Get the Most Out Of Your Fly Reel

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

Odds are, you paid good money for that fly reel, don’t let it go to waste.

One of the most common fish-fighting mistakes anglers make is not making good use of the reel. I see this most commonly in anglers who are making the transition from freshwater to salt, but it exists in all types of fly fishing. Well, maybe not tenkara.

Most modern fly reels have drag systems, which are both powerful and precise. In the old days, fly reel drag did little more than help prevent backlash, but today’s reels are effective fish-fighting machines designed to land fish efficiently. Once you have a feel for using a fly reel, you’ll find that you land more fish and land them quicker.

There are basically two things you need to know about fighting fish with a fly reel:

How tight to set the drag and how to fight a fish with the given drag setting. Before I dive into the technical stuff, I will touch on a few basics for those who are completely new to the sport. If you are an advanced angler, skim over the next three paragraphs.

Unlike spinning reels, fly reels are direct drive reels. This means that in order for the spool to spin under drag, your winding hand must let go of the reel. I know, that’s dead obvious, but getting the winding hand off the reel quickly when a fish starts to run is a skill new anglers struggle with.

Your fly reel should have two types of line. Your fly line, the weight of which is matched to your rod. This is the line you cast to deliver the fly. The reel should also have backing. Usually Dacron, the backing is attached to the spool and then to the back end of the fly line. This line is there for fighting big fish which make long runs. It is not as strong as your fly line, so be careful not to put too much pressure on a fish when the backing is out or you may lose your fly line. This is important with large species like tarpon. Backing will also cut like a knife when under tension, so don’t touch it during the fight.

Once the reel is mounted to the rod, the line should come off the front of the reel and make a straight line to the first guide, without touching the frame. When you strip line off the reel in preparation for casting, always pull the line out along the rod. Never strip it off the reel with the line in contact with the frame of the reel. This will damage your line and cause it to twist and tangle.

Setting the drag

There are a couple of important things to consider when setting your drag. The most important is the strength of the tippet material. In fact, most of your gear is designed with your tippet in mind. Fly rods are designed with tip sections intended not only for casting, but for protecting tippet of different strength.

It’s important to understand that the pressure put on the line feels very different using the rod than it does when you pull line off the reel. I’ll talk about that in the next section. When setting your drag, you will be pulling line directly off of the reel and judging the amount of force in pounds or kilograms. It’s a good idea to play around with a spring scale and learn what ten pounds, for example, feels like.

Your drag setting should also accommodate the function of your reel. With a high quality reel, having little to no start-up inertia, your drag can be set closer to the breaking strength of your tippet. If your reel does not start up smooth and the drag turn with consistency, you will need to get your drag lighter to protect your tippet when a fish surges.

A good starting place for your drag setting is half the breaking strength of your tippet.

Drag and fish fighting

The technique you use when fighting fish is largely dictated by your drag setting. If you are using a rod which is appropriate for the target species, it too will be designed for fighting techniques specific to your drag setting. I’m going to try and make this simple with a basic rule.

Light drag—high rod, heavy drag—low rod.

To explain this we have to talk a bit about fly rods and how they fight fish. The more bend you put in the rod, the less actual pressure you are putting on the fish. This is somewhat counterintuitive at first. You might think that by lifting that rod you are, “putting the wood to ‘em,” but you’re not. What you are doing is engaging the softer tip section of the rod and applying less pressure. When the rod is kept low and at less of an angle to the fish, you are engaging the heavy butt section of the rod, which transfers more pressure to the fish.

Light rods, designed for species like trout, have soft tip sections for light tippets. Fighting fish with a high rod tip, and the rod closer to 90 degrees to the line, allows the tip to cushion the force of the fish and keeps a tight line by virtue of the deep bend in the rod. Heavy saltwater rods have stiff butt sections for taming big, powerful fish and usually a second stripper guide to handle the pressure. These rods are designed to fight fish at an angle of around 15 degrees to the line.

You will quickly find that these fish fighting techniques each require the appropriate drag setting. If you are fighting a saltwater fish with 3 pounds of drag and the rod at 15 degrees to the line, the rod simply will not bend and you will not keep a tight connection to the fish. If you are fighting a fish on 6X tippet, with the rod at 15 degrees and the drag clamped down, you’ll break him off.

By far the most common mistake I see anglers make is setting their drag too light when fighting big fish on heavy tippet.

Let’s use bonefish as an example, although the same is true for any species when using heavy tippet. If you are bonefishing, with 15 pound tippet, and you find that you are lifting your rod higher than 20-30 degrees and the fish is still taking line, odds are your drag is too loose.

Many anglers are afraid they will break fish off with heavy drag settings, but you can work a fish much harder than most folks think. I encourage you to try this test: line up your rod with 15 pound tippet and tie it off to something stationary. Keeping your rod at 15 degrees, try to break the line. Better yet, tie the line to a spring scale and see how much pressure you are actually putting on the line. What you’ll find is that, with any fly rod, it is almost impossible to put more than 12 pounds of pressure on the line with a 15 degree rod angle.

When you fight a big trout on light tippet, you have no choice but to take it easy, stay connected and wait for the fish to tire. That’s technical stuff and, if you’ve done much of it, you know there is a lot that can go wrong. You have to fight smart, not hard. This means moving with the fish to keep a short line and 90 degree connection in the fish’s mouth. You have to keep the pressure consistent and across the fish’s back. Don’t let him rest or you risk dragging out the fight, giving him a better chance of escape. Let the reel and the rod tip work together to tire the fish while protecting your tippet.

By being more thoughtful and technical when setting your drag and incorporating the appropriate fighting methods, you’ll land more fish and you’ll land bigger fish. No matter what species you’re after or how you’re rigged, knowing how to get the most out of your fly reel is crucial for success.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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2 thoughts on “Get the Most Out Of Your Fly Reel

  1. I’ve been fishing for 68 years, fly fishing for 53 years, game fished for 18 years (30,000 hours on the deck of a Game Boat) and the biggest problem I have seen with technique has very little to do with drag setting. When one is retrieving line and going through the pump and wind motions one must start to wind before the tip of the rod is moved towards the fish. Never allow any slack in the line.

    As far as fly reel drags are concerned I’ve palmed spools for more than 40 years so I have no problem palming with the new ones when it is necessary.

    So far I haven’t caught any bill fish on fly, however I have caught hundreds of Bones on 8wts and the majority of the pelagic speedsters on 10 to 15wts and have only had one problem and that was only 300 metres backing on the reel when hooked up with large Milkfish. So you spend 40+ minutes travelling 2+ kilometres in metre deep water to either land the fish or loose it to sharks or Giant Grouper. Enjoy the journey, BM

  2. Hi Bruce,

    I like your style.
    With what fly , and how did you catch that milkfish ? The guides kept telling me not to wast my cast .
    Jake Enns

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