Winston Air 2 Max | Model-by-Model Review

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Winston Logo 1 300x243article by John Duncan
reviews by John Duncan and Parker Thompson
photos by Black Koles


Intentional Design

All along, we knew Winston had the ability to design serious saltwater fly rods.  There were individual models in the BIIIX, Air Salt and Alpha+ that were unapologetic, but not until this moment has the company produced a dedicated saltwater series that erases all the asterisks.  The Air 2 Max are smashmouth saltwater sticks that cast and fish high in their respective line classes, overbuilt with heavy duty componentry and with a braggadocio material form that inspires confidence and pride of ownership.  Still Winston in appearance, these rods are designed to outfish and outlast competitors with a singleness of purpose that the company has shied away from in past decades.  The metal of the Air 2 Max series can’t be proven until thousands of rods have been fished across the oceans, but the identity and capability of this series is incontrovertible.

Field Testing

Rod Designer Jeff Evans fished the rods hard in the Florida Everglades before turning the prototypes over to his pro staff for hundreds of hours of additional fishing in Florida and Montauk, NY.  The rods have also caught trophy bass in Mexico and traveled the globe with iron angler Jeff Courier.  This is how a rod designer from Twin Bridges, MT proves a saltwater thesis.

Telluride Angler was humbly thrilled to be included in the prototyping phase when Jeff’s cohort Hank Haen sent a complete set of 9’ rods for evaluation, the guides attached to the rod blanks with masking tape.  There was also an 8 ½’ 8-weight in the box, teasing a second tier of this series projected for introduction in January.  We will evaluate those models upon release, but the 9’ rods made an instant impression.  Winston’s design brief reveals the drive to create a rod that is “25% traditional, 75% new ground,” a rod that “eliminates excuses” for the saltwater angler.  This goal has been convincingly achieved, but are they great fly rods?

Casting through the prototypes, we found them to cast/fish high in their line weight categories, tolerating (but also requiring) an aggressive casting stroke and double haul.  The casting range of these rods is exceptional, but they require an assertive stroke to load and deliver short.  These rods emphasize power, but not necessarily lightness.  As always, line choice is critical to bring out the most desirable qualities.  We did our diligence by casting as many as five fly lines on each rod.  Less experienced casters will benefit from short-headed, heavier lines to gain the load required for more intuitive casting and maximum feel.  As discussed in our model reviews, lightness is often found in the line pairing, if not in the rod itself.

Our conclusion is that these are first class saltwater fly rods, but Winston traditionalists may be taken by surprise.

Cropped Tarpon Jump2

Model-by-Model Review

Air 2 Max 8’6” 6-weight

John Duncan:  I am so impressed with this rod and plan to take one on my next flats trip. The taper refinement is A+. It casts beautifully off the tip with a lighter weight saltwater line (I threw the Rio Elite Bonefish WF6) and uses more and more of the rod with each increment of line. Loop shape and line speed are superb at all distances. I feel like I could throw a bonefish fly in the size #6-#8 range anywhere from 20 feet to 70 feet with confidence that my leader would turn over immaculately. The angler will have the soft touch desired in a 6-weight saltwater rod without sacrificing castability in the wind. Many anglers will prefer a redfish taper or other slightly heavy-headed line to cast larger flies, or to cast without a double haul. The rod handles an incredible array of lines, almost like it has a unique strategy for casting each one. For example, it’s equally capable with an SA Titan Long, a freshwater streamer line with a 7-weight head that specializes in longer casts with extra large streamers. This line slows down the casting cadence, but doesn’t destabilize the rod. It handles this challenging line better than any 6-weight rod I’ve ever cast, which makes it a slam dunk crossover rod for saltwater, heavy trout streamers, and every bass that swims. What a wonderful and useful fly rod!

Air 2 Max 8’6” 7-weight

John Duncan:  Like all of the 8’6″ models in the Air 2 Max series, casting this rod gives the impression that you have a lighter line weight in hand, like a 5-wt or 6-wt. Taking 6″ off the top makes a gigantic difference in swing weight. Inherently, shorter rods are more accurately, too, at least within their range. I cast this rod with lines that may represent the extremes of 7-weight fishing: the Rio Elite Bonefish and SA Titan Long. It’s a dream caster for bonefish and redfish, equally fishable on foot or from a skiff, a rod that will make it hard for the angler to go back to 9′ fly rods on the flats. It casts with terrific accuracy and tightest possible loops for high quality presentations. While the Rio Elite Bonefish or SA Amplitude Bonefish will be unquestioned pairings, the rod will easily handle an SA Bonefish Plus, which has a slightly heavier head and loads the rod quicker for short shots.

Streamer junkies take note: this is one of the most perfectly designed heavy freshwater streamer rods of all time. It loads ideally with an SA Titan Long right through the mid section where the super-strong butt kicks in to create the feeling of a launch pad. Even assuming a heavy articulated water-logged fly, it’s as stable as phone pole, throwing level unwavering loops to deliver the payload. Meanwhile, it will tire the caster no more than fishing a 5-weight all day.

Air 2 Max 8’6” 8-weight

John Duncan:  If the rest of the 8’6” models turn out like this one, Winston will really have something special.  Parker and I both loved it.  The length successfully imparts the desired sense of lightness in hand, low swing weight and an efficient casting stroke.  What really impresses me is the action of the rod.  The taper feels springy and lively with a Rio Elite Bonefish.  The rod “casts itself” in a way also found in the 11-weight in this series.  Casting loops are tight, line speed very high, accuracy intuitive and effortless.  The range is shorter than the 9-footer, but it’s a better rod up to about 60 feet.  Outstanding.

Air 2 Max 8’6″ 9-weight

John Duncan:  A wicked stick for permit, striped bass, juvenile tarpon, salmon, bull reds and bonefish, the Air 2 Max 8’6″ 9-weight sets a new standard for wind efficiency, castability and line speed. I cast it with a Rio Elite Bonefish WF9F line, a perfect choice for longer shots, but if your fishing scenarios call for shorter shots, pair it with an SA Bonefish Plus, SA Amplitude Grand Slam, Rio Outbound or Rio Flats Pro, all of which have heavy heads for loading the rod deeper without much line in the air. The spring and recovery in the 2nd and 3rd sections of this fly rod are sensational, making me want to cast as far as I can on every toss. The casting action of this rod is very fast, but this is one of those models that “uses a lot of the rod” in the loading process. The feel is “springy” rather than “tip action,” a character that almost every angler will love. Beyond 30 feet, line speed is world class and no 9-weight throws tighter loops. It’s a rod that responds to a powerful casting stroke yet falls softly into the hands of any saltwater angler. Every saltwater angler needs to try one of these 8’6″ Air 2 Max rods.

Air 2 Max 9’ 6-weight 

John Duncan:  My first inclination is to just say that this rod is magnificently tuned to a Rio Elite Bonefish WF6 line with small and medium sized bonefish flies. It throws gorgeous, tight, long, controlled loops from 15 feet to 80 feet. Springy yet stable, ultra light yet confident, I can push this rod in the wind or back off and just flick a short presentation off the tip. I could leave it at that, but out of curiosity, I also tried it with an SA Infinity Taper and a couple different streamer lines to see if it will cross over from the flats to trout and bass country. It most certainly will. It holds up the long head of an Infinity Taper with total control and also possesses the bottom end stability to work with heavy-headed streamer lines including the SA Titan Long. Designed for the flats, the Air 2 Max 9′ 6-weight is fast enough that it won’t roll cast or mend line particularly well, but for any fishing that requires a quick, accurate and potentially long cast, this is a masterful fly rod.

Parker Thompson:  The 9′ 6wt Air 2 Max is an incredible saltwater style 6wt. Just like the other Air 2 Max rods, this rod is remarkably light in hand. It loads pretty well in close but really comes to life with with about 30 feet or so of fly line out. This rod holds its form at maximum distance and maintains a beautifully tight loop. I was very impressed with the stability of this rod. It’s easy to pick up a lot of line and shoot it back to the target which is something that is very important with bonefish and other flats creatures. This is a rod that is constantly giving the angler feedback. It knows the loop shape it wants and is one of the more intuitive rods I’ve ever thrown. I have played around with the Rio Elite Bonefish WF6F on this rod and have nothing but wonderful things to say about how this line and rod play together. They feel as if they were made to for each other and perform on the water in absolute harmony. This is a rod that will put a smile on your face and have you itching for your next bonefish trip.

Air 2 Max 9’ 7-weight 

John Duncan:  This rod possesses major down range casting ability but requires an aggressive casting stroke or heavy-headed line to awaken.  Loops tighten at distance as long as the caster stays on the throttle.  It lacks the sense of lightness and feel that some anglers seek in a 7-weight, but its fishing capabilities cover both the 7 and 8-weight line classes, so as a daily driver, highly useful.

I first cast it with an SA Amplitude Bonefish line, then with the SA Amplitude Smooth Bonefish Plus WF7F.  The latter line is a ½ line weight heavier than the original and, predictably, a better match.  The rod suddenly felt lighter, even though the line is heavier.  Seemingly a contradiction, it actually makes perfect sense.  The heavier line does more work to load the stiff fly rod, requiring less exertion from the caster.  So, I tried other heavy headed lines and was blown away by how powerful and easy-casting the Air 2 Max 7-weight becomes.  My favorite line pairing is the Rio Elite Redfish WF7.  Line speed is outstanding, stability ideal and the transition from short to long feels smooth and natural.  This is an A+ rod and line combination for redfish and short-to-mid distance bonefish shots.

Parker Thompson:  The 9’ 7wt Winston AIR 2 MAX is an excellent all around 7wt rod.  It is one of the stiffer rods in the AIR 2 MAX lineup in relation to its line weight but still has the classic Winston feel off the tip.  The rod itself is wonderfully light in hand and casts well at all distances.  It’s a little more picky than other rods in the series in terms of line pairings, if you try it with a line and it doesn’t feel quite right don’t give up on it right away.  The first line I tried on this rod was the Rio Elite Bonefish WF7F.  This line works alright but is a bit too light and stiffens up the blank more than I would like to see from a bonefish rod.  From there I moved to the Rio Elite Flats Pro WF7F and the Rio Premier Redfish WF7F.  Both of these lines activate the power of the rod more efficiently and load much easier in close.  My favorite line on this rod however is the new SA Amplitude Smooth Bonefish Plus WF7F.  This line loads well in close, holds a tight loop at distance, and lands nice and soft on the water.  If you’re looking to use this as a 7wt bonefish stick I would highly recommend this line.  All in all, this is a great 7wt that will fish high in its line class and is nice and light in hand.

Air 2 Max 8’6” 8-weight

John Duncan:  If the rest of the 8’6” models turn out like this one, Winston will really have something special.  Parker and I both loved it.  The length successfully imparts the desired sense of lightness in hand, low swing weight and an efficient casting stroke.  What really impresses me is the action of the rod.  The taper feels springy and lively with a Rio Elite Bonefish.  The rod “casts itself” in a way also found in the 11-weight in this series.  Casting loops are tight, line speed very high, accuracy intuitive and effortless.  The range is shorter than the 9-footer, but it’s a better rod up to about 60 feet.  Outstanding.

Rod Cropped

Air 2 Max 9’ 8-weight 

John Duncan:  As a flagship model, this rod achieves the goals of the Air 2 Max series quite well.  It’s an even-loading rod, but favors distance, power and slightly heavy fly lines.  Aggressive casters will immediately like this rod, but less experienced anglers may have trouble casting short.  This is a rod with high top end performance capability, but like a racehorse, the jockey must “ask the question.”  With a Rio Elite Bonefish line, it casts with as much distance and stability as any 8-weight on the market.  A Rio Redfish taper and the SA Bonefish Plus are better choices for many anglers, especially for wade fishing where short and mid-distance casting is anticipated.

Parker Thompson:  The 9’ 8wt AIR 2 MAX is an incredibly smooth casting 8wt that will be equally happy on the flats as it will be in freshwater for large anadromous fish.  It is very stable and has the ability to lift lots of line off the water and shoot it back out.  As you might expect from Winston, the 9’ 8wt is an absolute sweetheart of a caster at all distances.  It forms a nice natural loop in close and also has the lower end power to drive tight loops on the longest of casts.  Similar to other rods in the AIR 2 MAX lineup, the 9’ 8wt is nice and light in hand and is a rod that you can throw all day without much fatigue.  I’ve cast several different lines on this rod and have yet to find one that I don’t enjoy.  If you plan on doing more technical saltwater fishing and prefer a stiffer feel the Rio Elite Bonefish WF8F is a great option.  If you want a line that will load easier in close consider the SA Amplitude Smooth Bonefish Plus WF8F.  This line slows the rod down ever so slightly and really engages the classic Winston feel.  The 9’ 8wt also has the ability to handle slightly heavier lines like the Rio Premier Redfish WF8F.  Given how many different fly line tapers this rod can handle, this is truly a well-rounded 8wt that can handle any saltwater application you throw at it.

Air 2 Max 9’ 9-weight

Cropped Striper On BoatJohn Duncan:  Almost no rod feels its best with a Rio Permit line, but this rod handles the awkward head with ease, generating higher line speed and tighter loops than we’re accustomed to seeing with this line.  Casting skill helps, but the rod’s inherent springiness really works with this fly line, like a slingshot that pulls way back before firing.  With a Rio Elite Bonefish line, the rod needs power to cast short, but holds up a long, tight loop for a mega long cast as well as any fly rod I have ever thrown.  It is outstanding with this line for the angler who wants their 9-weight to behave like a 9+.  I also recommend it with the new SA Bonefish Plus WF9, a line that loads and casts very smoothly on this rod and has a little extra head weight for presenting permit flies.

Parker Thompson:  The 9’ 9wt AIR 2 Max is a great “do it all” 9wt rod.  Some 9wt rods are either strictly a permit 9, a bonefish 9, or a redfish 9; this rod will be happy fishing for all of the above.  It’s not the stiffest 9wt out there but not the softest, either; it fits nicely in the middle of the pack in terms of stiffness and weight.  It really shines in close but still has the stability for longer shots.  Like many of the other rods in the AIR 2 MAX lineup, the 9wt shoots line very well and is a very smooth caster.  Consistent with virtually all Winston rods, this rod is presentation oriented and has superior feel for a saltwater 9.  I’ve played around with a few different lines on this rod and have found that it doesn’t like a very heavy line.  The Rio Elite Permit WF9F is a tad too heavy on here.  The Rio Elite Bonefish is a good option but is a shade light in my opinion.  For a good all-around line the SA Amplitude Smooth Bonefish Plus WF9F is probably my favorite option.  The longer, slightly heavier head pairs wonderfully with this rod.

Air 2 Max 9’ 10-weight

Cropped Casting LighthouseJohn Duncan:  This is a tarpon #10 by anyone’s standard.  I tried it with both the Rio Elite Tarpon WF10F and the SA Amplitude Tarpon WF10F, strongly preferring the SA Tarpon for its more refined head shape and presentation qualities (that’s a review within a review).  The rod casts incredibly far with a powerful, aldente casting stroke, but the caster must add significant pop for the longest cast. It possesses obvious bottom end power for playing tarpon, heavy stripers, roosterfish and the largest permit.  I also found that the rod casts a Rio Elite Permit line beautifully, loading with a mid-rod spring action that forms tight, high line speed loops under the power of a natural casting stroke. I think this rod perfectly embodies modern 10-weight angling purposes.  Inexperienced anglers will put it to good use.  Veteran saltwater anglers will be very impressed.

Parker Thompson:  This is a truly well rounded 10wt that will work great for several different fishing situations.  The rod will handle the wind well but also has great touch and feel.  It will make for a great permit 10 as it has plenty of power in the butt section to get shots out quick, but it has a surprisingly delicate tip which helps with subtle strikes.  If you plan on using this rod for tarpon it will work great for that as well.  It has great lifting power from the boat and can also fight larger, heavier fish.  Just like the 9wt, the 10wt shoots line well and holds up a nice tight loop at distance.  I was able to play around with a few different lines on this rod including the Rio Elite Permit WF10F, Rio Elite Tarpon WF10F, and the SA Amplitude Tarpon WF10F.  Of these three lines, the taper of the Elite Permit is a little too aggressive for my liking, the physical weight of the Rio Elite Tarpon causes loops to collapse on longer casts, but the SA Amplitude Tarpon felt excellent.  The SA Tarpon line is slightly lighter and pairs very well with this rod.

Cropped Backhand Shot 2

Air 2 Max 9’ 11-weight 

John Duncan:  One of my favorite rods in the series, this model “casts itself” with a Rio Elite Tarpon line.  Almost any caster can make this thing work.  It engages easily, but is hard to overpower.  That’s a great combination.  It will cover most 11 and 12-weight fishing purposes, including GTs and adult tarpon, but the heaviest GT lines may overwhelm the rod, resulting in a lack of control.  This is super common.  GT lines often need to be fished one line weight lighter, even on the stiffest saltwater rods.

Cropped TarponParker Thompson:  There are a lot of good 11wt saltwater rods out there these days.  The 9’ 11wt Winston AIR 2 MAX is right up there with the other heavy hitters.  It is by no means as physically light in hand as the lower line weight rods in the series, but also isn’t as heavy as some other 11wt rods on the market.  As you might expect, this is a very smooth casting rod that does a lot of work for the caster.  It isn’t quite as universal as some other 11wt rods on the market but still has a clear intended purpose.  This is a classic tarpon rod.  It won’t handle the really heavy lines people like for GT fishing but will feel right at home on a tarpon skiff.  This rod handles a heavier line better than some of the other rods in the AIR 2 MAX family but really shines with a line that’s not super aggressive.  I was impressed with its ability to throw the Rio Elite Tarpon WF11F which can be a tricky line on a lot of rods.  I personally prefer the SA Amplitude Tarpon WF11F because it lands a shade softer on the water and quickens up the rod ever so slightly.

Air 2 Max 9’ 12-weight

John Duncan:  Outstanding.  This rod loads into the mid-section for mid-length shots without feeling unstable, a hard combination to achieve.  At distance, the butt section engages for excellent line speed with superb accuracy/stability.  I generally hate 12-weights, but this is a really nice one.  When picking a long line off the water, this rod matches most others in its class (Loomis NRX+, Sage Salt R8, Scott Sector), but the Loomis Asquith still clearly wins in this performance category.  We tested the Air 2 Max with the Hatch 12-weight line because it is obnoxiously stiff and heavy.  The SA Tarpon will be ideal.

Cropped Angler In SurfParker Thompson:  12wt rods in general are becoming less and less popular given the range and power of modern 11wt rods.  The 9’ 12wt AIR 2 MAX is a rod that deserves some attention.  It isn’t nearly as stiff and soulless as a lot of other 12wt rods on the market.  Just like all of the rods in the AIR 2 MAX lineup the 12 has great feel in close and forms a nice loop almost immediately.  This rod doesn’t have the air-like feeling that the 12wt Asquith does or the raw power of a rod like the NRX+ but it’s a 12wt that is easy to cast and can handle a wide range of fishing situations.  I’ve thrown a few lines on this rod and found the SA Amplitude Tarpon WF12F to be my favorite.  If you get this rod as a dedicated GT stick consider going down to an 11wt GT line.  These lines tend to be overly heavy and the 11wt version will work well and won’t slow the rod down as much as a 12wt line will.

[Winston Air 2 Max Fly Rod Pages]

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