Fly Fishing Reels


Fly fishing reels are obviously essential to fly fishing.  However just by looking at them you’d be hard-pressed to describe just what they do except hold the fly line.  Sure, there are many manufacturers all touting to have the best.  And, you can spend as little as $20 on a fly reel, all the way up to several hundreds of dollars – like $900.  Gulp!

So, what gives? The fly reel is more than a vessel to hold your fly line. They can be the difference between a great fly fishing experience and a not-so-pleasant time, or landing the fish versus the fish being “the one that got away.” In addition to performance, they can be virtual works of art. We’ll look at several factors specific to the fly fishing reel in hopes of shedding some light on this often misunderstood essential.

Fly Reel Balance

Fly fishing can be a zen-like experience – o.k. maybe that’s a stretch – but all elements of the rod and reel should balance, so you don’t want a reel that is too big or too small for the rod. In short, you’re going to put a 5-weight reel on a 5-weight rod (regardless of rod length). You would not put a 5-weight reel on a 9-weight rod nor on a 3-weight rod.

Believe it or not, if you hold out your rod and reel (with line) and place your finger about two-thirds up the cork handle, the rod/reel should balance… no kidding. Now, is that a must? No, but it certainly helps with casting and fatigue.

Fly Reel Line Weight

This is a fairly simple element to a fly reel. Fly reels are made to handle specific fly line weights. A 5-weight fly reel is made for a 5-weight line – to be fair, a reel is usually good for a line weight plus/minus one number from the stated weight. And it really doesn’t matter what type of fly line (weight forward, shooting, tapered, sinking, etc.) as long as the weight is a match.

Hatch large arbor reels in various weights

Arbor Size of a Fly Reel

No doubt if you’ve been looking for a fly fishing reel you’ve heard about various size Arbors. The “Arbor” is the center of the spool where the backing is tied, and it also describes dimensions of the radius of the part of the reel that holds your fly line. Arbor sizes come in roughly three sizes; small/standard, mid-size, and large.

Yes boys and girls, size really does matter (with your arbor).  So, why does the arbor size matter? Well, that depends on the type of fish you’re after, the size and weight of the fly rod you’re using, and the type of fly line you’re fishing with, and where you’ll be fishing.

Small/standard arbor reels are the “originals,” the traditional size fly reels that, depending on the weight of the reel, can hold between 60 and 100 yards of backing in addition to your fly line. If you’re fishing for smaller fish and are using a lighter weight fly rod, a small-arbor reel is likely a perfect fit. The one downside might be that with a smaller arbor, your fly line “memory” will be tighter and tend to strip in tighter loops which may cause more tangles if your drag is too light or you try to reel in the fly line really fast. (hint: not a major problem because when you’re ready to fish, just strip a bunch of line and “straighten” it by rubbing your fingers across it from the reel through the end of the tippet. This will help reduce/eliminate the memory to reduce tangles).

Mid-size arbor fly reels are the compromise between standard-size arbor fly reels and large arbor fly reels, and seek to offer some of the benefits of a larger arbor without adding the size and weight. Mid-size arbor reels are some of the most popular today simply for these reasons. If you’re fishing with a 5 weight to a 7-weight rod/line and for larger trout or bass these size reels are calling your name.

Large arbor reels have become popular, and are relatively new in the world of fly fishing.  The large arbor reels are made for heavier weight rods and lines (7W – 12W) and are used for larger freshwater fish, like salmon and steelhead, and also can be great if you’re cast large streamers, as well as for saltwater fishing.

Fly Reel Actual Weight

The actual weight of the reel itself can make a difference because obviously a lighter reel (quality assumed) won’t add weight to your overall set up and can reduce casting fatigue throughout the day.

The actual weight of a reel is measured in ounces. Even large arbor reels are lightweight compared to their size. How much does the actual weight matter? Well, that is really a personal preference; if your casting mechanics are solid and you’re stronger yourself, then an added ounce won’t matter much. Even the less expensive reels are not “heavy” so choose one that suits your needs.

Fly Reel Manufacturing Materials

Nowadays fly reels are machined from several types of materials including graphite, aluminum and titanium. Most are made from aluminum, with the internal components being made from plastic, teflon, cork, stainless steel, or titanium. Does it matter what your fly reel is made from? Well, like most things in fly fishing, that depends. How much/often are you going to fish? Are you going to take care of your equipment? How much do you want to spend on your reel?

For the most part, with a fly reel and the materials they’re made of, you get what you pay for. More expensive fly reels are going to be machined aluminum or titanium, and they’re going to perform like a Ferrari. Less expensive fly reels are going to be stamped aluminum, or steel, and are going to perform like a Chevy (not that there’s anything wrong with a Chevy!). They both will do what you need them to do, just some will do the job better than others.

Reel Drag Systems

The drag system on your fly reel is really one of, if not the most important element to the reel. Why? Because if it fails then your leader/tippet will freeze and snap, or the opposite, your line will run too easily leaving you with a tangled mess – either way, goodbye fish. There are basically two types of drag systems;

  • Click & Pawl – this traditional drag system uses a spring-loaded metal clip or pin that is pressed against a toothed gear. When the drag is engaged, it produces a clicking sound. This system is basic and easy to repair, however it is limited in the range of drag you can employ… and if you don’t like a clicking noise it can be annoying.
  • Disc drag – this popular system (sometimes referred to as the gear-wheel system) uses two toothed gears with a small disc “brake” pad to apply pressure to the gear as the drag is engaged. One advantage of this system is that the amount of drag you can set is much broader as you simply “dial-in” the resistance.

One consideration regarding the drag, is the ease to adjust it and does the adjustment hold. If the drag adjustment is sloppy, the your spool can easily back-spin causing a rat’s nest of line in the spool. That can be a nightmare to deal with on the river.

Which is best? Well, neither is “best.” This one is more personal preference and largely dictated by the type of fish you’ll be chasing and the price tag of the reel.

Additional Fly Reel Spools

How many fly rods can you fish with at one time? One. Sure, you could carry more with you but then is that realistic when you’re wading a river – if you’re in a drift boat, that’s a different story.  So, what do you do if you’re wading a river with a shooting dry line, and you come across a hole that you want to try dragging a heavy streamer through, and you need to get the line down deep and quick? You have an additional reel spool (or two) outfitted with different line types that allow you to switch your fly line without completely changing your fly reel or fly rod!

One key is to find a reel where it is easy to change the spool. Some less expensive reels require a bit more work to unscrew a nob to get the spool off, while others simple have a quick release lever to push to release the spool. You can find inexpensive reels with quick release spools, and when you’re fishing you want the exchange to be fast before the fish are gone or have stopped feeding.

Price & Quality of Fly Reels

There is no doubt that the more you spend on a fly reel, the higher the quality of materials, craftsmanship, and production. Will it perform better? Yes. The real question is, what do you need? Do you need a $900 fly reel to catch fish? No. On the other hand, if you’re an avid fly fisherman/woman and spend a considerable amount of time in the water, or you are a Guide, earning a living from your equipment, then a $50 fly reel may not be best for you.

It is safe to say, that a novice fly fisherman/woman can buy a decent fly reel for $50 that will last them several years and do the job they need it to do.

While not all fly reel manufacturers sell additional reel spools, there are many that do, and this feature can be invaluable if you fish waters with a variety of conditions and opportunities. Changing a spool can be as fast and as easy as tying on a new fly. The price of additional spools usually runs about half what the full reel costs.

Visual Style and Appeal

In the recent past, manufacturers of fly reels have come out with some really neat designs and colors. Truthfully, some are works of art (in my opinion). They come in black, silver, gold, bronze, red, blue, and even trout patterns. Very slick. While the look of a fly reel may not improve its performance there are those who desire and appreciate a really nice looking fly reel. Here at The Wicked Fly, we will do our best to feature as many as we can for your viewing enjoyment.

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