fly fisherman crouching in shallow water of Aitutaki lagoon holding a bonefish
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Choosing a fly reel for a 9wt fly rod

The current trend in fly rod design is toward light, fast action rods with softer tips to reduce swing weight, smooth casting, improve presentation and load the rod more quickly. Although trout rods produced using new technology and design have an edge on older models, my new salt water sticks are way better than their predecessors.

A modern 9wt rod has the sensitivity of an 8wt, the pulling power of a 10wt and the swing weight of a 7wt. It is a rod you can cast all day; and it can handle large flies, wind and powerful saltwater gamefish to 30 lb. New generation 9wts are consequently ideal general purpose inshore weapons.

Choosing a reel for a modern salt water 9wt fly rod is, however, no trivial matter. Key considerations include weight, backing capacity, drag systems and arbour diameter.


With substantial reduction in the weight and swing weight of 9wt fly rods, lighter reels are essential to balance outfits. Lighter reels also make for easier casting. In striving to produce lighter reels, manufacturers have come up with some impressively creative engineering solutions to reduce weight without sacrificing strength. This has also resulted in some very unique looking reels.

Backing Capacity

Many of the fish species targeted with a 9wt are capable of runs in excess of 200 meters. A reel with a backing capacity of at least 300 m of 30 lb Dacron or 50 lb gelspun braid is therefore essential. Blistering runs also require a smooth and reliable drag system.

Drag Systems

Draw-bar cork disc drags were for many years the standard for big-game saltwater fly-reels. Although these drag systems are smooth and efficient, they do need regular cleaning and lubricating, are prone to ‘aquaplaining’ when water gets between the discs, and being ‘open’ are vulnerable to the affects of sand and grit. One of the greatest developments in fly reel technology in recent years, the move to large arbour designs being another, has been the developments of decent sealed drag systems.

The two main challenges to fly reel manufacturers when developing sealed drag systems, apart from reliable seals, was reducing start-up inertia and stick-slip when using maintenance free synthetic discs; and dissipating heat build up. Leading manufacturers have done a good job of addressing both issues and there are now three types of reliable sealed drag on the market.

In the case of the drum drag, the drag discs are housed within a sealed drum that is attached to the frame and fits within the arbour of the spool. The stacked disc drag uses multiple small flat discs to create the necessary surface area, and these are housed within the reels hub. The conical drag, unique to Lamson, uses conical male and female drag plates to create a large contact area within the reels hub. All three sealed drag types are maintenance free and appear to perform equally well when properly designed and constructed. Time will tell us just how durable each system is.


Hooked saltwater game fish not only speed away from anglers, but often turn and scream back toward them. Higher retrieve rates afforded by large arbour reels help stay connected with fish when this occurs. Narrower spools (i.e. less than 1.1 inches) are less prone, when cranking frantically, to line building up on one side of the spool; which can jam against the frame in disastrous fashion. Other advantages of large arbour reels include less line coiling, backing drying quickly and easier palming, as they are larger and spin slower.

So what's out there?

I was recently in the market for another 9wt reel to go with my new Loomis NRX. Although my Nautilus 8/9 NV had performed flawlessly over the last six years, significant advances in fly-reel technology had been made and I was keen to compare all suitable makes and models.

Table 1 below compares 'big game' reels available in 2013 with an arbour of at least 4 inches and a backing capacity of at least 324 yards of 50 lb gelspun braid with 9wt WFF line. When manufacturers produced more than one suitable model, I chose the lightest.

All of the statistics in Table 1 were obtained from manufacturer websites. When necessary I used a conversion factor of 1.8 to convert 30 lb Dacron backing capacity to 50 lb gelspun backing capacity, and a factor of 0.8 to convert from 20 lb to 30 lb Dacron capacities. Gel-spun loses around 25% of its strength when knotted, so braid with a breaking strain of less than 50 lb is not recommended for a 9wt outfit. Thinner braid also tends to cut fingers in a fly fishing context and is more prone to being cut through by coral bommies and reef.

Table 1: Vital statistics for a range of modern (2013) large arbour big game reels suitable for a 9wt saltwater outfit.

MA = Medium Arbour
LA=Large Arbour
G=Giger arbour

The big decision

In the end I settled on a Nautilus NV 10/11 with a G8 spool which has an extra large arbour, for the following reasons:
1. It was the second lightest reel in the line up (just 0.1 oz heavier than the NV 8/9), and it perfectly balances my Loomis NRX 9wt.
2. The 4.25 inch diameter spool has a larger arbour and higher retrieve rate than one of 4.0 inches.
3. Spool width is just 1.09 inches, so lateral line build up is not an issue.

4. The unique engineering/machining on the G series arbour creates more air space beneath the backing than any other model, allowing for shorter drying times and better salt removal.
5. The Nautilus NV G8 is one good looking reel.

My decision to go with the Nautilus G8 was also influenced by extremely positive experiences with my Nautilus NV 8/9, the Mermaid bought as a gift for me about four years ago. I do most of my saltwater fly fishing from a kayak or standing in the surf so the reel gets doused or submerged in salt water every time I fish. Apart from rinsing the reel off in freshwater and the occasional drop of oil on the handle the NV requires no maintenance. The ultra smooth sealed drag system is as good today as it was six years ago, and there is no sign of corrosion on the reel.  In the same six year period I have had problems with two other reels I own, namely leaking seals and corroding bearings, and neither reel appears in the above table.

The only disappointment I have had with the Nautilus G8 is backing capacity. Based on Nautilus' specifications the G8 should hold 200 yrs of 30 lb Dacron backing with a 9wt floating line, translating to 360 yrds of 50lb braid. In reality I could fit only 225 yrs of the new Hatch backing on the reel with a 9wt Rio Tropical F/I fly line. Although the Hatch backing has a breaking strain of 68 lb, it is marginally thinner than regular 50 lb Gelspun (0.40 mm), and quite a lot thinner than 30 lb Dacron (0.36 mm vs 0.61 mm).

According to the Yellowstone Angler 2014 8wt shootout, most reel manufacturers exaggerate backing capacity, which is something to bear in mind when perusing the comparative table of manufacturers specifications in this article. Most 9wt targets don’t run 225 yrs, so the G8 is perfect for the majority of situations. The super large arbour and good sized handle were much appreciated on a recent trip the Mermaid and I made to Aitutaki, when the big bonefish came back towards me after an initial long run across the flats. The silky smooth NV drag was also a pleasure.

The Hatch PE backing proved its worth on several fronts. I caught large bonefish and good trevally and at no stage were my fingers ever threatened by running backing. Nor did I experience problems with backing tangling after retrieving it rapidly under minimal tension. Last but not least, the abrasion resistance was phenomenal. 

On the last day I hooked an 8 kg bluefin trevally which swam around two coral bommies on its way out to sea. Even though the fly line and 60 lb tippet were frayed, there was not a jot of damage to the backing. Working the fish back through a channel in the reef against an outgoing current, after manually releasing the backing and fly line, I had to apply incredible pressure to the 9wt outfit and miraculously everything held.

The Loomis NRX is one tough and powerful 9wt.

Of course I still worry about being spooled by that dream fish, so plan to purchase a regular NV 10/11 spool for situations where I may come into contact with a large pelagic. The NV10/11 spool holds at least 300 m of Hatch PE backing with a 9wt line, and the reel is just 0.4 oz heavier.  

Good luck with choosing your next 9wt reel.


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