Shimano Sahara FI : The Review

Hello water dwellers

Will begin with a couple of side notes. You can skip them and go straight to the picture of the reel if you want to get right to it.

I posted this in news updates a while ago, but here it is again for those who missed it:- Penn has just announced that they are upgrading the Slammer III reels with a ball bearing in the line roller instead of the bushing

It's a cycle we've seen many times before; I tested the reel and found the line roller to be problematic, spoke about it in several articles such as here and here, everyone got defensive explaining in profound terms why I'm completely wrong and how perfect the design is, but eventually the manufacturer just does what I suggested should be done. Not sure what it took Penn almost 2 years to do it, when in the past they were quick to do a major redesign and part swap program for the first generation Torque to address issues I found in the original reels (bail arm gauging the spool, inability to shim spool, etc.). Anyway, I'm yet to test the upgraded Slammer III, but hopefully later this year I will do this and see how it goes. Please allow some time for this.

Another note

This recent message was the second biggest loss reported to me by a fisherman, the biggest being almost $5k by a charter operation back in 2016. It breaks my heart every time, but more so when it's serious money like this. I need you to help spread the word to protect other fishermen by sharing this list which I keep expanding and updating with new scam sites. I've also just added an important update to that article stating that now you could lose money even if you use Paypal. I will not say how because I do not want to give tips to crooks who might read this, so you'll just have to take my word for it. There are ways to beat Paypal money-back protection and leave you hanging out to dry.

Moving on

With less than a handful of freshwater reel reviews on this site, it's understandable that many think I don't care much for freshwater fishing. Actually it's the exact opposite, and for very good reasons. Reason one is the way I work; contacts in the trade send me reels all the time, mostly dealer samples, show pieces, floor models, returns, prototypes, etc. I fish them whenever I can and examine them, then if I think a reel deserves a published review for one reason or another I buy a retail piece and review it. Accordingly freshwater reels come my way more frequently because they are generally smaller, lighter, cost less to ship, and if I push one too far and break it paying for it usually doesn't hurt very much. On the personal side, I love fishing freshwater because I can always do it on a whim without much preparation. Unlike saltwater which will always be a "trip" that requires planning and travelling, a lake or a pond will always be a short drive away and I can just throw the rod in the car and go. I post more about saltwater though because that's what most of my readers do, but as I hear more from freshwater fishos I'll certainly cater more to their needs.

Beginning with the usual photoshoot, where reels try to show off their beauty

Unfortunately nothing to show off here. I would not call the Sahara FI "ugly", but it certainly is unpleasant to the eyes. From some angles the aesthetics look normal and in line with what one expects from a contemporary Shimano, but then comes this

The bottom contour of the body does not flow naturally, instead it takes a sharp turn upwards (red arrows) which makes the gearbox look.... well, look "incomplete" for the lack of a better description. It's as if a chunk of it is missing. They try to mitigate this effect with the shiny hollow rear bumper that's shaped to fill the missing chuck, but it does not work very well. This is something that Shimano has been increasingly doing, mainly to save material and weight by cutting off a part of the body that is no longer occupied by the mechanism (explained later on). This "incomplete" body made its way through the range ruining reels' looks left and right, infecting even the top of the range 2014 Stella (FI in export markets), and from it moved onto its 2018 successor (Stella FJ in export markets). Looks are indeed subjective, but I may dare to say that this trend is as close as it gets to being objectively ugly.

Made in Malaysia, and the sticker bears a code that tells you the date of manufacture and the location of the factory. It has been a couple of years since I last explained it, so once more;  the first letter is the year in alphabetical order with "A" being 2002, "B" being 2003, etc. The second letter is the month, and the third is where the factory is. The PC-P on my Sahara then translates to 2017, March, Malaysia.

Comes with a big chunk of paperwork that weighs almost half as much as the reel itself, and a bag of shims that you insert beneath the spool to fine tune the line lay pattern.

When new it has this sticker around the spool, and you need to remove it before you spool it. The sticker is there to tell you that the reel is new and unused, but it's not the type of sticker that's used to prevent braid slippage. Yes, I've seen people who spooled their reels on top of this sticker in other Shimano models, thus this remark is not meant as a joke.

The actual weight matches the advertised weight. At 300 grams (~10.6 oz) the reel is very light for its size, thanks mainly to its full plastic body construction. Shimano builds reels in three major categories- full metal, where the entire body is aluminium or a mixture of aluminium and magnesium parts. Hybrid, where the chassis including the stem is metal then a plastic gearbox is attached to it. And full plastic where the entire body is made of one type or another of synthetic compounds. There are subcategories where a rotor of one material is attached to a body of a different material etc., but these are the three main ones. The choice of which build category one should consider depends first and foremost on the rigidity required for the intended technique and target fish, and needless to say full plastic construction will generally be less rigid than metal or hybrid. 

I was pleasantly surprised though with how this full plastic reel felt. Smart design elements have a hand in making it feel more solid than one expects; the stem is split into two limbs for better handling of tension and compression forces, and the rotor's shape inches ever closer to Daiwa's arched design because that design is so good at reinforcing a rotor there is no point in continuing to avoid it for the sake of pride. In addition to the rigidity stemming from the design, the plastic itself has been improved. This is not the high grade long-strand carbon infused plastic the Japanese companies use in their expensive reels, yet this baseline plastic has become better than the plastics of yesterday. It's the normal progression of things, similar to how steels and other alloys are today superior to those of the past, etc. The reel's rigidity is puzzling when you first hold it and feel that it's too light to feel this good, but you get used to it quickly. Still in the above picture, the reel has the parallel foot which has become a common feature of Shimano reels lately.

This parallel foot could cause compatibility issues with some rods when the reel is large, but for the small Sahara FI series and similarly sized models there are absolutely no issues with any spinning rods. I paired the reel with a standard configuration rod whose first ring is not particularly large, and as you see in the picture the line flows smoothly from the reel into the ring without sharp bends.

The drag knob has no sealing whatsoever, but this shouldn't be a problem in a freshwater reel since it's unlikely you'll be fishing while being sprayed with water. If though you're using a boat to go from one fishing location to another it might be a good idea to cover the reel to keep sprays out of the drag assembly. 

At the end of this review I'm going to tell you something interesting that would require me to reference 5 areas mentioned in this article. This drag knob without a seal is the first of them, therefore I'll call it "1 of 5" and type it in red font so that you can easily come back  and review these 5 references in the future.

The drag washers of my 5000 size are carbon fibre, while smaller Sahara FI reels have felt washers. There is nothing wrong with this since felt is perfectly fine for low stress work where you don't expect the drag to heat up. Felt produces a drag that's smoother than anything carbon can produce, but carbon shines when heat is involved since heat destroys felt. If someone tells you felt is bad tell them that the Stella SW 4000 has felt drag washers because it's a perfect choice for these tiny reels. Anyway, a quick reminder that you should not grease felt washers, only oil them.

Drag clicker is simple and reliable using a wire spring, although I prefer coil springs for durability. The Sahara FI's drag produces a nice buzz that's easily heard in standard freshwater settings, unless of course you were standing next to a waterfall or there were a bunch of stupid noisy tourists behind you who kept asking you to take group photos of them to upload to their similarly stupid Instagram friends. I really really hate fishing where people can just walk by and can't wait to get back to the solitude of a boat in the middle of nowhere.

The spool lip is the familiar reverse tapered design, and of course there wouldn't be a hardened lip on a reel of this price. Don't throw it about or drop it not to ding the lip which would adversely affect casting performance..

Speaking of which, the combined effort of the spool lip, line lay, and the parallel foot makes this reel an extremely good caster. The line flows smoothly without much resistance or tugging, and the coils leaving the spool looked so consistent with barely any contact with the rod's body I just had to take this picture. It's the parallel foot that keeps line away from the rod.

That excellent casting is highly valued in these small reels, since lures are usually very light and difficult to throw far. Not only could I send small 3/8 oz crank baits far away, but the absence of line tugging and little line collision with the rod allowed me to make precise casts landing lures where I wanted even in tricky situations. Sometimes I would need to throw right underneath a low hanging tree that looks like a graveyard of tangled lures people lost in it, and other times I'd need to land my bait right next to bank vegetation without becoming entangled in it. Shimano's parallel foot is such an intriguing feature. On one hand it could be a complete pain if it's one of the big reels and your rod is not made for it, but on the other hand when it's paired with a suitable rod you're in for a treat. The first time I commented on that design was 5 years ago in the Stella SW's reviews, where I said this

So one has a choice to make. Other reels with standard foot that guarantee good matching with any spinning rod, or a Shimano with a straight foot that might not match all rods but when it does it's all fireworks. 

The spool shims (red arrow) are easily inserted and taken out. Shimano has always been good at this, Daiwa not so much. The rotor nut (blue arrow) is a simple open type. There is no protection against water intrusion around the main shaft here, which, again, is not an issue for this small series of freshwater reels. We'll call this point "2 of 5" for the sake of the thing I'll tell you about at the end.

As cheap as it is, this reel still comes with a rotor brake that prevents rotor rotation during casts. When you open the bail, the lever's tip (red arrow) comes down and engages the rubber ring (blue arrow) to keep the rotor still. All sizes of the Sahara FI have automatic bail closure.

Beneath the rotor, a cap keeps things in place (red arrow), and here we see another open area around the pinion (blue arrow). For the third time, not problematic at all. I'm only pointing this out for the future reference I mentioned previously. We'll call this open area "3 of 5". The green arrow points the base of the cap, and this will be "4 of 5".

This is the highlight of the reel. The anti-reverse clutch is Shimano's proprietary design with elements found in higher tier clutches, which lend it exceptional strength, longevity, and reduce the possibility of slippages.

Not only a proprietary design, but one with individual metal springs to control each brake cylinder independently. With few exceptions, every other spinning reel in the world in this price range uses a generic catalogue ordered clutch with plastic springs.

The limb of the spring reaching beneath the lock ring to keep the cylinder in constant contact and compensate for wear. This took some serious macro-photography, so you're welcome to congratulate me and mention how incredibly talented I am, and feel free to ask how come I'm so unbelievably awesome yet I remain humble and down to earth.

Taking out the rear bumper shows the full extent of material removal from the housing. Basically an entire corner has been sliced off, and the shiny bumper fails to mitigate this aesthetic crime. Shimano's penchant for disfiguring reels by material removal knows no bounds, and at its most extreme some reels looked like this...

The horror! Every bit of unoccupied space was savagely shaved off, so much so that the bottom contour of the drive gear is visible and screw posts protrude fully outside the body. The rear lower part of the body looks like a school of hungry piranhas attacked it. Meanwhile Daiwa does some orgasm-inducing visuals like this

See the difference? When Daiwa wants to remove material they do it discreetly and elegantly (red arrow). I'm whining too much about it because I hated how the 2014 Stella (FI) looked, I hate how the 2018 Stella (FJ) looks even more, and I'd be gutted if they similarly disfigure the next SW model. 

Open sesame

Unfortunately the rotor needs to be removed in order to open the gearbox, which is a missed opportunity in my opinion. Could have easily made it an easy-access gearbox that one can open in seconds for service or even for quick inspection while fishing if needed.

The drive gear is mounted on a ball bearing on each side. No seals here, just a bearing in a recess, and this will be our "5 of 5".

The oscillation block rides on a stainless steel bar (red arrow) for stability and less resistance under load.

Main shaft is of considerable strength. Actually a little too big for a reel this size, but it's quite welcome and nothing to complain about since it only adds to the overall rigidity of a reel that remains quite light. The oscillation block (red arrow) is curved for a well timed stroke that lays line well.

I mean really well. Look at this exemplary lay which one rarely sees on a budget reel. In addition to being an important factor in the excellent casting performance mentioned earlier, it dramatically reduces chances of line problems. If you get wind knots, it won't be the reel's fault.

The blue arrow points the secondary pinion bearing, and the rest of the photo explains how they managed to vacate the lower corner of the gearbox and slice it off. About 4 years ago Shimano began moving most or all of the oscillation mechanism from the bottom to the top, so that it's now located above the shaft instead of below it (red arrows). This has been done to both locomotive and worm oscillation systems. They call it "G-Free body" in another example of garbage catchy marketing names, and they say it "shifts the centre of gravity closer to the rod" and claim that it "reduces fatigue and increases casting comfort". After typing that last sentence I actually needed to stop for half a minute until I stopped cringing so I could continue writing. Actually this is so bad I need to preserve it in a capture just to prove to future generations that Shimano actually said it

This takes rubbish to new highs, and watching fishing publications mindlessly repeat it is all the evidence one needs to realise the magnitude of illiteracy that fuels this industry. Without getting too technical, they are talking about altering angular momentum, which is a product of moment of inertia and angular velocity. Moment of inertia depends on the mass distribution of the body in question, and that mass distribution is what has been changed in these reels. In practice though by changing the oscillation gear's location they had only shifted a few grams by a few millimetres, and considering how close the entire reel is to the axis of rotation during the casting motion it becomes clear that this shift is so minute its effect is negligible. Yes, it's a real thing, but it's purely theoretical in this context/application and should not be touted as having any effect on your fatigue level. An analogy would be asking you to spit your gum before climbing into my car in order to save fuel. Yes, the gum does have weight and theoretically less weight equals less fuel consumption, but in practice it's nonsense and will lead to no measurable fuel saving. What this really does is allow them to use less material which saves cost especially in metal bodied reels made of high grade alloys, and naturally less material means a bit of reduction in weight. It would have been less infuriating (although still nonsensical) had they claimed that this bit of weight of reduction "reduces fatigue", but they did not and instead spewed a ton of garbage about centres of gravity to appear super smart and scientific and stuff.

The pinion with its primary bearing. A well made and finished piece of quality brass alloy, machined accurately into a strong part without being too heavy.

Wearing nicely at a very acceptable rate. Couldn't ask for more at this price. 

The drive gear is quite interesting. It's Shimano's best effort to supply a budget reel with a quality gear, without spending too much on making that gear. What we get is the marriage of different worlds. From the premium world a cold forged aluminium alloy gear plate (green arrow), and from the budget territories a low-cost cast zinc gear base (red arrow) as opposed to the machined stainless steel bases found in reels up the ladder. The cold forged plate has black Almite surface treatment, which is done to a lower standard and less hardness than in mid range reels, yet still remains a highly useful and practical addition. The assembly of the gear plate to the base is also done in a budget fashion. In the picture above you see 4 posts (blue arrow) protruding from the forged gear plate, and interlocking into 4 holes in the cast zinc base to prevent separation under load. This is cheaper to manufacture than the high pressure press-fitting or the press-fitting plus screws found in more expensive reels.

The oscillation teeth are integral to the cast zinc gear shaft.

The cold forged teeth are sturdily shaped, and come with all the desirable characteristics of this tested and proven forming method which is used in reels all the way up to the pricy Stellas.

My reel has been well fished and tested, so it's not a surprise that the coating is starting to show signs of wear. Sure would've loved it to have the harder coating of the current generation Spheros SW/Saragosa SW, but for the price I can't complain. The coating of my Sahara's gear is wearing at a satisfactory rate, and when it eventually wears off completely it's not the end of the journey because beneath the coating there is cold forged aluminium alloy ready to keep working hard. I'm quite happy with the toughness of this gear, and I haven't seen a better one in any spinner in this price range. Considering the amount of use I put on it, a standard cast zinc gear (usually found in reels of this price and even a bit higher) would by now be suffering visible volume loss and likely some warping.

This brings us to the "use" it was put through, which is the main reason it took me ages to post this review. You see, the reel feels solid in hand, and the list of specifications is quite impressive with forged stuff, proprietary things, oversized this and that, but ultimately all of it doesn't mean much and it would be reckless to draw even the smallest of conclusions based on it. The fish, and only the fish, can tell you the truth. For about 10 months I fished it every chance I got. It crossed the Atlantic 3 times catching Pike, Bream, Perch, and Chub on one side, and on the other side a load of fish from the Black Bass family which I did not care to distinguish because they look annoyingly similar and I neither kill nor eat them. Still, none of that was enough for me to form a proper opinion, because I believe that a reel needs to be systematically pushed to near its limits and methodically brought close the maximum figures advertised by the manufacturer before I can form a realistic opinion. I'm saying all of this so you'd understand and forgive the silly thing I had to do when none of the fish I had caught in lakes or rivers pushed the reel to where I wanted it to go...

I had to take it to saltwater! This is not an invitation or a recommendation to use the reel for salt fishing, instead it's something that needed to be done if I did not want to leave you waiting for 10 more months. I brought it along while testing a couple of saltwater shore reels that will be the subject of future reviews, and whenever I felt that fish of the right size were around I'd put down the salt gear and pick the Sahara FI and cast. A few times I accidentally hooked fish that I deemed too big to fight on a budget 5000 sized freshwater reel, and I would then put the rod aside and basically hand-line the fish without involving the reel. The picture above though is a good example of the right fish that tested the reel's abilities to my satisfaction. That cutie pie took the Sahara FI about 7 minutes to land, and while it was released in water without being weighed I estimate that it was about 4 kilos (~9 lbs), which I decided was borderline the maximum capability of this reel. If you will regularly land fish weighing over 4.5kg (10 lbs), look elsewhere.

The bail mechanism is simply perfect, and without a doubt the best there has ever been in any reel. The coil spring dives into a sleeve which pivots around a protruding post, allowing it to turn with the opening stroke like a watch's hand to apply consistent pressure throughout the full opening motion. How come it's the best there is? Because it's a Daiwa design that first appeared in their premium reels at the beginning of this decade, which Shimano apparently helped themselves to. These guys are like Apple and Samsung, except that they are not as litigious as the two phone makers and seemingly each lets it go when the other nicks a design of theirs.

Expectedly the line roller has no ball bearings. Instead it depends on an external polytetrafluoroethylene washer (red arrow), and an internal bushing made of the low friction and very durable polyphthalamide (blue arrow).

In a touch of top notch engineering, they made a step into the internal bushing (blue arrow) instead of using a plain flat one. The post it fits around is similarly stepped to house it (red arrow). This way any contaminants would find it extremely difficult to get past the step and reach the rest of the bushing to jam it, that's if these contaminants could get past the external washer to begin with. Simple, low cost, and deadly effective. I had zero issues with the line roller throughout the testing period.  

As impressive as this reel is, it remains a budget product that has budget features, the most obvious of which is the handle. The handle is attached to the gear via the awkward and cumbersome hexagonal shaft & screw system. This system is generally inferior to the screw-in handle, primarily because its stability depends on the screw being tightened, and with use the screw could become loose and require re-tightening. Also if the handle shaft is left inside the gear for prolonged periods without cleaning and lubing, it might become stuck due to contaminants, corrosion, or salt in case of saltwater reels. I'd gently check if the screw was securely tightened at the beginning of each day's fishing, and every 6 months or so I'd remove the handle and clean and lube both the hex shaft and the hollow gear shaft it fits into.

The plastic hood of the handle (yellow arrow) surrounds a metal sleeve (blue arrow), both are held together with a retaining ring (red arrow). Another low cost setup that works well for this reel.

The other end of the metal sleeve has pyramid shaped extensions (red arrow), which fit into the slot of the stem when the stem is upright. The blue arrows point to some small finish damage that came with use, but I can't complain since that's an issue that I've found and highlighted in much more expensive Shimanos including the 2013 Stella SW. Shimano's handles of all classes could use some improvement.

Thankfully they did not permanently bolt the grip, which is a common practice in budget reels. The grip of the Sahara FI is handsomely assembled with screws and can be taken apart for cleaning or swapping with a different style grip.

A synthetic bushing inside the grip for smooth operation (red arrow), and they did not forget to put a drop of Loctite on the grip's screw for extra security (blue arrow).

In summary, the Sahara FI is a light weight, dependable, and a very pleasant reel to use. It's built intelligently to provide a taste of the durability and reliability found in more expensive reels, but in a budget package. Things like longevity and reliability usually take a back seat in your head as you fish, but in the forefront of your mind you'll be enjoying its smoothness and great casting as you throw and retrieve lures. Once a fish strikes your thoughts will immediately shift to appreciating the consistent drag and the fact that under stress the body flexes less than you'd expect from a plastic reel. Other than that marketing dung about the reel being blessed because they moved its centre of gravity to the Vatican, I love pretty much everything about the Sahara, and you will most likely feel the same as long as you keep things in perspective and remember that it's a budget reel.

Now that you've persevered through another one of my awfully long brain farts, I'm going to double your reward and turn this into a double review. Do you recall the 5 red font pointers I dropped in this review? Imagine a simple seal added at each of these points, and now you've got yourself a full review of the Shimano Nasci FB as well. Yes, the Nasci is the exact same reel made of the exact same parts as the Sahara FI, only with the following 5 seals added at the marked locations; a drag knob seal, a seal on top of the rotor nut for the main shaft, a seal around the pinion on top of the black assembly cap, an O ring seal beneath the edge of that cap, and a seal beneath each of the drive gear's bearings where the handle enters the body. The Nasci FB is $20 more than the Sahara FI, which is not an obscene amount to pay if you prefer to have these seals and venture into light marine applications. I tested the Nasci almost two years ago and liked it, and thinking back these seals did not affect free-spinning much because they are not tight. When I had the Nasci I did not find myself in a situation where I needed protection from heavy splashes, but if your fishing environment will subject you to this then the extra $20 is not a bad investment.

In conclusion, the Sahara FI and the Nasci FB are yet more pages in a new chapter that tackle makers had no choice but to start a few years ago, under pressure from the well informed fishermen who demanded more quality for their money and rewarded that quality with orders. I spoke about how it all came to be at the beginning of the Makaira review. Thanks to that movement we now get more quality for our cash than at any time before, and this extends even beyond the budget slice into mid-range and even a bit further as you'll see in future articles. You need to always keep in mind though that while these budget offerings do provide better performance, reliability, and longevity than previous reels costing as much, they still have their limitations. You can't expect a Sahara to perform like an Exist, nor think that a 2016 BG can do a Stella SW's job.
The review is over. Here is what's happening next. I'll continue to scan the market and queue the interesting stuff for reviews. I will be releasing one or two minor Blog articles in the not so distant future, but overall new material will come at a slower rate than usual for a while. Partially because there is nothing of crushing importance out there at the moment, but mainly because I'm back to helping with the design/debugging of a couple of reels that are still under development. I used to do this years ago then stopped because it was time consuming and there was too much drama involved in the inner workings of some companies, but recently someone made the convincing argument that if I really care about fishermen it's better to help making a good product from the beginning than to wait for its release then point out issues and beg for fixes. I'm giving it another go and will see how it goes.

Keep checking the News page for updates about everything, and keep the feedback/questions/abuse coming. Off to try and finish my bloody Panini world cup album before the tournament begins, and you resume your quest to shower continuously because having been shore-bound lately I discovered that you smell even worse than I remembered!!


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Alan Hawk
May, 4th, 2018

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