I recently had the opportunity to test two saltwater Shilton models on a trip to the Socotra Islands. The Shilton kit included the saltwater SL6 (that easily supports an 8 wt to 10 wt outfit in my opinion) and saltwater SL8 (that supports a 14 wt + outfit); the former for bonefish and smaller in-shore reef species and the latter for GTs and any other large pelagic predators. The odds were against us, since we did not even know if we would encounter bonefish or have decent shots and hook-ups with GTs on fly in the area we intended to ‘scout’ for these fish (not to mention hiking kilometres on end down deserted beaches with three litres of water to stay rehydrated with and a packet of biscuits for lunch per day in 40 degrees Celsius + air temperatures). Nevertheless, we caught lovely bones and other inshore and offshore fishes, and lost a bit of weight too.
Let’s start with the basics; every reel needs a good name, a unique trademark that will be spread by word of mouth. In other words, when someone mentions it in a pub or a lingerie shop, it should immediately hit home and make you think of ‘that’ reel. Shilton has achieved that; even though I have never owned my own Shilton reel, I knew exactly what South Africans were talking about when the name was mentioned.
This was not due to the fact that it was a proudly South African product that was advertised widely, but the fact that the early Shilton designs were already capable of landing large, oceanic fishes, such as GT’s and yellowfin tuna. This was also correctly put in their slogan “We stop fish” and I say ‘correctly’ because the Shiltons have stopped large fish and still do.
Both reels I had with me had a stylish black finish with white ‘Shilton’ imprinted on the frame (I had not chosen them to be black, but Edward Truter later quite rightly pointed out that the black finish would less likely spook wary fish in shallow water, such as on saltwater flats and that it was his personal choice). The black spools also looked strikingly attractive with bright backing and contrasting fly lines on them – any amateur or serious fly angler’s dream come true.
Shilton reels also come in the ‘plain’ or anodised aluminium-silver finish, which in my opinion is the more recognisable ‘Shilton-look’. The black finish, although practical, has a more generic look and one would for instance not necessarily be able to tell it apart from similar reels on the market in mug shots or other fishing photos (unless the name is clearly visible of course).
The most noticeable thing about the Shilton saltwater SL-series drag system is that it tightens up remarkably quickly when adjusting the drag adjustment knob. This is to the angler’s benefit I believe, since little adjustment is required to increase the drag after hooking into a good fish – and the drag adjustment knob has a lot of play, which means that the drag can be tightened to near lock-up and still be loosened fairly easily afterwards.
The only drawback is that one can easily increase the drag just a little too much while fighting a fish, which will result in a popped tippet. This actually did happen to me in Socotra when fighting a fish on the SL6, but as I got more and more familiar with that particular reel, the rookie-error was easily avoided.
It is worth mentioning that the drag of the SL6 operated smoothly when fighting bonefish up to 9 lb in the Gulf of Aden; this was a good fish species to measure the drag system against, since relatively light line is used to catch comparatively big fish when targeting bonefish. Bones are notorious for their overwhelming speed and power on ‘light’ tackle, often leading to snapped tippets. Any salted bonefish fly fisherman will point out that a reel with a very smooth drag is required to play and land these fish. Unfortunately I never got to test the SL8 on big fish and cannot comment on its fish-fighting abilities in this case.
A look inside the reel will reveal a very simple cork drag disc onto which pressure is applied by the spool. The ‘gear’ ring or drag disc inside is responsible for the click and also to engage the drag when line is removed from the spool. A small plastic ‘stopper’ (one way plunger) carries the responsibility to create the clicking sound and/or engage the drag. The plunger is situated in a separate little chamber (the one way plunger housing) and protrudes out of a small hole in the chamber. This small hole is according to my findings Shilton’s only drawback; sand granules may get stuck in the hole and may prevent the one way plunger from exiting the hole after a ‘click’ which ultimately results in a loose spool. This unfortunately happened to me while casting at kingfish cruising at a fair pace along a beach and not only did the fly line form a bird’s nest during my frantic line stripping exercise, I had to stop fishing and strip the reel to find and fix the ‘little’ problem (a rough rinse in the saltwater with the hole facing towards the ground did the trick).
Exchanging spools on the Shilton SL series or to remove a spool in order to lubricate or clean the inner parts of the reel is relatively straight-forward. Most people I have spoken to suggest carrying a coin, such as a South African 50 Cent coin, in a pocket when fishing. I simply used the butt of my line nippers to unscrew and tighten up the draw bar nut on the Shilton.
Once the draw bar nut is off, the drag adjustment knob has been removed and the centre pin (draw bar assembly) is pulled from its socket, simply place the nut back onto the pin to prevent it from falling into the sand or water and getting lost. In case you do lose the nut, it is also not the end of the world; the drag adjustment knob is enough to hold the whole reel in place – until you are back in civilization and can get hold of a new draw bar nut of course. These handy tips were pointed out by Richard Wale from Upstream Flyfishing, a Shilton retailer btw.
Changing the spool to fit the left-hander (changing the direction of the retrieve) is not simple and takes a good 6 minutes to complete (if the right tools are at hand). It is also advised to perform these changes at home on a big, clean, well lit surface prior to your trip, since many of the small parts may easily be lost in the stripping process.
Although my biggest fish in the salt is only a 40 lb great barracuda, I kind of have an idea what to look for in tackle and especially when looking for something durable to ‘rough’ it on sandy and rocky turf. The black finish may and will chip when the reel is bumped on a rock, but the coating is very durable if compared to other reel coatings I have personal experience with and if looked after well, it will last a very long time (remain in a good-looking condition for a 10 year period in my opinion). Chips and bumps will be less visible on the anodised aluminium finish, which is this look’s up side. From their weight and thickness, it is clear that the Shilton saltwater SL series spools will not bend easily. Unfortunately, the gear review terms and conditions did not allow more thorough wear and tear and rust durability testing.
Interestingly, I never experienced sand to cause that annoying scrape sound when it typically gets stuck between the spool and frame of a reel after it was ditched in beach sand to quickly change flies, tail a big fish, or out of frustration after losing a good fish. At one point I purposefully dumped the reel onto soft sand, since it seemed unrealistic to me that this never happened – as it so often does with other reels; but there was none of it…
Lastly, all Shiltons come with a small tube of pure neatsfoot oil (derived from the shin bones of cattle) to lubricate the cork drag disk. Frequent application of neatsfoot lubricant on the cork disk is recommended by Shilton Reels to ensure a long-lasting drag system.
The older reel pouches came with a lovely little ‘stash pocket’ in which the neatsfoot lubricant container fitted snuggly. It also had a Velcro lock, ensuring that the smallish container wouldn’t fall out and get lost. This may easily happen when camping on a beach and fishing off a skiff with anchor ropes and fish nets piled into the hull. Unfortunately, the newer pouches simply have an elastic band on the side to hold the tube in place and the tube may easily fall out and get lost (which nearly happened to me, but luckily I found it ‘floating around’ in my luggage).
Some of the saltwater SL series reels were weighed on a precision electronic laboratory scale set to measure in grams up to three decimals (calibrated with universal quality control weight bars). The reels typically weighed slightly more than what was indicated in the reel brochures:
Saltwater SL6 – 241.332 g (specified weight – 230.000 g)
Saltwater SL7 – 302.394 g (specified weight – 290.000 g)
Saltwater SL8 – not weighed
Richard Wale at Upstream Flyfishing loaded the SL8 with more than 550 m of 80 lb braid and a shooting head sinking line; and the SL6 can be loaded with 275 m of 65 lb braid and a fly line. The line capacity of both reels was exceeded compared to what was specified in the brochure – 550 m 30 lb gelspun and 210 m 30 lb gelspun, respectively.
(note that this review may be continued with a second publication after a longer period of testing)
For more information on the Shilton range please visit: http://shiltonreels.com/