What's new in tackle this year? Plenty...and we fished with it all. Field & Stream testers hit the water with more than 100 pieces of the latest gear, from humble hooks to top-of-the-line high-definition sonar units. We winnowed the list down to 16 standout products that clearly are the Best of the Best. Rods and Reels:
More tackle innovation came at midrange price points for 2012 than in recent years, when lower-end items predominated. If that's an indicator of an uptick in our general economy, I'm all for it. Tackle technology that was frightfully expensive a year or two ago is now trickling down into lower-priced versions, of which Cabela's winning entry this year is an excellent example. --John Merwin Flyfishing
Tackle makers, like anglers, are endlessly optimistic, and this past season brought an unusually large number of nominations in the flyfishing category, including a bumper crop of new rods. Although economy and mid-priced gear dominated the product introductions, manufacturers weren't shy about plunging in with high-end stuff. As always, only the Best of the Best made the cut. --Ted Leeson

Even when it seems there's not much that could be done to improve basic spinning tackle, one or more companies manage to come up with something fresh. Quantum and Fenwick are this year's spinning-gear winners for doing just that. --JM.

Best New Baitcasting Rod: Cabela’s Platinum ZX

A new 3M High Performance Resin system was used by a few other makers last year to build graphite baitcasting rods that were stronger, lighter, and outrageously expensive (some models cost as much as $500). The new-for-2012 Platinum ZX rods employ the same resin technology​–​at less than half the price. Notably, these aren’t private-label rods made for the Cabela’s brand by another company. Cabela’s design team did this on its own, and did it well. Our sample rods felt very light in the hand; they were smooth-actioned, with plenty of power in the midsection and butt to handle larger fish. There are seven baitcasting models (and 12 spinning) ranging in length from 6 feet 6 inches to 7 feet, rated for lures as light as 1⁄4 ounce up to 21⁄4 ounces. Most versions are one-piece, but two models are convenient two-piece styles. —JM
_Price:_ $200
One of the most innovative–and best-performing–baitcasters we’ve seen in a long time combines Daiwa’s new T-Wing levelwind system with a highly effective cast control. The T-Wing is a T‑shaped framework through which the line passes. When the thumb-bar free-spool button is pressed, the front of the reel pops up slightly. This allows outgoing line to exit through the wide part of the T with much less friction than that created by a more conventional levelwind eyelet. Engage the reel, and the front pops back down, forcing the incoming line through the narrow leg of the T for precise levelwinding. It’s a neat trick, and the result is longer, smoother casts. That smoothness is substantially enhanced with a new magnetic antibacklash mechanism called Magforce 3D. A small switch at the reel’s bottom has settings labeled all-around, max, and long cast. Within each of those settings, a side-plate dial allows multiple cast-control adjustments. The test team found it very easy to change settings for more casting distance or to compensate for a stiff headwind. Models offer either a 6.3:1 or a 7.1:1 gear ratio, weigh 7.8 ounces, and will take 120 yards of 14-pound mono. A big tip of the hat to Daiwa’s engineers for daring to be so ingeniously different. —JM
Price: $250

Best New Spinning Rod: Fenwick Elite Tech Smallmouth

Test-team members agreed that the cork-inlaid reel seat on Fenwick’s new spinning rods is the most comfortable we’ve ever used. There are no exposed screw threads or metals to rub against your hand, just sweet-feeling cork in a very clever design. The five-rod spinning series is made for smallmouths. The rods are light, smooth tapers with titanium-frame guides to enhance the kind of finesse needed to catch big bronzebacks. Ranging in length from 6 feet 3 inches to 7 feet 4 inches, the rods are all one-piece, with power ratings from medium-​light to medium-​heavy to accommodate a variety of techniques from subtle drop-shotting to heavy cranking. Rod blanks are attractively finished as well. –_JM Manufacturer:_ Fenwick_
Price:_ $130__

Best New Spinning Reel: Quantum Exo

Odd looks and a light overall weight signify a very innovative and functional new spinning design. Quantum’s Exo concept reduces weight wherever possible by way of a minimalist exoskeleton. Our 25-series sample weighs a paltry 6.9 ounces, roughly 25 percent lighter than most comparable reels. A uniquely offset handle noticeably reduces the wobble felt when cranking, which can be a problem with all spinning reels. The stainless-steel, ceramic, and carbon drag system feels smooth as a baby’s bottom. The futuristic-looking reel frame is aluminum; the reel’s rotor is of an advanced composite. There are two sizes: the 25 and a slightly larger 30. The 25 has 5.2:1 gears and carries 150 yards of 8-​pound mono. The 30 has the same gear ratio and takes 150 yards of 10-pound. –_JM Manufacturer:_ Quantum_
Price:_ $200__
Name a series of fly rods The One, and you’d better have some serious skin in the game or be prepared for some abuse. Sage, it turns out, walks the talk. New materials and manufacturing processes reduce weight and narrow the shaft and ferrule diameters for a more fluid energy transfer from butt to tip. The upshot is a fast-action rod that isn’t stiff or clubby and offers superb tracking, delivering the fly precisely where you aim it with no lateral wandering, drift, or residual vibration that reduces accuracy and distance. Part of this performance is achieved with a taper that delivers the goods at short to medium range without requiring an aggressive stroke to overcome shaft stiffness. The 5-weight rod tested gives excellent casting control, smoothness, and accuracy throughout its distance window–a versatility that few other fast-action sticks achieve. This is a forgiving rod that answers to a wide range of casting styles and tempos–a real pleasure to fish. The 22 models in the series range from 3- to 10-weight. –TL _
Manufacturer:_ Sage
_Price:_ $715-$740
A good midweight fly reel isn’t all about the drag, but if it can’t handle fish, who cares about the rest? The Ross F1 #3 (for 5- to 7-weight lines) has the right kind of guts. The carbon-fiber drag system incorporates 2 square inches of surface area and eight independent contact points for a smooth, uniform application of pressure through its substantial tension range; the drag knob turns through four full revolutions for pinpoint resistance settings. At the low end, it’s silky and consistent enough to handle 6X tippet on large trout. Crank it up and there’s plenty of muscle to hog big browns. The system is entirely sealed by 10 separate O-rings, and the spool rides on two sealed stainless bearings for effortless rotation. An integral reel foot gives rock-solid stability, and the frame rigidity is worthy of a saltwater reel. The F1 comes in six sizes, from 2- to 12-weight. –_TL Manufacturer:_ Ross_
Price:_ $445-$625__

Best New Fly Box: MFC Waterproof Boat Box

This stoutly made fly box, actually the size of a small briefcase (13 x 11 x 4 inches), puts lots of flies–really lots–at the fingertips of boat, canoe, and raft anglers. Two interior slotted foam panels hold as many as 426 flies in a small-fly version or up to 150 in a large-fly edition. An optional swing-leaf insert ($12) doubles the capacity; the leaf is removable, so you can swap out inserts to customize the fly selection. Trout anglers won’t need to rummage through a vest full of boxes, and inshore anglers finally have a convenient way to store oversize patterns.Either way, the generous 4-inch depth keeps flies from squashing one another. Molded of rugged ABS plastic, the shell has a recessed handle and hardware to reduce snagging on the exterior. The lid swings shut on a pair of sturdy hinges, and four latches compress a full-perimeter silicone gasket for a water-proof seal. —TL Manufacturer: Montana Fly Company_
Price:_ $50

Best New Fishing Bag: L.L. Bean Waterproof Hybrid Duffle

Whether it’s sloshing around in a boat bilge or sitting out in a downpour, this tough polyurethane-coated nylon duffel protects what’s inside from what’s outside. Flat welded seams on the reinforced bottom eliminate sharp corners that eventually succumb to abrasion; this one easily survived a summer’s worth of indignities from gritty drift-boat bottoms, stony banks, and sandy beaches. The wide, horizontal bag mouth stands up and open on its own for easy access, and the roll-top secures with two end buckles and two top straps for weather-tight closure and load compression. A smart snap-together plastic grip on the webbing carry handles is infinitely more functional and comfortable than the usual fabric sleeve with Velcro. This bag serves equally well in the field or in transit. —TL Manufacturer: L.L. Bean_
Price:_ $159
The latest and greatest in fishing electronics from Humminbird puts conventional 2-D sonar and high-definition Down Imaging in one unit–​even allowing two views at once via a split screen at the touch of a programmable button. Conventional sonar is easier to see at a glance. Down Imaging offers substantially greater detail. It’s a marriage made in electronics heaven that will catch you more fish. These units also feature GPS-chartplotters so you can precisely mark where you found the fish and find your way home again. Before you keel over from sticker shock, know that these capabilities are available in the series in smaller screen sizes. The 1158c DI has a 10.4-inch screen, which is Humminbird’s largest. The 385ci DI Combo has a 31⁄2-inch screen but essentially the same technology. It sells for $500. There are also several intermediate sizes. —JM Manufacturer: Hummingbird_
Price:_ $2,200

Lures and Accessories

Modern technology has found its way into more than rods and reels. Lures have transcended simple garage creations and are now scientific works of art. Hooks and coolers are no longer dime-store throwaways either. These days we see such tools engineered with surgical precision. The following products all feature smart design that not only can help you increase your catch but improve the fishing experience.
Joe Cermele
Yeti is not the only company producing coolers that can withstand a grizzly attack and keep ice for a long time. The thing is, until Yeti introduced the Roadie 20, most of these high-end coolers came up short in portability. But the 5.2-gallon, 20-inch Roadie is the ideal size for keeping a fishing trip’s essentials frosty cold. A durable flip-down handle lets you grab it and go. Extra-thick walls provide insulation far superior to those disposable ice chests you’ve been using to tote live bait, lunch, or fillets. I kept ice in the Roadie for four days with minimal melt. The Roadie also accommodates longneck bottles…of root beer, of course. —JC Manufacturer: Yeti_
Price:_ $200

Sebile D&S Crankbait

What’s D&S stand for? Deep and Snagless, because this revolutionary crankbait dives to 28 feet and won’t hang in the weeds. But that’s not all. Lure designer Patrick Sebile has created the first catch-and-release-friendly–and finger-friendly–crankbait that I would argue hooks fish as effectively as classic cranks. A single wide-gap hook at the tail can freely move up and down. During the retrieve, gravity keeps the hook point protected behind the flat tail so it won’t hang. When a fish strikes, the hook is pushed upward and grabs quickly. These lures measure 23⁄4 inches and come in nine colors. —JC Manufacturer: Sebile_
Price:_ $14.50

VMC Spinshot Hooks

VMC’s Spinshot hooks make rigging a snap and create a drop-shot that’ll catch more fish. The hook spins freely on a tiny metal post with an eye at each end. Just tie your main line to the top eye and a length of line for the weight to the bottom eye. Because the hook can smoothly turn 360 degrees, lures have more action. Likewise, the hook will move with a fighting fish, helping increase your landings. I fished the Spinshots on the Delaware River for smallmouths and noticed that hung weights would typically break off from the bottom eye down, letting me retie fast and get back in the action without losing a bunch of soft plastics. Spinshots are available in six sizes. —JC Manufacturer: VMC_
Price:_ $4 per pack


In many regions of the country, the 2011 fishing season arrived to heavy runoff, freakish hot spells, and sudden cold snaps. These were potent reminders of how crucial good outer-wear is to comfort and safety on the water–and a perfect storm for testing gear. It was a tough year on anglers and a tough one on equipment. Here’s what survived. —TL

Best New Waders: Patagonia Rio Azul Waders

Chest waders always involve tradeoffs among weight, bulk, breathability, durability, and cost. The Rio Azul waders strike a balance that sensibly serves the needs of a wide variety of anglers. At 2.2 pounds, they’re blessedly light, and the four-ply shell includes a layer of polyurethane material for increased durability and improved vapor transmission. The fabric efficiently moves perspiration and heat away from your body. Features are minimalist but well selected–a water-proof chest pocket for camera or wallet, a front utility keeper for pin-on tools, right- and left-cut booties for fit and durability, and integral gravel guards. Solid, all-around utility is a strong point here. With a supple shell and nonrestrictive cut, they’re well suited to hike-in fishing. Light weight and packability make them practical for travel. Best of all, they’re plenty sturdy for ordinary fishing, day after day after day. These are high-quality waders for a good price, and 20 stock sizes ensure an optimum fit. —TL Manufacturer: Patagonia_
Price:_ $239

Best New Thermal Clothing: Cabela’s E.W.W.C.S Thermal Zone Polartec Power Dry Baselayer System

The name may not win any awards (the initials stand for Extended Cold Weather Clothing System), but this thermal clothing does. It’s constructed of three types of fast-wicking Polartec Power Dry to customize performance in specific body zones. A heavyweight fabric maximizes warmth in the torso area and on the backs of arms to preserve core temperature, which is the first step in staying warm. A medium-weight fabric is used in the mid-legs and arm fronts, which require less insulation but greater freedom of movement. The lightest-​weight fabric offers maximum breathability in areas of high heat and perspiration output–armpits and crotch​–​and in wrists and ankles for high mobility and a fit that won’t bunch. The interior surfaces of the fabric have a grid pattern that provides both insulating air space and plenty of skin contact for wicking. Flat-seam construction wears comfortably, without chafing; thumbholes on the cuffs and a drop tail prevent sleeves and shirt bottom from riding up. It all makes for a highly practical combination of warmth for when you’re stationary, moisture management during physical exertion, and low-bulk mobility for casting and rowing. Just the thing for an early-spring wading trout angler or the late-season surf caster fishing on a lonely beach. —TL Manufacturer: Cabela’s_
Price:_ Crew top, $75; Bottom, $80 ­_

Best New Rain Suit: Simms Prodry Jacket and Bibs

On some fishing days, it just rains; on others, the heavens open up on a biblical scale. This rain suit is designed for those other days. The Gore-Tex Pro Shell fabric provides exceptional protection in extreme downpours and wind-driven rain. It’s heavy-duty stuff, but shell suppleness, breath-ability, and overall light weight make it comfortable enough for warmer weather. Stretch panels in the elbows and shoulders, along with a full-mobility cut, permit unrestricted casting, bending, and kneeling. High-wear areas–leg fronts, cuffs, and seat–are reinforced. The jacket and bibs are full of intelligent details that make them top-notch gear–and they are priced like it. —TL Manufacturer: Simms _
Price:_ Jacket, $500; Bib, $400

Best New Fanny Pack: Fishpond Nimbus Guide Pack

It seems there are more angling fanny-pack styles on the market than there are fannies available to wear them. The Nimbus Guide Pack stands apart for its tough, lightweight materials and smart design. Its tall, narrow profile won’t obstruct elbows or catch loose loops of fly line when you’re casting. It minimizes snagging on vegetation when you’re snaking through the puckerbrush and affords better all-around mobility than lower, wider designs. A 6-inch-wide padded, ventilated waist strap gives superior lumbar support and excellent load-bearing comfort. At 579 cubic inches, the single main compartment has room for lots of gear, even enough for a lightweight rain jacket, and uses no partitions or dedicated gear compartments that can overly limit storage flexibility. Features are well chosen: two side water-bottle pockets, tool patches, an exterior zip pocket, side compression straps to narrow and stabilize the load, and a clever net-handle sleeve that keeps your landing gear at hand but out of the way. And with the padded neck strap (included), it does double duty as a chest pack._ –TL _ Manufacturer: Fishpond_
Price:_ $110

What’s new in tackle this year? Plenty–and we fished with it all. Field & Stream testers hit the water with more than 100 pieces of the latest gear, from humble hooks to the top-of-the-line high-definition sonar units. We winnowed the list down to 16 standout products that clearly are the Best of the Best.