Considerations for Choosing a Flyreel

Posted on June 21, 1998 at 15:06:41:

Considerations for Choosing a Fly Reel by Gary D. Scavette

The definition of a fly reel has changed a great deal in the last couple of decades. Once thought of as simply ” a place to hold your line” the fly reel has evolved into a highly specialized piece of gear. With phrases such as “startup inertia”, “large arbor”, and “heat dissipative disc drag”, the beginner can often be led to believe that they need to be an expert in Newtonian physics to make an informed purchase. I’ll try to simplify things a bit.

Click drag and disc drag reels

The simplest of fly reels are those with a click drag. This is simply a spring loaded foot that presses against a gear in the reel spool. This provides resistance as well as that wonderful music we love to hear as a fish screams off with our feathered offering. The clicker is not really considered to be a true drag but just a means of providing resistance, so that the angler does not cause the reel to over-run when stripping line. One should look for an exposed rim on this type of reel since it does not have a true drag. The exposed rim allows the angler to apply pressure with the thumb or palm providing drag for fighting large fish. This type of reel is by far the most common for trout fishing.

Disc drag reels are becoming very popular in all sizes today. Larger reels are used for large long running fish from stripers on up to billfish. Many of today’s smaller trout sized reels are equipped with disc drags to allow a smooth, controlled, even resistance to hard running fish. This can be an advantage in protecting a light tippet from the uneven resistance so often encountered with palming the spool. The drag is created from friction between a disc(made of various materials) and the reel’s metal housing. The larger the disc’s surface area the greater the heat dissipation and more consistent the resistive force.

Reel Size

Some of the older fly fishing literature would often suggest matching the weight of a fly reel to that of the rod so that the balance point is just forward of the rod grip’s center. Reels were often heavy to match the heavy rods that they were attached to. In some cases weight was added to the reel so that this balance point could be attained. Today’s fly rods are extremely light compared to 20 years ago. Fly reels are also manufactured to be much lighter. If you purchase a reel today designed for a 5,6, or 7 fly line then it will usually balance reasonably well on any of these rods.

Once you find the reel that balances appropriately on your rod you need to consider the size or capacity of the reel. Large circumference fly reels have distinct advantages over reels of smaller circumference. I will summarize these for you:


1) Greater backing capacity
2) Greater retrieve speed: More line is spooled with each revolution of the reel handle.
3) Less line memory effect: Line coils are not as small and tight as is common with small circumference reels.
4) Lower startup inertia: It is easier to strip line from a large circumference than a small one.This can assist in protecting very light tippets.
5) More consistent drag force: For those of you who have ever stripped an entire fly line and backing off a small circumference reel you know that the drag
becomes significantly greater as you get close to the reel’s rotational axis.

To have the advantages of large reel circumference some manufacturers are producing “large arbor” fly reels. These reels have an arbor(the part of the reel where backing is attached) that is larger than standard. In order for a large arbor reel to be advantageous the large arbor must be accompanied by a larger overall reel circumference and / or a wider reel spool. Large arbor fly reels are popular for those who fish the salt as well as larger freshwater species. The popularity of large arbor reels is also starting to spread to the trout angler. I suspect that we will see these reels continue to grow in popularity throughout the next few years. (Note the photo: The reel on the left is a true large arbor reel. The reel on the right is a traditional reel. Both reels will balance equally on a 9ft.- 5wt. fly rod but the large arbor reel will have all of the advantages mentioned previously)

In summary, it is a good idea to consider the largest circumference fly reel that will balance appropriately with your fly rod. The simple click drag is a reliable and often inexpensive way to go. When equipped with an exposed rim it can be used under a wide range of conditions. The disc drag is a luxury on the trout sized reel but a wise choice if pursuing big game on the fly. When choosing a disc drag reel look for a large disc surface area. Keep these few things in mind and don’t let the market confuse you. Take good care of your reel and it will provide several generations of sweet music.


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