Sticker Shock

When it comes to versatile conventional reels rated for 20 to 40 lb. line, there are literally dozens of models on the market from more than a few manufacturers. Just to be clear, we’re not talking about heavy duty workhorses, rather lightweight conventional reels for everyday use. While a majority of these reels are fairly priced for the average working man, a selection of top shelf products stand above the rest and are preferred by some of the best anglers and most successful fishing teams around the state. However, with high quality and enhanced functionality comes a substantially inflated sticker price that many find hard to justify.


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Aboard our SeaVee, we regularly fish Daiwa Saltist STTBG50H star drag reels loaded with fresh Momoi Diamond line. Matched to 7 foot Chaos rods, these are our go-to outfits for light duty trolling, kite fishing, snapper fishing and more. We’ve even successfully subdued monster 300-pound man-eating sharks on these outfits, though admittedly we were way undergunned. Still, the truth is that other than regular cleaning and preventative maintenance, season after season we experience excellent results with these reels across an array of venues and with a wide variety of species. Simply put, they get the job done!

After a painfully detailed selection process, we narrowed down our picks to a half dozen similar sized and priced reels from just as many manufacturers.

Retailing for about two hundred dollars a piece, we’ve certainly gotten our money’s worth and currently fish 14 of the same reels. Yet after many years of use and abuse, it’s time for an upgrade. For someone looking for more bells and whistles there’s a whole new generation of conventional reels that offer enhanced features, lifelong durability, powerful drag cams and much more. However to enjoy the benefits of this latest technology one can expect to dish out more than twice or even triple the cost per reel. Is the extra expense really worth it?

In an attempt to confirm our assumptions, we got our hands on the finest compact lever drag reels on the market and simultaneously put them to work. The goal was not only to compare one reel to the next, but also to determine if each is worthy of its high sticker price based on its own merits. After a painfully detailed selection process, we narrowed down our picks to a half dozen similar sized and priced reels from just as many manufacturers.

The plan was to fish all six reels simultaneously and see what features and benefits really stood out. Did the reels look good and feel right in our hands? Did they perform as expected under pressure? Were all of the buttons and levers easily accessible? These are just a few considerations you’d expect in a $500 sailfish reel. The outcome of the test would also help form an opinion as to the best application for each reel.

My anxious tackle testing team included skilled anglers with decades of combined experience fishing local waters. These guys know gear, and they know what it takes to get the job done under any circumstance. Regardless, it’s obviously up to the consumer to determine if the benefits of utilizing such equipment outweigh the investment.

To keep the parameters consistent, we loaded all six reels with the same Momoi Diamond Hi-Vis line and proceeded to mount the reels on identical Seeker Hercules (SHS 70M) rods. These are some of the finest extreme duty production rods money can buy. Built on Devious Red S-glass composite blanks with solid titanium frame guides, Seeker Hercules rods are recognized globally for their lightweight attributes and impressive strength.

While limitations prevented us from fishing the reels over extended periods of time in various applications, we opted to spend a morning kite fishing. We set up on a well defined edge where we could simultaneously fish all six reels together. We quickly concluded that certain models excelled for this particular application.

The Daiwa Saltiga LD40 ($489.95) and Shimano Talica 16II ($499.99), at 25.5 oz. and 26.5 oz. respectively, were light and ideally suited for anglers targeting Atlantic sailfish on the edge. Man, are these reels smooth! Aesthetically, both the Daiwa Saltiga and Shimano Talica are nearly identical in size and functionality with one-piece machined aluminum bodies. They also sport a similar lever drag system and two-speed controls. It was easy going back and forth from one reel to the next and both high-speed machines performed flawlessly. Truth be told, with high tech drags and full free spool capabilities, these compact lever drag reels were an absolute pleasure to fish and are clearly more versatile than standard single speed star drag reels. Both the Daiwa Saltiga LD40 and Shimano Talica 16II get an A+ rating in our book!

With a similar shaped soft touch handle—though a touch smaller—and one finger two-speed control, the Avet LX6/3-MC ($419.99), also performed exceptionally well while dangling baits from the kite. The tolerances and smoothness of our demo reel weren’t quite as tight as the aforementioned products, but it was still easy to conclude that the Avet LX6 is an exceptionally built American made product ready for the toughest duty. This reel is built to last. It was originally designed to cast live baits and jigs and is highly valued by West Coast long rangers. We found the LX6 to be a solid choice for local crews as well.

Powerful, elegant and immediately recognizable is the heaviest and highest priced reel in our lineup, the 35 oz. Italian made, single-speed Alutecnos Gorilla 20 ($673.00). Like Italian sports cars, the machining and tolerances on this dream machine are nothing short of impeccable. When you’re fishing this reel you know your hands are on something special. While the Gorilla 20 lacked a low gear for extra cranking power, its multi drag disc system can be set at over 40 pounds!

Unique to the Alutecnos, the drag preset is on the left side of the reel and the clicker control on the right side. Not a huge ordeal, just different and not easily accessed when the lever drag is fully depressed and the handle is in a certain position. We were also slightly troubled by the clicker lever. It didn’t have a defined on/off point. Still, with guaranteed free spool, an extreme cranking handle and powerful 4.4:1 gear ratio, there are few fish that will prevail a battle with a Gorilla 20. While it wouldn’t be my first choice for kite fishing duties, I would certainly outfit my boat with a set of these high class reels in a heartbeat!

Not to be outdone, the familiar shine of gold is unmistakable and continues to adorn the finest cockpits around the world. While both the PENN International 12VSX ($499.99) at 33 oz. and Okuma Makaira 15II ($479.99) at 26.8 oz. got the job done, neither of these two reels were originally intended for working kite baits. Everyone knows Internationals are best suited for trolling duties and the 12VSX is no exception. This American made work of art is pretty much perfect and I know from experience that this reel will last a lifetime. For all around durability, not much beats a PENN International and if I was in the market for a set of 20 lb. class trolling reels it would be an easy decision!

After transitioning to wreck fishing and spending some time beating up big AJs, our crew had seen enough. We unanimously concluded that you clearly get what you pay for. Today’s compact lever drag reels are manufactured from the highest quality corrosion resistant aluminum and stainless steel that will not rust, tarnish, chip or fade. When used effectively in the appropriate arena these power packed reels provide the confidence and ability needed to land big fish on light tackle. At approximately $500 a piece, these reels are certainly a hefty investment, but consider the numerous benefits and don’t forget that these modern marvels will last a lifetime. To us that’s money well spent!