Tackle Test 2020: Best Baitcasting Rods & Reels
Game & Fish headed south to battle giant bass in old Mexico to test the latest baitcasting gear.
Low clouds haphazardly snaked across the ridgetops, obscuring our dawn’s-early-light view of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. Even without the clouds, these mountains guard their secrets, like the rich gold veins that inspired the 1948 classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
We trekked to this part of Sinaloa, Mexico, to mine something altogether different, something not entombed beneath slabs of granite or hidden by the millions of trees locked in their race to the sun. We wouldn’t need pickaxes or sluice boxes to uncover our treasure; in fact, we carried our own gold with us—the latest and greatest bass gear from the industry’s top manufacturers.
Here, in waters shallow and deep, in cover dense and sparse, the largemouth bass are big, fierce and oh-so plentiful. There may be no place in this hemisphere better suited for the annual Game & Fish Tackle Test than Lake Picachos. If gear has what it takes to excel here, then it can perform anywhere a bass calls home.
We now give you a detailed look at how 25 new baitcasting rods and reels held up during our evaluation (see next issue for spinning tackle). For 2020, manufacturers have ceased their retrieve-speed race, opting to build lighter, more ergonomic offerings. Rods and reels keep losing weight while using tougher materials. We see this trend continuing with the emergence of new manufacturing technologies and further advancements in the material sciences. Our tests on Lake Picachos show that anglers have a lot to look forward to in terms of on-the-water performance and off-the-shelf price with this year’s baitcasters.
Editors’ Choice: Shimano SLX DC 150XG
The Shimano SLX DC 150XG was the unanimous pick of testers for the Editors’ Choice award. It’s one of the most feature-rich reels we tested, yet it’s offered at an attractive price.
The first thing anglers will notice when casting the SLX DC is its audible electronic “whirl.” This is the onboard electronic casting control system at work, from which the DC (digital control) gets its name.
On the cast, this waterproof, self-energizing system monitors the spool’s rotation and automatically applies the braking force. The result: smooth casts that are virtually backlash-free no matter the bait or line weight.
The SLX DC is accessorized with ample creature comforts, which include the best handle in the business. The lengthy crank stretches some 5 inches tip-to-tip, offering a substantial mechanical advantage when working large, hydrodynamically-profiled lures such as spinnerbaits and swimbaits. The handle paddles also impressed testers, providing tactility that allows a firm grab even when wet.
With an 8.2:1 retrieve ratio, this Shimano is hungry, gobbling up 35 inches of line per turn. A super-low-profile palming plate nestles nicely in the hand. The plate also serves as the access cover for the spool, engaging/disengaging on a slick, single-throw lever for ease of operation. A heavy, machined brass gear box promises long life when working the heaviest of baits, which typically grind lesser gear boxes into submission.
- Bottom Line: The SLX DC will win the hearts of any bass fisherman searching for a great backlash-free caster at a very delectable price point. fish.shimano.com
Great Buy: Okuma Cerros
The new Cerros provides several notable attributes that will be appreciated by anglers on a budget. At about $100, the reel has 10 bearings and a quality twin casting-control set.
The test team liked the dual casting controls—a surprise feature on a value-priced reel. The friction knob lets users dial up gross casting control, while the opposing magnetic brake system allows fine tuning with a 24-point adjustment gradation.
A one-piece, cast-aluminum chassis keeps the Cerros rigid under strenuous use, like when dragging stubborn fish from the tangles. The aforementioned 10-bearing count keeps tolerances surprisingly tight on this econo-build; the reel turns with no perceived slop or shimmy.
The star drag is micro-click indexed, controlling the multi-disc composite drag system without any hiccups. We found the drag had plenty of gristle to wrestle fish from under boat docks or from the thickest snags.
The short-throw side palming plate disengages with minimal rotation, offering easy spool access. The EVA handle knobs are large, letting the angler get on them easily following the cast.
The Cerros proved itself as an inexpensive yet rugged performer during the test. Its large-capacity (130 yards/12 pound-test), CNC-machined 6061 aluminum spool had ample payload for the wide variety of baits we threw.
- Bottom Line: The Cerros is an excellent choice for anglers in search of an entry-level-priced baitcaster and is well-suited to fish a wide variety of techniques. okumafishingusa.com
See more reviews of reels tested at Lake Picachos in the gallery below
Editors’ Choice: G.Loomis IMX-Pro
G.Loomis has built a solid reputation for performance with discerning anglers via its top-shelf rods. Attention to design detail and exceptional quality are evident in every G.Loomis rod, and retail pricing reflects the company’s quest for perfection. G.Loomis carries this quality mantra forward with the introduction of the IMX-Pro series of rods.
At first blush, the IMX-Pro is quite non-descript; it’s a rod devoid of anything glitzy or gaudy. However, the sublime beauty and design genius of this rod are quickly discovered on the first cast. Users will immediately note the effortlessness with which the IMX-Pro casts. The rod’s excellent casting demeanor is due, in part, to the blank’s precision taper along its length. Meticulous attention to quality results in a blank with no dead spots or variations in wall thickness.
These exacting blank-taper tolerances transfer lure-to-rod load energy from the blank back to the lure with a dramatically high degree of mechanical efficiency. This allows the IMX-Pro to fire fluent casts void of blank chatter or unwanted vibration (an undesirable casting characteristic indicative of lost and unused energy in mechanically inefficient rod blanks).
Twelve Fuji K-Frame guides along the blank’s length manage line duties flawlessly, further enhancing the user’s experience. The grade-A, full-length cork grip telegraphs bait information to the user with unequalled precision. The test team universally loved the full cork grip, a rarity in modern rods. It has a delightfully inconspicuous taper, which melds to the hand in ergonomic perfection.
- Bottom Line: The IMX-Pro is built for anglers reluctant to compromise on performance and willing to pay for that luxury. gloomis.com
Great Buy: Daiwa Tatula Shallow Crank/Jerkbait/Light Topwater
Tackle Test Great Buy winners must possess two things: outstanding performance and a competitive retail price. The Daiwa Tatula delivers both.
Our 7-foot test rod was billed as the Shallow Crank/Jerkbait/Light Topwater model; however, we found it to be considerably more versatile than that. In fact, the Tatula is capable of throwing any number of baits, including worms, medium-size swimbaits, jigs and spinnerbaits.
The medium-action rod has a great tip that’s subtle enough for hopping worms, yet energetic enough to fish smallish swimbaits on light monofilament or fluorocarbon lines. The Tatula rod blank has a unique combination of subtlety and visceral strength. This duality affords anglers the ability to fish any number of bait styles with one rod.
Rated for a lure-weight range of 1/4 to 1 ounce and line weights of 8- to 17-pound-test, the Tatula fishes across this wide range with confidence. The full-length, grade-A premium cork grip is sufficiently long enough for getting on top of aggressive, two-handed search-bait casts across open water. Additionally, the lengthy handle counterbalances the reel nicely when working “smart baits” (those that require skill in presenting) like topwaters and jerkbaits.
- Bottom Line: With an MSRP of $150, the versatile Tatula is capable of throwing a wide range of bait styles on a variety of line weights, making it a viable option for those on a limited budget. daiwa.com
See more reviews of rods tested at Lake Picachos in the gallery below
Learn more about the Tackle Test team, how the gear was tested, fishing for big bass on Lake Picachos and more below