Learn How to Select The Right Fly Reel

  • Learn How to Select The Right Fly Reel


         When purchasing a fly reel to mate with your fly rod, it is important to be aware that, just like fly rods, some fly reels are specifically designed for freshwater use and some are specifically designed for saltwater use. In addition, fly reels are available in different diameters ranging from miniscule to huge and thus, they have different line/backing capacities. Furthermore, fly reels are also available with one of three different sizes of arbor (the drum in the center of the spool) which determines the rate at which they retrieve the fly line and, they are also available with one of three different drags systems. Last, to make matters even more complicated, they are also made from one of four different materials. Consequently, when purchasing a fly reel, it is important to choose the appropriate reel for your intended purpose because a fly reel that is too large is both ungainly and unsightly and one that is too small may not provide sufficient capacity or sufficient drag to handle the fish species that you intend to pursue.

         So, the first step to choosing an appropriate fly reel is to determine whether you intend to use it while fishing freshwater or saltwater. The reason for this is that fly reels that are specifically designed for freshwater use are generally designed to hold fly line weights one through six along with a given length of thin, braided, Dacron line called “backing” with a breaking strength of either 12 lbs. or 20 lbs (which is sufficient for most fresh water species). On the other hand, fly reels designed specifically for saltwater use are generally designed to hold fly line weights six though fourteen along with a greater length of Dacron backing with a breaking strength of either 20 lbs. or 30 lbs. and thus, saltwater fly reels are generally much larger in diameter than fresh water fly reels due to the larger diameter fly lines as well as the need for increased backing capacity. Of course, the reason that this is important is because the larger the fish is, the harder it's able to fight and, the more room it has to run in, the more backing capacity your reel needs so that you will have the leeway needed to allow the fish to tire itself out before landing it.

         Also, the same is true when choosing an arbor size. As mentioned previously, the arbor of a fly reel is the hollow drum in the center of the spool around which the fly line and backing are wrapped. Therefore, the smaller the arbor is, the shorter the length of fly line it will retrieve per complete revolution and larger the arbor is, the longer the length of fly line it will retrieve per revolution. Therefore, when fly fishing for small fish species such as Trout, a fly reel with a standard size arbor is usually the reel of choice for most anglers because such small fish normally live in small steams with limited room to run and thus, they will rarely strip enough line from the reel to expose the backing; much less actually strip any of the backing from the reel. But, larger, more powerful, fish species such as Salmon or Steelhead found in larger streams and rivers are not only much stronger than their smaller cousins, they also have considerably more room to run in and thus, most anglers prefer fly reels with either mid or large arbors because larger fish tend to strip far more line from the reel when they run.

         This, in turn, leads us to the three different types of drag systems employed on fly reels. For instance, the Spring & Pawl drag system consists of either one or two metal springs which place pressure on a flat, triangle shaped, piece of metal called a "pawl" who's pointed end then engages the teeth of a small gear attached to the arbor of the fly reel's spool such that as the spool rotates, the gear attached to the arbor encounters resistance due the pressure on the pawl provided by the spring. In addition, some fly reels with this type of drag system have a fixed amount of pressure called a "fixed drag" system whereas, others have a variable pressure setting called an "adjustable drag" system. However, this type of drag system is not able to provide the resistance needed to fight and land large fish and thus, fly reels are also available with drag systems that employ a series of discs made from different materials which are then sandwiched together in a stack with a **** located on the outside of the reel that enables the angler to vary the pressure on the discs and thus, change the amount of resistance the drag provides. But, while Spring & Pawl drags almost never wear out, the discs contained in a disc drag system are highly subject to wear and thus, they must be replaced periodically. Therefore, some fly reel manufacturers employ a third type of drag system called a "turbine" which consists of an impeller blade immersed in a reservoir of oil such that the faster the fish strips line from the reel, the faster the impeller blade is forced to turn and thus, it encounters increased resistance from the oil. Therefore, this type of drag system presents an excellent compromise between a Spring & Pawl Drag and a Disc Drag system.

         Last, you should also be aware that fly reels are usually made from one of four different materials. For instance, many vintage fly reels are made from steel but, while these reels are undoubtedly tough, they are also very heavy. Consequently, most modern fly reels are made from either cast or machined aluminum since aluminum is a much lighter weight metal than steel and is plenty strong for the intended purpose. However, it should also be noted that cast aluminum fly reels are generally much less expensive than those made from machined aluminum due to the relative ease of manufacturer but, they also lack the crisp lines and intricate designs found on machined aluminum fly reels and thus, many fly fishermen find them to be less aesthetically pleasing than those made from machined aluminum. On the other hand, fly reels made from machined aluminum often represent the pinnacle of fly reel design since they are machined from a single block of aircraft grade aluminum and often feature intricate designs that require several hours of carving by CNC milling machines to produce. Plus, they often feature expensive, brightly colored, anodized exteriors or even custom prints. Last, there is the opposite end of the scale in the form of composite fly reels. This type of fly reel is made from molded composite materials such as fiber reinforced plastics and, although they are every bit as tough as fly reels made from steel, they are much lighter. However, they invariably lack the crisp lines of a machined aluminum fly reel and they also tend to feature a dull, matte, finish that many fly fishermen find particularly unappealing. On the other hand, they are also the relatively inexpensive and thus, they make excellent starter reels for youth or those who want to enter the sport on a tight budget.

         Thus, choosing the appropriate fly reel from amongst the many different types and brands available on the market today is really a matter of personal preference and the particular purpose for which you intend to use it. Consequently, if you intend to fish for small fish species, a fly reel with standard size arbor and a Spring & Pawl drag system is often sufficient but, if you intend to fish for larger freshwater to saltwater species, then you will need a mid or large arbor fly reel with an adjustable disc drag. Then, once you have determined what size fly reel you require, you will need to determine whether a composite reel will meet your needs or whether you are willing to spend the extra money to purchase either a cast aluminum or a machined aluminum reel.


    Written by,


    Bill Bernhardt

    Professional Fly Fishing Guide & Instructor