Despite what you may have heard perfection isn’t all that difficult to attain. It goes something like this: First you bring in the experts to tell you what they want. Because everyone likes improvement, they will tell you to make whatever it is you are designing lighter, stronger, better functioning, and better looking than what they already have. Humanity has come a long way over the past 200,000 years, so this is a pretty tall order. To make sure your widget is up to snuff you set off combing the planet for an incredibly rare material that is somehow ticks all these boxes. If, after many meetings in many far away places, you can’t find such a thing in the earth, you call in the chemists and engineers and have them make it for you from scratch. Finally, you pay a craftsmen with a lifetime of experience to take this raw material and convert it into your perfect widget by hand. It’s not easy, but it is simple– just spend time and money until perfection is attained, problem solved. Simple.
Simple and expensive. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the price of good camera lenses. Extra-super-duper-low-dispersion glass doesn’t grow on trees and Germans don’t work on the cheap. Yes, in the end you do get a perfect lens. Unfortunately this perfect lens costs more than your car and your partner deeply resents it’s purchase.
Perfection just isn’t all that interesting. What is interesting is the very very good. For one, very very good products are what we people of limited time, income, and experience actually buy. We know that we can’t have it all so we compromise. Though it may seem counterintuitive, that these very very good products are exercises in compromise is actually a positive. After all, it is only through the crucible of compromise that we figure out what it is we really want. Maybe instead of buying something that is perfect, but specialized, you decide that you’d rather have something that is only very very good, but more versatile. Or, that instead of buying something that is perfect, but complicated, you’d rather have something that is only very very good, but simpler. Or, that instead of buying something that is perfect, but expensive, you’d rather have something that is only very very good, but doesn’t break the bank.
Enter the Orvis Battenkill Disc.
WHAT IS IT? Orvis Battenkill Disc Fly Reel
HOW LONG HAVE YOU OWNED IT? One Month
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? Between $149-$200, depending on size
PROS? Smooth drag, classic looks, machined construction, excellent fit and finish, absurd value
CONS? Lowest drag setting too heavy for smaller models (1-3), not quite “clicky” enough
WHO SHOULD BUY IT? People looking for top of the line features at reasonable prices, people who like classic looks with modern conveniences
WHO SHOULDN’T BUYT IT? People who like large arbors, cheap people, people who prefer click and pawl over disc set ups
DID SOMEONE GIVE IT TO YOU FOR FREE? No, I bought this reel with my own money. This post does contain affiliate links, however, which do provide a small kickback to us if you purchase through them at no additional cost to you.
The Battenkill Disc isn’t a perfect reel. We need to get that out of the way at the beginning. The lowest drag settings are too heavy for the smaller sizes, the “mid-arbor” design is closer to small than large, and detents on the drag wheel are, while distinct, a little on the mushy end. Most annoyingly, the size two is just a little on the small side for a 5 weight line while the size three is just a little too large.
What it is, however, is a very very good reel at an absurdly reasonable price.
For starters, that slightly-too-heavy drag is extraordinarily smooth. Compared the the traditional click-and-pawl Battenkills that Orvis has been selling since humans finished off the last woolly mammoth, these models use a disc drag system. In particular this system is based on Orvis’ top of the end model, the Hydros SL, and the result is silky perfection.
Second, the entire bodies of the reel and spool are machined, rather than cast like many of the other reels in this price range. Far be it from me to bring the horrors of Bill Ruger’s ghost upon these pages, but suffice it to say that while we all know objectively that castings can produce tools of excellent finish and durability most fishermen prefer the piece of mind that comes from having our gear carved from a single piece of metal. And while we’re talking about construction, it is probably worth noting that the Battenkill Disc is somehow lighter than the much more ported Hydros SL. Go figure.
Last, the looks are phenomenal. While I understand the allure of space-age designs in a vacuum (EDITOR’S NOTE: Hahaha, space-age designs in a vacuum, get it? GET IT?) part of fly fishing’s appeal is its heritage. Not to get too deep into the mumbo-jumbo– we’ve all seen that movie after all— but fly fishing is an art and aesthetics matter when art is concerned. Most modern reels, with their giant arbors and euro-trash angles, have always made me feel a little like Brian Nosackpo, wandering the sidelines, muttering the most important line in sports history: “C’mon, man. What we doin’ out here, man?” The Battenkill Disc looks enough like the reel I learned to fish on to make me nostalgic while still being shiny enough to be alluring, a very difficult balance indeed.
BUT IS IT CLICKY?
The most important part of any fly reel review: How clicky is the reel? Most of us learned to fish on click-and-pawl set ups, and this has given us a deep and abiding love for the click-click-click endemic to traditional reels. Unfortunately disc reels, despite their many advantages, just can’t click the same way. This is due to the nature of their construction and it makes fishermen very sad.
The Battenkill Disc is satisfying in this area. It does click. Unfortunately the clicks, though distinct, are muted. The search for the clicky disc reel continues…
Which brings us to the best part: the price. Ranging between $149-200 this is a reel you can actually buy. Sure, some compromises had to be made to get here. My guess, and this truly is a guess, is that the reason the drag is a little on the heavy side for the lighter models is that it costs more to produce many different drag set ups rather than just a few. And yes, given and infinite R&D budget I’m sure Orvis could have made it clickier. But in return for these sacrifices we get a machined reel with beautiful looks and silky drag at a price that wont crush your marriage. No, this isn’t a perfect reel. But then again, what’s better: a very very good reel you can afford or a perfect one you can’t?
Since the writing of this review one I’ve found one additional nit to pick with the Battenkill Disc: the number of turns required to move from light to heavy drag is absurd, requiring multiple complete rotations– well more than my preferred 180-270 degrees. Yes, with many many clicks between heavy and light you can dial in the perfect level of drag before casting, but trying to turn through all those clicks is going to be darn near impossible if you actually have a fish on that necessitates using the drag. Quick adjust>precisely adjustable.
SEE IT IRL
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.