The Hardy Ultralite MTX-S is an all-around machine. Built in a 9 weight class, it handles most saltwater species, it is super light, has a bombproof build, and a super smooth reliable drag. This is a mid-priced miracle that will last a lifetime with care.
The best saltwater fly reel on a budget is the Redington Behemoth. Built to survive saltwater with a reliable drag, it is hard to beat for the price. But, beware, it doesn’t like being submerged, so be careful.
The Ross Reels Evolution R Salt is a hard saltwater fly reel to beat. Yes, it is expensive, but you pay for what you get. Built from the toughest materials around with an incredible drag, it can subdue large saltwater species in the harshest of environments.
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How to Choose Saltwater Fly Reel?
Choosing a good saltwater fly reel is imperative. Saltwater species and saltwater conditions put reels through more pain than anything else.
Here are some checkboxes to follow to ensure you get a reel that can handle it.
Weight: Saltwater fly fishing requires heavier gear but making it as light as possible is going to save your arms and shoulders.
Spool Size: Large line capacity and quick retrieve rates are needed for saltwater species, make sure you have a large arbor spool.
Durability: Reels don’t last long in salty conditions if they are not made for it. Look for reels made from aluminum.
Drag: A smooth strong drag is imperative – cork, carbon, and stainless steel disc drags are the way to go.
Wind Side: Not all fly reels allow you to change the winding side, check before you buy.
Price: A saltwater fly reel is not worth scrimping on, spend a bit more for a reel that lasts and can handle bigger species.
If your saltwater fly reel ticks all these boxes, then you are going to love fishing with it and it will get the job done.
It should come as no surprise to you that a saltwater fly reel needs to be pretty durable.
That’s the thing about saltwater…
It’s super corrosive. So you are going to need something that can stand up to the fish and the water! Luckily this reel does both.
The internal workings are fully sealed, meaning all those delicate cogs don’t rust or degrade. The internal hub of the reel is tempered. This means that it is much stronger and capable of handling bigger and more hard fighting species.
And here’s something…
The reel has a massive arbor. Saltwater lines tend to be thicker, so you are going to need more room. There’s plenty here! Even more useful when you get a screaming run with a well-hooked bonefish!
And the finishing touch?
The drag is Teflon cork, giving you plenty of strength if you do end up fighting the fish on the reel.
The olive green color won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Overall this is a hardy reel. It feels solid and stable with little play in the bearings. I love the larger spool. The fact that it is fully sealed makes it great for saltwater fishing.
When something has the name ‘Behemoth’ in the title, you know it will be big.
This reel is big in size and on performance. Redington has been in the game for years and offers excellent mid-priced saltwater fly reels.
Check this out…
As saltwater fly reels go, this beauty has one of the most powerful drags in its class. Big fish will take you down to the backing instantly, and a strong drag is literally the only way you will stop them. The knob to control the drag is oversized, making it easy to adjust mid-fight too!
The die-cast aluminum construction gives the reel a really solid feel. It also guards against the adverse effects of saltwater. The Deep V-spool allows you to hold plenty of line (perfect for tarpon) and also ensures a really nice line lay when you reel in.
Supremely heavy duty.
The drag is quite powerful… some might say too powerful to allow you to easily strip line when casting.
I like heavy-duty, especially when saltwater fly fishing. This reel is affordable and durable. I mean, look at it! It’s like a Sherman tank!
Ross Reels Evolution R Salt fly reel is made from 6061 T6 Aluminum finished with Type II anodizing. What does this mean?
It is about as tough as a saltwater reel can be while still being lightweight. 6061 T6 Aluminum is used in airplanes and is both abrasion-resistant and corrosion-resistant. The anodized finish ensures it doesn’t get damaged when dropped.
The reel comes with an ultra large arbor giving you a great line capacity and a quick retrieve rate when you need to gather line quickly in a fight.
The drag is fully sealed to stop salt water and dirt from getting inside. It features a carbon and stainless steel disc system that is super smooth, has a ton of force, and doesn’t rust!
Top it off with an easy-to-use adjustable drag knob and ergonomic handle, and no saltwater species have a chance.
But all this quality comes at a price. This is an expensive reel but it will last, catch fish, and comes with a lifetime warranty.
Ultra large arbor.
Large line capacity and quick retrieve rate.
Built to survive in saltwater.
Sealed carbon/stainless steel drag.
Drag is super smooth.
Easy to use handle and drag knob.
The Ross Reels Evolution R Salt is a high-end saltwater reel that ticks all the boxes. This reel is made to last, will handle close to all saltwater species, and is a pleasure to fish with. The build quality, large arbor, and awesome make it one of the best on the market.
The Hardy Ultralite MTX-S is made from a hybrid carbon fiber/alloy main frame making it tough, corrosion-resistant, and super light.
The strength-to-weight ratio on this reel is out of this world and it will never rust either, meaning it should last a lifetime in the salt with care.
It features a large arbor so you can pack a ton of line on the spool, and pick up slack when you need to wind quickly in a fight.
The drag is fully sealed to stop water and dirt from entering the system. It features a carbon fiber disc system which is both super smooth, corrosion resistant, and has some serious stopping power.
The drag knob is made to be easy to use, even mid-fight and comes with a 340 degree color coded drag regulator, so you always know where you are at. Throw in the ergonomic handle and you have a fish catching machine.
Sadly, this comes in a maximum size of a 9 weight, perfect for bonefish, permit, redfish, snook, triggerfish, and small tarpon. It would be nice if a 10/11/12 weight was also available.
It is a little expensive but not compared to the Tibor or the Ross, so it is mid market and worth every penny.
Super durable and corrosion resistant.
Large arbor for high line capacity and quick retrieve.
Sealed carbon drag is super smooth and strong.
Micro adjustable drag.
Easy to use handle and drag knob.
Max size 9 weight.
A little pricey.
The Hardy Ultralite MTX-S is a light reel with a ton of power. Built of carbon fiber and aluminum, it will last in the salt. Add in the sealed carbon drag that is super smooth, a large arbor, and ergonomic handles, and you have a stunning saltwater reel for most species.
Here’s why. First off, this reel is newly redesigned. I love a bit of new technology! For me, this is one of the best saltwater fly reels for the money. Orvis doesn’t make junk. This should keep you going for a long time.
Orvis has actually removed all unnecessary clutter to make this reel as light as it can be. And it is light. It’s constructed entirely from high-quality stainless steel, giving you both strength and durability.
The drag system is entirely sealed. Saltwater aside, I hate when a reel breaks because of sand or grit getting inside.
I particularly like the large arbor. I want to have the confidence to know I’ve got some spare line when I’m fighting something a little bigger.
I’m struggling… the only downside is the price. It is the higher end of the budget.
If you have read my other fly fishing articles, you’ll know that I love Orvis. Reels like this are the reason why. For the money, it’s durable and works really well. You wouldn’t regret having this attached to your rod. It’s one of the best saltwater fly fishing reels in 2023.
If you are looking to spend a little more, you can expect a significant jump in performance and quality.
It’s that simple.
Here’s what I mean. This reel by Temple Fork Outfitters looks like it means business. It is light, sleek, and really strong. I love the minimalist design. It looks clean. It performs clean.
And that’s not all…
It is perfect for saltwater species. The drag system and inner gear are fully sealed. Speaking of the drag, Delrin and stainless steel give smooth and consistent tension on the line during a fight.
Temple Fork Outfitters has been clever enough to use anodized aluminum in the construction of the reel. As a result, it is bulletproof when it comes to rust and corrosion. This also helps reduce the weight, which can be an issue on bigger fly reels.
As with all my suggestions, this fly reel boasts a huge arbor, so you needn’t worry about being outgunned by the fish.
A clean, minimalist look.
The only downside is that you get the odd flash of light reflected when casting… This might be enough to spook a wary fish.
If you are looking for the best saltwater fly reel under $300, you’ve found it. Durable, strong, and silky smooth? This reel gets my vote time and time again. I’d say it was a solid alternative to the Orvis Clearwater.
If the Temple Fork was a sports car… This is a Stealth bomber. Based on looks, this reel is my all-time favorite, hands down! The powder-coated grey finish is sleek.
And the best bit?
It serves two purposes. First, it’s pretty rust-proof. Second, it stops your reel from flashing and reflecting sunlight. If you’ve ever tried to fly fish for bonefish, you’ll know that they can be easily spooked. This reel will prevent it.
It’s an absolute game-changer.
Oh, and there’s this…
Check the price! For such premium performance, I can’t believe what great value it is. Sure, you can spend $200+ on a reel, or you could get this and be super happy!
One thing I really love is the positive click drag knob. Consistency is the key to successful fishing. Once you’ve got your drag perfectly set, you can get back to that setting over and over easily! The stacked carbon disc drag gives real stopping power too!
The finish can get a little scratched with rough treatment.
Again Orvis has come up with the goods. For a mid-priced fly reel that performs like something much more premium, you aren’t going to be disappointed with this choice.
Have you seen my article about the best fly fishing brands?
Sage is a global leader in producing amazing fly fishing gear. When they make quality products like this, I can see why.
I know what you are thinking…
This is a little on the steep side when it comes to price. But you get what you pay for.
This. Is. Quality.
If you are looking for the gold standard in fly reels, this is it right here. A sealed carbon drag system will ensure long-lasting and consistent performance. Speaking of performance, sage has made the arbor disc wide, so you can put pressure on the fish with the palm of your hand.
The drag settings are detented, meaning you can accurately measure how much drag you are applying. Just select the desired weight, and you are good to go.
For the money, you are going to be wanting a little extra. How’s about this? The entire reel is manufactured out of aerospace-grade aluminum. This, combined with high strength anodized frame, means it is super solid.
The reel is available in a choice of colors, too (I love the ‘salt HD squid ink”).
The highest quality fly reel on my list.
Easy drag setting.
Again the price might leave one or two fishermen aghast.
Listen, sometimes fly fishing is neither cheap nor easy. If you are looking for a premium fly reel with premium performance, this sage contribution needs to be in your tackle bag.
Feel like we need to cool off? Want something a little cheaper.
I’ve got you.
Durable and robust, this reel by Redington should get you going on your saltwater fly fishing adventure. The reel is manufactured from durable polymer… Plastic might not be your first choice, but it’s cheap and corrosion-proof.
And there’s something else.
Polymer reels are supremely lightweight. So if you want to travel light, this could be for you.
It might be a bit rough and ready, but the large spool will give you plenty of room to battle the big ones. Throw in the adjustable drag, and you’ve got a super affordable reel for saltwater fly fishing!
Very easy to maintain.
The reel spool doesn’t sit flush with the housing. If you use a thinner line, this can get caught up.
This is my budget fly reel. Ok, so it’s cheap, but it stands up to punishment remarkably well. If you drop a $300 fly reel on rocks, you are going to be upset. With this, just pick it up and carry on fishing!
Tibor is one of the best saltwater fly reel manufacturers on the planet and their Gulfstream fly reel is top-of-the-line.
This reel is made to handle anything saltwater and the fish that live it bring your way. Built from solid bar stock aluminum with a hard-coated aluminum main gear, it is as durable and tough as they come.
The inner workings feature a three sealed precision ceramic ball bearing making the reel as smooth as can be. Throw in the quality cork drag and you have a drag you can rely on that is silky smooth.
The max drag on this reel is huge and adjusting it is easy with the grippy drag knob. Making fine adjustments in the fight couldn’t be easier.
Throw in the large arbor for a solid line capacity and quick retrieve rate, plus an ergonomic handle, and you have one of the top saltwater reels around.
The only downsides? This reel is a little heavy, but it has to be to handle the saltwater giants it is built for. Also, it is an expensive reel, but you pay for what you get and this will last a lifetime.
Incredible build that handles saltwater.
As durable as they come.
Super smooth drag.
Excellent amount of drag.
Drag is easy to adjust.
Easy to use handle.
Can feel a little heavy.
The Tibor Gulfstream Fly Reel is one of the top saltwater fly reels on the market. Its aluminum build combined with its silky smooth operation in every way makes it a reel for all species that will last a lifetime.
A Buyer’s Guide to Saltwater Fly Reels
So, you’ll hopefully see that with saltwater fly reels, there is plenty of choices out there.
Now I like a few options, but it’s you that will be choosing, so let me offer some guidance on things that you should think about when buying a fly reel for saltwater fishing.
Now here’s the thing…
With saltwater fly reels, it’s a bit of a balancing act. You will need a bigger reel, but at the same time, you don’t want something that is going to cause you fatigue.
Do you know what I call things that are overly heavy and make me tired?
Manufacturers reduce the weight of fly reels in a few ways. The first and most obvious is by constructing them from lightweight material. Look for things such as aluminum and other alloys that are lightweight. Aerospace aluminum, in particular, is really good, as it is very hard too.
Certain metal reels can be a bit on the heavy side. So you might want to consider an alternative. I like the use of polymers, as they are light, but they are really hard-wearing too!
And the second way?
The second way reel manufacturers reduce weight is by removing bits.
Yup. Those holes all along the side of the reel aren’t just cosmetic. They are removed to reduce weight. If a manufacturer has done its job right, it won’t affect the reel’s structural integrity.
Look for reels with large cut-out sections as it means that they are likely lightweight.
Fly fishing is all about balance. Unlike other types of fishing, you will be doing a lot of work and holding the rod all day. Aside from catching fish, your setup also dictates how well you cast.
And as I always say…
Better casts mean more fish! And good casting is all about balance.
Now, balance is related to reel weight, but it also depends on the rod you are going to be using. If you plan to use your own existing rod, this will probably be a little heavier for saltwater fly fishing. While you don’t want a reel that is too heavy, you want to match it to the rod.
So what’s the solution?
Well, you need to assess what you need to balance your setup. Essentially you need to pick a reel that is neither too heavy nor too light for your current rod. Here’s a quick video that explains it well.
If you are looking for a great rod and reel balance straight ‘out of the box’, you may also want to consider a fly rod and reel combo. These tend to be really great as they are a perfect pair!
Did you hear what I said at the start?
Saltwater fish are seriously mean… They go harder and faster. It isn’t uncommon to have your line stripped off the spool when a fish makes a big run. To guard against this, you’ll need plenty of spool capacity.
And don’t forget…
You’ll probably be using a heavier rod and a thicker line. Again this will mean that you need a bigger spool.
Did you notice anything in my guide above?
I used a term quite a lot… Arbor. The arbor is the disc of the reel. As a general rule, the bigger the arbor, the greater the capacity of the spool.
Pick a reel with a big arbor.
Fly fishing in freshwater is delicate and pretty clean.
Fly fishing in saltwater? That’s an all-out assault. It can be pretty rough and harsh. I’ve dropped my reel, smashed it against a rock, left it sitting in the sand, and soaked it in saltwater.
And do you know what?
It still works just as well as the day that I bought it.
Features that make this possible again come down to construction. Look for reels that are made from materials that won’t degrade or rust.
When assessing durability, also keep a good lookout for these next three words.
They are important:
Sealed. Drag. System.
This means that the reel’s interior (and the part that does all of the work) is isolated from elements such as sand and saltwater. By ensuring you have this feature, your reel will need far less maintenance (or replacing in the future).
Speaking of drag, you will want to put every ounce of pressure on the fish you can. When saltwater fly fishing, there is a good chance that you will be playing the fish straight off the reel.
When they make a run, you need the ability to slowly but surely tire them out (without overstressing the line).
The answer is an effective drag.
I love reels that let me fine-tune the drag. It’s even better if they have a ‘click’ system so that I can repeat the right settings again and again. Drag is so much more important on a saltwater fly reel when compared to their freshwater cousins.
When choosing, make sure that you can control the drag easily, and it is also easy to calibrate.
Left or Right Handed?
Here’s something you might not have thought about. If you are a ‘southpaw’, then you’ll be pleased with my above selection.
They are all suitable for right and left-handers. You might not think that it makes a difference, but some reels only have an internal gear structure to apply drag one way.
The best fly reels will allow you to fish with either hand with minimal adjustment
Let’s face it.
This area probably has more bearing on our decisions as anglers than most others combined.
I’m going to be upfront.
Price is important. But let me ask you a question…
Would you rather buy something slightly more expensive once or pay double for something cheap? Make the wrong choice with your fly reel, and you are going to be out of pocket and possibly cost yourself fish or a day’s fishing!
I tend to find that the extra quality, and extra use that I get out of a reel that is up towards the top of my budget, makes it all worth it. Think how much work your reel is doing? It’s literally the engine that drives your fishing setup, and if it fails, it is terminal.
It is funny how I see guys drop a fortune on a rod and then pair it up with a substandard reel. Effectively they’ve just canceled all of the rod’s benefits. If you are looking to pair a great reel with an equally great rod, I’ve got some amazing suggestions here.
While I don’t advocate spending more than you can afford, when it comes to saltwater fly reels, I’d advise spending the most you can afford to get something really good. It will save you trouble and help you catch more fish in the long run.
If you are just getting started and are looking for something cheaper to get you going, I’ve got your back… Check out my list of the best budget fly reels over here!
Choosing fly fishing gear isn’t always the easiest… Normally because there is so much choice.
I’ve tried to keep my list fairly concise, and these are some of the best saltwater fly reels out there.
Provided you stick to the above guidelines and consider your choice carefully, you should find something amazing that will last for years, even with the abuse that tarpon can dish out.
What’s the biggest fish you’ve caught on a fly? Let me know in the comments.
Growing up fishing on streams and lakes in Kenya and the UK, Jamie has traveled the world in search of fishing nirvana. From his time managing bonefish lodges in the Bahamas and running fishing safaris in East Africa, all the way to guiding on the flats of Seychelles and offshore, there are not many species or environments he hasn't experienced firsthand.