We didn't winnow the more than 100 Best of the Best entries down to 15 winners by sitting at a desk and reading marketing copy. Instead, our experts took the tackle on the water and fished with it—hard, in all kinds of conditions. What survived the rigors of testing in experienced hands is here—the Best of the Best.
The concept behind KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is plain enough, but converting it into flyfishing gear that really works under demanding conditions is another matter entirely. Our winners, though, clearly have the right idea when it comes to executing a simple design at a very high level. --Ted Leeson
In the new Mac 2 reel (for 5/6/7-weight lines), Bauer puts the focus at the heart of the matter—a proven braking system transplanted from its more expensive CFX series. The carbon-fiber drag provides flawlessly smooth resistance even at the highest settings. Two full revolutions of the drag knob allow fine-tuning, while detented stops eliminate any drift in tension. A patented clutch engages instantly, without a millimeter of counter-rotation, especially welcome for protecting light tippets. The entire drag is sealed against contamination for maintenance-free performance. A drag knob on the spool hub (not the back plate) lets you make quick adjustments with the reel hand; when the game is on, there’s no shifting the rod from hand to hand to change settings. Both the large--arbor spool and drag rotate precisely on sealed -stainless-steel ball bearings. Spool and frame are cleanly machined from bar-stock aluminum and anodized for durability. This has the reliable guts, rugged chassis, and substantial feel of a more expensive reel. Price: $285; bauerflyreel.com
Sage’s new Circa series of rods cut against the grain of a fly-rod market largely dominated by fast, stiff designs—for a sensible reason. These rods (advertised as slow action, though moderate seems more accurate) are far better suited to the trout fishing conditions most of us routinely encounter, where precision and delicacy count for more than distance and power. The 8-foot 9-inch 5-weight is the gem of the line—smooth, versatile, and a true pleasure to fish.
At 21⁄2 ounces, it’s wonderfully light, with a fluid action that loads efficiently at short ranges and roll casts like a dream. The thin-profile shaft has a supple flex that does the work for you; you can feel the rod load and unload during the cast, and this kind of communication with your hand promotes accuracy and control. The Circa delivers exactly where you point it. But don’t confuse slow with weepy; you can summon a surprising authority from this rod. Though it won’t hit supersonic line speeds, it handily throws wind-resistant dries, -hopper-dropper combinations, and lighter -indicator rigs. It’s an immensely practical fishing tool with a relaxed swing that makes casting nearly effortless. Price: $775 sagefly.com
Contending with tippet spools is a persistent nuisance in flyfishing—-rummaging through pockets for the correct size, using two hands to strip off material, and needing a third to trim it. SA’s color-coded stacking design simplifies it all. Each spool has an independently rotating center hub; pinch the hub between two fingers, and the spool revolves smoothly as you peel off tippet—no more spools dropped in the drink. To trim the material, fold it around a notch in the rim that holds a recessed steel cutter, and you’re done. Price: $5 - $17.50 scientificanglers.com
Modeled on tool bags favored by stonemasons, this tackle bag employs a hinged steel rod as a frame around the perimeter of the zip-closing top. The soft-sided bag won’t collapse, even when empty. The mouth folds out to a full 9x20-inch opening that simplifies loading, offers a clear view of the contents, and gives easy access. Six interior flat pockets and two removable foam dividers help keep it organized.
Seamless, molded-EVA foam forms a 2-inch-deep -bathtub-style bottom, so your gear stays dry even when the bag sits in bilge water. Price: $149 patagonia.com