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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22 thoughts on “What makes a fly reel worth the money?

  1. A good drag system plays number one for me when reel shopping then reel weight. If your looking just for line storage, your not getting the reel deal. For reel. God bless

  2. I am lucky enough to fish the Yellowstone area for four months each Summer. I truly enjoy the sound of a 1950s Hardy. It is not always just about the specifics of a reel.

  3. I like your comment on drag. I fish 8 wts a lot, and have a pile of reels for them. They are great reels, but most of them have drag power that simply exceeds what the tippets I use can handle. I also have a Charlton 8500, and compared to some of my other reels, it’s “weak” in raw brake power. I love that reel because it’s drag is reproducible, disgustingly smooth, highly consistent, and it pretty much goes to the drag range that normal tippets can handle, and no more. The cost of those reels makes having all of mine the same impossible so i use my other ones too, but If I had a bone ripping off line like crazy, or a steelhead running downstream, I would want that reel over any other just for that reason.

  4. i really like this article, i am fairly new to the fly fishing art, and am always seeking out info.. i have recently bought a 9 ft 2 piece rod by fenwick the eagle gt series, and went with the cabelas wind river series reel which so far for me has not given me any problems, it seems to have a smooth drag and a nicely developed arbor…it also has a cool design and matches the rod nicely… after reading your article i wonder if u wouldnt critique it for me so i know what to look for in buying my next set up… thank u

  5. great write up!

    I always think it is funny when I see people on the stream w/ a beautiful Wintson that cost upwards of $900 and then throw a cheap reel on it.

    I look at the reel as the bullet to my rifle. I like to know that my drag and reel will not fail when I need it most. I have had numerous cheaper reels that always seem to fail at the wrong times. Since those days I simply bank my money until I can afford a nice reel – Hatch and Lamson 80)

  6. I can support your article with real-life experience: (1) Loss of a huge rainbow on the Lower Talarik to a reel that was not up to the job and locked during a blistering run. (2) A tarpon reel with a sharp edge or burr that literally stripped and disabled my fly line.

    I am asked all the time about equipment, and other than entry level folks who do not know if they will stick with fly fishing, my advice is to buy the best rod and reel and rain jacket you can afford. My quality equipment has given me some 20+ years of service. I definitely have tried some so-called bargains, none of which gave me satisfaction in the long run.

  7. One thing that you mentioned that I have found invaluable is the sealed drag system. Over the many years I have owned numerous reels, with both sealed and unsealed drags. I maintain my gear, but I’m rough on my gear. Things get dropped, dragged, and dunked in sand, mud, water, etc. I’ve had some bad experiences with unsealed drags and came to the conclusion that it’s best that I just buy quality reels with sealed drag systems that will hopefully give me many years of trouble free fishing.It’s a larger investment, but, in my opinion, it’s a good decision. Especially for me.

  8. One other quality of a fine reel not mentioned is the design aesthetics. I have an Ari T. Hart reel that is a thing of beauty. His reels are in the Museum of Modern Art.

  9. Well done. One important thing that I would add is aesthetics. it may seem trivial, but many students that I have are concerned with a reel that color-matches the rod and line. If that adds to an angler’s overall experience, they will enjoy the sport that much more. For me, it is sound. I love the delicate, muffled click of a great reel.

  10. Man, this is a big jar that’s opened! 🙂

    I assume we’e talking about reels for trout fishing?
    Over the years I’ve become less ‘high tech’ about reels and drags. The current high end (?) are all too much. I’ve moved towards the good old click-and-pawl drag reels like the Orvis CFO’s and Hardys. Simply because these reels are more than capable of doing their job. And no, I don’t the click-and-pawls aren’t ‘drag systems’ but lets me know how fast the fish is pulling line off by the sound. The palming makes sire that I can adjust the pressure as smoothly as needed.

    Saltwater reels, that’s a whole different game which I have no experience since I’ve never really done much saltwater fishing.

  11. Still laughing at “ass storage!”

    So what reel would win your “best reel for the money” award that’s on the market right now?

  12. I’m fishing a few reels in the $175 range and am very happy. Upwards of $450+ is just too much money for this blue-color, working dude.

  13. My sister found a late 1960s Pflueger at a yard sale and gave it to me for my 30th bday. I took it to a local fly shop where a fine gentleman cleaned it up for me and told me to let him know if I ever wanted to sell it. It’s my go to reel for a dry fly rod. It’s landed many LARGE trout, has never froze, and never broken a tippet . Made in USA. Hard to find, but worth every penny.

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  16. 1. Light weight. This precludes large- and mid-arbor reels.
    2. Click and pawl drag system. All you need for trout.
    3. Classic design. Hardy JLH, St George, Lightweight series and Perfects as the Orvis CFOs.
    4 Quality design. Some current reels are over-engineered. This leads to more weight and higher cost.

    I have been fly fishing for trout for almost 50 years, and these are a few of my thoughts. I do claim that they apply to other types of fly fishing.

  17. I’m thinking some folks might’ve missed the point here; quality is important. It’s the same with anything you do. If your reasoning for a less expensive set up is infrequent use, then it’s even more important to step up your entry, as the storage time can be detrimental to your gear (ref: line memory, sealed drag, etc). I don’t think Kent was poo-pooing less expensive set ups for any other reason than to answer a very difficult question for the rookie/part timer; “why shouldn’t I just get a Walmart special? It works for bass fishing, what’s so special about this fly game?” Simple. You are making an investment into your enjoyment. It’s less about the science and more about the smile. As a rookie AND part timer (I hate both of these self-appointed titles) I was fortunate to have a shop that helped me navigate exactly what I needed. The result is that I have a piece of gear that I will enjoy for a long time, even if I don’t get out as much as I’d like. It’s always ready to go fishing, and never fails…even if I do. Thanks Andy and Garner!!

    As for the “ass storage”…I’m going to rip that joke off so many times Kent, you shoulda retained an attorney!!

  18. So many opinions about fly reels! I’ll add some more. Spring and Pawl classic Hardy style reels are fine for smaller trout streams (I’m not saying you can’t land large fish with them, many of us have) but larger trout, steelhead and salmon are brought to net some % quicker with a smooth drag rather than an over-run check even with a palming rim that they can be released more safely. Large arbor reels are not inherently heavier than more compact appearing standard arbor models because modern porting and support structures in machined aluminum tend to reduce mass relative to older style reels. It does not hurt to have more drag than you need as long as the drag is smooth, linear, and incrementally fine tunable to protect the tippet sizes you will be fishing. A commonly overlooked design feature is the spools aspect ratio; too shallow and wide promotes uneven line build up without exerting extra attention during the time you should be focused on the fish. A narrower, deeper spool on a large arbor reel is more intuitive to regain backing and line uniformly on when fishing for long running species like bonefish in the south or albies in the north. Pay attention to protrusions; too prominent a counterbalance and an inwardly tapering handle are places slack line can get caught up on. Lastly, neutral gravity static balance is important. Your reel, loaded with backing and line is not always in motion casting and fighting fish. Bonefishing from the bow of a skiff or even wading, we spend a lot of time holding the rod in the ready position while hunting tails. Too light a reel makes your outfit feel tip heavy as you fight gravity to keep it up. With you finger beneath the cork in its ordinary position the rig should balance horizontally…if anything I would prefer the reel to be a tad too heavy than too light! And yes, performance appropriate to the rod and angling environment may come first but it does not hurt if you enjoy the looks, feel and sounds your reel makes.

    Reels do not have to be outrageously costly but if you are comparatively analytical and critical you will discover through experience that there are not that many really well designed reels scalable from trout to tarpon.

    • Lots of good insights in your comment, Richard. Kent: Great post that gave rise to an excellent string of comments. Much of this is subjective and based on specific fishing requirements and needs, but a reader can pick out a thread through this to fit their own situation or situations.

  19. Okay,okay,okay…..I get it. I managed to get my hands on an older Orvis to hold me over while I save up for something more better unit to store the line in….
    Going out this weekend with hopes of testing the drag on this hand-me-down.
    Enjoying all the comments.
    Anybody for a real nice ass storage unit?

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