I received this email the other day from my good friend Brian Boggs.
“Louis, I’m looking for the right four-wt reel. I am of a mind to shop the low end for reels since I don’t catch large fish that need to be fought on the reel. Is there any reason to not just buy a cheapie and get on with the fishing? How much difference does the reel make anyway? I think of it as line storage and little else.”
It always makes me a little crazy to hear that ‘line storage’ remark. I don’t know who started it, buy they did a disservice to a great many anglers. Hearing it from Brian made me especially nuts. Brian, you see, is a man with a very specific skill set.
You may not be aware that there is a subculture among us who are devotees of an ancient art form, so ubiquitous that most of us take it completely for granted. These folks, craftsmen and collectors alike, obsess over the minutiae of this endeavor to the point of needing serious therapy. I am not even kidding. Brian Boggs is a chair maker.
I realize that means very little to most folks, but to the initiated its a title like Captain or Reverend. And Brian Boggs is not just any chair maker. Since the death of Sam Maloof, in 2009, many people consider Brian the greatest living chair maker. He makes chairs for which the owner is measured to one sixteenth of an inch before construction. They are so comfortable it makes you want to weep. He also designs exquisite, and outrageously expensive, hand tools for companies like Lie-Nielson. The man is brilliant, uncompromising and wildly obsessive. My answer to his question was simple.
“Yes Brian, a fly reel is line storage. In the same way that a chair is ass storage.”
After convincing Brian he should take his reel purchase more seriously, I decided to share what we discussed here. Fly reels are expensive and the design features that separate great reels from not-so-great reels are not always readily apparent. Especially if you are shopping online, as we do more and more. The reel is, however, a very important part of your set up, even when you think you’re not using it. It’s an important choice that is worth spending some of your time, and money.
Before I get into the features of fly reels and why they matter I’d like to make a point about value. Lots of anglers have a hard time dropping a wad of cash on a reel, especially after buying an expensive rod. I know, I’m a cheap bastard myself. Consider a few things about that expensive reel, though.
If you are like me, you have more than a lot of rods. I’ll wager that, like me, you have more rods than reels. Each of my reels serves a couple of my rods. I buy extra spools to stretch their usefulness as far as possible. That way one reel may serve a 3, 4 & 5 weight. If you think in terms of cost per set up, that cuts the price of the reel in thirds.
It is also worth pointing out that quality reels last. I have reels from Bauer and Orvis that I have fished hard for nearly twenty years. I have landed steelhead on hundred year old Hardys. That kind of service is worth some extra cash. Buy something you will stay happy with. You may not be catching big fish now, but you will. If you keep reading Gink and Gasoline that is.
Much is made of the power of a reel’s drag these days. Too much if you ask me. Most of the better reels today have drag systems that will lock down well past any practical application. Off the record, the designers of those reels will tell you exactly that. Modern drag systems could more accurately be called breaking systems and that extra power invites overzealous anglers to break off fish. There is nothing wrong with having the power you need but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing and there is more to a drag than power.
The two things I look for in a drag system are smoothness (often referred to as start-up inertia) and the system’s ability to deal with foreign matter like sand and water. The problem with the drag systems in cheap reels is seldom the lack of enough drag but too much at the wrong time. A single grain of sand can cause a reel to lock up completely, ending in a lost fish. Water can cause the drag to hydroplane. This results in a free turning spool, allowing the fish to build momentum, until the water is burned away by heat, at which point there is an abrupt stop. Another fish is lost.
Sealed drag systems are great for dealing with contaminants. The problem is that you can’t get to them for maintenance. A good sealed drag system is maintenance-free and will last many years but a poorly designed one is no bargain. There is nothing wrong with a well designed cork drag but they do require maintenance. If they are not clean and greased, they’re trouble.
Rod designers have done a great job of producing lightweight, high performance graphite rods in recent years. It’s put a lot of pressure on reel designers to keep up. It’s much easier, and cheaper to make a heavy reel but a heavy reel on a lightweight rod puts the system out of balance. Fishing a rod that is out of balance causes fatigue. This fatigue not only makes your day unpleasant but affects your performance. As muscles become fatigued and painful they lose the fine motor control required for casting. That’s what I mean when I say a reel is important, even when you think you’re not using it. A cheap reel may be storing your line and making you a poor caster at the same time.
A good reel has a thoughtfully designed arbor. I like large arbors which take up line quickly and help the line relax by keeping it in a more gentle curve. This puts less stress on the connection of the coating to the core and doesn’t train the line into tight curls. A well designed arbor also allows air to pass through, letting your line and backing dry. This dramatically improves the life of your line and backing.
Fit and finish
It seems like a small thing, but fit and finish are key to a reel the performs under pressure. I had a reel once with a handle that sat just high enough off the frame to trap the line. I can’t tell you how many fish that reel lost me. The groove where the spool meets the frame is another place that can trap line and cause havoc. A fly line can always be trusted to find trouble, it doesn’t need any help from your reel. Finish is important too. Sharp edges can can cut line and skin.
These are a few of the things I consider when shopping for a reel. If it costs me a littler more to have them, I’m willing to spend the money on a reel that I know I will love fishing for years to come. That said, like I told my buddy Brian, don’t let money keep you off the water. It’s better that you are out fishing than not. Still, we are out there to catch fish and if your reel is getting in the way it’s going to affect the quality of your experience. That’s the last thing you want.
Come fish with us in the Bahamas!