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Tackle Test 2023: The Best New Baitcasting Rods & Reels

Our Tackle Test team put new gear up against Florida largemouth bass.

Tackle Test 2023: The Best New Baitcasting Rods & Reels

Despite the wintry chill, Bienville Outdoors' largemouths proved to be willing participants during Tackle Test 2023's on-the-water evaluation. (Photo by Brad Richardson)

Winter gusts whistled across the phosphate pits of Bienville Outdoors in north Florida, pushing an endless parade of whitecaps onto the leeward shore. The big two-stroke belched blue smoke as we inched through a labyrinth of tight canals, most no more than a hand’s width wider than the boat’s beam. The hull's wake washed against the banks, sending baitfish and other forage scurrying.

We chugged from one skinny quarry to the next, searching for clean water and northern banks with direct sunlight, hoping the sun would thaw the cold front's tight grip and nudge some bass into biting. With a couple miles and a few dozen pits behind us, we idled into one that held promise. Here, the algae-stained water we'd been slopping through turned a promising tannic color. With a full complement of combos spread across the deck, we dunked the trolling motor and headed for a sun-drenched cove. Following three short pitches into the shallows, we doubled-up on two fat fish hiding in a craggy, horizontal deadfall.

On that brisk morning we would flip approximately 50 bass over the gunwales, with a few pushing 5 pounds. Along the way, the Game & Fish Tackle Test team would push the limits of some of the finest new rods and reels that will debut this year, later ranking their performance accordingly. The following results of our Tackle Test offer firsthand insight into what anglers can expect from the latest rods and reels.

BAITCASTING RODS & REELS

Tackle Test 2023 winning baitcasting gear
The Megabass Destroyer and Shimano Bantam (left) were unanimous Editor's Choice recipients in the baitcasting category. Daiwa's Tatula XT and the Ark Gravity 7 (right) both delivered exceptional performance at budget-friendly prices. (Photo by Brad Richardson)

THE WINNERS: BAITCASTING RODS

Editor's Choice: Megabass Destroyer FMJ

Yuki Ito began Megabass in his garage in 1986. The bass-tackle innovator based his business model on crafting lures with the finest materials and components available. That same model is reflected in his stellar line of fishing rods, first introduced to North America in 1996. The 7-foot-3-inch Megabass Destroyer FMJ is impeccably built, using only the best materials. The big casting rod, with its medium-heavy action and fast tip, throws a variety of bait weights effortlessly. Rated for 3/8- to 1-ounce baits and 10- to 25-pound-test line, the Destroyer FMJ, unlike other manufacturers’ offerings, performed well across the entire rating spectrum, qualifying it as a true general-purpose rod.

The unsanded blank is built using five-directional “panels” of proprietary carbon fibers, each designed to provide structural integrity and metered flexure in varying force vectors along the blank’s length. These vectors include longitudinal tension (loading the rod on the back cast), torsional rigidity (resisting blank twist when side-loaded on a snappy hookset) and lateral stiffness (side-to-side flexure). Admittedly, that’s a whole bunch of engineering terminology, but suffice it to say the Destroyer FMJ has an uncanny mechanical efficiency and casts a large range of lure and line weights while producing head-jarring hooksets.

Eight Fuji titanium SiC guides and tip handle line management chores, both braided and clear lines, without a whimper. The split grip is an ergonomic indulgence—understated, yet exceptionally well-contoured for comfortably wrapping both hands around it while casting. The rod excels with contact baits like weighted soft plastics and jigs. It balances impeccably while the blank’s sensitivity allows the user to monitor the bottom makeup and feel the faintest taps. The only nitpick we have with the Destroyer FMJ is the lack of a traditional hook holder. This may tempt anglers to hang their hooks on the guides, possibly leading to damage to the inserts and, ultimately, nicked lines. ($499.99; megabassusa.com)

  • Bottom Line: This rod is a genuine piece of fishing artwork that will appeal to those searching for the best of the best.

Great Buy: Daiwa Tatula XT

Finding a good casting rod at a reasonable price can be a challenge. High-end rods often require anglers to dip into their pension, while rods priced $100 and less are often horribly tiresome to fish due to their excessive weight, pool-cue action or drunken balance. Daiwas Tatula XT, on the other hand, is a great casting rod with a shockingly low price tag.

The blank is radially wrapped along its length and cross-stitched (braided) in the butt section. This layup provides a stiff butt section while ensuring a lively tip. The carbon braiding in the blank’s butt resists the imperceivable rotational torque often encountered on hooksets that sideload the blank, resulting in deformation. By supporting the butt section with carbon braiding, more energy is translated into the hookset. This is a function of diminished energy loss due to unwanted asymmetrical blank bending.

Rated as medium-heavy, the Tatula XT is capable of throwing 1/4- to 1-ounce baits on lines ranging from 10- to 20-pound test. We found the blank gets just a bit saturated when attempting to muscle large-profile lures like 1-ounce spinnerbaits and felt its sweet spot falls in the 1/4- to 3/4-ounce range. Though it throws a variety of bait types well, the Tatula XT excels for Texas-rigged worms, vibrating baits (jigs and spinnerbaits) and swim jigs.

The EVA split grip is comfy (though we’d prefer cork), and the eight Fuji aluminum-oxide guides (plus tip) manage both braids and clear lines nicely. The reel seat, with its carbon nut, cinches down and does not walk. An exposed section of blank on the bottom of the grip offers better monitoring of touch baits like worms and jigs. ($99.99; daiwa.us)

  • Bottom Line: The Tatula XT is a generalist casting rod that can fish most techniques confidently at a great price.
Florida largemouth bass
Rods and reels were evaluated under real-world conditions on hungry Florida largemouths. (Photo by Brad Richardson)

THE WINNERS: BAITCASTING REELS

Editor's Choice: Shimano Bantam 150XG

In the fall of 1978, Shimano introduced its first Bantam casting reel—one that was destined to set the bass world on its collective ear. In the 45 years since, the Bantam has undergone numerous iterations. The newest Bantam, the 150XG, impressed us with its mechanical fluidity, an attribute inherent in the Shimano DNA. Our test reel had a zippy 8.1:1 gear ratio; it’s also available in 6.2:1 and 7.1:1, as well as right- and left-handed mdoels. Unlike most high-speed casting reels that have large, protruding gear boxes, Shimano engineers discovered a way to taper the gear housing into the side-plate, reducing the reel’s profile.

The Bantam inhales 35 inches of line per crank, making it fast enough for any technique, yet capable of being slowed down for baits that require finesse, like a weighted worm. Shimano fortified the chassis with a fully cold-forged cage, which includes everything from the foot to the side-plate frame. Adding to the ruggedness of the Bantam is the pinion gear, which is supported within the spool shaft, reducing cranking torque while under load. At 7.9 ounces, the Bantam is not the lightest reel in the category; however, the added weight is great for offsetting today’s über-light casting rods.

Recommended


One set of casting brakes is housed beneath the palming plate, which is removable by rotating it about a quarter turn. Six micro "switches" can be engaged or disengaged to adjust spool speed for varying bait weights. External magnetic and friction controls are standard.

Attention to design detail can be seen in the paddles, which have a rotational profile to ergonomically accommodate an angler’s convex finger and thumb pads. While this may seem like minutia, these small details make this reel a delight to fish and worthy of our Editor’s Choice award. ($349.99; fish.shimano.com)

  • Bottom Line: This legacy baitcaster just keeps getting better.

Great Buy: Ark Gravity 7

Ark has been building great rods for years while somehow flying under the mainstream radar. Now, its new Gravity line of casting reels is about to make a big splash in the bass world—in particular the Gravity 7. The Gravity series is Ark’s first foray into the reel market, and the company has hit a proverbial homerun right out of the gate.

At first glance, the Gravity 7 looks pedestrian. There are few visual clues to the reel’s incredible on-the-water performance. But, while the Gravity 7 is devoid of frills, this only increases its appeal. The reel offers straightforward operation and is exceptionally easy to run.

The Gravity 7 impressed us with its ability to throw a wide range of bait weights seemingly intuitively. It casts farther than comparable casting reels, and with less effort, due in part to its spool design. When the casting thumb bar is engaged, the spool disengages from the drive gears, offering less rotational friction. This frees the spool for extended casts.

The magnetic cast control and friction controls are indexed, so dialing in casting tension is an exercise in precision. The main gear is reinforced and manufactured using multi-pass forging, then run through a CNC machine for a meticulous gear box mesh. A cone-shaped line guide directs line out of the reel smoothly while reducing a bit of line lash and unwanted oscillation. The only hiccup we found in the design is the palming plate access to the spool can be a bugger to get open; however, most anglers rarely have a need to get at their spool. ($239.99; arkrods.com)

  • Bottom Line: The Gravity 7 is an incredible reel from a first-year manufacturer that did its homework.

THE FIELD: BAITCASTING RODS

Tackle Test 2023 baitcasting rods
Left To Right: Denali Lithium Pro Worm and Jig, Cashion Icon John Crews Swim Jig Rod, Halo HFX Lee Livesay Series, Abu Garcia Bobby Lane General Purpose Pro Series, Abu Garcia Hank Cherry Bladed Jig Pro Series, St. Croix Legend Tournament Bass, Shimano SLX, 13 Fishing Meta, Ark Essence, Cashion Element Multi-Purpose, Temple Fork Outfitters Resolve Bass, Lew's Team Lew's Elite Series, Lew's American Hero Tier 1, Shimano Expride, Fenwick Elite Bass. (Photo by Brad Richardson)
  • 13 Fishing Meta: At 7 feet 2 inches, the Meta is a long, general-purpose fish stick. The moderate-fast, 36-ton Japanese blank will accommodate a wide variety of baits, from Texas-rigged worms to vibrating jigs, and 1/2-ounce and heavier crankbaits—both lipped and lipless. A sculptured reel seat and handle, stainless-steel American Tackle guides with DuraLite inserts, open hook keeper and 5-year limited warranty all add to the rod’s appeal. ($149; 13fishing.com)
  • Abu Garcia Bobby Lane General Purpose Pro Series: Built on a 36-ton modulus blank, the Pro Series line was designed and fished by Abu Garcia pro staffer Bobby Lane. The blank utilizes the proven 3M 200 Powerlux resin system. Our test rod was engineered for 1/4- to 1-ounce lure weights thrown on 12- to 20-pound-test lines. The rod particularly shined when throwing jerkbaits. Its tip is just twitchy enough for throwing these cadence baits long distances and imparting the kind of action that triggers savage strikes. ($199.95; abugarcia.com)
  • Abu Garcia Hank Cherry Bladed Jig Pro Series: This 7-foot-3-inch rod, with its medium-heavy power and moderate-fast action, is designed for bladed jigs from 1/4 to 1 ounce. The long rod offers an abundance of leverage for making long casts with large lures. Unlike some of the other technique-specific rods in the test, the team found this one threw additional baits equally well—in particular, swimbaits and soft plastics in the 1/4- to 3/4-ounce range. ($199.95; abugarcia.com)
  • Ark Essence: The Essence has a layered carbon-fiber blank with micro-layered resin to bolster its strength, and its 40-ton, high-modulus blank is a good mix of strength and sensitivity. The Essence has a full-length, AAA-grade cork handle that testers loved. The cork grip offers superior sensitivity over synthetic materials like EVA foam. Large-diameter Fuji K-Concept guides with Fazlite rings accommodate both braided and clear lines. An impressive CNC-machined reel-seat nut is eye candy for bass geeks. ($179; arkrods.com)
  • Cashion Element Multi-Purpose: The 7-foot-1-inch Element Multi-Purpose is American-made using carbon fiber and pre-preg, and is designed for buzzbaits, vibrating jigs, Texas rigs, big topwaters and spinnerbaits. This Cashion has a noticeably slow taper, allowing it to load on a variety of lure weights and shapes. Testers were drawn to the attractive matte-blue finish and AAA-cork grip. ($129; cashionrods.com)
  • Cashion Icon John Crews Swim Jig Rod: As the name implies, the Icon is designed specifically for swim jigs. At 7 feet 3 inches, with a medium-heavy power and moderate-fast tip, the rod is indeed well-suited for these baits. The polyaramid handle is as striking as it is bulletproof. The Icon has an expansive bait range of 1/4 to 1 1/2 ounces. Equally large is the line weight range of 12 to 65 pounds. The extended rod length aids in throwing swim jigs long distances. ($244.95; cashionrods.com)
  • Denali Lithium Pro Worm and Jig: The Lithium Pro casting line of rods has 13 models, each designed for a specific bass-fishing task. The 7-foot-4-inch, heavy-power rod we tested is designed to direct weighty contact baits like jigs and soft plastics. The beefy blank is rigid, created to snap big, single hooks home with authority. Rated for 1/2- to 1-ounce lures, the Lithium Pro has a cork handle and blank-through reel seat for detection of subtle strikes. ($219.99; denalirods.com)
Tackle Test 2023 rods
Baitcast-rod results from Tackle Test 2023.
  • Fenwick Elite Bass: The Fenwick Elite line of rods is as complete a line as you’ll find, with models designed for every bass-fishing technique. Our 7-foot, medium-heavy test rod featured 3M Powerlux 200 resin, which encapsulates the carbon fiber for added strength and sensitivity. The Elite casts baits down to 3/8-ounce with minimal effort. The large, slightly rounded handle geometry feels like an extension of your arms and hands. A limited lifetime warranty is included. ($169.99; purefishing.com/fenwick)
  • Halo HFX Lee Livesay Series: The 7-foot-6-inch Halo HFX in this signature series is a big pole built with Japanese Toray carbon. It’s designed for fishing big, deep-diving crankbaits, large spinnerbaits and vibrating jigs. The rod’s extra length lets anglers rip lipless crankbaits through vegetation, triggering reaction strikes. While not specifically advertised for hollow-body frogs, the long bend gives fish more time to take the bait, so you hook more fish without pulling the lure from their mouths. ($149.99; americanbaitworks.com)
  • Lew’s American Hero Tier 1: The 7-foot, medium-heavy Tier 1 we tested is built for power fishing (the Tier 1 series is offered in five lengths and powers). Rated for 3/8- to 1-ounce lures and 10- to 20-pound test, it flings beefy baits like big worms, heavy vibrating jigs and traditional jigs without a whimper. The 50-ton modulus carbon offers great sensitivity in such a powerful rod. ($129.99; lews.com)
  • Lew’s Team Lew’s Elite Series: Lew Childre stunned the bass world in the early 1970s with his all-black, 5-foot-6-inch, pistol-gripped Speed Stick, and the company that bears his name has been churning out great gear ever since. The Elite, billed as the brand’s top-of-the-line casting rod, is delightfully balanced with great ergonomics provided by the Winn Dri-Tac grips.A dramatically cut-away, full-contact reel seat offers unprecedented interaction with the crazy-sensitive blank. Rated for 12- to 25-pound test and 1/4- to 7/8-ounce baits, the Elite performed well across the board. ($349.99; lews.com)
  • Shimano Expride: When you first pick up the Expride, it’s hard not to fixate on the crazy handle. The one-piece, monocoque throttle is formed from carbon fiber for superior strength and transfer of fish and bait data back to the user. It is also a solid grab when casting or flipping fish aboard. The 7-foot-2-inch Expride is designed for 3/8- to 1-ounce lure weights. We felt the Expride best handled baits in the 3/8- to 7/16-ounce range, but it can fish up the range in a pinch. ($279.99; fish.shimano.com)
  • Shimano SLX: The SLX is an attractively priced casting rod carrying the Shimano moniker. The blank is laid up using a carbon tape wrapped in opposing diagonal directions in the butt section. This design offers exceptional resistance to twisting on heavy hooksets, when winching in big fish or when throwing relatively hefty baits. The 7-foot-2-inch test rod was rated for 50-pound braid and 10- to 20-pound monofilament, making it a budget-friendly choice for fishing 1/4- to 3/4-ounce lures. ($99.99; fish.shimano.com)
  • St. Croix Legend Tournament Bass: The Legend Tournament is an industry standard for discerning anglers. It has been updated for 2023 with an improved blank and a dizzying array of top-shelf features, all justifying the price. At 7 feet 3 inches and rated for up to 65-pound-test, the Legend flicked hollow-body frogs effortlessly. With its capacity to handle large lines, the Legend is well-suited for power techniques requiring a long lever and a stout butt section to muscle stubborn fish from the nasties. ($295; stcroixrods.com)
  • Temple Fork Outfitters Resolve Bass: Temple Fork Outfitters gets high marks for its new Resolve Bass lineup; our 7-foot-3-inch test rod was fantastic. Japanese Toray carbon fiber makes the rod as sensitive as they come. Ten Seaguide SS316 stainless tangle-free guides with silicon nitride inserts direct line flawlessly while being exceptionally light and sturdy. A Seaguide soft-touch reel seat with AAA-cork grip is favorite-couch comfy. A full lifetime warranty protects against manufacturing and material defects. ($279.95; tforods.com)

THE FIELD: BAITCASTING REELS

2023 baitcasting reels
Top row: Lew’s American Hero Tier 1, Abu Garcia Zenon X, Shimano Curado DC 200HG; middle row: Daiwa Tatula 80, 13 Fishing Modus SZ2, Abu Garcia Revo5 X; bottom row: Ark Gravity 3, Lew's Team Lew’s Elite-Ti, Abu Garcia Revo5 STX. (Photo by Brad Richardson)
  • 13 Fishing Modus SZ2: The Modus SZ2 offers spiffy performance and eye-catching aesthetics at a modest price. Our test reel had a 7.3:1 gear ratio, making it a good candidate for most bass applications. Two casting controls are included—an external friction control and an internal magnetic system, which is under the palming plate and accessed via an articulating door. ($145; 13fishing.com)
  • Abu Garcia Revo5 STX: The Revo STX features a large-diameter, shallow spool that spins up faster than deeper spools with a higher capacity and allows for longer casts with lighter lures. The STX is available in three speeds—6.6:1, 7.3:1 and 8:1—offering anglers gearing options for almost every conceivable bass application. The Revo STX is a beefy build with an industrial feel that promises years of trouble-free service. A monstrous 25-pound max drag, 95-mm (3 3/4-inch) handle and big knobs provide all the muscle you’ll ever need. ($229.95; abugarcia.com)
  • Abu Garcia Revo5 X: Revo baitcasters have been ultra-popular with the bass crowd for years, and the Revo5 X is the fifth generation of the line. The X-HS LP we tested is built tough for a wide range of bass-fishing tasks, from worming and swim-baiting to heavy flipping and punching. A carbon frame and side-plate anchor the design, with 7+1 stainless-steel bearings keeping the reel turning smoothy. We loved the 20 pounds of maximum drag via a carbon-matrix washer stack. ($119.99; abugarcia.com)
  • Abu Garcia Zenon X: The Zenon line showcases Abu’s engineering prowess. The oversized, flat handle knobs offer significant turning power to motivate the 8.3:1 gear set when grinding chunky baits. The all-aluminum frame helps steady the chassis while under load. Two external casting controls are easily accessed, making on-the-fly adjustments a breeze. A recessed foot lays the Zenon very low on the reel seat, strengthening the angler’s grip when palming. ($349.95; abugarcia.com)
Tackle Test chart
Baitcaster results from Tackle Test 2023.
  • Ark Gravity 3: Although the Gravity 3 represents the entry-level Ark baitcasting reel in the series, an all-aluminum frame provides a rigid foundation for the build. An asymmetrically shaped hood is ergonomically pleasing, reducing fatigue for those who get high on the reel when working contact baits like soft plastics. The deeply deflexed handle is nice, and a CNC-machined star-drag knob exhibits elevated attention to manufacturing detail in a relatively inexpensive casting reel. ($179.99; arkrods.com)
  • Daiwa Tatula 80: Anglers with smaller hands will appreciate the Tatula 80’s particularly small profile. Billed as a baitcasting reel designed for finessing, the Tatula has 9.9 pounds of max drag. While producing less stopping power than most traditional baitcasting reels, the lighter drag is designed to keep users from overpowering big fish on light line. The reel performs optimally with 10- to 12-pound fluorocarbon line, or 8- to 20-pound braid. ($199.99; daiwa.us)
  • Lew’s American Hero Tier 1: Lew’s donates a portion of each American Hero sale to the American Hero Program, which helps veterans transition back to civilian life after their military service. The easily recognizable American Hero Tier 1 has a matte military-camo dip finish. It also has some unexpected high-end features for a reel at this price, including a premium 10-bearing set, beefy main and pinion gears, upgraded grip paddles, a fold-away hook keeper and a lube port. ($179.99; lews.com)
  • Lew’s Team Lew’s Elite-Ti: The Elite-Ti, Lew’s flagship baitcasting reel, turns on a Japanese-built, double-shielded, 11 stainless steel bearing set. The reel melts into the palming hand, due in part to its Italian supercar-like profile. The round Winn Dri-Tac paddles are perfectly sized for all-day comfort when dragging bulky baits. Amenities include a quick line-spool attachment, fold-out hook keeper and line-size indicator. If price doesn’t matter, take this baitcaster for a drive. ($499.99; lews.com)
  • Shimano Curado DC 200HG: The Curado DC 200HG uses Shimano’s popular digital casting control to minimize backlashing. Its noticeably wide spool accommodates large-diameter lines for bigger lures, such as chubby swimbaits. The 200HG has four distinct, externally manipulated cast-control settings that cover most applications and bait weights, making dialing in casting tension simple. A cross-carbon drag matrix keeps the payout smooth, no matter how testy those green or brown fish get. ($269.99; fish.shimano.com)

HOW WE TESTED

The methodology used in our evaluation.

Tackle Test team members
The Tackle Test team from left to right: Dr. Todd Kuhn, Ken Duke, John Taranto and Capt. Jamie Harris. (Photo by Brad Richardson)

The Game & Fish Tackle Test utilizes a comprehensive scoring system to evaluate each rod and reel. Scores are tallied after each day on the water. Once the numbers are crunched (and after some heated debates), winners in each category are crowned. Evaluation categories include Design, Ergonomics, Fishability, Construction, Aesthetics and Price/Value. All testers score each piece of gear from 60 to 100 in each category. The Editor’s Choice award is bestowed upon the rods and reels with the best overall scores in each category, while the Great Buy award goes to those products that represent the greatest value.




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