Words + Photos By: Josh Thelin
If you keep up with our blog, you might have seen the article "8wt or 9wt For Striped Bass?" which covers why I believe the the 9wt fly rod is really the most utilitarian saltwater rod for "New England saltwater fly fishing." In this article, however, we're going to test a number of 9wts to see which ones really rise to the top.
First of all, what is "New England saltwater fly fishing?" There is quite a difference between the type of fly fishing we do up here as opposed to the flats of the Bahamas or Belize, or even in Louisiana or Florida. Here in New England, we target mainly striped bass, false albacore, and bluefish. The techniques and environment which we fish in are drastically different than other places. It is mostly blind casting in the surf, heavy current tidal rivers, or off of ledges and rocks. This technique of blind casting larger/heavier flies on mostly intermediate or sinking lines renders us to simply trying to cover a lot of water efficiently with minimal false casting. Extreme accuracy and delicate presentation is not of high concern here. There is certainly situations and areas where you can sight fish for striped bass, but the former technique is really the most common.
This means that the gear which gives us the most efficient and beneficial experience is different than that of other types of saltwater fly fishing. Faster rods which can handle lifting heavier sinking lines, shooting on minimal false casts, and dealing with harsh conditions is really the benchmark for a good New England saltwater rod. I have either owned or currently own rods which are incredible for sight fishing for bonefish, but would not be my first choice when trekking out on the coastal rocks of Maine. So, I gathered a group of local anglers who are accomplished fishermen in their own right, are experienced saltwater anglers in Maine, and have a broad range of experience in other fisheries as well to give them a good point of reference.
The goal with this shootout was to asses some of the current 9wt rods available here at All Points which have been either top sellers or of high interest by customers for striped bass. We wanted to see which one(s) would be the best rod for New England saltwater fly fishing and why. Here's how we set it up...
In similar fashion to other fly rod shootout/reviews, we took to a local field and set up some targets at designated distances. But that's where the similarities to other rod reviews stopped. Instead of using one fly line, we took various lines from tropical floating lines to heavy full sinking coldwater lines. The (cold) saltwater lines included in the test are the most popular and purchased fly lines here out of the shop for striped bass. Here are the lines that were used:
- Rio InTouch Striper 300gr & 350gr
- Scientific Anglers SONAR Full Intermediate WF9I
- Rio InTouch Striper WF9I
- Rio Coastal Quickshooter 8I XP (yes 8I, more on this later...)
- Airflo Tropical Punch WF9F
- Scientific Anglers Sink 30 Cold 300gr
Each rod was rigged with every one of these lines and tested out. Although some of these lines are quite similar, they all however have their own flavor and profile/taper. This gave us the most diverse setups for seeing how each rod interacted with the given lines. The Airflo (Bruce Chard) Tropical Punch line was included as this is an aggressive tapered tropical floating line. It's a little heavier/more aggressive than a traditional "bonefish line" and I felt it was a good fly line to include in this test because it would be a good yardstick for seeing how well these rods would perform in other situations/environments as well. Plus it really broadened-out the diversity of lines each rod would cast. Tropical saltwater floating lines are typically lighter than cold saltwater lines so it wouldn't be surprising if some rods would do really well casting tropical lines and not so well casting heavier coldwater sinking lines, or vise-a-versa.
The Best Fly Line??
Although this was not intended to be a "Fly Line Shootout" as well, what was interesting is that the Rio Coastal Quickshooter 8I XP was the most favored line across the board of fly rods and also with every participant. It provided the best shootability with minimal false casts on the broadest range of rods, did not tangle much compared to others, and simply was best catered to the style of fishing we do here in New England. The reason we used the 8I XP (the XP stands for extra powerful)c and not the 9I XP is that the 9wt version is just too heavy. Even for some of the faster rods in the test, the 8I XP matched up much better. At 330gr the 8I XP is the same weight as the SA SONAR Titan Full Intermediate WF9I and is much more inline with what a "9wt fly line should be" as opposed to the 9I XP at 375gr. When you are including doubling hauling into your cast, creating line speed which is necessary especially when dealing with heavier flies and winds, the 375gr line on a 9wt is too much to deal with. If you were simply "flicking" it out there as a beginner or intermediate caster, the 9I XP could work however.
Joe, along with his teammate, was this year's Maine Coast Striped Bass Tournament (shore) winner, has worked at a local tackle shop in years past, and spends an equal amount of time in freshwater as he does the salt. Joe wrote a great article for All Points: "Fall/Winter Fly Fishing For Brown Trout & Steelhead In New York"
Jake was last year's M.C.S.B.T. (shore) winner, used to work at Rising fly fishing, ties a popular striped bass fly for the shop (YouTube video HERE), and is equally comfortable fishing for trout and salmon as he is for striped bass.
Leif is a recent employee of All Points. Before he came on board here, he worked at Snake River Angler in Wyoming. Leif has spent time fishing the backcountry of Wyoming for native Cutthroat, on the flats of Belize, and on the rocky shores of Maine for striped bass.
I am the owner of All Points Fly Shop + Outfitter. I am a registered Maine Guide and custom fly tyer. I not only have experience here in New England but I am lucky enough to have fished internationally from tropical Caribbean flats, South America, to the woods of northern Canada. Although I am a participant in this shootout and you will see my opinions written within this article, I put more weight on the reactions of the other three guys.
The Fly Rods
1. Echo Boost Salt - $249 (Click HERE for more product info)
From Echo: "Crisp, fast action. The Boost Salt is built for anglers with an aggressive casting stroke to achieve maximum line speed. The Boost’s high modulus graphite construction and its fast, crisp action are the result of Tim’s relentless tweaking."
2. Thomas & Thomas Zone - $545 (Click HERE for more product info)
From T&T: "The Zone series pushes the envelope in both performance and price, bringing the latest R&D from Thomas & Thomas to more fly anglers than ever before. Sharing the advanced StratoTherm resin developed for the acclaimed Avantt and Exocett series, Zone rods are rolled and built by hand alongside those flagship models right here in our Massachusetts, USA facility."
3. Redington Predator - $299.99 (Click HERE for more product info)
From Redington: "The Predator is the ultimate fly rod for big flies, heavy lines, and aggressive-fighting fish. It features a powerful, intuitive fast action that commands enough power to combat big gamefish and pick up and cast today's heavy lines and massive flies. Its action is designed to perform in both freshwater and saltwater scenarios, and all components are saltwater-ready."
4. Sage Salt HD - $950 (Click HERE for more product info)
From Sage: "The SALT HD lineup of rods are constructed differently - each with purpose. The fast-moving inhabitants of the salt require anglers to make quick shots and even quicker second shots. With the introduction of KonneticHD Technology, the SALT HD puts situational tools in hand to increase your odds of success. Allowing you to reach further, quicker, more delicately, and providing you with the power to make your angling dreams, lasting memories."
5. Echo EPR - $469 (Click HERE for more product info)
From Echo: "A Rod for Big Flies, Big Fish, and Big Winds. Big game fisheries require a rod that can handle the big stuff. Whether it’s casting chicken-sized muskie flies, fighting heavy winds, or dealing with the fury of a GT, the EPR has delivered."
6. Thomas & Thomas Exocett - $925 (Click HERE for more product info)
From T&T: "T&T’s Exocett Series of high-performance saltwater fly rods are infused with the exceptional strength and dampening characteristics of our proprietary StratoTherm Resin.These light-weight rods are defined by a powerful, fast-dampening action that lifts line off the water with ease, and a thin-diameter top section that slices through the wind for quick and accurate casts. Once hooked-up, Exocett rods support anglers with immense strength and reserve power to battle and land the baddest fish on the planet, from giant trevally to tarpon."
7. Temple Fork Outfitters Mangrove - $299.95 (Click HERE for more product info)
From TFO: "Built with the hardcore angler in mind, the Mangrove series fly rods utilize our proprietary TiCr blank coating, which helps protect the rod from the occasional collision with a weighted fly, and our durable, proprietary Tactical Series™ guides, which are braid and saltwater safe."
Targets at 40, 60, and 80ft were setup for each caster. The participants were given a questionnaire for each rod. These sheets included reactions/comments for each distance and fly line, general first impressions, comments on construction/aesthetics, and overall casting notes. Each rod went through the same casting process. Each line was rigged with a 9' 20lb leader and yellow yarn. This allowed only the weight of the line and the caster involved to be the variables. I thought about having some clousers and deceivers involved with the test, but a lot of people use different (weighted) eyes and materials, so this would be hard to make the review transparent and/or relatable.
The scoring system for this fly rod review was not purely based on numerics. There were no 8/10 or 19.5/20 type results. As it is indeed easy to understand technically that a 8/10 is not as good as a 9/10, trying to logically determine how a rod is a 9.5 vs a 9 is tough. Further, if one rod were to score overall as a 9 and another as a 9.5, are you simply going to think the 9.5 is better for you? Is that .5 point difference really calculable? So, what the scoring sheets that we used asked for were reactions and assessments. The following results will be as detailed as possible so that you can make the call on your own...
The following results are a combination of everyone's opinions and notes. After I went through all the paperwork, there were three rods that stood far out from the pack. These rods were able to cast the Airflo Tropical Punch to the heavy sinking lines with ease, hit longer distances without much effort, didn't suffer too much on accuracy with the heavy lines, could pick up and shoot line without (many) false casts, and felt like they could be fished all day without much Advil needed in the evening.
THE TOP 3
#1 (Winner) Thomas & Thomas Exocett
It was pretty clear after everyone casted the rods, that the T&T Exocett was going to be at least in the top 3. I have personally been fishing this 9wt for the past couple of seasons for striped bass (and other species). When I first brought it out to target stripers, I had a hard time getting the fact that this rod is is also an ideal flats rod out of my head. I kept trying to handicap it thinking: "well, it's a fantastic rod, but maybe more suited for a permit rod than a striped bass rod." But, the more I brought it out on the rocks & ledges in my area, the more I liked it. Further, once I got it situated with a good set of properly matched lines, it came alive. At 4.3oz, along with the Salt HD and Predator, they are the lightest rods in the test.
Jake Nichols: "Feel like I could fish this rod all day with giant flies and not be tired at the end. The rod was light and powerful which is a great combo for the Maine coast."
Leif Catania: "Light to hold - responsive & crips with a sinking line. Plenty of backbone to pick up line"
Joe Webster: "Accurate. Comparable to the Salt HD. Good at long distance. Handled lines well with easy turnover."
In terms of lines, the favorites were the various full sinking lines at 300gr. These included the Scientific Anglers Sink 30 Cold and Rio Striper 300gr. It was easier to get distance with these. I think this is mostly due to the weight than anything else. For instance, although the SA SONAR Titan Full Int. and Rio Coastal Quickshooter (at 330gr) cast very well on this rod, they are really at the top end of the rod's capability in terms of weight.
In the lineup of Exocetts, the 9wt is the first model which includes an enhanced (beefed up) butt section. The 9-12wts all have this. I think this makes a big difference with the rod's range of capabilities. It allows the caster to handle heavier lines, pick up lines better, deal with heavier flies, and negotiate big fish when hooked. If the 9wt Exocett was treated like the 8wt model (without the enhanced butt section) I think it would make this rod quite different. So keep this in mind if you are considering an 8 or 9wt Exocett. Conversely the 8wt has more finesse and is tuned much more for the flats.
#2 (Tie) Echo EPR
This was the fastest rod in the test. It could handle, unlike most, the 350gr sinking lines comfortably. Not ideal, but doable. With a steady double haul, the Echo EPR managed every line and could deal with the fairly windy conditions without much issue. The EPR is designed in a way that is mostly geared towards what a good striper rod should be - lots of muscle, can shoot aggressive tapered + sinking lines, and is made for big/heavy flies. But the counterpoint to this is that it is sort of a one-trick-pony. Unlike the Exocett or Salt HD which have broader applications, the EPR is a utilitarian rod with essentially one purpose. So, if you are looking for purely a "meat chucker," keep this rod in mind...
Joe Webster: "Powerful and accurate. A little bulky in feel. Seemed like it was able to handle heavier lines and flies well."
Jake Nichols: "(With the Rio Coastal Quickshooter) as smooth and easy of a combination as I've casted. Of all the rods tested, I feel as though I could do a 12hr day and be the least tired with this rod."
Leif Catania: "Holy fast! Fastest rod in test. Awesome with the Coastal Quickshooter. Requires some muscle though but perfect for distance....I am purchasing this rod!"
Although the EPR lies within the "mid price" category at $469, there is clearly some high-end performance being had here! Before we even started the test, I was very curious how this rod would stack up to the rest. With a quick "shop wiggle" I knew it was really fast, but we ended up being impressed with the cast-ability as well. Another notable feature is Echo's new "Dual Zone" cork. Although I'm not 100% sure on all the specifics of this, it was one of the most comfortable grips in the test, especially for us who have larger hands. A big factor in casting fatigue is rooted in the grip. If you feel like you need to grip the handle harder, this leads to a tired hand and forearm much much quicker than a properly fitted cork. At 4.7oz it is at the heavier end of the rods tested.
#2 (Tie) Sage Salt HD
In essence, these top 3 rods are fairly interchangeable. All three performed incredibly well in all aspects of this test and would be a good choice for our New England saltwater fly fishing. The Sage Salt HD and Thomas & Thomas Exocett were the only two high-end rods in the test and they were also clearly head and shoulders above the other rods because they not only shined in this shootout, but offer a broader range of capabilities and also share a much more detailed and refined fit & finish. This was something that I found pretty interesting about this review. It showed that you indeed get what you pay for. It is very difficult to make a fly rod, and even harder to make a really good fly rod! As mentioned above, the Echo EPR was fantastic for N.E. fly fishing applications. But the Sage Salt HD would most likely blow the EPR out of the water on a bonefish/permit flat. It simply had plenty of power, but offered loads of feel and accuracy. So within the confines of this test, the EPR and Salt HD were neck-and-neck, but if you are looking for a rod for multiple applications, look at the Exocett and Salt HD to fit that bill. It shares the same weight of 4.3oz with the Exocett and Predator.
Jake Nichols: "Will do well in heavy winds while still maintaining good accuracy. With the Sink 30 Cold, it was easy to unload lots of line with minimal effort"
Joe Webster: "Effortless. Accurate. Not the fastest (in the test) but felt better with a heavier line"
Leif Catania: "Great casting rod, very similar to the Exocett but maybe a tad bit faster and burlier. Overall appearance is gorgeous, yet simple. Solid striper rod, especially for throwing heavier stuff like clousers"
The Salt HD was slightly faster than the Exocett, but not by much. However this stiffness provided slightly better comparative performance with the heavier lines. I would be very curious how these two would fare in an accuracy shootout! Joe Webster preferred the Salt HD over the Exocett and here were a couple of quick notes he sent me:
- bigger & better fighting butt
- better quality reel seat
- performed better with the heavy lines
- preferred the looks of this rod over the others
The Middle Of The Pack...
#4 Redington Predator (best budget rod)
Since I opened All Points, this has been the top selling "budget" minded striper rod out of the shop. It is similar to the Echo EPR in theory as it's a very fast action rod built for big flies, big wind, and heavy lines. The accuracy of this rod especially at longer distances leaves a little to be desired compared to the top 3. But as described in the beginning of this article, this is not the top concern while blind casting for striped bass. The Predator is also a popular rod for those looking for a great smallmouth and largemouth bass setup. Weight: 4.3oz.
Joe Webster: "Not the most accurate, but powerful. The Rio Quickshooter balanced very well. Would be able to turn over large flies - great low end streamer rod!"
Leif Catania: "Not a fan of (most of) Redington's rods, but this rod is trying to change my mind!"
Jake Nichols: "Surprisingly powerful and accurate for the price point. Will handle wind/large flies/heavy lines well."
When we are talking about "budget" or lower end rods, there are so many variables that one needs to consider. Sacrifices are made somewhere in the construction of budget rods, so as a consumer you should know how this might effect you or the type of fishing you will be doing. Within the context of the Redington Predator, one of the outlying factors is its durability. I get a fair amount of broken tips with this rod.The rumor is that this rod shares the same design/taper as the (now discontinued) Sage ONE, but simply made with lower end materials (which also changes the action some). This is similar to the issue that has been apparent with the TFO BVK in terms of breakage. I would have been interested to see how the BVK did in this test, but they recently stopped production on the 9wts and higher.
As the first mid priced rod that T&T has offered, there was quite a bit of expectations behind it. The Zone won best Saltwater Fly Rod at last years IFTD and has been making some serious noise with flats anglers looking for an accurate tropical rod at a more comfortable price. Compared to the Exocett, the Zone is not as fast...or "snappy." It's certainly in the category of a fast action rod, but it was pretty clear that the Zone is geared more towards the average caster. This usually doesn't effect its accuracy much, but for the purposes of this test, a softer rod can suffer on the coast of Maine. However, that was not the case here. The Zone was able to cast most of the lines with ease, other than the 350gr Rio Striper which simply overloaded it especially at long distances. It has great feel and shares similar characteristics to the Salt HD and Exocett. The Zone started to suffer a little at the longer distances especially with the wind as it required a little more effort and energy to get that line to turn over and reach those targets in the wind. It was also one of the heavier rods in the test at 4.7oz.
Leif Catania: "Love this rod! The SA SONAR Full Int. feels good. It's fast action with good feel."
Joe Webster: "Nice rod. Good feel. Has a great reel seat and nice handle as well."
Jake Nichols: "Felt a little tip heavy with the Waterworks-Lamson Guru (a lighter reel), but otherwise balanced well. Good accuracy with minimal effort."
For those looking to purchase a fly rod with impeccable construction at a lower price-point, the Zone should be high on your list. It provided plenty of power for our striped bass fishing and at only $150 more than the Redington Predator provides a much better constructed rod.
This rod, I think, performed better than its ranking shows. At #6 most people would start to dismiss this as one of the least favorite rods in the test, but we were quite impressed. It's a tried and true fast action rod. Handled sinking lines, dealt with the day's wind well, and at $249 out performed the TFO Mangrove ($299.95) by quite a bit. The Boost Salt and Redington Predator are essentially in the same family...fast action, budget minded fly rods that are high on performance but lower on the construction/aesthetics side of things. What made the Predator rank higher than the Boost Salt was the fact that the Predator has a sole purpose of being super fast and intended for all things "big." The Echo Boost Salt is certainly a fast rod and was able to negotiate all the lines well, but we found that at the 80+ft mark it didn't quite hit the mark as easily as the Predator. It was just super easy with the Predator. But what was a high mark for this rod was that it could easily be used for other applications as well. You might not have that dead-on accuracy of the Exocett or Salt HD, but this rod could certainly be capable and accurate at casting to tailing redfish or bonefish. It shares the same weight of 4.7oz with the EPR and Zone.
Leif Catania: "$250 is an amazing price! Casts well...would be a good striper rod."
Jake Nichols: "Easy to throw tight loops. Fairly easy to unload the line but feels a little clunky with the heavier lines."
Joe Webster: "Nice feel in hand. Light and fast."
The Echo Boost salt definitely had a sweet spot. Anything under 40ft provided little feel, but once I got more line out it started to really do well. Then, after about 80ft, the rod started to require some very specific timing and effort. Now, most of us are fishing within that 30-80ft zone anyway, so how much of that is really applicable is up to you. This was the case with most of the lines we tested too, which is interesting. The aesthetics of this rod is where every participant felt there was quite a bit to be desired. A matte grey finish with mid-grade components is certainly the reflection of Echo's desire at performance over looks. If you are looking for a more "all around" rod that is within a slimmer budget, I'd recommend checking out the Boost Salt.
Bottom Of The Pack..
This was clearly the most disappointing rod in our test. I have fished this rod in many different situations (in the mangroves of Florida and here in Maine) and have always felt that it's a decent rod for various purposes, but when you toss on heavy shooting heads or sinking lines, it starts to really suffer. It does very well at accurate presentations with a floating line within 60ft, but thats about it. If you fish for redfish, snook, or bonefish - the 8wt model is a good option. But, when you get into the "big stuff" there are better options out there. However, if you consider yourself a new/beginner caster, this is a good rod to learn how to "saltwater cast." The Mangrove weighed in at 4.4oz.
Joe Webster: "Too slow and (swing weight is) heavy."
Leif Catania: "Struggles to hit the 80ft mark. Goes to noodle-mode quickly."
Jake Nichols: "Seems ok for beginners, but if you want to throw bigger flies with heavier lines it might be difficult."
I am upset that I wasn't able to get a 9wt Axiom II-X rod for this test! I think that would be probably the best offering from TFO for striped bass and New England saltwater fly fishing. The Mangrove was simply too soft for our review. This rod certainly has its place in other capacities, just not here. An upside to this rod however, is that it does not suffer the breakage issue(s) that the BVK does. It has a niche following in the 12wt model for tarpon anglers looking for a decent "presentation minded" rod.
(Did Not Place) Thomas & Thomas Exocett SS 250 + 350
I originally arranged to get each of these rods to throw into the test as well. I was very curious and specifically how the 350 would do as it's designed around the 350gr zone and advertises itself as a great rod for heavy lines and compact shooting heads. It would make sense that these might be good options for striped bass. But we had a very hard time finding lines that worked on these. Even with the Rio Striper 350gr sinking line (which you'd assume would be a match), the Exocett SS 350 felt uncomfortable. I remember a few years ago I was able to cast a prototype of the 350 at the T&T facility. I rigged up the Airflo Tropical Punch WF10F which is 330gr. That matched up pretty well. But when we cycled through the lines that we included in the test on the SS 350, we were simply not able to nail down what this rod wanted. So I decided to leave it out of the equation until further review.
Although I selected the most popular and/or asked about rods out of the shop for striped bass and theoretically they all should be at least "decent" at this application, I was pleasantly surprised by these results. It was good to see that there are some really great options for the budget minded angler such as the Echo Boost Salt and the Redington Predator. Both of these rods share characteristics which make them killer rods for New England saltwater fly fishing. Further, it also proved that taking the jump up to a higher end rod like the Sage Salt HD or Thomas & Thomas Exocett certain does indeed yield tangible benefits.
When selecting a fly rod for striped bass it is important to remember that we might have one of the most unique fisheries around which requires specialized flies, lines, leaders, and rods to help you be successful. With all of the options out there for fly rods, it can be daunting. Further, not every 9wt out there is appropriate for all applications. I hope this review has helped inform you a little on either fly rod selection or striped bass fishing as a whole here in New England.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact me! - firstname.lastname@example.org