Gray’s Best 2018

Coffee at Dusk, by Brett James Smith


[by Miles Nolte]

Echo OHS (One Handed Spey) Rod

Switch rods have been popular for nearly a decade. The name implies versatility, that they can perform either overhead or Spey casts. The problem, in my opinion, is that they often don’t do either particularly well—I find them too long for comfortable and efficient single-handed use and too short to optimize a two-handed cast. Though they are not marketed as switch rods, Echo’s Single-Handed Spey Rods ($475) are exactly that, and they’re the most enjoyable new toy I got to play with this year. The OHS series is designed to make Spey casts with a single-handed rod (as the name suggests), and when loaded with a Skagit head, they do exactly that. Executing a Spey cast with one hand may feel awkward at first, but you get used to it, and having the line hand available to deliver a sharp haul allows you to generate significant line speed. When spooled with a long-bellied floating line, these rods perform overhead casts as well, and they mend as far as the fly line will allow with little effort. These aren’t the most practical rods you can buy, but they sure are fun.

Umpqua Cooler-Gater

My cooler never leaves my boat anymore. Big, heavy, roto-molded coolers are almost ubiquitous these days. They’re nearly indestructible and keep ice for ages, but in a small boat, they take up a lot of space while serving only a single function, albeit an important one. Umpqua thought of a way to make coolers multifunctional with its new CoolerGater ($70). Building off its award-winning Tailgater 2015, Umpqua released the Cooler-Gater earlier this year. It’s kind of like a utility belt for your cooler; strap it on, and your cooler now sports a myriad of useful compartments easily accessible in a centralized location. It has pockets for multiple fly boxes, a sheath for pliers, nipper stations, and, of course, beverage holders. It does attach to a cooler, after all. I’m a fan of gear that maximizes the efficacy of essential-gear space, and the CoolerGater does just that. Since you’ve already spent the money for a top-of-the-line cooler, you might as well get the most out of it.

Loon Outdoors Rogue Quickdraw Forceps

Forceps are essential fishing gear: they crush barbs, help remove deeply lodged hooks, and (assuming they have scissors built in) trim tippet. I usually lose an average of two pairs a season and purchase extras at the beginning of the year to prepare for that inevitability. The basic technology of forceps is ancient and, aside from aesthetic enhancements, hasn’t changed much in my lifetime. This year Loon Outdoors did something I consider borderline brilliant; it built a carabiner into the handle of its Rogue Quickdraw Forceps ($25). I can clip it anywhere when I’m not using it, and it won’t fall off. This innovation could have been gimmicky, were it not put on a set of hemostats that are of excellent quality. The jaws are sturdy and can smash the barbs on midge patterns as well as big, meaty streamer hooks. The scissors are serrated and sharp. After a full season of near-daily use, the action remains smooth and tight. Did you catch the beginning of that last sentence? A full season. This is the first year I can remember that I didn’t lose a single pair of hemos. The only thing I can’t figure out is why someone didn’t think of putting a carabiner on forceps sooner.

Sage X Fly Rod

The hype preceding the launch of the X ($895) was so pervasive and saturating that I was prepared not to like them. To be honest, I didn’t want to like them, assuming myself to be more refined than the masses who are drawn, mothlike, to bright, shiny marketing campaigns. Last summer I fished with one of the Sage marketing wizards, who also happens to be a friend of mine. We were on a small creek with relatively big fish that can be picky about presentation and sometimes snap the requisite light tippet. I was using an old favorite soft rod, and doing pretty well, but had come upon a fish that was unwilling to move even inches out of its feeding lane. I couldn’t get the soft rod to place the fly exactly where I wanted it. Kara walked up on me and offered me her X. It felt stiff in my hand compared to the full-flex I had been using all day, but I adjusted after a few casts, and put the fly precisely on line. The fish ate, and Kara netted it in swift water. The snappy and fast X had a soft enough tip to keep the fish from breaking off. I’ve continued to fish the rod, and while it’s still a bit fast for my personal tastes, I can’t deny the quality of the product. If you’re looking for an excellent all-around fly rod, this is the best of the year.