Words/Photos: Josh Thelin
I have to admit, when I heard that Sage was releasing a new flagship rod which would be replacing the X, I didn't have much confidence that the heavier weight models would be good options for striped bass. For me, the X is a better freshwater/trout rod and light inshore rod. But, it didn't quite have the "umph" needed to manage the various gear and situations we face here on the northeast coast for stripers in the salt.
For instance, fly lines designed for our water and targeted species of striped bass, are different than saltwater lines specifically made for, say, sight-fishing bonefish or tarpon on tropical flats. "Striper lines" are generally either heavier, more aggressive tapered, include more various fast sinking lines/tips, require the ability to throw very large/heavy flies, are made of different materials, or all of the above. For the most part, fly rod and fly line setups that allow us to quickly load our rods (we do a lot of blind-casting where distance and efficiency trumps accuracy), with minimal false casting, is the goal. Plus, the ability to deal with casting and lifting aggressive-tapered intermediate or fast sinking tips with heavy/wind resistant flies are ideal for our type of fishing. And even further, they have to do this in usually less than "ideal fly fishing conditions." Although most people would call these "fast action" rods (which they are), I think calling them "capable" is a better way of describing them. Just because it's fast, doesn't mean its good. I like fast rods for fishing stripers, but I also like to feel whats going on. Consistency and efficiency in fly casting is much better than working my butt off (hauling harder, etc) for the ability to cast 10ft further once every ten casts.
The R8 CORE, being the newest addition to Sage's flagship series, boasts some of the most modern fly rod technology to date. "Axial Fiber Formulation" and "Circumferential Hoop Fiber" are the two most notable build differences from previous Sage rods. The effort here is simply to make a rod that transfers energy more efficiently and can still provide a fast action rod that gives good feedback to the caster. In the past this has meant sacrificing some of the qualities that make for a good striper rod. Also, in all fairness, Sage's new R8 CORE is more targeted towards freshwater pursuits. But when I was able to cast these new rods recently, I was pleasantly surprised at this new rod's potential in the salt. They were clearly great freshwater rods across many different weights. So let's see how the R8 CORE 9wt did against Sage's more saltwater specific rod, the Salt HD 9wt...
Fly Lines Used:
- RIO Premier Striper WF9I (330gr)
- RIO Coastal Quickshooter 8IXP (330gr)
- Scientific Anglers SONAR Titan Triple Density WF9S H/S2/S4 (330gr)
- Hollow bucktail deceivers tied on 4/0 hooks and various clousers tied with brass and lead eyes on 1/0 hooks.
The Salt HD 9wt has been one of my favorite saltwater rods. It not only scored very well on our 9wt Rod Royale Shootout, but it has found a place as one of my 9wt mainstays for not only stripers, but a wide range of salt applications. So I took both of these rods out on the rocks and ledges with three different lines that I use to fish these rocky shorelines, and a handful of flies.
The gut reaction I had was of pleasant surprise. The R8 CORE was able to throw all of these lines without feeling completely overwhelmed by their weight or aggressiveness. It managed to pick up a decent amount of the SA Triple Density line out of the water and re-cast competently. So far, so good. But how did it compare to the Salt HD?
The R8 CORE, overall, has a softer action compared to the Salt HD. This I expected, but it's a little more complicated. You feel this softness mostly in the tip section, yet as the rod continues to flex/load, the remainder of the rod has enough "umph" to help compensate if necessary. So with some slight casting changes, I could rely on the butt section to help turn over the heavier flies and mange the heavier/aggressive lines. The R8 CORE felt lighter in hand and in swing-weight, which is a great thing. This is especially true with the amount of blind casting usually involved with striped bass. I can certainly see myself being able to comfortably cast this rod all day.
In head-to-head comparison, the Salt HD provided a better tool for the "grunt work" that is sometimes involved with stripers, especially when the wind picked up. Over the course of a couple of days of casting in different conditions, I tried the various lines on the R8 CORE while casting directly into 10-20mph winds and although the R8 did ok, when I swapped over to the Salt HD, I felt it could punch through better when matched with these heavier setups. It also faired better with picking up/lifting line to re-cast and just generally managing the SA Triple Density sinking line off the rocks, which can be challenging.
How The R8 CORE Will Shine in Saltwater Fishing...
The R8 proved to be a capable rod in the salt. In an "extreme salt" application such as this, it provided a lightweight and extremely sensitive casting rod with plenty of power for most saltwater applications. As a striper specific rod, it would be a great option for a wide range of anglers. Its ability to have as much simultaneous feedback and power was surprising.
Even further, I will venture a guess now that the R8 CORE 8wt and 9wt will become a preferred rod for tropical saltwater applications. The softer tip, with plenty of sensitivity, and reserved power in the butt section, will make for a killer bonefish rod! In fact, the next time I am planning on headed south for bonefish I'd love to bring it with me. With setups that include lighter-weight flies and (mostly floating) tropical lines, the R8 will sing! The accuracy and feel was certainly one of the biggest take-aways from this test. The R8 CORE provides a very feel-oriented rod which is very accurate. In sight-fishing applications, this is exactly what we are looking for!
What the R8 CORE proved to be, when the dust settles, is an incredibly versatile rod. Between the two rods, the Salt HD got the edge purely in this niche situation. But the R8 certainly won the more "versatile rod award." Not only will this new Sage offering shine in all heavier-weight freshwater applications like salmon and steelhead, but it clearly has cross application in many saltwater applications as well. On a day on the flats in the Bahamas, trying to softly and accurately put a size #6 shrimp pattern in front of a school of bonefish at 50ft, even in windy conditions, I'd rather have an 8wt R8 CORE than a lot of other "saltwater rods" on the market!
Best Fly Line Match-Up
The RIO Premier Striper WF9I felt to be the best match for the R8 CORE in this test. It loaded the rod well at common distances and suffered the least (compared to the other two lines) when trying to cast directly into the wind. It is the least aggressive tapered line amongst the three so this makes sense. All three of the lines included in the test weigh in at 330gr for their AFFTA weight (first 30'). But they are all very differently designed lines. This 330gr weight has proven, in my opinion, to be a great home base for 9wt striped bass fly lines. It tends to properly load most 9wt rods and can be translated into a wide range of suitable tapers and sinking lines for a lot of options for striped bass. Between 300-350gr is what I generally see as a good match for modern 9wt "fast action" rods specifically for coldwater saltwater.
Overall Take Away
With its wide range of applications, the R8 CORE 9wt is going to be a great rod for anglers looking for not only a lightweight and responsive rod, but one that they can bring salmon fishing as well as for stripers or redfish and bonefish. Compared to the Salt HD, the R8 was a lighter-weight and "easier" rod to cast with clearly more sensitivity. I soon expect to see this rod start to find some attention outside of just the freshwater world. Between these two rods, if I were to pick one 9wt striper rod it would be the Salt HD. If I were to pick one 9wt in general, it would be the R8 CORE.