Fly Reels

Now that you have had a primer on fly rods, it’s time to discuss fly reels. Reels perform two primary functions. First and foremost they are the receptacles of the fly line and when attached to your fly rod, provide a balance of weight to allow proper casting.
A secondary function fly reels serve is as a brake to the fly line as it leaves the reel when stripping line or fighting a heavy fish. For example, if you are fishing for a big game fish such as a tarpon, salmon, steelhead or a bonefish; a good brake, or drag system as it is called, is essential.  With the drag set properly just below the breaking point of the leader, the line will go out when the fish runs while at the same time keeping resistance on the fish to tire it down.

Types of reels
There are three types of reels: the single action, the multiplier and the automatic. The single action reel is designed as a one for one operation; one turn of the spool winds one spool length of line. This is the most common reel used for fly fishing today. The multiplier reel is just what its name implies. The line will spool at 1`and ½ to 3 times for each turn of the handle. This type of real reel comes in handy when fishing big waters where it’s necessary to make long casts and have long drifts. The obvious advantage in those circumstances is the ability to retrieve the line faster for the next cast. Here is a picture of a single action reel on the left and a multiplier reel:

The automatic reel, while still available to purchase, is no longer commonly used for fly fishing. With limited line and backing capacity and a closed spool, it has a built-in spring that acts much like a window blind. When an extended arm is depressed the spool automatically rewinds the line. Because its drag system is not very adjustable it is not as easy to fight a larger sized fish.  It also makes the process of stripping line for casting more difficult. I do not recommend this reel for fly fishing, as the other two options are more current and effective. Here is a picture for your information:

Like all fly fishing equipment, reels have a wide range of quality and price beginning from as low as $20 and escalating to as high as $900 in cost.  The price of the reel is dependent on the size of the reel and quality of the drag system among other things. Also, keep in mind that size selection would depend on the type of fishing and weight of the fly line you’ll be using.
Reels are made from various materials including injection molded graphite and machined or cast aluminum. The latter two usually have varied degrees of coatings.

I prefer to use the single action reel with the capacity for an exchangeable spool. That way I can use one reel with additional spools of different weight fly lines. Here’s a picture of a reel and additional spool:

Reel and spool

Here are other single action reels lined up in the order of line, weight and size. Starting from the left is a reel for a 2 weight line and ending on the right with an 8 weight.  The 2 weight reel is designed to go with my one ounce rod that I told you about in my discussion of rods. The 8 weight is used on a 10 foot #8 rod that I typically use for steelhead fishing in Lake Erie tributary streams.


Before leaving this discussion on reels, let me say a few more things about the function of a reel to slow down or brake the fly line as it leaves the reel. This brake or drag, as it is known in reel nomenclature; becomes more important depending on the type of fishing you will be doing.

When fishing mainly for small trout or panfish, the drag is a less important function of the reel.  Even when fighting a larger trout you can control the line by either holding it against the rod or by palming the edge of the reel to slow it down. Some form of drag is needed to control the fly line that you strip or pull from the reel in preparation for casting. Without drag you run the risk of tangles when too much line leaves the spool as you are stripping it.

The drag system in better reels becomes much more important when fishing for larger game fish that can make strong runs that strip a lot of line from the reel. It can be the difference between catching or losing a good fish. I have experienced many such runs with steelhead even to the extent that the entire fly line is pulled from the spool. That’s what is known as “getting into the backing”. You’ll learn about backing in my discussion of fly lines coming up.

As stated in the beginning of this section on reels, one of their primary functions is to be the receptacle of the fly line. Let’s examine the subject of fly lines next.

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