A high-end fly reel is a thing of beauty. The intricate machining, sparkling finish, premium touches, and silky performance can really spike the desire meter. However, like a precision timepiece or luxury car, the associated price tag puts these reels in another financial galaxy for many anglers. Sure, there's a plethora of reels out there for all types of budgets, but does choosing a more affordably-priced option carry a heavy performance and "coolness" penalty?
Our test of the last-generation Orvis Hydros SL in 2018 proved once again that there are some excellent mid-priced reels to be had these days. Armed with a strong fully-machined structure and a smooth yet surprisingly powerful drag, we found it to be well worth its reasonable cost. If course, like most products it wasn't perfect, and there were a couple little things that in our eyes could be improved. Now here in 2020, Orvis has released a brand-new Hydros lineup of reels which offer several key improvements over the now discontinued Hydros SL models.
Reel Size: 5/6
Advertised Weight: 5.5 ounces
Diameter: 3.7 inches
Spool Width: Approx 1 inch
Backing Capacity: WF6F / 125 yards
Drag: Carbon Fiber (Fully Sealed)
Tested Max Drag: Approx 4 pounds
Spool Release: No Tools Needed
Test Reel Colors: Matte Black & Matte Silver
Reel Pouch Included: Yes
R/L Interchangeable: Yes
Spare Spool: $119.99
Tested Reel Price: $239.99
At very first glance you might ask "what changed?" The newest examples indeed do look nearly identical to the old reels, but there are key alterations both inside and out with some changes addressing minor complaints we had in our last review right here.
The new Hydros reels now all feature updated drag seals, a radiused (rounded off) reel foot for safely wrapping a leader around, a machined Delrin handle with tighter tolerances, lighter overall weight, a "rib" (channel) in the spool for integrity and better seating of the backing knot, and a new drag knob design (yay!) that takes less turns to go from minimum to maximum.
Another noteworthy morsel is that the reels are now designated a bit differently and resized accordingly. Rather than all models being rated for three line weights, three of the five models are rated for just two line weights each. I've always thought that rating most modestly-sized reels for just two line weights is a lot more realistic as far as what most folks will be spooling up with for the given size. There's a rundown of all available models at the end of this review.
Containing 16 carbon and stainless discs, the drag system ramps up without any real hint of startup inertia. Once it gets going, consistency is plenty good but I wouldn't label it buttery smooth. Curiously, the maximum drag power on this reel felt far less powerful than the Hydros SL II previously tested. I forget exactly what the issue was, but I had trouble even testing that reel's max because it was so stout. In comparison, this new reel had a max in the neighborhood of 4 pounds. Now don't get me wrong, that is still more than enough for a reel of this size, but I just found this interesting.
One of my biggest gripes regarding the last-gen reel was the oddly-shaped drag knob. It had a neat look, but it was awkward to use. Thankfully, the new Hydros has a very nice drag knob that's round, tall, and has a ton of grippy texture on the outside. Another solid upgrade is that it only takes 1 1/4 turns of that wonderful new knob to go from zero to maximum drag — about a full turn less than our last tester. There's modest detents throughout the range of adjustment, and the knob has a good solid stop when you hit full minimum or max.
The new machined Delrin handle is thinner and (I think) taller and provides adequate comfort while cranking. Orvis says the handle now has tighter tolerances, and while I still detected a smidge of play there, it's not enough to be of concern while fishing. Retrieve rate is good, and the clicking sounds are modest yet crisp when reeling or pulling off line.
Releasing the spool is done via the small lever on the center cap. It takes little effort to move and the spool/frame separate easily. Seating the two back together is just as simple and free of any quirks.
We liked the old Hydros and this new one didn't disappoint. With all the high-dollar reels out there, the solid value of this series remains strong. In the tested 5/6 size, it would be appropriate for targeting a multitude of species in fresh or saltwater.
Hydros reels come in a matte black w/ silver drag knob or matte silver with black drag knob. Sizes include a 1–3, 3–4, 5–6, 7–8, and 9–11 with prices ranging from $190 to $279 and spools from $98 to $139.
*As of this writing, the new Hydros reels are not yet available at our partner fly shops. Look for them to have widespread availability in March!