Winston AIR 2 MAX Review - Ultimate Performance
The best saltwater fly rod, not just "from Winston" but one of the best saltwater fly rods ever made, period. This is the new gold standard for premium fly rods. Every component, every aspect of this rod is perfection. This is exactly what I expect when I spend this kind of money, both in the look and the feel of it. I cannot fathom anyone not liking this rod.
This is a very, very nice rod series. Could be the best ever. It is so good. Very obvious when you cast this new rod: Winston absolutely nailed it. Performance and looks, this rod has it all.
*Please Note: Winston does not pay me anything, nor am I given any rods. I pay for all rods used in all my reviews myself.
Winston has never made an ugly rod, and this time is no exception. Winston rods have always worked brilliantly but it's a highly competitive market for saltwater fly rods, so the goal with these new rods has been not just to perform very nicely, but to out-perform some serious competitors. And believe me, this rod nails it. Insane power and plenty of finesse as well.
First, some context. What an incredible year for saltwater fly fishing, starting out with the launch of the new Sage Salt R8 (an excellent rod and if not for new competition from this Winston, would unquestionably be the best saltwater rod on the market). Now, Hardy also has a new saltwater rod, with another big brand rumored to be coming out with one soon as well (all of which I either already own or will buy soon to review). So that's a lot of MAJOR saltwater flagship rods being released. Which means I have a lot of casting to do, to get a good feel for all these new rods and corresponding fly lines. There are worse jobs than mine, no doubt.
Now that I have had some time to test the new Winston rods, I can start by talking about the 8wt (which will likely sell the most) and I will get to all the other sizes in more detail as soon as I have time to test more fly lines with each. For those who know me, I do this very scientifically and methodically to test every new saltwater rod with all popular lines, and then against each other within the hotly contested category of saltwater fly rods.
First of all, the only thing you need to know from me if you don't want to read all this: Get one. No reservations, 100% this rod is perfection. Doubt me if you want but cast it. I will get into the "why" later, but as far as this new rod goes, I have zero hesitation recommending it. To be fair, I also have no hesitation recommending the Sage Salt R8 to most people either, but this is an even faster action and stiffer rod which some may prefer. Both will cast a mile just fine but the way they achieve this is different.
I cannot fathom anyone not liking this rod. It is so good. Clearly excellent when you cast it. Winston absolutely nailed it.
The Sage Salt R8 and Scott Sector are always in my bag so I have a good frame of reference here and I like to think I know what I am talking about. The Winston Air 2 MAX is brilliant.
Winston Air 2 MAX Review with Various Fly Lines
**Note: It takes a TON of time to test every single popular fly line with every size of rod, think about how they compare, and then write all of this, and then try to edit it for clarity. I will review the 6wt and 7wt later on (both are great), but I always start with the most popular sizes first, and that's 8/9/10/11 pretty much in that order. This new Winston is very, very nice so far. All sizes listed so far are in the standard 9'0" variants. There is an 8'6" version coming soon but it isn't out just yet (coming by January according to Winston - I already have plenty on order, believe me). I will do model-by-model reviews of those too. If you don't see a fly line you like listed here, feel free to ask me about it and if I have one, I'll test it too. Some of the other rods I compared this to: Scott Sector, Sage Salt R8, Thomas & Thomas Sextant and Exocett SS, Hardy Marksman Z (the brand new saltwater one that was released a month before this Winston was), G. Loomis NRX+ Saltwater and SF (Swim Fly / Bass rod with a good amount of power), G. Loomis Asquith (yes, I still have mine), Sage Salt HD (replaced by Salt R8 but still very nice), Sage Igniter, Sage Payload, and on and on.
8wt Lines Tested: This new 8wt is easily better than pretty much everything else. The more rods you cast the more you will see and feel this.
RIO Elite Bonefish - The gold standard for Bonefish lines, so it's no surprise this works very well. This and SA Bonefish PLUS are probably the best options for this rod for pursuit of Bonefish. SA Bonefish (true to weight) is also excellent and still loads the rods fine.
Scientific Anglers (SA) Bonefish (True to weight) - Perfection, maybe the slightest bit light but the new Winston throws this line very far with ease. Delicate presentations and less windy conditions are a perfect match for this one. Probably the best feel of any Bonefish line overall on a variety of rods. Casts so effortlessly and lightly.
SA Bonefish PLUS (NEW for Fall 2023) - Worked very, very well. This line has been a winner on every saltwater rod I have tested it with though, to be fair. Not unique to the Winston, all rods like this line. A little windy out there? Get this one. No need for a whole 9wt setup just for "windy bones" anymore, just use a little bit heavier 8wt line like this.
Airflo Flats Universal Taper - Works very well, a great all-around line. Also available in a clear floating tip version.
RIO Elite Warmwater Predator - (One of my favorite new fly lines) This is a heavy line but the Winston Air 2 MAX handled it with no problem at all. That's great news because the 8wt and 9wt of this series are likely to be chosen for Peacock Bass and Golden Dorado so the ability to handle big lines the way the Alpha did is key. And I don't have the 8'6" rods yet, just the 9'0" but once the others are released in early January 2024, I will update this.
RIO Elite Flats Pro - (coming soon)
RIO Redfish - (coming soon)
SA Grand Slam - (coming soon)
9wt Lines Tested: First of all, I have to say this 9wt has insane power. Probably the most important lines to test first on a 9wt are for Permit, but I went with a different one first because I sell a lot of Golden Dorado and Peacock Bass outfits. You guys are going to want this rod too. It will absolutely smoke anything else I have cast recently. A little more finesse out of the Salt R8 and Sector but the power makes up for it on this rod, it's worth it. Not always needed with a 9wt but appreciated. Here are my thoughts on the lines I have tried so far:
RIO Elite Warmwater Predator - (One of my favorite new fly lines) This was my first line tested on the new 9wt. Keep in mind it is a heavy line (roughly 2 sizes heavy and similar to Outbound Short or Tropical Titan) but the Winston Air 2 MAX 9wt handled it with no problem at all (as did the 8wt). Perfect casts in spite of how heavy this line is. That's great news because especially the 9wt of this series are likely to be chosen for Peacock Bass and Golden Dorado so the ability to handle big lines the way the Alpha did is key. And I don't have the 8'6" rods yet, just the 9'0" but once the others are released in early January 2024, I will update this review.
RIO Elite Bonefish (9wt) - Ok so this is the lightest line I will test on most 9wt rods. It is a little bit heavier than "true to weight" but it's close enough. The Air 2 MAX worked just fine with this, but you can tell this is as light as you want to go. Rio Elite Permit (next one down) is probably the lightest option most people are going to want.
RIO Elite Permit - This is going to be the main line that probably goes on most 9wt rods along with maybe SA Grand Slam. Absolutely launches on this new 9wt Winston. Note that it's safe to over-line these Winstons so you could even use a 10wt Permit line on this rod and be fine.
RIO Elite Flats Pro - (coming soon) Heavier than Permit but great for multi-species use and in very windy conditions.
*Some secret, brand new saltwater lines are coming out in January 2024 which I can't tell you about yet, but they are awesome. Will do a whole review when they are officially announced. But you didn't hear it from me. They will also work very well with these new rods.
SA Grand Slam - (test coming soon)
Airflo Flats Universal Taper - A great all-around line. Also comes in a clear floating tip version.
10wt Lines Tested: Absolute POWER. When I talked to my friends at Winston about the new rods they emphasized that the new 10wt is aimed directly at Tarpon, more than Permit like most 10wt rods used to be designed for, and they weren't kidding. This is a beast.
RIO Elite Tarpon - Yes, of course it's great. Best-selling Tarpon line since it came out. Easy recommendation.
RIO Tarpon Clear Floater Tip - Floating clear-tipped version of Rio Elite Tarpon, and a very, very popular new line for 2023. No surprise it does very well with these new Winston rods, it is great on every rod I have tested it with. Given that the taper is the same as Elite Tarpon, not a big shock.
RIO Elite Warmwater Predator - I have already covered this pretty extensively in the other sizes, but the 10wt has even more power so this just gets easier and easier to use. 10wt is the largest size this line is even made in, and it works great. Only really used for the largest possible Golden Dorado or maybe an enormous Peacock Bass where you have to put the brakes on them immediately, but this rod and line will do it.
SA Tarpon -
SA Grand Slam -
11wt Lines Tested: (coming soon - these lines are in order of how I plan to test but if you have any line test requests let me know and I will see what can do)
RIO Elite Tarpon -
RIO Tarpon Clear Floater Tip -
RIO Flats Pro -
SA Grand Slam -
SA Tarpon -
12wt Lines Tested: (coming soon)
RIO Elite Tarpon -
RIO Tarpon Clear Floater Tip -
RIO Elite GT (Giant Trevally) line -
RIO Elite Tropical Outbound Short -
7wt Lines Tested: *Note that this new Winston 7wt has noticeably more power than other 7wt rods tested but is also plenty relaxed and easy to cast. It's a great balance. The 8wt feels much more powerful than the 7wt overall but the 7 is a really smartly designed rod as well.
RIO Elite Bonefish 7wt - The gold standard for Bonefish lines, so it's no surprise this works very well.
Scientific Anglers (SA) Bonefish (True to weight) - Delicate presentations and calm or less windy conditions are a perfect match for this one. Casts so effortlessly and lightly.
SA Bonefish PLUS (NEW for Fall 2023) - Works very well. This line has been a winner on every saltwater rod I have tested it with. A little windy out there? Get this line instead of regular SA Bonefish. No major need for a separate 8wt setup with this line on your 7wt Winston. Plenty of ability to slice through wind.
RIO Redfish 7wt - (coming soon)
Ok, so is there anything negative or what do I not like about the rod? Yes, but it is minimal. The Scott Sector has a really nice reel seat that is better in terms of functionality because the ring does not rotate. Winston uses the same type of stripping guides as the Sector but for some reason went with smaller ones. Again, this doesn't make any real difference but stands out to me coming from owning a bunch of Sectors. Stiffness of this rod is totally fine, but you will notice it has more backbone than competitors. Did not fatigue me in any way like the NRX+ does though (both have a lot of power but the Winston casts easier).
Winston Air 2 MAX Review vs Competitors
This new Winston rod has a ton of power and finesse and is a very serious competitor in the saltwater fly fishing category. It is so good I am immediately putting it into the top three best saltwater rods of all time. I own the other two also and I use them often.
A partial list of the other rods I compared the Winston to in various weights (the ones here in bold being my favorites): Scott Sector, Sage Salt R8, Thomas & Thomas Sextant and Exocett SS, Hardy Marksman Z (the brand new saltwater one that was released a month before this Winston was), G. Loomis NRX+ Saltwater and SF (Swim Fly / Bass rod with a good amount of power), G. Loomis Asquith (yes, I still have mine, even though this rod is truly ancient now), Sage Salt HD (replaced by Salt R8 but still very nice), Sage Igniter, Sage Payload, Sage Maverick, Scott Wave, and on and on. Even my custom rods with blanks from Gary Loomis (North Fork Composites) the guy G. Loomis gets its name from, and also the CTS Affinity X (a favorite of mine) of which I have several sizes custom made for me by an excellent rod builder. If you have ever looked into custom rods you know these are the best two blanks on the market for saltwater rods. Anyway, not important, the Winston is actually better than my custom rods which makes me a little bit sad, but it's ok - to feel better I'm getting myself a new set of the Winstons. Probably going to be my main rods for a few months as I do more field testing. I will have my Sectors and Salt R8's with me too, of course. New saltwater fly lines are coming out soon so you know I'll be testing them immediately.
Comparisons - Brand to Brand:
vs Scott Sector: The Sector has long been a favorite of mine and still is. The Winston is stiffer, seems to have even more power, but is just the tiniest bit heavier which you can feel in the swing but it is a very slight difference. Hard to go wrong with either rod but that really tells you just how good the Winston is. Not much can touch a Sector. Reel seat is better on the Sector, but it's the best in the whole industry so that's tough competition. Winston reel seat appears to be a standard component, not really changed from last generation apart from the brighter silver finish (which looks fantastic) and I love the cork they chose. If you think you want the Sector instead you still won't be disappointed in any way. These two and the Salt R8 are the highest level of saltwater fly rods, period.
vs Sage Salt R8: Another very tough call, but with more obvious differences than the Sector comparison. The Sage loads much deeper into the blank which is very cool and a more efficient transfer of energy. I think the Sage still has a bit more finesse all-around and the strong performance with so many different lines (read my review) is a big selling point for some, although most people barely ever change fly lines. The best thing I can say for comparison is the Winston "feels like" it has more power (and stiffness) when you cast it, however both are equally fantastic in the right hands. Different ways to get to the same place but they are both phenomenally good rods.
vs Thomas & Thomas Sextant: The T&T is just such a nice, beautiful, easy rod to use. With the Winston costing 25% more ($995 vs $1245 retail at time of this writing) it is hard to ignore the value of a Sextant. This is my top recommendation for someone who has the budget but is brand new to fly fishing or at least saltwater fly fishing. Super easy rod to cast, less stiff than the new Winston but plenty of power. I am not saying it is only for beginners, I own one myself and love using it, it has a classic fly rod feel to it. The Salt R8 and Winston are just different, more modern designs. T&T and Winston are tied on looks, they are both making the best-looking fly rods on the market today.
vs G. Loomis Asquith: I am mainly just including this because the Asquith is $1,335 and was released 7 years ago. That is all. Based on the price it's in the ballpark of this new Winston but I'd take the Winston any day. I am not unbiased here but I do own the Asquith in 8wt still so I can directly compare. Keep in mind that G. Loomis totally ignored fly shops and fly fishermen during the pandemic and we had absolutely nothing for years while they kept making regular fishing rods (their main business). Don't think I will forget that, they nearly killed us not delivering ANY fly rods for more than a year straight back when we were dealers. They do not give a shit about fly fishing, it's the smallest part of their business and the whole company is owned by Shimano, it has been for years. To be clear, the rods are good but why support that kind of company? Plenty of better options.
vs Other brands (you know, the Ones with fancy branding but who don't actually make their Own fly rods, and Hardly even could be considered fly rod companies anymore) - Why would you want to buy Or use the fourth Or fifth best saltwater fly rod? Or worse? I am just joking but seriously the Winston is better than anything else I left off this list, I promise you. We only use the best and we only sell the best. If it's not here it wasn't good enough. Simple as that.
vs Mid-Priced Saltwater Rods: Sage Maverick, Scott Wave particularly - These rods cost half as much, HALF. So it's 2-for-1 if you would like 2 rods for your next trip don't ever feel bad about doing that. These two are fantastic rods. Again, HALF the price of the Winston, yes of course they are great. The Winston is better but it is not really a fair comparison and all will catch fish just fine. I have owned the Sage Maverick and the Scott Wave in 8wt ever since they came out, they are a fantastic value and work perfectly well. If you are reading this Winston review just for fun, don't ever feel bad getting a Maverick or Wave instead.
vs Entry-Level Saltwater Rods: Ok look why are you even reading this review in the first place? I am not going to sit here and tell you that the $249 kit is just as good as a top-of-the-line saltwater rod made by Winston, but it works fine. The Redington Wrangler (new for 2023) is actually pretty decent. I can catch fish with anything and so can you.
*This review is still a work in progress but I like to get my initial thoughts out as fast as possible because people are curious about the new rods. I will fill in way more info as soon as I have time, just been very busy.
Full review model by model will be coming as soon as I have time. They are excellent rods and it is very obvious to me from the moment I cast the first one.
These are "saltwater" rods because they are replacing the Air Salt rods. BUT they are also replacing the Winston Alpha series (which I love and have owned for years) and merging two excellent rod series into a single lineup that I think is a really logical and smart move by Winston. Alpha was always misunderstood and the Salt series were actually brilliant but under-appreciated due to many not using the right fly lines with them. Winston made the Air Salt with more finesse than any other saltwater rods and got disparaged for it, then they made the Alpha, a rod with more POWER than any other saltwater rods (yes, you heard me) and they got ignored. I own these rods, I am keeping them, they are very nice rods.
Disclaimer: I pay for all these rods myself. No brand gives me free rods or reels (but hey I'd sure take them if they want to send me one to test). I make money when you buy a fly rod from me (this is my store), but I don't care which one you buy as long as it makes you happy. Everything I carry is so good I'm not worried about it, that's why I curated my shop selection so carefully. That's also why you don't see every single brand, only the very best. You cannot choose wrong here. This specific Winston rod is a little more expensive than the other rods so I make a little bit more money on it. That's not why I am telling you it is excellent.
I'm fairly well-qualified to discuss the upcoming 8'6" versions as well, since my main rod in Florida is usually an 8'4" Sector 8wt (which casts just as far as the 9'0" I own, but this shorter size is ideal for close range, around docks or mangroves, etc so I love it).