The search for the ultimate small stream fly reel - by Ed Herbst

The search for the ultimate small stream fly reel - by Ed Herbst

Tuesday, 18 June 2013 15:44
Using the lightest reel possible makes some sense, since you’re constantly moving the reel while casting. An ounce of weight carried through the casting motion all day makes pounds of difference.” Scott Roederer, The Compleat Anglers’s Catalogue, 1985.

Fishing the small streams near Cape Town often involves hiking into canyons where the temperature can reach 30 degrees C and the rapid cadence of casting into pocket water can involve hundreds of casts a day. Roederer’s dictum, then, makes a great deal of sense.

Please click in images to enlarge them


Typical Cape canyon water on the Witels. Picture Billy de Jong.
For the past decade, Cape Town rod builder Stephen Boshoff and I have worked on developing the ultimate small stream fly rod.

As Gary Borger has indicated in his book, Presentation (Tomorrow River Press, 1995), the hand should be as close to the centre of the reel as possible. We have attempted to reach that goal through making it possible for the hand to move backwards on the rod with comfort.

We have achieved this by using an up-locking, reversed half wells handle that has the front reel foot recessed into the handle and a shelf of cork on top of the handle and extending to the rear over the reel seat. The concept is illustrated in the picture below which shows the original 1998 Sage “Ought Weight” on top and, beneath it, a custom rod built by Steve Boshoff on the Sage “0” blank. The reel is the original Orvis CFO2 first introduced in 1972.


Herbst Boshoff palm grip below

The first “Palm Grip” fly rod built by Capetonian Stephen Boshoff in 2002. Photo by Andrew Ingram.

Tom Sutcliffe has described this as the “palm grip” and, as we were later to discover, others had explored the same avenue, although not, I believe, as elegantly as Stephen’s interpretation of our original conceptually-created brief.

Stephen, aside from being a consummate craftsman who literally learned his skills at his late father’s knee, is also a gentle, egalitarian man and he constructed the original palm grip with cork from wine bottles – just to show that one did not need expensive, imported cork to create and elegant, functional and superbly comfortable fly rod handle.

But what was the ideal reel to go with this rod? At the time there was only one choice – the two and a half inch Orvis CFO2 with its pawl and spring drag system. It weighed 70 grams (two and a half ounces). At the time of writing, June 2013, I would say that the CFO and its successors have been superseded by the smallest Wychwood RS 2/3 which weighs just 50 grams or 1.7 ounces.

Below are three views of the new Wychwood River and Stream 


Wychwood 2 3



Wychwood back



Wychwood spool


In seeking to record the chronology of small stream fly reels one needs to look at how they have evolved.

The first known record of a fishing reels dates from the Sung Dynasty in 12th century China. In a painting by a famous artist of the era, Ma Yuan, an angler with a rod and reel is depicted.

Much later, in England, reference is made to a fishing reel in The Art of Angling by Thomas Barker which was published in 1651. Fifty years later wooden reels, usually made of walnut, were in common use.

Today's fly reel had its genesis in the Pflueger Medalist which was manufactured in the USA from the 1850s. Assembled from metal stampings it proved a rugged workhorse but the founding of Hardy Bros in Alnwick, England in 1872 provided fly fishers with die cast reels which were lighter and more aesthetically pleasing.

With the rapid advance of industrial technology it took only two more years for the next significant advance - a patent on a new design of fly reel issued to tackle manufacturer, Charles F. Orvis in 1874.  It was mounted upright rather than sideways on the rod and was narrow and perforated - all design elements which are echoed in today's fly reels.

In the 1960's aluminium alloys were developed which allowed the manufacture of substantially lighter reels, the most famous of which was the Hardy Lightweight series.

Hardy then improved on the design of the Lightweight reels by incorporating, at the behest of Orvis, an idea of famed US custom reel maker, Stanley Bogdan. Bogdan simply eliminated the outer rim of the reel frame, producing a lighter, cage-less design. This one-sided “half-frame” enabled spool changes to be quickly and easily made and the exposed reel rim was easily palmed to provide extra drag for big fish.



The main components of the Orvis CFO2 circa 1978

In its lightest derivation, the two and a half ounce Orvis CF02, small stream fly fishers found the ultimate expression of their needs. The reel, introduced in 1972, was perforated to the nth degree to reduce weight, even to the extent of drilling holes in the reel foot.

My only criticism of the CFO was that it was not a uniform matte black but had a reflective silver reel foot and similarly reflective components on both the front and back of the reel.

Three significant design trends in the context of small, light fly reels followed the CFO2 although one, replacing aluminium alloy with magnesium, turned out to be something of a blind alley.

Magnesium allowed the Ryobi company to produce its 350 MG, a reel which was not only slightly lighter at 68.2 grams (2.4 ounces) but less expensive than the CFO2.


Ryobi 350 MG


The Ryobi 350 MG on a Stephen Boshoff Palm Grip 1-weight Scott. Notice how the blank has been painted matte-khaki to reduce rod flash. Photo by Neil Hodges

While magnesium simply melts away in the marine environment it did seem to offer advantages on river, stream and lake.

Magnesium reels such as the Ryobi and a short-lived Orvis magnesium model Battenkill which was made by Hardy, were twenty five per cent lighter than an equivalent bar stock or cast aluminium alloy reel and, with today’s anodising, one would have thought they would last a lifetime. The Ryobi, however, proved vulnerable to wear around the pawl and spring drag. I asked Allan Ross, former Hardy's agent in South Africa, to make enquiries on my behalf as to why the magnesium Orvis Battenkill was discontinued and the reply was that they were not sufficiently rugged and reliable.

The traditional way of balancing the reel spool so that it does not wobble when a fish takes line rapidly is to put a counterweight opposite the reel handle - in other words, adding weight to the spool. A novel way to balance the reel spool by subtracting weight was evolved by the late William Hollander, a professional laboratory instrument maker at the University of Boulder Colorado. In 1986 he showed that by using different sized slots cut into the front and back of the reel spool you could counter-balance the weight of the reel handle by subtracting weight.  Perhaps the reason why this eminently sensible design did not become universal is that Hollander applied for and was granted four patents on various aspects of the reel’s design.


William Hollander patent

A diagrammatic impression of a William Hollander fly reel showing the asymmetric triangular cut-outs which balance the spool without increasing the weight.

I believe, though, that Hollander’s idea inspired Mark Farris an industrial designer in the USA, to come up with a similar theme on the Waterworks reels – but more of that anon.

The next significant breakthrough also occurred in 1986 when Swedish angler, Kurt Danielsson designed a fly reel which eschewed the conventional reel spindle and, instead, utilised three axles arranged in a triangle and fitted with six conically-shaped rollers, each utilising its own sealed ball bearings. A triangular plate applies pressure to the rollers and all these factors combine to provide an extremely smooth drag.  This is not a drag in the accepted sense but a spool over-run prevention system. The spool is extensively ported for lightness and, this, combined with its suspension system facilitates minimal start-up inertia. This, in turn, absorbs shock and lessens the load on fine tippets. The reel also featured a much larger and wider arbor than normal.

So radical a break with tradition didn't initially endear the reel to traditionally-minded fly fishers but reel manufacturers quickly adopted the large-arbor feature, not least because such reels have a 2-3: 1 pickup and retrieve line about forty per cent faster than conventional designs.


Loop midge on palm grip 2


The Danielsson Midge on a Stephen Boshoff – built Palm Grip one weight Scott. Note the Duplon insert in the rod handle and the fact that the reel foot is not ported. Photo by Ed Herbst.

 Danielsson caters for the small stream fly fisher with an ultra-light model, the Midge, designed for 0-3 weight lines.  It weighs 78 grams or 2.75 ozs.

In South Africa, however, I found that the rollers created significant friction and, if any sand got into them, using the reel became unpleasant. (This proved particularly problematic for those fly fishing in the sea.)


Mark Farris

Marc Farris whose Waterworks fly reels consigned the pawl and spring drag system to history.

In 1996 Mark Farris, an industrial designer who holds sixteen patents, combined the large arbor principle of Danielsson with, I believe, a concept of reel balancing similar to the one pioneered by William Hollander to create a new generation of ultra-light fly reels.

 An outstanding and original feature of these reels was the small polymer wishbone that impinges on indentations machined into the inner rim of the spool to provide an ultra-light over-run control – something that has replaced the traditional pawl and click design as exemplified by the original Hardy Lightweight models – in most contemporary lightweight reel designs

Multi-axis, computer-controlled lathes increasingly made it possible to almost sculpt reels from solid ingots of light alloy or the even harder but heavier titanium.

The fall of the Berlin wall and the consequent redundancies in the Russian aerospace industry saw the Megoff hubless fly reel appear in 2005

It was made of titanium and weighed 80 grams (2.8) ounces. Megoff subsequently produced an aluminium version for Hardy which was called the Marksman but it is no longer marketed. The original, however, is still available from Megoff but, with shipping costs to South Africa it would probably cost in excess of eight thousand rand and the waiting period is around five months.

In 2009 Sage took the small stream fly reel concept a step further with the introduction of the Sage Click 1.


EH Sage Click Jeanne Welsh

The author with the Sage Click 1 fly reel on a Palm Grip Sage 000. Note the absence of a butt cap to reduce weight. Photo by Jeanne Welsh.


Here is what I wrote in the April issue of Flyfishing magazine that year:

Le Rort est moi, viva le rort. The King is dead – long live the king – a phrase which originated in the French royal house in the middle ages and one that came to mind when I put the new, matte-finish, Sage Click 1 fly reel on my digital  jeweller’s scale and found it weighed 63.3 grams.

 Despite being almost a third bigger than the original,  but now discontinued, 70  gram, Orvis CFO 2 – which reigned as the quintessential small stream fly reel from  its introduction in 1972 until 1989 when it was replaced by the larger, heavier  CFO 123 – it is a quarter of an ounce lighter.

At the time, however, I was  slightly disappointed  - a small stream reel does not need to hold more than half a double taper line and 50 metres of Dacron backing and I felt that the Sage Click 1 could have been made the same size as the Orvis CFO2 and been lighter as a consequence. I also felt that the counterweight, small as it was, was unnecessary and added needless weight.

It took another four years before the British company, Wychwood, released its River and Stream 2/3 model and I felt that, at last, modern technology had produced a really worthy successor to the CFO 2 and a product that comes close to perfection.

It weighs just 50 grams (1.7 ounces) and has a matte finish

It takes the Mark Farris concept of over-run control an intriguing step further but I believe that this could have simplified with a further loss in weight

In closing I would like to refer to a review of the latest iteration of the Orvis CFO which the author praises because it “reflects light”. While this may make the reel more attractive to humans, to trout in small streams it reflects danger. This model has two shiny rivets and the same shiny reel foot that the original had – retrograde features in my opinion.

Take a look at this exquisite Stephen Boshoff centre axis rod which incorporates the superbly engineered Hardy Ultralight CC (Click Check). Note how he has replaced the escutcheon at the centre of the reel with indigenous besembos (Clotalario spartiodes) wood which matches the handle. Note, however, the star burst of light reflected from the reel …


Hardy on SB centre axis

A Hardy-equipped Stephen Boshoff centre axis fly rod. Note the reflected light. Photo by Stephen Boshoff.


This brings me to the shortcomings, from a small stream perspective, which Wychwood has obviated but which most manufacturers still seem to regard as obligatory on their small and lightest models.

When Orvis introduced the ported reel foot on the CFO2 in 1972, eschewed a counterweight on the spool and relied on a simple, lightweight pawl and spring system to limit line overrun, the logic was so obvious that one would have assumed that other manufacturers would have followed suit.

The Danielsson Midge, for example, does not have a ported reel foot which is difficult to understand because it is such an easy way to reduce weight – and all weight reduction becomes important if you are making hundreds of casts a day, sometimes in great heat. It becomes even more important if you suffer from some physical infirmity such as tennis elbow.   Further weight reduction could be achieved by shortening the reel foot on either side of the reel pillar, minimising the pillar linking the reel foot and the reel and drilling tippet holes through the pillar for tippets in the way that Ted Juracsik does on the Tibor.  Juracsik also drills holes in the palming rim of his reels for yet further weight reduction, an example followed by the Vision GT 24 which weighs 82 grams.


Vision reel

A cutaway drawing of the Vision GT 24 showing the prominent and chromed counterweight opposite the handle.

Since the introduction of this reel, it has been made in black to reduce fish-scaring flash but it retains a brightly-chromed reel counterweight!



The author argues that the heavy counterweight on the spool of the Vision GT24 fly reel is unnecessary when fishing for small stream trout. Note also, how reflective the reel is.

The handle, too, is bigger and heavier than it needs to be and in this regard the smallest Wychwood is exemplary. Its handle is narrow close to the spool but becomes progressively broader and it is flat – all features that shave fractions of a gram from the total weight.

Reel counterweights and line capacity

In mid-summer, water levels on the trout streams near Cape Town can drop substantially. My only experience of a trout which actually took line of the real in such conditions occurred in 1987 under unusual circumstances. I was fishing on the Holsloot stream ( an hour’s drive from Cape Town. I had long been frustrated by a deep pool which had a cliff on one side and was equally inaccessible from the other bank because of thick bush. The pool was about five times longer than my best double haul on a good day with a stiff breeze over my right shoulder. I wanted to get at the section about ten metres down from the throat of the run that emptied into the pool, that delectable section where the crease of the current smoothed out and you just knew a big fish had to lying in wait for the declining water speed to drop various delicacies into its capacious maw.

The action had been slow and I decided I had nothing to lose by hacking my way in with the help of my redoubtable Gerber folding saw. Sweating, cursing and hewing, I slowly carved a narrow tunnel towards the sound of running water. Eventually I reached the stream and, hemmed in my branches, I drifted an elk hair caddis downstream, the only method of attack that my precarious position overlooking some deep water allowed me.

The take was instant and my little Orvis CF02 buzzed as the fish tore off downstream. The Orvis One Weight helped me subdue a beautiful fish of about a kilogram, huge by Holsloot standards.


Holsloot  by Sean Mills

The author a split second before he was broken by a trout on the Holsloot. He contends that very little backing is needed in small stream conditions because the trout cannot go far. Photo by Sean Mills.

What made that fish relevant in terms of this article, is that it is the only fish that I have caught in midsummer on Western Cape streams in thirty years that I had to fight from the reel and that actually took line from the reel. What made this possible was the length of a deep pool which had no obstructions.  


Wild rainbow Lourens river1

An average South African small stream trout. Photograph by Tom Sutcliffe.

The average trout in South Africa’s small and relatively acid mountain streams measures from 25 – 35 cms. Furthermore, they live in relatively confined areas so their ability to strip line, let alone backing, from a reel is limited.

South African trout are hardly unique in this regard. US aquatic scientist Robert Bachman as said that the average brown trout in that country will rarely get much bigger than 13 inches and, on the small streams of Dartmoor in England the trout are said to weigh “three and four to the pound” i.e. four to five ounces.

Given that, why do so many current trout reels made for 0 – 3 weight lines weigh close to four ounces and why do some have drag systems which could stop substantially bigger fish?
This is a far more relevant question than you might think and it is not predicated on the fact that I am frail of wrist, arthritic of hand and a little worried that those twinges might signal the onset of tennis elbow.
I’m referring to a fascinating section in the second of Vincent Marinaro’s two books, In the Ring of the Rise (now available in paperback) and I’d like to quote it in full in support of his contention that, regardless of the circumstances, the best fly reel is the lightest fly reel suitable for the prevailing circumstances.

"In 1889 R.C. Leonard, a tournament caster, stepped to the platform without a reel on his rod and simply coiled the line at his feet. With that abbreviated rig he proceeded to smash all distance records, including his own by a wide margin. It was a shocking thing to competitors and spectators alike. It was a momentous discovery from which not only tournament casters but fishermen as well should have profited. That early-day pioneer discovered an extremely important principle in rod dynamics. t amounts to this: That the caster has to move the useless weight below his hand as well as the useful weight above the hand and that the removal of dead weight below the hand helped to overcome inertia more quickly, increasing tip speed, thus imparting greater velocity to the fly line. I should have been a valuable lesson to everyone, but it wasn't. It remained only among tournament casters for many years.

"With the lightest reels the casts are sharply and cleanly delivered flat out and with enough velocity to turn over the leaders. As the reels get heavier there is a noticeable lagging in the forward loop until, finally, with the heaviest reel there is a decided dropping of the loop and probably a failure to turn the leader over properly.

"You can suit yourself about these matters but for me there is only one sound system and that is: Use the lightest possible reel of good quality and adequate capacity no matter how long or heavy the rod may be."

Marinaro recommended making as long a cast as you can comfortably handle, cutting the line at the point and then filling up the reel with Dacron backing. I have for years cut my double taper lines in half and found that for small stream use this was more than adequate.  Fishing as we do in the Western Cape in rugged terrain and often in great heat and making possibly several hundred rapid-fire casts in a day, the less weight you have above and below the hand the better.

Reel “balance”

Stephen Boshoff feels that in split cane the ideal rod is a seven to seven and a half foot for a four weight line. Seven and a half foot is the length chosen by Sage for its 2-weight Circa and by Orvis for its 1-weight Superfine Touch, both ideal small stream, carbon fibre rods. In using such rods I believe Marinaro’s dictum of using the lightest available reel holds true.


Waterworks on SB centre axis

A Stephen Bosohoff centre axis fly rod equipped with a Waterworks reel. The author feels that such rods provide the best accuracy under small stream conditions.  This is one of the rods that Stephen will be exhibiting at the Ufudu Outdoor Adventure Fair at Kloof near Durban from July 21- 22 . Photo by Andrew Ingram.

Photo by Andrew Ingram.

However the impact of competition fly fishing and its concomitant technique, Czech nymphing, has seen the introduction of ten foot 2-weight and eleven foot 3-weight rods. Rhodes guide Tony Kietzman was awed by the ten foot 2 weight Sage ENS that Stephen Boshoff built for me, saying that he considered it to offer more small stream advantages than the lightest Circa.

There is a perception that these longer rods need to be “balanced” by heavier reels and, as I have done no research in this regard, all I can do is refer you to an article that suggests that there might be some merit in this approach.

Drag/Line overrun systems on small stream reels

The contemporary small stream reel, as the 2013 Wychwood proves, does not need anything more than the line overrun system introduced by Geoff Farris because small stream trout rarely reach much more than a half a kilogram in weight and even more rarely leave the confines of the small pockets and runs in which they are caught.  For the same reason one does not need more than half a double taper fly line and sufficient backing to adequately fill the reel spool.

IMG 7915

The three reels side by side; Sage Click 1, Wychwood 2/3 and the Orvis CFO 

Is there anything that I would change on the Wychwood? Yes. The screw securing the handle to the spool is shiny silver. If I could change that to a matte black I would be content. Hopefully other manufacturers will realise that a carbon fibre disc drag and a chromium-plated counterweight are not essential components when it comes to landing the average small stream trout. Hopefully they will realise that, given the intricate lattice-work of porting on their reel spools and frame they could just as easily port the reel foot. Hopefully they will realise that bling prevents fish being caught and that there is a market for matte-finish reels in more sombre colours.

Gary LaFontaine summed up the requirements of a small stream fly rod in his book, The Dry Fly, New Angles, (Greycliff Publishing Co, 1990)

To make a perfect stalking rod the fly fisherman has to start with a blank, preferably with a slower, softer action than one of the popular fast designs, finish it a flat gray instead of a glossy polish and fit it with non-reflective guides and reel seat instead of bright metallic  ones.”

Steve Boshoff Kaaiman

Stephen Boshoff testing one of his fly rods on the Kaaimansgat tributary of the Holsloot. Photo by Andrew Ingram.

To this end I commissioned Pretoria rod builder Koos Eckard to build a Sage Circa seven and a half foot 2-weight to the specifications which Stephen Boshoff and I consider ideal.

The reel I chose, unsurprisingly, was the new Wychwood RS 2/3 and some of the reasons why it is so good are discussed here:

However my ultimate small stream outfit would be a Stephen Boshoff split cane centre axis model equipped with the larger Wychwood RS 4/5 which Stephen considers more aesthetically in harmony with this rod than the smaller 2/3 version.

The reason is simple.  No other fly rod in my experience facilitates the “squeeze cast” like this one does.

For a greater insight and understanding of this cast you can get the Joe Humphries DVDs from Craig Thom at Dry Fly Tactics in Tight Brush is particularly relevant. Craig is also the South African agent for Wychwood tackle.

 And if you want to gain a better understanding of why highly reflective fly rods and reels radically reduce your chances of small stream success get the DVD Trout Vision and Refraction by Ozzie Osefovich.

comments powered by Disqus