Call me old school, but I have always been a fan of the old click drag fly reels. I simply love the sound they make, especially when you have a hot fish taking out line. Before the advent of high tech drag systems, salmon and steelhead anglers landed tons of hot fish using reels that had nothing more than a pawl clicking against a gear and a spring, combined with careful breaking from their hand to slow the fish down. I was proud that my skills were good enough to match wits with strong fish, and if I lost one occasionally I just considered it no big deal. It took my daughter Nicole to help me realize that this was a perhaps a bit of elitist snobbery, and that if I wanted to really promote the sport, I should encourage people to own a reel that did more than just hold the line!
You see, a year or two back, Nicole realized that she had outgrown the starter fly rod I had purchased for her when she was 10. She is now skilled at casting, so I helped her to pick out a faster action fly rod that would work better on the larger Montana rivers that she tends to fish. Almost as an afterthought, I recommended a lightweight click drag reel that I am partial to. For me, that reel is part of my go to 4 weight outfit for high lakes and small streams. For Nicole, who is spending a lot of time on rivers like the Bitteroot and the Bighole, there was an immediate issue.
Over the phone she described yet another case of losing a big fish when during a hot run the reel started overspinning, resulting in a backlash and a bird’s nest of line. I was perhaps a little patronizing as I counseled her that with practice her skills at palming the reel would improve and she wouldn’t loose fish like that. What I failed to pay attention to was a growing level of frustration she was having at losing fish that really mattered a lot to her. After doing all of the work of finding a big fish and making a great cast, the reel was causing failures that she really didn’t deserve, and might easily avoid.
It wasn’t until early this summer that reality came calling. I was fishing a tributary to the upper Clark’s Fork, and since it was a small stream I was using my favorite 4 weight outfit. Happily catching lots of small fish, I was suddenly surprised by a large rainbow that came up, did a few cartwheels, then raced off down the stream. Before I knew what happened, I was staring down at my hands, and the ball of line surrounding my reel. Not a chance! It occurred to me that while it was fine to handicap myself if I so choose, I shouldn’t impose the same challenge to someone who is still growing into the sport. Kind of like adding a 10 pound weight to someone learning to swim, and telling them that it will just serve to improve your technique!
Needless to say, Nicole now has a new reel with a disc drag, courtesy of her dad!
This also got me thinking about what you need to look for when purchasing a new reel. Just like with fly rods, there is a large spread in prices, and to some extent you get what you pay for. One time on a trip I needed to find a quick replacement for a reel, and picked up a cheap pflueger knock off from a department store. Turned out the thing was so loose internally that it would vibrate and seize up when line was pulled off quickly. Once again, if you stick with an actual fly shop, they will generally have some affordable reels that will avoid that particular problem.
As illustrated above, the drag is possibly the most important feature on your fly reel. Click drags provide resistance created by a spring loaded pawl that snaps against a gear as the spool rotates. While it provides some resistance, it is generally minimal, and not very adjustable. The better drags fall into the category of “disk drag”, which is similar in function to the disk breaks found on a car. They are highly adjustable, and can exert a great deal of force to slow down the reel. Disk drag reels became popular among salt water anglers many decades ago, due to the extreme speed and power of salt water fish. Disc drag made the reels heavy and expensive, but it was so effective that it quickly became the only drag produced for saltwater fly reels. (side note, I once, on a dare, landed a bonefish with a click drag reel. While I managed to get it in, it took forever, and my hand was cramped for the rest of the day! Never again…) Over time, improvements in technology produced disc drags that were lighter, and even less expensive. These days, I would hazard the guess that the majority of fresh water reels now feature a disc drag. There are still differences in design between manufacturers and price points. In general as the reel gets more expensive, it will be lighter, the drag will become smoother, (which is especially important when the fish first starts its run) and there will be less fade over the course of a long run. Most beginner outfits sold today will come with a disc drag of some kind, but it will be heavier and not as fine tuned as what you can get on more expensive reels. I also once had a reel that had a nice drag, but the adjustment knob had a bad habit of coming loose while I fished. This won’t happen on your better reels.
Other features to look for are how the reel handle feels, and how it is balanced on the spool. Balance is important when the reel is spinning quickly, as an unbalanced spool will start to vibrate at higher rotation speeds. I like reels that have large arbors. This means that the diameter of the inside of the spool is bigger, so that every time you turn the handle more line is taken in. If a fish takes you into your backing, you will really appreciate that feature. Also important is the material that the reel is made from. The less expensive reels might be made of a plastic composite or a cast aluminum. The more expensive reels will be made of lightweight alloys that have a higher strength. Another sign that the reel is high quality is that it is likely to be machined to high tolerances. This creates a very smooth feel, no wobbling, and the best overall performance. It seems that over time, all of my fly reels have had high impacts with the rocks along a river. While most fly shops won’t let you test a reel by bashing it with a rock, durability is something to take into consideration.
When it comes to the actual purchase, I would suggest let the investment you make in your fly rod by your guide. If you are starting out, the reel that comes with a beginner outfit will be just fine. As a beginner, while you may dream of getting into lots of hot fish, the reality is that most of the fish you land will be played with your hands. The reel will hold the line, balance the fly rod, and occasionally come into play landing a larger fish. If you find, like Nicole did, that you are starting to get into big fish on a more frequent basis, it may be time to upgrade. Typically, once you are at the stage where you are willing to spend more money on a higher end fly rod, I would suggest you will want a fly reel of equivalent value. No need to attach a heavy clunker of a reel to the very fine lightweight fly rod you just purchased. While a balanced outfit actually refers to having everything built for the same line weight, (and reels will be labeled to the sizes of line they are designed for) the balance between the reel and the fly rod is also important, and the lighter the fly rod, the lighter a reel that you can match with it. Reducing weight reduces fatigue, so it does make a difference.
Finally, there is that minor matter of the sound that it makes. Disc drag reels can be almost totally silent, or produce a light clicking sound. Some come with a clicker that can be turned on or off, as it plays no role in the function of the drag. It really comes down to personal preference as to what you like to hear when you are on the water. Of course, if you really like to hear your reel sing when a fish takes out line, there are still reels that come with a traditional click drag…
By Scot Bealer
Scot first started guiding in the 1980’s, and has fished extensively through the rocky mountain west and many other parts of the world. When not on the water, he is typically out working with his wife, Lea Frye, doing wildlife photography. See their work at https://www.leaf-images.com, or follow them on Instagram @lea.f_images