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How Fly Reels Work, and How to Pair Them with the Right Rod

by Bryan Wood

What Makes a Fly Reel, a Fly Reel?

Fly fishing reels differ from a conventional spinning or baitcasting reel in a few ways. One of the most noticeable ways is the 1:1 retrieve of a fly reel. Fly fishing reels are much simpler in design than a conventional reel with fewer parts.

Fly reels are typically made of aluminum and can either be cast or machined. Cast reels are made from molten aluminum poured into a form and cooled, while machined reels begin as a block of solid aluminum and the reel or spool is cut out of the block. A cast reel is typically heavier and not as durable as a machined reel. Cast reels are more likely to break when dropped as opposed to a machined reel that may only bend or dent. 

There are 2 main types of drag systems one may see on a fly reel:

  1. The click and pawl system
  2. The disc drag

A click and pawl reel is extremely simple. A spring engages the teeth of the gear to create a drag system. There is not usually any adjustability with these reels and any “extra” drag an angler wants must be applied by palming the reel. A click and pawl reel is typically lighter than a disc drag reel of the same size, making this a perfect reel for a 2-4 weight dry fly rod or a spring creek rod. Some popular styles are the Ross Colorado or the Orvis Battenkill.

The second family of fly reels have a disc drag. These reels are more complicated as the drag is created by layers of either carbon or cork rings rubbing against each other. Disc drag reels often have an adjustable drag system which can be fine tuned during a fight. A disc drag reel is often the preferred reel for larger fish and for saltwater fishing.

Disc drag reels may or may not be sealed. Some older styles of reels such as the Abel Super Series rely on a cork drag system that is not sealed. These cork drag reels require a little more maintenance and care, but are still extremely reliable and have landed strong saltwater fish all over the world for decades. One thing to note is the drag pressure will change if the reel is submerged in water due to the cork swelling and may require adjustment after the reel becomes wet.

A sealed drag system is sealed from the elements and therefore waterproof. This creates a very robust and dependable reel that requires the least amount of maintenance after fishing. A sealed drag system will keep water, sand, and salt out of the guts of the reel, leading to a workhorse system that many people rely on for big game and saltwater reels. Hatch and Lamson reels are great examples of tried and true sealed drag systems. This system allows for a “set and forget” drag that doesn't care if it’s wet or dry. 

How to Pair Your Fly Reel with the Right Rod

Most manufacturers have a simple system to match a reel to a specific line weight, and in general you want to match the rod weight to the reel's recommended line weight. A reel that is undersized will not hold enough backing, and a reel that is too large may not balance a shorter or lighter weight rod.

Tightline nymphing may require a slightly heavier reel to balance out the longer rods typically used, this is one instance where a lighter reel can work against an angler. For rods 10’ 6” and longer, I recommend a reel that is 4.5 - 5 oz. This extra weight will allow the rod to feel more balanced, and more comfortable to fish for a full day.

In the last few years we’ve seen specialty reels such as the Sage ESN or Redington Tilt enter the market designed for longer rods and tightline nymphing. These reels often have adjustable weights in order to fine tune a set up. Even after the introduction of these reels, it's still very common to see anglers fish a 4-6 weight reel on a 2 or 3 weight fly rod. The larger arbor allows for fast retrieval of any line stripped off the reel.

What About Two-Handed Rods?

Trout spey and 2 handed setups have become more popular in the last few years. With that, we’re seeing more customers asking about how to pair reels with their longer and heavier fly rod. A good rule of thumb is to assume you need a reel sized 2 to 3 line weights above what your rod is rated for. For example, a 3 weight trout spey would pair well with a 5-6 reel. This allows for adequate backing as well as the shooting line and larger skagit or scandi heads used you wouldn't normally find on a line of that size.

One aspect of a spey reel that is sometimes overlooked is a full cage reel. This design eliminates the thin shooting line getting stuck between the frame and spool. This design used to only be available on larger spey reels, but with the popularity of trout spey we’ve seen smaller reels such as the Sage Trout Spey or the Bauer MS (Micro Spey) designed for these applications.

Time to Reel 'Em In!

Most fly shops will have a variety of fly reels available, and these will be organized based on their composition and the different types of drag systems they have. The beauty of coming into the shop is that you can get a feel for the reel you are considering, and how it will pair with your rod.

If you happen to stop by, just let us know what your current setup looks like, and what you are looking to do. A TCO Fly Shop team member will be happy to explain all the options we have available and show you what might work best for your use case.