Sage R8 Core Fly Rods | Model-by-Model Review

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article and model reviews by John Duncan and Richard Post                          Tech | Model Reviews

Sage R8 Core Tech and Design Strategy

R8 CORE Lifestyle 1 ResizedFast action freshwater fly rods will always represent the tip of the spear for Sage, which defined the category in the 1980s and 1990s.  Casting these rods and visiting with Rod Designer Peter Walker, Sage clearly sought a rod that prioritized fishability over raw casting prowess.  The Igniter has become broadly accepted as an all-purpose fast action fly rod, more versatile than the Method and covering some of the ground formerly occupied by the X series.  R8 Core lands at the center point between Igniter and Trout LL, but Walker emphasizes that the action of each model is purposeful and unique.

These are not cookie cutter fly rods.  In fact, we observe two distinct design strategies within the R8 Core.  The first subset are rods with a stiff tip that encourage a deeper flex.  These models are springy and powerful in the butt section but require patience in the casting stroke.  Everyone will talk about these rods because they are noticeably different from their X predecessors.  Enhanced fishability comes with improved roll casting and line mending as they naturally put a little more graphite behind subtle techniques on the water.  Stiff-tipped rods comprise approximately half of the R8 Core series.  The other half are designed with “progressive fast” tapers similar to the X.  These rods increase in stiffness incrementally down the blank.  They cast with familiarity and intuition.  Stability and horsepower are characteristic of the Sage legacy, recalling rods such as the RPL, XP and X.  While less touchy and playful than the stiff-tipped models, they will meet the expectations of loyal Sage anglers and get it done with confidence on the water.

Walker is keen on R8 technology.  “We’re always trying to build a better spring.”  The new graphite consists of high-density fibers with improved sintering, a high modulus material that may be used higher on the blank without sacrificing strength.  Lightness and responsiveness are both enhanced, improving “the spring” and underlying his ability to create rods of different character from the same material.

I would unconditionally recommend some rods within the R8 Core series.  Others I find to be narrow in purpose, but unique within the Sage toolbox and valuable to the purposeful angler.  For example, the 790-4, 890-4 and 990-4 may cast best with bonefish lines, but I wouldn’t buy these rods for the flats.  Comparable models in Salt HD, Igniter and Maverick have greater capability in the wind.  These rods all have the stiff tip, medium-fast action.  To me, they are freshwater and fresh/salt crossover rods that allow the angler to make many casts without fatigue.  They are also well suited for casting larger flies for bass, pike, musky and salmon.

Now, the fun part.

Sage R8 CORE Handle Cropped

Sage R8 Core Model Reviews

R8 390-4

This is a vintage model in the Sage idiom of tippy and deliberate casting 9’ 3-weights.  Sage has offered this model is every fast-action series dating from the RPL.  Never have they disappointed.  Version 2022 forms casting loops with a bit more elegance and nuance than the X or ONE, but like previous generations, this model fundamentally throws tight loops off the tip as a mode of operation.  Skeptical of a Wells grip on a 3-weight, I must say that it feels terrific on a rod that’s long enough to leverage the grip a bit in hand.  Looks great, feels great, casts great.  Every angler should put a 9’ 3-weight Sage in their quiver because no other rod maker of my acquaintance builds a model even remotely similar.  The R8 9’ 3-weight is springy and active with a Rio Gold and throws long, dead level loops with a Rio Technical Trout or SA Trout Taper.  The Airflo Superflo Universal Taper brings the best out of its presentation qualities as well.  Fish this rod with long dry fly leaders or as a late summer pocket water stick on rivers like our own San Miguel.  It puts fun in fishing.  -John Duncan

R8 486-4

One of the sweethearts in the series, the R8 486-4 casts every suitable fly line with natural grace, line speed and precision throughout its substantial range. This is exactly what I was hoping for from this model, among the most important for fishing in SW Colorado. Overall, I would describe this rod as slightly less stiff than its predecessor, the X 486-4. That, too, was a lovely rod, but the R8 Core has a super broad sweet spot and ultra-springy mid-section that brings the rod to life on casts both short and long. Different fly lines summon unique casting qualities, but the rod handles them all. My favorites are the Rio Gold and Rio Technical Trout, but the rod also handles the long-headed SA Infinity Taper, the SA Trout Taper and the Airflo Superflo Universal. Choose the line that best suits your fishing techniques. Enjoy the rod!  -John Duncan

R8 490-4

After my initial casting session with this series, this was my “project model.”  I first cast the R8 490-4 with a Rio Gold and knew that I had to keep searching.  With a Gold, it felt bouncy, the tip pulling from side to side with each stroke.  A Rio Technical Trout didn’t engage the rod much, and I began to lose hope.  Then, I found the line:  the SA Trout Taper.  There is simply something about the tapers of this rod and line that work well together.  The Airflo Universal casts well throughout this rod’s range, too, and I suspect that the Rio Perception is also a good match.

This fly rod offers wonderful feedback to the caster.  It has a fluid casting arc with sensational feel at all distances.  Casting the SA Trout Taper, the loop seems to tighten and accelerate just before turning over no matter the casting distance.  It excels in all the subtle techniques including roll casting, line mending, informal Spey casts and tippet protection. It seems sensitive to its line pairing, but I would unconditionally recommend the R8 490-4 with an SA Trout Taper.  -John Duncan

R8 4100-4

The R8 Core 4100-4 is a stellar fishing tool and a specialist nymph angler’s go-to rod in the new R8 lineup. This rod is not a power caster. That does not mean that it is not a powerful and highly capable rod, but it is not a blazing loop slinger. This is a fishing tool with a taper that allows easy access to the lower half of the rod and is among the most complete nymphing rods I’ve held. You can feel the sensation of the line lifting from the water incrementally with this rod. Raise the tip after the lift and effortlessly lay it into the desired position. I like to throw small loops along the length of the line on the water when I mend. This allows me to be more precise with the position of my line when mending, and the R8 Core 4100 handles this as intuitively as any rod out there. I enjoyed line in the air with this rod, but I loved how it performed with line on the water. Roll casting is tremendous and the deep load along the blank of the R8 Core rods is very apparent here. My favorite line was the SA Amplitude Smooth Infinity WF4F. I also cast the Rio Elite Gold and the Rio Perception WF4Fs as well. Loop control is very good and the rod readily threw a more open loop with line speed and power. This rod encourages you to slow down your stroke and smooth out your haul. The stability of the line in the air is tremendous and a core characteristic of these R8 rods. Slow down, keep your stroke medium tempo and feel the control. This model does not have a fighting butt and I found that a heavier reel provided a better balance and also made the overall outfit feel lighter as well. A reel like the Sage Trout Reel 4/5/6 is where I would start on this model. My overall impression was that the R8 Core 4100-4 is a specialized model ideally tuned for fishing all manner of nymph rigs for trout. I did not feel like I wanted to fish a dry or dry dropper with this rod, but I do not believe that to be its purpose. There is Euro style crossover potential here as well. Carrying along a Rio Euro Nymph Shorty or a second reel with Euro line, adds another dimension of versatility to this rod. The soft tip to protect light tippets and the mending focused taper make for a highly specialized nymphing rod and one technical tailwater fisherman should pay attention to.  – Rich Post

R8 586-4

R8 CORE Lifestyle 2 ResizedWhen lawn casting this model for the first time, I was transported to the bow of a drift boat, strafing the banks with a grasshopper.  You couldn’t ask for a better all-purpose boat rod, with tight loop dry fly capabilities combined with plenty of butt section for streamers up to a size 8.  The stability and line speed of the R8 856 would be hard to top, but it lacks the tip sensitivity I prefer for short distance wade fishing.  Fish it on the Colorado, not the San Miguel.  Cast with a Rio Gold, it charges to life at around 30 feet.  Thanks partly to the rod’s length, it pairs best with a line that has a short-to-medium head.  The Rio Gold, Perception or SA MPX are excellent choices, but the SA Infinity is too long in the head for easy shooting.  The Airflo Ridge 2.0 Power Taper pairs savagely for dry dropper fishing.  Thanks to excellent leverage and control, heavy fish come quickly to the net.  -John Duncan

R8 590-4

A lively and playful 5-weight with all but the right lines, this flagship model is much more than a pure caster.  Characteristic of the series, the 590-4 has a tip that is just stiff enough to force some graphite behind even the shortest casts.  This requires a patient stroke, even more so at short distances than long, but the tip snaps back with resilience, delivering excellent line speed with little effort from the caster.  You’ll really feel that tip follow through when roll casting and mending line.  The rod does a lot of work for the angler, both before and after your fly line is on the water.  You can’t hammer this rod like an Igniter or NRX+, but the angler who is well-versed in all-water techniques will find the R8 590-4 equally capable with dry flies and nymphs, truly a rod you can appoint for a long day in ever-changing conditions.  My favorite line for this model is the Rio Perception and my least favorite is the SA Infinity Taper.  Both are approximately ½ weight heavy for their line designation, so the difference must lie in the taper.  The Rio Perception makes this model feel light, crisp and free, whereas the Infinity Taper feels like the tail is wagging the dog.  I also like the Rio Gold on this model, as well as the Airflo Universal.  Stay away from extra heavy long-headed lines, such as the Rio Grand.  For me, this is a dry fly and nymphing 5-weight, but not a streamer rod.  -John Duncan

R8 596-4

No rod is this series surpasses the performance and feel of the 596-4.  In terms of taper and flex profile, there seem to be 2 groups of R8 Core fly rods:  stiff-tipped and progressive.  This is one is progressive, meaning that it casts from short to long with action that feels metered to the power input from the caster.  It responds to both touch and power.  It casts off the tip, mid section and butt, generating line speed and dead level loops at all distances.  A marvel of design, this rod succeeds the 597-4 X with equal casting capability but even greater control, most noticeable when throwing in the wind or horsing a nymph/indicator rig.  For the longest cast of your life, stick an SA Infinity Taper on the 596 and see how much line you can hold in the air before shooting.  A proud hero caster, the R8 596-4 is just as impressive at reasonable fishing distance with a Rio Gold, SA MPX, Airflo Universal Taper, etc.  Cast all day without tiring.  Roll cast across the river.  Pay out 40’ stack mends like you’re feeding pigeons.  This is one heck of a fly rod.  -John Duncan

R8 5100-4

The R8 Core 5100-4FB is an exceptional fly rod and standout among the R8 Core rods. Ten foot 5 weights have been getting better and better recently and there are some very good ones out there right now, but there is just something about the R8 5100 that grabbed me. Loops were perfect right out of the hand and line speed was sizzling with a Rio Elite Gold. That line really personified the line speed potential of this rod and made it feel lively and zippy through the guides. I had a feeling of command across all distances, and you could pick up a long line off the water confidently. The SA Amplitude Smooth Infinity slows the tempo of the rod down just a hair and exemplifies this rod’s intuition. The R8 Core 5100 really is a tremendous over head casting rod and throws an absolute power wedge. The line rolls off the tip with conviction and loops so long and level they appear frozen in time. The power is smooth and rather than making you feel like you need to hurry up to stay with the rod, the feedback you receive is comforting and familiar. Like a child reaching out to grab his mother’s waiting hand. You cast it firm or sit back on it a little and the rod doesn’t seem to mind, it just stays right with you. I found that this rod casts lighter overhead than other rods in this class. I really like how the taper seems to hide the extra length or this rod and provided for a crisp delivery. The rods intuition does not stop when the line hits the water, and the same magnificent mending characteristics of the 4100 are evident in the R8 5100-4FB. Just lift the rod and place the line where you would like with the ease of dropping an ice cube into a high ball. Roll casts feel good and look good with this rod. They don’t flop over, they turn over. Overall, this is a truly impressive fly rod and the best ten foot 5 weight I have ever cast. I do not own a 10 foot single hand rod, but I may have to now. I would personally use this rod for all manners of Stillwater fishing, and as a nymph rod for pre runoff, there may be no equal. I would confidently take the R8 5100-4FB to the Gunnison or the Colorado as a “one rod to do it all” while wading. I was very impressed by this rod and I look forward to getting to know it more.  – Rich Post

R8 690-4

In my opinion, the 6-weights are standouts in the R8 series.  All four 6-weight models are designed with progressive fast action similar to the 390-4 and 596-4.  Neither light nor heavy for its class, the 690-4 is a convincing piece of equipment from the first impression, a rod that seems optimized for its purpose.  More than anything else, Sage just nailed the taper and material application.  It casts naturally with tremendous line speed and zero torsional play at all distances.  We ask much of our 6-weights, but the R8 690-4 exceeds all requirements.  I cast it with a Rio Gold, SA Infinity Taper and Rio Predator, 3 of my favorite lines for 6-weight fishing.  It’s just plain awesome with all three, which tells me that there is virtually no bad line choice for this rod.  It gets going right away with little line out the tip without the irritating hesitation of many fast action rods.  Double hauling in the wind, it knifes long loops that turn over with an audible hiss.  I found the FB version to be almost identical in character.  -John Duncan

R8 690-4 FB

I’m going to repeat my review of the 690-4 here because I honestly found these models to be nearly inseparable.  If anything, the FB edition feels a tiny bit lighter, the natural result of mounting the grip ¾” higher on the blank.  Neither light nor heavy for its class, the 690-4 FB is a convincing piece of equipment from the first impression, a rod that seems optimized for its purpose.  More than anything else, Sage just nailed the taper and material application.  It casts naturally with tremendous line speed and zero torsional play at all distances.  We ask much of our 6-weights, but the R8 690-4 FB exceeds all requirements.  I cast it with a Rio Gold, SA Infinity Taper and Rio Predator, 3 of my favorite lines for 6-weight fishing.  It’s just plain awesome with all three, which tells me that there is virtually no bad line choice for this rod.  It gets going right away with little line out the tip without the irritating hesitation of many fast action rods.  Double hauling in the wind, it knifes long loops that turn over with an audible hiss.  This is the same review as the 690-4, but I did cast both fly rods and was equally impressed.  -John Duncan

R8 696-4

Consider this a “big game” trout rod.  I rarely fish 6-weights over 9’ because they are too much for me to cast all day, but the benefits of extra length are undeniable on big water.  This is a finely tuned fly rod.  It needs the head length and weight of an SA Infinity Taper, Titan Long, Rio Grand or comparable fly line, but those are the lines we might expect to fish on rivers like the Gunnison and Deschutes where the 9 ½’ 6-weight earns its place in the fly fishing world.  It casts progressively with a natural casting stroke and offers plenty of command to handle streamer tapers and sink tips in addition to floating lines.  This stick has the authority to lift long lines and deep nymph rigs from distant drifts, prowling a broad river like an angler with long arms.

R8 6100-4

This is one of the lightest rods in the series relative to length and line weight, ideal long hours of steelheading in Northern California, the Great Lakes and other realms of our sport where hundreds of casts can exhaust the angler wielding a heavier stick.  Although I rarely fish a 10’ 6-wt, this is one of my favorite rods in the series.  It loads evenly and naturally, allowing the angler to dictate loop shape at any distance, equally suitable for floating and sinking lines, nymphs, dries and swing flies.  Single handed Spey casts and powerful roll casts leap from the tip.  Stillwater anglers will find plenty of spine for lifting full sinking lines from deep water and casting from float tubes or personal pontoon boats.  The SA Infinity Taper is a natural fit for this long 6-weight, but anglers who prefer a shooting style line such as the Rio Outbound will marvel at the distance this rod achieves.
-John Duncan

R8 790-4

Expecting a tip-casting streamer stick, I found this model to be more suitable for bass fishing and nymphing, where an easy going cast with an open delivers the goods without much input from the caster.  This would make a fine all-purpose rod for Alaska or anywhere in bass country, but would not be my choice for heavy streamers (Montana) or fishing in major wind (Argentina, Chile, Northern Rockies).  I found this rod to be clunky and bouncy with a Rio Gold, but the heavier and smoother Rio Predator seemed to pull through the wrinkles.  A rod of this style has advantages with wind-resistant flies, like spun deer bass bugs, and with a nymph-indicator rig in both the cast and line mend.  -John Duncan

R8 796-4

The R8 Core 796-4 is a strong rod, ideally suited to Alaska trout fishing. The extra length allows the taper to relax just a little more than the 790 and makes it more adept at fishing indicators and swinging flies. I thought the Rio Elite Gold WF7F was just a shade too light and didn’t match the rod as well as I like. The SA Amplitude Smooth Infinity WF7F was better and loaded the rod just a bit more. I felt like the rod could handle a heavier and longer headed nymph specialty style line well. The R8 796 cast the Rio Predator line well. The rod loaded instantly and responded perfectly to a short stroke and sharp haul shooting head style cast. There was no kick at the delivery and the rod absorbed those inherent aberrations that ripple through the line when casting short heavy heads. The R8 Core 796 is an ideal light surf rod for blind casting with shooting head style lines. This rod is a little easier to cast than the 896 and I like it a little more than the 790 in general. Places and fish for this rod: Alaska Trout, California Surf, Northeast Surf for schoolies, Anadromous Indicator fishing, Jurassic and Pyramid Lake style trout fisheries. This is my favorite 7 weight in the R8 Core lineup. The R8 Core 796 is the perfect combination of power, confidence and ease of casting in a rod that can cover a wide variety of fishing styles. Versatility and top end performance across a wide range of fishing environments are key attributes of this model.  – Rich Post

R8 7100-4

The R8 Core 7100-4 is a best in class long 7 weight for all around Trout and Salmon fishing when you need a powerful rod that can cast a long way and control line a long way out. A truly easy casting rod for its size and length. Like all the 10 foot R8 rods, an easy stroke and more relaxed cadence produce remarkable results for the amount of effort the caster applies to the rod. I cast a Rio Elite Gold WF7F and the SA Amplitude Smooth Infinity WF7F line on this rod. Both lines were excellent. The Gold really kicked up the line speed of this rod and felt very good from 20 feet out. You really feel precise and in control with this line and the rod casts a little bit lighter in the hand. The Infinity taper slows the rod down a touch, but it gives it more of that flow state. The delivery is perfectly balanced at all distances and the slow-motion load and rebound of this rod is delightful. You have so much confidence with a long line behind you in the air. You get the feeling that the line behind you can almost hold you up it is so stable. The line really feels solid behind you. I got a little more drive out of this line and felt like I could carry a larger fly. This rod will handle a variety of lines, but I would put a longer bellied line like the Gold or Infinity on here, or the various long bellied nymphing lines. It roll casts and mends with command. The 10 foot R8 rods really have a special ability to direct line via water based anchors. This rod is no exception. In the R8 lineup, the 7100-4 is the best big rod for mending that I cast. The R8 Core 7100-4 is the rod for an Alaska Trout and Salmon trip. Enough backbone for salmon excluding large kings and plenty of fun to cast streamers and indicator rigs while wading. Stillwater anglers looking for maximum distance, those throwing larger flies and fighting larger than average fish should take notice of this rod as well.  -Rich Post

R8 890-4

By modern standards, this would be considered a “medium fast” 8-weight, the purposes for which are both narrow and broad.  The tip is stiff enough to force it into the mid and butt section on all casts, but it’s an easy swinger well suited for salmon fishing and other applications where a 9’ #8 bonefish rod is just too stiff for the nuances of freshwater fishing.  I wouldn’t choose this model for flats fishing, but I like it for heavy bass, salmon and pike.  This is a fine Alaska rod or crossover saltwater-freshwater model, which are increasingly rare.  It casts a Rio Elite Bonefish line reasonably well, but I expect it will get more reps with freshwater lines such as the Rio Gold, SA MPX, SA Titan, Rio Predator and the range of sink tips customary for Alaska and similar environments.  -John Duncan

R8 896-4

I was very excited to cast this rod. The X 896 was so good and I really didn’t know what they could do to improve that rod. After casting the R8 Core 896-4 I was left thinking that Sage bumped up the power and made the rod feel as strong as it casts. The X 896 had a really sweet action that cast beautifully and felt lighter in the hand than you expect for a 9 foot 6 inch 8 weight. The R8 Core 896 has a faster rod feel and produces higher line speed, giving the caster a more empowering feeling. You feel more connected to this rod and get the feeling of hitting the gas in a sporty car when you stand on this rod. You can really stand on it too, you don’t have to, but the response of the rod encourages you to really drive the cast. The pick up and lay down with this rod is perfect. The loops are so level and connected to the rod that you get the sense of laying down wire. The exactness is akin to fitting a puzzle piece in its proper spot. I really enjoyed the Rio Elite Gold on this rod. The Rio Elite Perception was very nice as well and produced lots of line speed off the tip. The R8 896 had a shooty feel with this line and was truly fun to watch the head of the line race away and turn over. As a mending rod you feel a little stiffness. The 896 has a similar fast rod feel to the R8 696, but the heavier blank of the 8 weight isn’t quite as lively. This rod is more of an AK salmon rod than a large trout rod. I also believe this is a much better tool than its predecessor for throwing shooting head style surf lines to stripers. You get a more powerful rod in the R8 896 than the X and a rod that throws shorter heavier lines more easily. If you’re looking for an empowering distance casting 8 weight that is approachable to many fly casters, look no further.  -Rich Post

R8 990-4

R8 CORE Lifestyle 4 ResizedIn the X Series, the high line class rods were “saltwater style,” designed for knifing into the wind with tight loops and relatively small flies.  The #8 and #9 in this series are designed to carry a heavier load more slowly.  Fish these rods with meat flies, whether in Alaska or somewhere in pike/musky country.  Like the R8 Core 890-4, the 990-4 is an easy caster with just about any line, but you can’t stab cast it like the Igniter or horse the butt section like a Salt HD.  Choose this model for freshwater or a fresh-salt crossover.  I found it to be equally capable with both freshwater and saltwater fly lines, but a heavy headed freshwater line such as an SA Titan or Rio Predator would probably be my first choice on the water.  -John Duncan

[R8 Core Rod Pages]

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