After interviewing experts and spending more than 80 hours testing spinning rods and reels, we’ve determined that pairing the Shakespeare Ugly Stik GX2 rod with the Daiwa BG SW spinning reel makes the best all-around fishing outfit for most casual to experienced fishers without breaking the bank. This combo compares favorably to outfits costing twice as much.
The Daiwa BG SW and medium or medium-heavy Ugly Stik GX2 combination is more versatile and durable than anything else in the same price range. Spending less means losing out on long-term durability; spending more means you’re paying for features designed for specific kinds of fishing, or lighter-weight materials that are nice to have but unnecessary for a general-purpose fishing setup. (Daiwa’s 1500–2500 models are ideal for small trout streams but can also handle light inshore fishing for spotted seatrout and flounder, while the larger 5000 and 8000 models will handle larger inshore species and perhaps even small tuna and dolphinfish.)
However, if you never plan on targeting anything larger than trout and small freshwater bass or small inshore saltwater species (about 1 to 4 pounds), you can get away with the ultra-light version of the Ugly Stik GX2 and a smaller BG SW reel (size 2500 or less) and save a few bucks. If you’re fishing from shore in thick brush or in a narrow stream, consider a shorter rod, down to 5 feet or even 4 feet 6 inches, for tiny creeks and brooks. If you’re fishing with bait, especially with heavy sinkers (2 ounces plus), the Ugly Stik Tiger Elite series offers a little more flex (through more fiberglass and less graphite), which is good for both setting the hook and fighting with heavier tackle and fish.
The Daiwa BG SW has been the most popular $100 reel this year across the board, from the annual ICAST show to Salt Water Sportsman and Sport Fishing Magazine. Compared with our previous pick, the Penn Battle II—not to mention many higher-end Penn and Shimano reels—the BG SW is equipped with a more durable rotor, as well as stronger, individual springs for the anti-reverse clutch (which keeps the reel from spinning backward), and most notably, the very same ball bearings included in Daiwa’s and Shimano’s most expensive models.
The BG SW’s design allows trapped water (a common issue with braided line especially) to drain through the reel. The drag mechanism is the same one found in higher-end $200-plus reels, but unique in the $100 range. This makes it comparable in durability to reels that cost twice as much.
Those are our overall picks for people who aren’t totally sure what kind of fishing they want to focus on. But we also spent some time looking into alternatives for people who have a better idea of what they specifically need. These options include an upgrade reel for use with live bait, a couple of poles for specific kinds of fishing, and a longer pole designed for fishing from the beach into the surf.
I’m a United States Coast Guard–certified master captain, and I have been fishing since I could walk. I grew up working on charter boats in and around Long Island Sound, and reliable fishing gear has been paramount not only to my profession but also to my life. Having fished on a budget in settings as varied and diverse as the spring brooks of the Adirondack Mountains, the brown sludge that is the Hudson River, and the emerald coastal waters of New Zealand, I can say that a careful selection of the most durable all-around tackle has been essential to me.
To supplement my own expertise, I enlisted the help of veteran spinning-reel reviewer Alan Hawk and also consulted Salt Water Sportsman editor-at-large and NBC Sports television host George Poveromo on what would be the ideal spinning-rod-and-reel setup for a casual fisher.
Like most fishers, I’m not able to carry, store, or afford a different rod and reel for every species of fish or method of fishing. So I picked an affordable, high-quality spinning-rod-and-reel combo that can work in as many fishing conditions and settings as possible—including saltwater and freshwater. This spinning-rod-and-reel setup is approachable enough for a novice to learn on, yet it performs well enough for a seasoned veteran to depend on.
In researching and testing, I prioritized attributes such as durability and build quality—features that anyone, regardless of skill level and intended use, can appreciate—over more specialized features such as multiple-geared reels for using live bait or especially stiff rods that can handle big fish but not smaller ones. In other words, the Ugly Stik GX2 and Daiwa BG SW combo is what I’d recommend if someone were to ask me, “What fishing pole should I get if I don’t know what I want?”
At the sub-$200 level, our selection for both a rod and a reel represents the most affordable but still reliable pairing we could recommend. You could easily spend $2,000 on a fishing rod if you’d like something ultralightweight or designed for a specific species you’re targeting, but our pick will get the job done almost as well (if not just as well) most of the time. Similarly, you could go cheaper, but then you’d give up reliability.
If you’re more experienced and looking for a specific rod and reel, apart from the size of the fish you’re targeting, you’ll also have to take into account what kind of fishing you’ll be doing: Will you be casting artificial lures (objects designed to look like fish or other prey with a hook attached), or using bait (smaller fish, worms, or other natural prey, either alive or dead)? Most lure fishers will want a stiffer rod composed of graphite (or mostly graphite) so that they can “work” a jig or plug to imitate the movements of prey, while bait fishers might seek out a rod that’s a little looser or more sensitive, so as to detect the slightest strike. Our rod recommendation can do both things decently, but if you know you’ll be doing only one or the other, you should look into a more specialized setup.
First off, I had to decide what kind of rod and reel we would focus on, which was an easy choice—if you’re going to own only one fishing rod and reel, a spinning-rod-and-reel setup is the most versatile and the easiest to use.
Compared with a baitcasting or fly-fishing setup, a spinning setup is more comfortable to use and is usually easier to repair; it also requires less finesse to cast. Think of it as the “automatic transmission” version of a fishing rod and reel. If you’re starting from nothing, a spinning outfit offers the highest chance of success. If you’re a beginner, it’s much easier to pick up than either of the other options, and it’s far less likely to become tangled than a baitcasting setup.
Key features of a fishing rod
In my 20-plus years of fishing, I’ve come to learn that when you’re shopping for fishing rods—as for any tool—paying a little attention to a few key features can be telling before you even pick up one. The rod’s material, flexibility, sensitivity, and line-guide construction all make a difference in how well the rod will perform and last.
As mentioned previously, bait-hucking fishers will want something that’s more sensitive and flexible, while lure fishers will want something stiffer (known as “fast action” in fishing jargon). Most rods are made out of fiberglass, graphite, or a mixture of both. The more graphite in a rod, the lighter and stiffer it is, but such rods are also more brittle, so you wouldn’t want to hand one to a 3-year-old. Fiberglass is heavier but more flexible (“slow action”)—like a whipping stick—and nearly impossible to break. For a beginner or an all-around angler, a combination of both materials offers the most versatile package: It gives you enough stiffness to adequately manipulate a lure, while maintaining enough sensitivity for detecting small bites.
The next most important specification you’ll want to consider is the material that makes up the guides—the loops that lead, or guide, the line from the reel to the tip (the skinny end) of the fishing rod. Lower-end fishing rods (and many higher-end ones, too) usually feature guides made of either thin stainless steel or aluminum oxide (ceramic) frames holding cheap ceramic O-ring inserts (rings designed to protect the insides of the guides and prevent line wear) that chip or corrode, and eventually fail.
Additionally, the more pieces that make up the guide, the more pieces with the potential to fall apart. A design with more pieces means more jointing and fastening, which usually requires glue. Since fishing rods are often exposed to sun, salt, sand, dirt, fish parts, and general wear and tear, glue is simply less than ideal (as is plastic); a single piece of relatively rustproof metal is incomparably sturdier.
More expensive (and usually sturdier) guides include inserts made of higher-quality materials such as silicon carbide (SiC) or titanium-framed silicon carbide (TiSiC), which are usually affixed to rods built for performance (longer casting and lighter weight). While these materials are not necessarily stronger than stainless steel or lined aluminum oxide, they are higher-performance materials, and a lot more expensive. You start seeing these only on rods in the $150 range, as opposed to the $40 to $50 range, so they’re beyond the budget of most casual anglers. Also, most anglers won’t even notice the difference—I find that I don’t care one way or the other, and I’ve been fishing my whole life.
The rest, including the grip material and the number of pieces the rod itself breaks down into, is up to you. I will suggest that, if you can accommodate it, a one-piece rod will almost always outperform a two- or three-piece rod. A one-piece rod offers better stiffness and more control—fewer pieces make for fewer problems with durability and performance, although portability suffers.
If you take all of those factors into account, Shakespeare’s Ugly Stik series is really the only rod option worth considering if you’re on a budget and want something that will last. No other series offers all of those features at a price that even comes close. Within this lineup, you have the GX2 (the direct successor to the classic, time-tested Ugly Stik) and the Elite series (a newer model designed to be a bit stiffer to cater more toward lure fishers). To be safe, we also tested it against a few other inexpensive options to see how everything stacked up. These options included the $35 to $60 Shimano Saguaro and the similarly priced Penn Squadron, the Ugly Stik’s main competitor in this price range. And just as a point of reference, I also brought along an old Shimano FXS I had around to compare with an even cheaper rod (it typically sells for less than $20).
Key features of a fishing reel
With the rod settled, we looked into reels, which are a lot more complicated since they have so many moving parts. When you’re shopping for a reel, among the first things you need to consider is how much drag you’ll need to handle the type of fish you hope to catch. “Drag” on a spinning reel is provided by a stack of washers, which you can either tighten or loosen against the spool (the part of the reel that holds the line) to build friction to reel in a fish, relieve friction to allow for “play” in the line (so it doesn’t break), or let it swim away in order to let the hook fully set.1
The amount of drag required varies by fishing method and the species targeted—but if you’re not sure, we recommend asking the locals, or going to a bait-and-tackle shop. John Bretza, Okuma’s director of product development, put it into perspective: “Even when we fish North Carolina bluefin [tuna] (which can weigh hundreds of pounds), we use 18 to 22 pounds of drag for the strike and, most of the time, as our full-drag setting as well. That’s still a lot of drag for most…” In other words, you don’t need much drag to cover a wide variety of fish. For the average fisher, the 10- to 25-pound maximum drags on any of our picks will suffice. But to make sure you get what you need, look for the “maximum drag rating” on the spec sheet.
Beyond getting the right amount of drag, the most important feature is durability. You could buy a reel for less than $50, but at that price you shouldn’t expect it to last more than a couple of years with regular use (maybe a dozen uses each summer). Cheaper reels come with cheaper drag systems made of felt or lower-quality carbon fiber, which disintegrates quickly. This construction, combined with little or no preventative sealing to keep saltwater and grit from entering the mechanical parts, means that most reels less than $50 just aren’t worth the money. If you’re planning on saltwater fishing and don’t want to spend more than $50 on a reel, consider going old-school with a hand line—I have more fishing rods than I can count, but I still love to use hand lines, and I always keep one or two around.
Reels in the $50 to $100 range are built better and can last a long time if you keep them away from saltwater. But if you spend around $100 or a bit more, you’ll get all the makings of a reel that’s built to last. That means a semisealed drag—for keeping out water, dirt, and corrosive salt spray—as well as an all-metal body. It will also be repairable should anything go wrong, whereas with cheaper gear, the cost of a repair can often exceed the worth of the reel.
You can spend a lot more than $100 if you want a sealed drag or a multigear reel, which includes a lighter and finer drag that allows live and cut bait to sit with minimal resistance (Shimano calls this feature a Baitrunner; Penn calls it a Live Liner). The design also makes it easier to set the hook when a fish picks up your bait, as you can quickly engage your primary (or heavy) drag just by starting to reel.
That said, if you plan to do a lot of bait fishing from boats, buy a conventional open-faced reel with a more dependable dual drag system, even if you go to an antique shop and find an old Penn Senator to put on any old boat rod—when I return home to Long Island Sound, I still use my great-grandfather’s Penn setups, which he used to catch tuna many decades ago.
You can find several reliable and widely available reels for about $100. Last year’s pick, the Penn Battle II, with its water-resistant drag and all-metal body, came recommended personally by George Poveromo (and he’s tried them all). It was also featured in Salt Water Sportsman’s feature on new gear for 2015 and at the 2014 International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades—the world’s largest sportfishing trade show. That made the Battle II the clear favorite going into this round of testing, and I should note that my Battle II, which has circled the globe, been dropped in sand and salt, and even sunk in a pool of fish blood in the bottom of my boat, is still alive and well.
But this year, Daiwa introduced the BG SW series (which, apart from the name, has nothing to do with the company’s 35-year-old original BG series), and because it finally works with braided line—the only shortcoming of the original BG series—it’s my new favorite all-around reel for anything from 6-inch trout to 60-pound tuna.
We also went ahead and tested Okuma’s Azores series (also highly recommended by Alan Hawk and highlighted in Salt Water Sportsman’s 2015 tackle preview), Shimano’s new Nasci, and Daiwa’s SS Tournament series, as well as the new Penn Slammer III, Quantum Cabo PTSE, and Shimano Spheros SW, Saragosa, and Stradic Ci4+ FB for potential upgrade picks.
I tested all of the rods and reels from beaches, rocks, boats, and riverbanks. I fished with lures in rivers for trout and salmon, and I set 1- to 1½-pound live baits from my skiffs, catching ocean fish up to 20 pounds with each rod and reel. I also tested the gear on smaller bottom fish, including summer flounder, sea bass, and porgies (or scup), as well as red drum and spotted seatrout in Charleston, South Carolina. While I didn’t test much in lakes or ponds, I did spend several days fishing freshwater rivers for trout and smaller salmon, and a couple of days fishing private ponds and lakes for largemouth bass. I beat up these rods and reels, from the mouth of the Hudson River in New York to the Cook Strait of New Zealand.
I used each reel with 6- to 15-pound test monofilament line (depending on the reel size), and also tried either 40- or 50-pound test braided line on each of the saltwater-oriented rods. (Braid can come in handy for lighter-weight rods and reels, but for the inexperienced angler, it can also bring on the nuisances of knots and snags.)
Initially, I washed everything down well after each use as I usually do. Then, a week in, I decided to see what leaving salt and grit on and in them would do, which was extremely telling—especially after I took the gear apart.
After logging plenty of catches (and abuse) on each reel, I took them to Henderson’s Ltd. Tackle and Repair Shop in Blenheim, New Zealand, to get them disassembled so that I could examine the insides for signs of quality construction, design, and materials (or lack thereof). The teardown test made it easy to see why some brands earn reputations for lasting longer than others, and it allowed us to discover how some seemingly similar models are actually quite different inside.
To make certain that I put each reel and respective drag through the same amount of strain, I took the top four reels I tested into a local fishing shop and attached them to scales using a 50-pound test leader. (None of the drags would stand up to 50 pounds of tension, and this way the line would break before the drag, just in case.)
If you’re planning to get only one rod and you don’t want to spend a fortune, it should be a 6½- to 7-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stik GX2, available in ultra-light, medium, medium-heavy, and heavy versions. It should be a single-piece model, if you can accommodate it. The size and line rating depend on the species you’re targeting and the type of water you’re fishing (ultra-light, UL, for panfish and small trout; medium, M, for fish weighing 3 to 10 pounds; medium-heavy, MH, for fish in the 10- to 25-pound range; and heavy, H, beyond that). The GX2 is the latest update to a classic line of rods renowned for their versatility and durability for nearly four decades. (It’s also available in a package deal with a reel for $10 more, but that reel is really good only for backup purposes—as the customer reviews attest.)
Over the years, I’ve owned too many fishing rods under $100 to list, and in some way or another, nearly each and every one has found its way to the dump, except for the Ugly Stiks—I still have every one I’ve ever purchased. I have also owned and used several $200-plus rods while working on charter boats, but none of those are still with us.
The Ugly Stik GX2 was introduced last year as the first major redesign of the Ugly Stik series since its debut in 1976. Compared with the original, it includes more graphite and less fiberglass, giving the rod more of a backbone for working lures and handling heavier fish, while still keeping the soft fiberglass tip that makes it sensitive enough for detecting subtler strikes and smaller catches.
Based on the GX2’s build and the original’s history of durability, the GX2 could very well be the last rod you’ll need to buy. In my 20-plus years of fishing, I’ve used scores of rods and broken (or witnessed the breaking of) just about every one of them, except the Ugly Stiks. They are seriously tough rods—a fact supported by their industry-leading seven-year warranty (compared with the typical one-year coverage offered on Penn and Shimano rods, and even on Shakespeare’s own, non–Ugly Stik rods). I haven’t found another $40 fishing rod I would trust this much. In fact, if it costs less than $100 and it’s not an Ugly Stik, I’d just as soon use a hand line.
What makes the Ugly Stik GX2 so much more durable and versatile than other rods is that it uses both graphite and fiberglass to provide sensitivity and strength without sacrificing too much of either. It features a primarily graphite shaft for stiffness, along with a soft, clear, and flexible fiberglass tip.
That flexible tip means it won’t be ideal for manipulating lures, but we think the added versatility is more valuable to most fishers—especially beginners. While the GX2 isn’t better than a specialist rod in either application, it is a capable performer in both—which can’t be said of the Ugly Stik Tiger or the Penn Squadron.
In addition to having a durable shaft, the GX2 is the only rod in its price category that comes fitted with one-piece stainless steel line guides, which can literally be smashed with a rock and still maintain serviceability. During testing, I accidentally planted my foot directly on the guide of a rod that I’d left in the bottom of my boat—as one does—but it was unscathed. Cheap, flimsy aluminum-oxide guides are the industry standard at this price, so it’s nice to see Shakespeare, the maker of the Ugly Stik, take durability seriously. Apart from higher-end models that cost four or five times the price, I’ve never seen this feature in a spinning rod. This design also represents an upgrade from the old Ugly Stik, which had two-piece pop-out guides that were the only weak spot in an otherwise bulletproof rod.
Just in case anything does go wrong, all you need to submit to take advantage of the Ugly Stik’s class-leading seven-year warranty is photographic evidence of the damage, your receipt, and $10 to cover shipping. That’s far better than the one-year warranty coverage from Shimano and Penn, and even from Shakespeare itself on its non–Ugly Stik models. (St. Croix offers a five-year warranty for its Triumph rod, which we tested as a possible upgrade pick.)
One quick shopping note: Make sure you’re buying the spinning rod, not the casting version of the same rod from the same manufacturer. They’re easy to confuse, and our chosen reel won’t fit the casting version.
Having worked in the fishing industry and having spent more time than I could begin to recount casting lures and setting baits with captains, guides, and seasoned veterans, I can safely say that just about everyone I know relies on Ugly Stiks, apart from those with particularly exclusive outfits and objectives like my friend Captain Dom Petrarca, who runs Coastal Charters Sportfishing out of New England chasing giant bluefin tuna, which almost demands the use of $2,000 state-of-the-art spinning tackle.
Perusing the most noteworthy fishing publications and tackle reviews on the Web, we found conclusions unanimously in favor of the Ugly Stik GX2.
TackleTour, a leading review and news source for all things fishing tackle, says, “The GX2 Series will replace the original and pays homage to the legendary toughness and durability of the original series while infusing the rod line with advanced new technology to improve sensitivity and refinement.”
Walker Smith at Wired2Fish, one of the most authoritative publications on the subject of largemouth bass fishing, concurs: “You’ll also notice much better balance than the original Ugly Stik.” He points out the durability of the guides, too, continuing, “The guides on these rods are also much more durable, with one-piece, stamped stainless steel guides that won’t pop out regardless of what abuse you put the rod through.”
The Outdoor Channel’s Jessyca Sortillon also appreciates the lighter weight of the new GX2, but the winning point for her seems to be its toughness: “Just like the original, the new Ugly Stik is strong, durable, and easy to use. In my opinion, if the rod can withstand being banged and dragged around by a 5-year-old, it’s virtually indestructible.”
The downsides of the Shakespeare Ugly Stik GX2 are few but worth noting. First, it’s heavier than more high-performance graphite rods (which usually run about 5 ounces for a medium-heavy 6-foot-6 or 7-foot rod), and some people find that tiring. But if you’ve never held a high-end spinning rod before, you won’t notice the difference.
Another problem with the Ugly Stik GX2 is that the guides are not always perfectly placed. This is something you’re likely to find in any mass-produced base-level spinning-rod model; it’s not something children will notice. Guide placement becomes more essential when you’re fighting trophy-sized fish, which is not something the average angler will put their gear through. If you do happen to be fishing big game, you’ll likely have to step up in price range, or find a good deal at a garage sale.
Shimano’s Saguaro series is every bit as versatile as the Ugly Stik GX2, but the guides are nowhere near as durable as Ugly Stik’s Ugly Tuff guides. While I found the rod itself to be more clunky and cumbersome overall—especially when casting lightweight artificial lures—that’s also what made me recognize and appreciate it as a dependable workhorse.
Compared with the similarly priced Ugly Stik models, the Shimano Saguaro is a stiffer graphite composite. While this design can be advantageous for casting plugs, it offers less “play” or give, which can hinder other applications like setting the hook while bottom fishing with bait and a heavy sinker, where some flex is advantageous.
Apart from the Saguaro’s less durable guides, the primarily graphite rod is more brittle, and less likely to survive a spill or a misplaced foot.
If you plan to fish with care (and not with children), the Saguaro can make an excellent rod for medium-weight jigging and topwater fishing, but it is less than ideal for lightweight artificial lures or bait fishing, and nowhere near as sturdy as an Ugly Stik.
If the Ugly Stik GX2 is unavailable, or if you know you want something stiffer for doing more lure fishing, the Ugly Stik Elite series is a good bet. These rods are available in the same wide range of sizes as the GX2 (for the most all-around versatility, we’d still recommend a medium to medium-heavy rod in the 6-foot-6 or 7-foot range), but they have a cork grip instead of an EVA foam grip and contain 35 percent more graphite, which makes them a bit stiffer and lighter overall. The added stiffness makes the Elite ideal for manipulating lures and giving them “action” (a fishing term for making lures dance or hobble like wounded prey).
At this writing, the Elite is only about $10 more than the GX2 at any given length, which isn’t a lot of money, so you might be wondering why it isn’t our top pick. First off, as a stiffer rod, the Elite isn’t as well-suited to bait fishing for smaller catches. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing if that’s what you know you want, but it’s worth noting if you’re a first-timer trying to start small. Second, while the GX2 is the direct successor to the classic Ugly Stik, which had four decades of acclaim behind it, the Elite series is a whole new line. While that extra 35 percent of graphite sounds appealing on paper, it’s still too early to tell whether that might decrease the long-term durability. For what it’s worth, a picture from Shakespeare’s display at the 2014 ICAST gathering shows the Elite completely doubled over with the tip beside the butt end. Overall, it looks like a solid piece of gear, and I’ll be adding one or two of these rods to my arsenal soon. For most anglers, however, the GX2 is the better bet.
Surf fishing (casting off the beach into ocean waves) requires a longer rod for longer casts to get your bait or lure out beyond the waves. That means, at the very least, you want an 8-foot rod (though these can run even longer than 15 feet). Shakespeare’s Ugly Stik Bigwater line usually ranges from $60 to $80 on Amazon, and it now features the new Ugly Tuff guides.
The new Daiwa BG SW series is our reel pick because these reels are built tougher than any similarly priced competition. Daiwa’s original 35-year-old BG series has been a crowd favorite since its introduction but has fallen short as an all-around choice only because the roller on the bail (which guides the line from the reel to the guides on the fishing rod) was not built to handle braided line. That’s changed—in fact, our teardown revealed that it has more in common with $200-plus reels than with others in its price category. (Consider sizes 1500 to 2000 for small freshwater and inshore saltwater species, 3000 to 5000 for medium freshwater and saltwater species, 5000 to 8000 for surf fishing, and 8000 to 10000 for larger fish, including some pelagic fish like mahi mahi and small tuna.)
Mechanically, the new Daiwa BG SW reels stand head and shoulders above competitors within the same price range for a handful of reasons.
The ball bearings in the BG SW, for one thing, are the very same Minebea bearings that are loaded into Shimano’s Stella SW series of reels, which typically run for $800 to $1,400. The anti-reverse clutch (which keeps the reel from spinning backward) consists of individual metal springs, as opposed to the cheap plastic clips usually featured in $100 reels.
The drag or “thrust” disc has a rubber seal mounted to it, and according to expert spinning-reel reviewer Alan Hawk, it’s constructed of the same polymer that makes up the thrust discs of the Penn Slammer III (which usually costs about $350).
And finally, one small but brilliant finishing touch: The spool has a small hole drilled in it to prevent rust and allow trapped water to escape. This detail is further testament to the kind of thought that Daiwa put into the research and design of this humble but trusty little $100 reel.
Salt Water Sportsman, expert reel reviewer Alan Hawk, and Sport Fishing Magazine are all raving about Daiwa’s BG SW, and I’ve yet to find a reason to disagree with them.
“To me the BG SW is the new best value spinning reel available anywhere today,” writes Alan Hawk, “and it will be a lot of fun to sit and watch how it will steer the entire industry in a new direction, to our benefit this time.”
Daiwa states that the BG SW has a machined aluminum gear, but as Alan Hawk discovered, it’s cast zinc. While the company’s claim is clearly deceptive, it is not a marketing ploy unique to Daiwa—Penn and Shimano, among other manufacturers, are all guilty of similar deceit. Nevertheless, although machined aluminum makes for a higher-quality, more durable gear, cast zinc still gets the job done and is the industry standard in reels under $300—but this may soon change.
While the Daiwa BG SW has replaced the Penn Battle II as our top pick for reels, I’m still happy to recommend the Battle II as a runner-up, and I’ll probably always keep one aboard my skiff—mine continues to serve me well, and as long as I keep it greased, I trust it. The drag is astonishingly strong, and despite a couple of years’ worth of heavy use around the world, it still shows no signs of degradation or snags in the hardware or the sealed drag mechanism. I’ve hooked into 20-pound salmon and even larger yellowtail jacks, and I’ve lent it to friends with whom I would not entrust most of my belongings—and who I’m sure didn’t bother to wash it—and it still performs flawlessly.
Salt Water Sportsman, Sport Fishing Magazine, and ICAST, the world’s largest sportfishing convention, have also touted the Battle II as an industry favorite, and I continue to see it aboard guide boats as a reliable but inexpensive alternative to reels twice its price.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with the Battle II, and you can’t go wrong with it. Daiwa has simply gone above and beyond the standard for a $100 spinning reel with the BG SW.
The Okuma Azores reels are simple but powerful, with a design and drag comparable to those of the Battle II, though they typically run about $20 more depending on the size you select (we recommend the Z-65S size for all-around use). Next to other reels with similar line ratings, the Azores holds a lot of line, because it’s a bit bigger. This means it will perform well in the surf or at greater depths (60 feet or more), where excess line is often necessary. It’s also a capable stand-in if the Battle II is unavailable, but it’s a bit too large to gracefully handle lighter-action artificial lures.
Of all the reels we tested, the Azores had the highest maximum drag rating at 44 pounds (I didn’t quite get it there, but it came in close enough at 40 pounds on the scale). Forty-four pounds of drag (or tension) is about as much drag as any human can handle before being yanked off their feet anyhow. The Azores is equipped with Okuma’s Dual-Force Drag System, which has one set of washers in the top of the spool and another larger, single washer at the bottom. The reasoning is that the two drags work against each other, which theoretically makes sense and might explain the reel’s formidable drag rating.
After putting sand and salt through the reel and taking it apart, I was surprised to find that the spool was just as clean inside as the Penn Battle II, the Daiwa BG SW, and the Shimano Spheros SW. That bodes well for the long-term durability of the Azores, despite the relative lack of internal grease compared with the Penn. However, while the bearings are sealed, the gear is not, and I’m left with doubts as to whether the gear can outlast those of the Daiwa BG SW, the less-expensive Penn Battle II, or the slightly more expensive Penn and Shimano reels.
Overall, the Azores is a capable reel, but its larger size and slightly higher price mean that the BG SW is both more versatile and a better value for most people.
If you’re planning to do a lot of live-bait fishing, it’s worthwhile to look into a “freespool” reel. I recommend Penn’s Spinfisher V Live Liner. Freespool reels have a lighter secondary drag, which means that you can set a live bait with minimal drag so that when a fish takes it, you can engage the full drag by using a lever, or simply by beginning to reel.
While freespool reels are extremely useful for those who favor both live and “cut” (or dead, if you like) bait, they also present their own problems. They have not one but two drag settings with a clutch—and all its associated bits and pieces—that can break. If you’re going to stick to spinning gear and fish live bait, it will pay off to invest in freespool reels, but be sure to take extra-good care of them.
Freespool reels offer more functionality, but are more expensive and more delicate. Most fishers won’t need these (and they aren’t for beginners), but for a certain subset of people, a freespool reel can make the difference between a trophy-status catch and the one that got away.
The bottom line, though, is that the dual drag setup compromises the integrity of a spinning reel. If you’re going to be fishing with bait in saltwater, you’ll be better off purchasing a separate open-faced, or “conventional,” rod and reel for the task.
Between a generous dose of grease (blue in the photo above) and the simple but unique innovation of a rubber gasket (red) to create a watertight seal, the Spinfisher V Live Liner has more protection from the elements than the comparable Baitrunner by Shimano. I’d like to see every manufacturer incorporate a rubber gasket seal into every reel. It’s a commonsense solution to a universal problem among reels that spend time around, and occasionally in, sand and salt.
But how exactly does this multigear reel enable you to pursue bigger catches? Say you have a 6-inch mullet on a hook, swimming near the surface. Your finer, live-lining drag is engaged so that the mullet may pull only a small amount of line out when it tries to swim away. A striped bass takes the bait. Your reel is now wailing like an R/C race car. Now is the time to “set the hook,” to put tension on the line and do your best to make sure the hook digs into the striped bass’s mouth. Engage your primary drag (the one that allows you to reel) simply by cranking the reel. The line comes tight, and the hook sets. Fish on.
If you had a single-gear spinning reel, you’d have to twist the drag knob (on the top of the reel) to get the line tight. Not only does this step take up precious seconds needed to set the hook, but the fish also slowly feels more and more resistance. Fish are not as dumb as you might think, especially the older, bigger ones—oftentimes they’ll find something suspicious about the 6-inch mullet gaining weight and spit it out. Next thing you know, you’re standing in your kitchen telling your partner about the one that got away as you plop down a $30-per-pound fillet of store-bought striped bass onto the counter. All the while, you’re wishing you’d spent the extra $30 or $40 on a reel built for the job.
Regardless of what rod or reel you get, salt is the enemy—even with gear specifically designed for use in the ocean. At the end of the day, be sure to give everything a solid rinse with freshwater and loosen the drags (to relieve straining pressure), whether your rig costs $20 or $2,000. If you take this step, our recommended Ugly Stik GX2 and Daiwa BG SW combo will serve you well for years to come.
When rinsing a reel, first tighten the drag, sealing it so that water doesn’t work into the washers. Lay the reel out horizontally so that any water that gets in has an easy path out, and don’t blast a reel with water to avoid blasting out the grease; just make sure it receives a thorough flow. If you want to be particularly diligent when cleaning your fishing gear (it will pay off in the long run), you can soak a cloth in freshwater (even with a little soap—boat soap works) and wipe everything down. Once finished, loosen the drag; if you leave reel drags tight, they tend to get stuck that way and lose their precision.
Additionally, keeping your reel packed with grease will reduce corrosion and improve longevity. You can find reel grease in almost any outdoor-sporting store, but if you’re not confident in taking your reel apart to apply grease, having it done in-store would be worthwhile.
For more tips, see expert reel reviewer Alan Hawk’s reel-care guide.
I brought my cheapo Shimano FXS rod (which typically costs less than $20) on several trips to test beside the others. Though I’ve owned and used these rods for nearly two decades, I won’t recommend them. They’re functional, and I’ve managed to land fairly large fish on them, but they’re brittle and unreliable. If you’re paying $13 to $35, you shouldn’t really expect much, but if you need to have a fishing rod and want to spend less than $20, the FXS will do the trick for smaller fish—just take it for what it’s worth and don’t expect it or its guides to last.
The Penn Squadron, like the Ugly Stik, is a fiberglass-graphite composite, but it is in no way as indestructible as the Elite or the GX2. I loved this rod for casting jigs (sinking lures with metal heads that look like squid or wounded fish), other heavy lures, and bottom fishing for flounder from my boat. The stiffness also made setting the hook quickly very easy (as is required when you’re lure fishing). But it was just too stiff for bait fishing—the fish often sensed something was wrong and spit the bait out before I could set the hook. The final nail in the coffin for the Squadron was its brittle guide frames. Five or 10 years ago, I would have accepted such guides on a cheap rod, but these days the design feels outdated in light of the Ugly Stik’s new single-piece guides.
I also tried out Berkley’s Lightning Rod (usually $40 to $50), which freshwater-centric publications like Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, and many others endorse. The Lightning Rod is made entirely of graphite with lightweight titanium guides. I owned one of these in the past and was not impressed. The titanium guides were nice, but I found that they were poorly fixed to the rod, making the high-quality titanium useless (one of my guides fell off, and I’d hardly used the rod). This time around, I found the guides to be much sturdier than they were, say, a decade ago, but they’re still nowhere near as strong as Ugly Stik’s Ugly Tuff guide technology. The other issue I have with the Lightning Rod is that it’s all graphite. Again, while all-graphite rods are lighter in weight and stiffer for casting, they’re usually less durable than those made of fiberglass. As Mark Lassagne of Bass Resource points out, the difference between graphite-fiberglass composite and all-graphite is “much like the difference between Plexiglas and glass.” The Lightning Rod might be a great rod for a small pond or trout stream, but I wouldn’t dare try one in saltwater.
We also tested Shakespeare’s original Ugly Stik (now discontinued) alongside the GX2 just to get an idea of the differences. While Ugly Stik loyalists familiar with the original series complain that the GX2 is not as flexible overall, I find that it is more applicable to a wider variety of fishing methods, which is good for people who want to buy one rod to do it all. Besides, the original is no longer being made.
We looked at Lew’s Mach II Speed Stick due to its popularity with bass anglers. The IM8 graphite and “Carbon Nanotube Coating” make this rod ultra-stiff and, as the name states, speedy, but it’s so stiff that it would never serve as a bait-fishing rod. It’s a great rod for freshwater bass fishing and inshore saltwater fishing, though in all honesty, it’s so obscenely hideous that I would never want any of my fishing buddies to catch me with one in my hands—at least not in the light of day. The soylent-green decor on the handle and decal is a color that belongs only on a NASCAR vehicle. But if you can bear the coloring and graphics, it is a highly serviceable rod for casting lightweight artificials to spotted seatrout, redfish, and largemouth bass. Maybe I’ll sneak out with it for some low-lit night-fishing excursions.
In addition to all the sub-$100 rods mentioned above, we considered several high-end models to determine if paying a lot more would get you a much better product. I was a big fan of St. Croix’s Triumph spinning rod as an all-around inshore stick—it’s featherlight, well-balanced, and a pleasure to cast all day long. I found that the tip was just sensitive enough to pass for a bait-fishing rod (though I’d still primarily designate it as a lightweight artificial/jigging rod). I’ve left it soaked in salt and sand, and even in a bit of marsh mud for two weeks, and I’ve seen no rust stains or any other signs of degradation. The grip, or handle, which is made of high-end cork (higher-end than the Ugly Stik Elite’s, at least), is a pleasure to hold, and will outlast the cork on the Ugly Stik Elite for some time‚ as long as you keep it clean and don’t put it away wet.
The only issue I have with the Triumph (as with almost all other rods that aren’t Ugly Stiks) concerns the guides. While generally sturdy, they still don’t come anywhere close to Ugly Stik’s Ugly Tuff guides. Where durability is key, the St. Croix Triumph, despite the heftier price tag, won’t outlast an Ugly Stik without special care, and should be reserved for adult/avid angler outings. The Triumph does, however, come with a five-year warranty from St. Croix, but even with that warranty, repairs will cost you $55—about $5 more than the price of a brand-new Ugly Stik Elite.
We also tried the Penn Battalion and the Shimano Teramar, which are both great rods. I found the Battalion to be somewhat lightweight for its action and recommended line weight, which you could easily solve by ordering the next weight up (for example, if you want a “medium action” rod, order the Battalion in “medium heavy”). I’m also a fan of the Teramar, which is extremely well-balanced—both in weight and in guide placement—but Shimano rods come with only a one-year warranty, and I prefer the high-end cork on the Triumph and Battalion anyway. On the other hand, if you’re going to spend the majority of your time bait fishing, consider the Teramar, which offers a little more play and would be a delightful tool when you’re fishing cut bait for striped bass from a boat in Long Island Sound. If you’re going to head offshore, we suggest the Penn Bluewater Carnage (typically $120 to $155). You could spend a thousand dollars on an offshore spinning rod, but one of these will serve you well for a tenth of the price.
Shimano’s Spheros SW is among the smoothest spinning reels I’ve ever held, out of the box. It has the same three-part pinion/clutch seal (the most important seal in a spinning reel, protecting the very center of the reel, which is virtually irreparable) as Shimano’s $1,000-plus reels. The line lay is impeccably even, and despite being largely plastic, the Spheros is sturdy where it counts. If you’re looking to spend $200 on a reel, the Spheros is it, with the Quantum Cabo PTSE (more on that model below) so close behind that I’d recommend trying both before making a decision based on your own personal preference. (Note that the Cabo PTSE sizes 60 and up are superior to the 40 and 50 sizes, which have inferior anti-reverse clutches.)
We also tested Shimano’s new Saragosa, a supposed upgrade, but didn’t find anything particularly advantageous about it over the Spheros SW—at least nothing worth the $75-plus jump in price.
The Shimano Baitrunner is that company’s answer to the Penn Spinfisher V Live Liner, and while it performed well, its lack of durability took it out of the running after we did our teardown test. After just a few weeks of use, it showed some early signs of corrosion; if it had contained a rubber seal like the Penn, maybe that wouldn’t have happened. Furthermore, its drag stopped holding at just 31 pounds, versus the cheaper Penn Battle II’s 38 pounds. We expected more out of a $160 reel. Ultimately, I’ve had to repair the secondary (freespool) drags on both the Baitrunner and the Spinfisher V Live Liner, which is another reason why I suggest buying a conventional setup if you’re going to fish bait.
Shimano recently introduced another $100-range line of spinning reels, called the Nasci, which it had on display at ICAST 2016. I’m thoroughly impressed, especially with the fact that Shimano includes a cold-forged drive gear (usually cast zinc in reels within this price range), though according to spinning-reel guru Alan Hawk, it’s made more cheaply than the higher-end drive gears. We’ll have to keep fishing it to see how it stacks up against the Daiwa BG SW in the long run. The major issues I immediately had with the Nasci were the slightly uneven line lay (line doesn’t seem to collect on the spool as neatly as on other reels) and the tiny crank handle, which is bolted on and cannot be changed. This design might not affect other fishers as much, but I find it to be a nuisance to have to grab something so small when you’re hurrying to set the hook. We’re sticking with the Daiwa BG SW for now.
The Quantum Cabo PTSE, which I picked up only after reading a rave review by Alan Hawk, was delightful to cast. It’s featherlight, and I paired it with two higher-end rods, which made for the lightest spinning-rod-and-reel combos I’d ever held; as a result, I didn’t grow tired casting into a stiff breeze from a rivermouth jetty for several hours. The 100 and 120 sizes are absolute brutes. My friend Captain Colin Kelly spent the better part of the fall bluefin tuna run off Cape Cod relying on these modestly priced reels, which compete with the $500 to $700 reels that have generally been the only options for catching fish over 200 pounds on spinning gear. Toward the end of the season, a 400-pound bruiser burned up the clicker on the spool, which isn’t a huge deal but worth mentioning. That said, most 100- or 120-size reels are probably outmatched by 400-pound fish.
The Fin-Nor Lethal is another excellent reel that came highly recommended by expert spinning-reel reviewer Alan Hawk. I had never fished this reel before seeing his recommendation, and I was thoroughly impressed. With its all-metal body, it’s definitely a workhorse. The only real issues I had were that the line lay wasn’t even (line seems to bunch up in one place on the reel) and that the bail (the metal part that holds the line when the reel is engaged) was finicky. You have only one way to open it, and if you’re not careful to handle it right, it closes back over. This presents a hazard when you’re casting, as it can close midcast and stop your bait or lure short, flinging your hooks back at you or a nearby friend. One other problem was that the clicker on the drag (the noise that you hear when line is running off the spool of a reel) sometimes didn’t engage. Twice I looked over, and the line was spinning off the spool (a fish was on the other end), but I hadn’t noticed. Fish I had hoped to release had already swallowed the hook and had to be brought home. All in all, it’s a very strong reel, and I think it could live a long life, but after seeing both novice and avid fishers nearly knock me out while attempting to cast with it, I hesitate to recommend this reel for an inexperienced fisher or a child. According to Alan Hawk, Fin-Nor’s next model up is its best, but it’s much heavier and geared toward fishing larger game.
Buy the new Daiwa BG SW, and you’ll get much more resistance to salt with sealed bearings, a metal rotor (as opposed to graphite), and a woven carbon-fiber drag as opposed to felt, which as Sport Fishing Magazine’s Doug Olander writes, is outdated: “Older materials such as felt and cork still perform admirably in the right applications, but carbon and graphite generally offer more durability, particularly with heavy-drag usage.” These are all integral parts to any reel, and why the BG SW will outlast other $100 reels by years. Still, don’t forget to rinse it off and grease it (or check the grease as you would oil in your car). Make sure to look at the schematics, as grease is only for gears and will ruin your drag system if applied incorrectly. Note: WD-40 is not a lubricant, and you should not use it to grease fishing reels.
Daiwa took the $100 spinning-reel category and flipped it on its head in 2016, despite the company’s indulging in the standard deceptive marketing strategies of the industry—specifically the claim that the BG SW’s drive gear is aluminum when it is in reality zinc (read more about that on Alan Hawk’s site).
Shimano has responded formidably with its $100-range Nasci line, including what is supposedly a cold-forged drive gear—something you simply don’t find in $100 reels. I’ll wait until expert Alan Hawk has done a thorough tear through the reel before I’m sold on that claim. And furthermore, while I found nothing majorly wrong with the Nasci, I did have one complaint: The line lay, or the distribution of line across the spool, was uneven and tended to cause slight tangles or wind knots during casting.
We’re curious to see how Penn responds to the Daiwa BG SW going forward, and whether it makes any major improvements to the Battle II, our previous top pick for reels.
One change I’d like to see on all $100-level reels, in regard to comfort, is the option to change the grip knob, which is almost always bolted in place on reels in this price range. Some knobs, like the one on the Shimano Nasci, I find downright uncomfortable to handle, which, petty as it sounds, is worth noting—it can be frustrating having to fumble around for the grip, especially if you spend six, seven, or eight hours a day fishing. I like the grips on the BG SW, the Penn Battle II, and the Okuma Azores, which are larger, more rounded, and easier on the fingers. Others may not. It’s a matter of personal preference, but a simple screw instead of a permanent bolt would allow fishers to customize their grips to their liking with ease, which isn’t a lot to ask of a reel manufacturer.
Another feature or option I’d like to see on these reels is a more reliable Live Liner (Penn) or Baitrunner (Shimano) feature with sturdier gearing. They’re great for a year or two, but they inevitably fail, specifically on Penn and Shimano models, largely because of the minuscule springs and switches that compose them. As of now, I say to stick with an open-faced conventional reel, such as the Penn International, if your primary use for your rod and reel is bait fishing from a boat. (The antique versions you’ll find at flea markets or antique outlets are often just as good, if not better, than the new ones, and usually sell for only about $20.)
Lastly, we’re looking forward to putting the heavier versions of the reels we’ve tested, along with some others, like the Okuma Metaloid spinning reel, to the test on some larger pelagic fish this coming fall. The Quantum Cabo PTSE, the Penn Slammer III, and the Fin-Nor Lethal are all high on the list so far.
(Photos by Owen James Burke.)
Originally published: March 16, 2017