Sunday Classic / What makes a fly reel worth the money?

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

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.

Boggs Rocker

Boggs Rocker

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.

Arbor Design

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!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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6 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / What makes a fly reel worth the money?

  1. I generally care less about what I put on my lighter rods and think that guys that go out there with three or four hundred dollar reels on their trout rigs are doing so to have three or four hundred dollar reels on their trout rig. That said, I do pay attention to balance. If i get a reel that is too heavy or too light for a rod, I tend to notice, especially if they are too light causing the rod to be tip heavy. Also tend to put click pawls on my light rods to avoid all the problems that can happen with real drags. On my bigger rods I spend the money on decent reels. Just my philosophy.

  2. Louis
    I totally agree with your post. Great advice. I have been flyfishing for more years I care to say. I also have lost many fish to my fly line or leader after it has found a gap to lodge itself, fortunatly quality reel manufacturers have minimized this nuisance, with that said it pays to purchase a quality reel. As for drag, yes todays reels have incredible stopping power and if used improperly it can lead to lost fish, but i prefer drag to no or poor drag anyday. Its a matter of backing off your drag to a lighter setting and utilize the palming rim and bend of of the rod . I started as most do on panfish, then to trout. A 5 wt. Was all I needed until I graduated to hunting for larger species eventually fishi g primarly for saltwater fish which i believe is the epitome of flyfishing.

    I play all my fish on the reel and depending on species once they get into my backing the drag is key to success. A smooth drag is number one the reels ability to dissipate heat after extended runs is number two. The arbors diameter is very important in line memory regarding coiling and the rate of retrieval when fighting a fish and recovering line.

    My recommendation is to purchase a reel the most you can afford. Todays designs with the use of materials and manufacturing process provides us with far superior reels compared to 20 years ago. Secondly i recommend to purchase a reel not based on its line weight but on the diameter of the arbor. For examply normally use a 10 wt reel for 7 to 8 wt rods simply due to the benifits the larger diameter. Todays reel designs with aggressive porting provide lighter reels. Ofcourse balancing your outfit is vital to performance for both the equipment and the fisherperson.

    Its true the cost of flyfishing rod and reels is high for the latest designs and materials and part of that is due to the extensive R&D popular manufacturers are using today. On the flip side the cost has come down on entry or value priced equipment which is perfect for someone new to our sport or on a budget.

    Finally. Match your equipment to the species. Small stream trout and bass ponds do not require expensive designs and large capacities as do big fast rivers and meat eating trout or expansive saltwater flats adjacent to deep troughs or bluewater drop offs.

    Also there is no one size fits all. For most individuals a mid priced 5wt and 8wt is all that is needed. Finally i strongly recommend buying U.S. made products with the exception af a British manufacturer for obvious reasons. True Asian manufactures are producing products of decent quality with attractive prices. Most are based on U.S. proven designs and you will find a few U.S. brands with Entry product made overseas.

    Hope this helps

    Tight lines

  3. Pingback: Reels, Money Well Spent. | Middle River Dispatches

  4. Also being a cheap bastard of the highest order and an euro nymphing enthusiast, I’ve struggled with my mono line getting wrapped around the innards of my cheap-o reels from time to time. Often the reel would get locked mid fight and I’d break off a 12″ fish. It sucks when it happens, but a lost fish and 10 minutes spent on the tying bench was not worth the cost of a proper reel, I’d tell myself.

    That said, last week while fishing a small freestone creek better known for wildflowers than trout, I hooked into an absolute monster of a brown; a massive hooked-jaw, must-have-been 28 inch leviathan, whom likely subsisted on a diet of wayward kittens and small dogs. This bruiser immediately had me into my backing and after a seemingly endless battle of screaming drag and violent head shakes, my reel decided it had enough. The drag locked tight and the mono tied itself in knots around the inside of the reel.

    The monster, undoubted sensing my misfortune and growing panic, deceivingly feigned defeat and allowed me to try and net him. With the fly rod bent to breaking and my net inching towards his corpulent body, he sprung his trap. Bolting downstream in the flash of an eye, the immense weight of the beast pulling the locked line over my shoulder, my poor 3wt rod bent itself over the spine and snapped in two! God bless TroutHunter 6x tippet, for even with a broken rod, I momentarily had a chance to net the infernal creature but another toothy head shake and the fish was gone. The enormity of the situation immediately sunk in. Mono line. Cheap fly reel. Busted drag. Broken fly rod and a fish of a lifetime lost forever. ****!

    The day after, I finally spent the money and bought a proper reel (and a new fly rod). Don’t be a cheap bastard… buy a quality reel.

  5. “I have landed steelhead on hundred year old Hardys. ”
    this is the key to unlock value in trout reels – realize that there are lots of excellent older reels, better made than most modern reels, and costing a fraction of the price of a modern reel. An old Hardy Marquis or Orvis Battenkill made by Hardy, can be found under $100 and even in excellent unused condition will be under $200. That’s a low budget modern reel.

    There are vanishingly few applications for trout that need more than a decent click/pawl and rim control. I suspect the drag thing must have leaked over from bass tournament fishing done with 20-30lb line while skull-dragging the poor fish in as fast as possible.

    On the other tack – an Orvis CFO III has been my primary trout reel for rising forty years now. It gives me pleasure every time I fish it, just because it is so nicely made.

  6. Pingback: Sunday Classic / What makes a fly reel worth the money? | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying – Exclusively Fly Fishing

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