Hardy has a long history of producing some of fly fishing’s best reels. Antique Princess and Perfect models go for top dollar on eBay, and any Alnwick-made piece of Hardy equipment is an instant collectible.
While Hardy has moved a lot of their production to South Korea, the reels that made them famous are still built in England.
Enter the Hardy Duchess – what may be the best simplistic click-and-pawl reel for the antique enthusiast currently available.
I bought a Duchess in the 4/5/6 line size about a month ago, and it’s been fished heavily on my TMF WT Winston. The Duchess weights that rod perfectly, and when you take into account its deeper-than-it-looks spool and top-notch craftsmanship, it’s amazing to think it’s as light as it is.
I could wax poetic about the Duchess all day long, so I’ll suffice it to say that I think the Duchess is the best click-and-pawl trout reel you can buy. The $400 minimum price tag may scare away some anglers into buying a Ross Colorado LT or an Orvis Battenkill, and while both reels are great, the Duchess is just better.
What I liked
I don’t think there’s a single person out there who wouldn’t take a look at the Duchess and not fall in love with its looks. In fact, I bought the Duchess largely because it looked amazing. It fishes amazing as well, but we’re getting to that point.
From the dime-edge spool, wood handle, aircraft-grade aluminum, and gold rivets on the back, Hardy cut zero corners in creating the Duchess. The line guards are built for both left or right-hand retrieve, and the reel features a split-cane design.
I’m pretty rough on gear. My other favorite reel, the Abel TR-2, has a few love marks on it from use, but I’m deliriously scared of nicking the Duchess. It’s that pretty.
I have an old Hardy Princess built sometime in the 1970s. I picked it up at a pawn shop in St. George for $45 a while ago. The drag system in that reel is identical to the one in the Duchess.
So why the $400 price tag, you ask?
Because Hardy’s click-and-pawl drag system is tied for first place in my personal rankings of best click-and-pawl reels currently on the market (the other is the Abel TR series of reels).
It’s a pretty straightforward system, but the best part about Hardy’s drag is the adjustable knob on the outside of the frame that allows you to clamp the gears down on a fish that’s really peeling off line.
I fished the Duchess on some mean browns up in Oregon last month, and when they’d make runs to my backing, I just had to turn the knob and the fish immediately had to work harder to take line. The best part is that the startup inertia with a tight drag is still low, meaning the drag engages as smoothly as butter when called upon.
Ask anyone who still fishes click-and-pawl reels what they love most about them, and you’ll likely hear, “The sound” as an answer. And rightfully so, in my book. There’s nothing more quintessentially associated with trout fishing than the sound of a clicking reel and a deep bend in a bamboo rod.
The Duchess has a high, tinkling metallic sound that’s actually much improved over the Princess from 1970, and I even prefer it above the sound of my TR-2.
What I didn’t like
Lack of adjustability in the drag
I know I just said that I love the drag on the Duchess – and I do – but there’s one aspect of it that I feel could use improvement.
When you turn the outside knob to tighten the drag on the Duchess, you clamp down both the incoming and outgoing tension. That’s all fine and dandy, and works well most of the time, but there are situations in which I’ve found it incredibly nice to have almost no outgoing tension and a ton of incoming tension on my drag.
The Abel TR-2 allows you to completely customize a retrieval system that’s either completely balanced or skewed to incoming or outgoing drag. When I’m chasing bigger fish with my TR-2, I always take a few extra seconds to clamp the incoming drag down as tight as possible, while loosening the outgoing drag. The theory behind this is to let the fish run freely when it wants so I can palm the spool, then tire the fish out when I take line back in. My logic may be flawed, but I’ve found it to be an effective way to fight fish.
Starting at $400, not everyone can afford the Duchess. I understand it’s handcrafted in Alnwick, and the build quality certainly deserves top-dollar. But $400 is a bit steep, and I’m really only pointing this out because I’m sad not everyone will have the chance to fish one of these incredible reels.
Hardy knocked it out of the park with the Duchess. It’s as solid a click-and-pawl reel as an angler could hope for, it’s light, looks amazing, and fights fish with aplomb. It’s pricey, but it’s worth saving your pennies for. I’d recommend this reel to every angler who considers themselves to be a click-and-pawl enthusiast.
Spencer writes multiple fly fishing columns for local and national publications, including Hatch Magazine and the Orvis Fly Fishing Blog. Connect with him on Twitter or Instagram @Spencer_Durrant, or on Facebook @spencerdurrantauthor.