The fly reel is an integral part of the fly fishing setup, as it works together with the rod and fly line for balance and control.
There are many different fly reel companies out there with most offering quality fly reels. A ‘quality’ reel will cost anywhere from $100 to over $1000, so let’s review the basics of a fly reel and why some cost more than others. There are also less expensive reels (<$100) that could be a good option for beginners but please remember, you get what you pay for.
The majority of quality reels are made from high purity aircraft grade aluminum and machined to very tight specifications. The reels are anodized, to prevent oxidation (rust), and then painted/coated for protection and appearance.
Most fly reels allow you the ability to ‘palm’ the spool and this is a feature I highly recommend. I always like to have my drag set slightly less than I need and then control the drag, semi-manually, by palming the spool, when and if required.
Most reels allow for quick spool changes and you should have, at least, one spare spool. Having multiple spools will allow you to have various line types (dry, wet, sink-tip, etc.) at the ready. I usually have three spare spools for each of my reels; my main spool is wound with dry line, first spare spool with a clear, intermediate sink, second with a sink-tip, and the third with a type 6 wet line. This allows me to handle most general fishing situations.
The three basic reel components we will look at are: Fly Reel Size, The Spool, and The Drag System.
Fly Reel Size
The size of the reel you buy depends on the type of fishing you will be doing. Reels come in all different sizes and, as a general rule, ‘The smaller the reel, the smaller the fish, the lighter the rod’. Smaller reels can only hold a small amount of backing (20 yds), while larger reels can hold vast amounts of backing (over 300 yds). If you plan on fishing for smaller fish (up to 2lbs), in creeks, lakes or rivers then you don’t need much backing but if plan to fish for Salmon, Steelhead, Bonefish, etc. then you will need plenty of backing (250+ yards). For normal trout streams and lakes you will need a fly reel capable of holding, as a minimum, 30 yards of 20 lb. backing.
As a general rule, smaller fly reels are made to balance nicely with lighter rods (1 to 4 wts), medium sized reels with medium weight rods (5 to 8 wts) and large reels with heavy rods (9 to 12 wts).
There are two main types of spools; large arbor and standard. The large arbor spools allow you to reel in the backing and/or line faster, due to its larger diameter but can’t take as much backing. Standard spools allow for more backing but are slower in the take-up of backing and line. I prefer large arbor spools but use both types.
As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to have three spare spools per reel. It is much less expensive to have multiple spools then multiple reels. Spare spools are generally half the price of another full reel, so it makes sense to purchase spare spools.
Make sure the fly reel allows you to swap out spools somewhat easily. Some reels have a small release you press and the spool pops off. Others are more complex with small screws and pins. It really doesn’t matter which you buy as long as the reel allows for spool changeover.
The Drag System
All fly reels have some type of drag system that enables you to set the tension at which your line leaves the spool. Some fly reels have a cork disc drag that allows you the ability to stop a freight train and are generally on larger reels. Many of the higher priced reels have cork drag systems, since they are technically robust systems. Other reels have a pressure disc system that allows you to control the tension applied to the disc but to a lesser degree. Some reels have ‘clicker’ systems that don’t give much tension control and are usually on smaller reels.
All reels have bearings of some sort and you will normally get better bearings (steel, ceramic, etc.) with the higher end reels.
Drags are not too important when I’m fishing for smaller fish because I control my drag by palming the spool but CRITICAL when I’m chasing larger fish like Steelhead, Salmon, and Tarpon. JUST remember, if the drag is not set properly, especially when fishing for larger fish, it could cause your line to ball up on the spool and cause you a lot of grief (broken leaders, lines, or rods)!
I hope this information assists you in selecting an adequate reel. Next week, the final part of ‘Getting Started in Fly Fishing’ will focus on fly lines.