How to Choose a Fly Fishing Reel

How to Choose a Fly Fishing Reel

In the first two installments of Fly Fishing 101, I covered the importance of developing a relationship with your fly shop and choosing your first fly rod. In this segment, we’re going to cover some things you should know about purchasing a fly reel.

I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of skipping right past fly reels when teaching fly fishing workshops. I usually mutter something about over-priced line holders before jumping straight into fly lines, but the truth is that there is more to a reel than its role as fly line caddy.

A Good Fit

In last week’s article, I explained that the rod you choose should be suited to the fishery you’re likely to spend the most time enjoying. The same goes for the reel you attach to that rod. Reels are sized to correspond with rods (and fly lines, more on that in the next article) and usually designed to match two consecutive rod weights, such as 3-4 or 5-6. They vary in physical weight and diameter—a trout reel, for example, being smaller than one made for tarpon. Optimally, you want a reel that matches the rod you just bought but can also handle a rod size larger or smaller, in case you decide to expand your quiver.

Even within size class, reel weights can vary. Most are made of aluminum or plastic, and while plastic is lighter, it’s also less durable. Lightweight reels are great for reducing arm fatigue, but a heavier reel is advantageous for counterbalancing a heavy rod. You probably don’t need to overthink this for your first reel, though.

Once you have the size figured out, your other major consideration should be the reel’s drag—the means for applying tension to the spool as a fish takes out line. Many novice-friendly fish species like panfish and small trout don’t require serious stopping power or a drag at all. Larger fish and almost anything in saltwater, however, will need some sort of brake.

The OGs

The original fly reels were designed simply, without an adjustable drag. Known as click-and-pawl reels, a spring-loaded metal pawl arm locks into a toothed gear on the inside of the spool like a ratchet. This pairing makes a distinctive clicking sound when rotated. Because they have no drag system, click-and-pawl reels rely solely on the angler applying pressure to the spool with the palm of her hand to slow a running fish.

While there are some old-school Atlantic salmon anglers who swear the sound of the clicker was designed to let fishermen know how fast their fish is running, many modern-day anglers simply use the noise as an announcement to others that they have a fish on. Sound aside, click-and-pawl reels work fine for freshwater anglers who don’t need a burly drag and want to feel more connected to a fish on the line. Some of the early click-and-pawls are now expensive collectibles, but most of the ones on the market today are reasonably priced—often the most affordable option.

Dressed in Drag

Fly reels have evolved into ironman beasts—some with drags strong enough to literally stop vehicles (or so the marketers would have you believe). Built-in drag systems can be made from Teflon, cork, carbon or metal, and are often sealed to keep lubrication in and water out. This is especially important when fishing in saltwater, where plastic and other components can deteriorate when exposed to salt. Rinse any reel after fishing in the ocean or brackish water.

How much drag you need usually depends on the type of fish you’re chasing. A 50-pound giant trevally demands a much more sophisticated drag system than a 15-inch trout. Not all large fish, however, require a drag capable of stopping a freight train. Talk to your local fly shop and research your preferred quarry before dropping $500 on a line holder.

The Retrieve

Most anglers hold the rod with their dominant hand and reel with their off hand. So, if you’re right-handed, your reel should hang below the rod with the handle on the left side, the line coming off the bottom of the spool, and the drag engaging when the spool turns clockwise—vice versa for lefties. Most modern reels can be converted to either left or right-hand retrieves.

Another consideration is spool revolution. The vast majority of fly reels have a 1:1 ratio of line pick up. This means that every turn of the reel handle winds one wrap of line onto the spool, unlike the gearing provided by conventional spinning and levelwind reels.

To increase the rate of pickup, some anglers prefer reels with “large arbor” spools. A wider, larger-diameter arbor increases the amount of line you can recover with each rotation of the reel.

Lastly, fly reels aren’t built with worm gears like levelwinds or spindles like spinning reels. The line needs to be manually manipulated to distribute the line evenly on the spool when retrieved. Failure to do so while fighting a fish can cause a pile of line to hug one side of the spool cage, eventually building up until the reel jams and you can’t wind in the fish any further. It’s an embarrassment no angler wants to face, so it’s a good idea to become accustomed to proper line recovery before heading out on the water.

Bottom Line

How much money you choose to spend on a fly reel is entirely up to you. There are functional trout reels available for as low as $20, but you will likely find yourself limited to specific waterways and fish. It’s important to mention that some cheap reels may be prone to seizing in certain temperatures or scenarios. Personally, I’m a fan of affordable click-and-pawl reels for small salmon, trout and steelhead, though they’re not free from unforeseen dramas either. I once lost an enormous steelhead when the spring disengaged from my reel—which was literally smoking.

For your first purchase, consider reels that come with spare spools. This economical option means that lines of various weights, tapers and sink rates can be pre-wound and easily interchanged for use on other fly rods or fishing situations.

My advice to new anglers is to find a reel that suits their budget and to become acquainted with it before hitting the water. Just remember to keep your knuckles out of the way, to utilize your pinky finger for level line retrieval, and know what drag setting works well for stripping off line and setting the hook. Mostly though, just get out there and have fun with it. Line-holder or ironman, your fly reel is about to become the protector of the most important part of your fly fishing rig: the fly line, which we’ll be discussing in the next installment of Fly Fishing 101.

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