Fishing reels come in many different styles, types and sizes. They’re available in just about any color, price point and quality level. Whether for casting, spinning, trolling, deep sea fishing or fly-fishing, there is a dizzying selection, and features, proper application and costs can be tough to figure out. High price points used to be the norm for just the best fly-fishing and deep-sea reels, but now casting and spinning reels are also commanding big dollars. For this feature we’ll be talking fly-fishing reels.
Fly fishing reels used to be basic line storage devices, but as fishermen and their tactics became more sophisticated, and as they targeted larger, faster and more varied species, line capacity and drag systems became imperative. To be clear, this discussion is about big game fly reels, as opposed to reels for trout and smaller fish. Basic trout sized reels can do quite well with traditional pawl and click drag systems which are basically just mechanisms to prevent line over-runs.
Big game fly reels need to be built tough. They need to have ample line storage capacity, they need to be well balanced when spinning at high speed and most importantly, they need a good drag system.
When going after large fish, namely, steelhead, salmon, bonefish, permit, tarpon or any other common fly-fishing quarry, capable of long powerful runs, I have a list of what I deem to be necessary in a fly reel.
A good big game fly reel should be machined from high grade bar stock and have an anodized finish suitable for hard duty in salt water. It should be as light as is practical. A large arbor is good to facilitate quick line pick-up when reeling, yet it must also hold plenty of backing under your fly-line of choice. 200yds of backing is a good benchmark. It should be designed to avoid any chance of line being caught on the handle, the counter weight, in the frame to spool gap, the spool removal mechanism or the drag adjustment knob. A relatively new improvement to drag systems is the one-way, instant anti-reverse ball bearings that prevent any start-up inertia at the moment that a fast fish launches like a ballistic missile. Many a tippet have been popped because of a bit of slack in a reel, right before a bearing engages the drag. Little details these, but ultra-important to perfect operation and utility. Lastly and perhaps most important is the type of drag system.
For many years, the only reels that I would use, would have all of the features above as a minimum, AND would have a greased cork disk drag system. Most of the top tier reel makers used this system. It is simple and it works. For me it worked especially well because in addition to salt-water fishing, my reels get used for salmon and most importantly steelhead. Why is this important and relevant, you may ask? Well, it’s vitally important because much of the steelhead fishing that we do in the Great Lakes region is done in sub-freezing temperatures. This is THE toughest test of a big game fly reel. The reason is that MOST fly reel drag systems will freeze up below 32 degrees. Setting the hook on a fresh 15 lb. steelhead only to realize that your drag is frozen is a good way to ruin your day. At best you can expect a popped leader and a lost fish. At worst, a thousand dollars of Fly tackle gets ripped from your hand and sails, “Nantucket sleigh ride” style, into an icy river.
Greased cork drags systems, AND more recently, sealed disc drag systems are the only drag mechanisms for me. Yes, sealed drag systems are now available, that will meet or exceed the capability of greased cork. Because they are sealed, they can’t freeze, AND they don’t allow grit or grime into the drag system so in that respect, they exceed the traditional cork system. Cork drag systems do require careful maintenance to keep the surfaces clean and clear of grit and salt residue, and they need to be well greased as part of routine maintenance.
Not all sealed drag systems are created equal, but there are a few “top of the line” reels that do now come equipped with very good systems. One of the best available reels, that incorporates ALL of my “must have” features, including a top-quality sealed drag system is the new Orvis Mirage reel.
The American made Orvis Mirage is born of well over a hundred years of fly tackle evolution from the oldest Fly-fishing company in America. It hits ALL the marks in terms of the perfect big game fly reel. Exceeding my picky list of minimums, the Mirage also incorporates military grade anodizing, a Titanium shaft to save weight and thoughtful features like a radiused reel foot base so your leader, when stored, doesn’t kink on a sharp machined edge.
To be completely honest, I’ve found previous Orvis big game reels to be lacking one or two of my “must have” features, and as such have gravitated towards other brands for big disc drag reels. Orvis gear is generally the best of the best, and I have been an avid customer of Orvis gear since before I was able to scrape together enough paper route money, back in the 1970s, to purchase my first “exclusive” state of the art Orvis rod and reel. I still own that rod and reel, and many many other Orvis rods and reels….and waders and vests and assorted gear. (I worked for a large Orvis franchise, and Orvis endorsed lodges in Alaska and Michigan when I was younger, so I was able to acquire a lot of great gear). Most of that gear is still as good today as when I bought it 20-40 years ago, even compared to current technology.
With the new Mirage reel, Orvis has hit a home run and it can honestly be said that there isn’t a better big game fly reel on the market. I put my size V Mirage through its paces with an equally high grade Orvis Mission, two-handed Switch rod this winter and spring on Michigan steelhead. Many of those days on the river were well below freezing and many included big fresh steelhead. The Mirage never had a hick-up. Ultra smooth drag that never froze, and had zero start-up inertia, battled fish effortlessly. The ultra large arbor made it easy to gain line back to the reel when zippy fish decided to change direction and charge back at me, hoping that I would make a rookie move like letting them dart between my legs.
The Mirage V will handle a 9 to 11 weight line, or in my case, an oversized 8 weight “switch” Spey line. The 5” diameter reel matches and balances well with a Spey rod. It also matched well with my light Tarpon rod in 10 weight and I put it to good use with that rod, with a 10WF line for some huge, ice-out muskies this spring. Muskies don’t run quite as far as a steelhead or tarpon but make no mistake, they do strip line in a hurry and it’s a knock-down, drag out fight to land one in the shallow back bays of Lake Saint Clair, where we find them. Once again, the Mirage was unflappable. There will be backcountry Tarpon and snook days for this reel in the near future too. I have no reservations that it’ll handle those beasts with equal aplomb.
Top quality gear is pricy and the Mirage is no exception, but with this reel you definitely get what you pay for, and the price is in line with any other “best” quality reel….and now, no other reel can top Orvis. I assume that I’ll be putting this reel through its paces in fresh and salt water until I’m too old and have to hang up my waders. Like my other Orvis gear it’ll get passed down to the next generation and probably serve another lifetime on the front lines. If you’re looking for a top of the line big game reel, you need look no further than the Orvis Mirage.
Brandon Vaughan has over 40 years of personal and professional experience in a broad array of hunting and fishing disciplines, from Alaska to Belize. Past professional experience includes working as a professional guide in Alaska and around the Great Lakes region. In addition to hunting and fishing throughout the lower 48, Canada and Central America, Brandon has been an Orvis Endorsed Fly-fishing guide, a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor, a hunting guide and shooting instructor.