 bodies of freshwater. Boasting a processor that’s 60 percent faster than any of Garmin’s previous offerings, it changes charts with incredible speed. There are too many features to mention them all (it does just about everything except make breakfast), but what stood out most during our test was the high-definition sonar imaging and a depth-shading function available with an additional LakeVu card. If you can’t catch fish with the 741xs, you should consider quitting fishing.
MSRP: Starts at $1,700; garmin.com