All About Ultralights

Ultralight spinning reels pack plenty of power for saltwater anglers

September 2, 2011

The guy who coined the phrase “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight” obviously wasn’t a light-tackle angler.

For thousands of fishermen worldwide, scaling back the gear and taking on the biggest, baddest fish imaginable represents the pinnacle of angling, the ultimate challenge. To achieve success, all systems must be in tiptop shape: Hooks must be razor sharp, lines knick-free, knots secured fast.

Oh, and one more thing: Your reel had better be up to the challenge.


Luckily for anglers, small spinning reels designed for saltwater use keep getting better and better. Propelled by innovative manufacturers, these reels are more like works of art these days — and all indications point to much more evolution brewing just around the corner.

An Inner Strength

The term “light spinning reel” is, of course, totally subjective and depends entirely upon the species you’re pursuing. For this article, we’re referring to reels in the 2000/3000 class, those that generally hold upwards of 200 yards of 8- or 10-pound braid, and are most commonly used for inshore or light nearshore work.

Manufacturers have long relied on aluminum for building the bodies of these reels, and for good reason. The body, or frame, serves as the reel’s structural hub and must absorb the shock inflicted by a hard day at sea, while also protecting the reel’s vital inner parts.


“Aluminum is still the best material for that,” says Marc Mills, regional marketing manager at Shimano. “It maintains ultimate stabilization for the gears and bearings.”

Shimano’s new Stradic FJ and Sustain FG reels are both constructed around such a framework. So too is Fin-Nor’s new line of Inshore reels, says Chris Littau, director of saltwater brands at Zebco (parent company of Fin-Nor, Van Staal and Quantum).

Why have so many manufacturers avoided building bodies from other materials?


“We’ve found that when you put much more than 10 pounds of load on even higher-end graphite- or plastic-based reels, they really start to flex,” Littau says.

This flexing can occur in the frame, rotor and stem, and it’s the first sign of a failing reel, the ­ultimate bugaboo to a light-tackle angler.

Shedding Ounces

But that’s not to say other materials don’t have a place. In fact, while reel strength and rigidity remain tantamount, engineering changes have emerged to coincide with the increasingly frequent use of braided lines.


This has been most prevalent in larger reels, but it’s occurring in the ultralight category as well, as manufacturers strive to make models ever lighter and, therefore, more easily manageable with the thin, strong line.

For instance, Mills says Shimano’s new Sustain FG features a “hybrid” rotor built from the company’s CI4 composite. This reduced weight by 20 percent and facilitated easier cranking because of the lightened load.

Ben Secrest, vice president of sales and marketing at Accurate Fishing Products, echoes this thought on rotor evolution. “They’re cutting a lot of material out of the rotors in Asia,” he says. “The reels they’re using in Japan right now are much different. The contours and shapes are quickly changing, and I think this will be a growing trend here.”

Other trends might not be far behind. Mike Rice, senior product manager for Penn, says that as manufacturing processes continue to evolve, magnesium could one day be a potential replacement for the heavier aluminum.

“It’s not a very corrosion-resistant material,” he says, “but we’re still not very far along in its manufacture.”

And Daiwa’s new Ballistic and Certate reels even feature a body made of a material called Zaion, which company vice president Bill Liston says is stronger than traditional composite because of its high-density carbon base. “It matches or exceeds magnesium in rigidity and weight,” he says, “and there is absolutely no corrosion.”

The Balanced Package

Indeed, the future is wide open — but some things never change. Light-tackle anglers have always been a demanding bunch, insisting that their reels feel just so. As such, manufacturers go to great lengths optimizing strength and lightweight-design characteristics into a package that’s ergonomically pleasing.

“First impressions are what sell a spinning reel,” says Secrest, who’s company is working on its smallest reel yet, the Twinspin SR-6. “The first time someone picks it up, they immediately analyze its weight and smoothness. Either they like it or they don’t.”

How seriously do manufacturers take this nonscientific reality of “feel”?

“We’ll literally sit around the office for months on end making sure everything feels just perfect,” Mills says. “Will it cause a blister? Will it do this, or will it do that? Then we make the changes based on what we’re finding. We also do a lot of field-testing. At the end of the day, it’s got to be a dream product.”

Of course, any dream product must be precisely balanced, weightwise, so it matches up and fishes well on a light graphite rod, maximizing comfort for a long day on the water. And it must possess a flawless drag, one that will not wilt under the pressure of a big fish. A drag’s range, in particular, is a crucial factor when dealing with extremely light lines.

“It’s important to have lots of little settings,” Rice says. “On our 2000, we prefer the drag knob to spin five full times between 0 to 7 pounds [of drag]. If a drag adjusts too quickly, you can break a fish off.”

Do everything right, however, and no fish should break you off — even if you bring a knife to a gunfight.

Fin-Nor Inshore Pat Ford
Abu Garcia’s new Revo Premier uses a nickel-alloy coating called Nanoshield over a polymer stem and spool, which reduces weight and increases strength.
Daiwa Certate
Penn Battle
* A – Aluminum; CC – Carbon composite; M – Magnesium; P – Polymer

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