Sunday’s Classic / What’s Correct Left or Right Hand Retrieve?

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What’s correct, Left or Right Hand Retrieve. Photo: Louis Cahill

I cast right handed so I should reel with my left hand right? Ask a saltwater guide and 95% of them will tell you the correct way is to always reel with your dominant hand. Ask a trout fisherman and most will say you should reel with the hand opposite your casting hand, because that way you don’t have to switch hands in the middle of fighting a fish to reel. I could go on and on arguing for both sides actually, but I think in the end it’s really a matter of personal preference. In my opinion, there’s no right or wrong way to reel as long as you’re able to get the job done on the water. I figured out a long time ago it would be beneficial for me to learn how to reel and fish effectively both ways. That way it would never be an issue when I was borrowing gear from a buddy, fishing the rod my guide has rigged up for me, or hitting the saltwater flats. It’s worked out great for me and I highly recommend others doing so.

That being said, having sat here and pondered this subject for about an hour now, I decided to call a couple of my buddies in the industry to get their personal opinions. My first buddy works at one of the most prestigious fly shops in the country and he told me the left hand right hand debate, has become one of his biggest pet peeves. He says customers come into the shop all the time asking to get a reel spooled up and when he asks them if they want left or right hand retrieve, he often gets the answer, “Let me call my buddy and ask him what setup I should use”. My fly shop buddy argues, “There’s no law or rule that requires us to fish and reel a certain way. Who cares if someone says your ass backwards. You have every right to fish the way you feel most comfortable”. I happen to strongly agree with my fly shop buddy on this one. There’s always more than one way to do things in the sport of fly fishing. At times, some seem to work a little better than others, but in most situations all will get the job done satisfactory in the end.

The second buddy I called is a full-time saltwater flats guide, and it was no shock when I heard him say, “You should always have your reel setup for your dominant hand. It’s a matter of common sense”. Now he admits he’s a little biased since he’s a saltwater guide, but he quickly recommended If I didn’t agree with him, to go out in the yard and try reeling in a five pound weight with my fly rod using both my dominant and non-dominant hands. So I took his advice and it was quickly apparent to me how under gunned my non-dominant hand would be if I was having to reel in a powerful saltwater fish for long distances. Can you catch fish in saltwater using your non-dominant hand? Yes, but I think anyone that’s fly fished in saltwater would agree there’s a definite advantage to fishing a reel rigged for your dominant hand. After all, fish regularly make long runs into your backing that require reeling in large amounts of line quickly, and on top of that, most saltwater gamefish are at least a few notches higher on the power scale of the totem pole. Fishing a reel spooled for your dominant hand makes the most sense in most situations.

After consulting both of my friends and thinking it over further, I think anglers on both sides of the fence have valid arguments. Especially when you’re moving between saltwater and freshwater applications. However, whether you’ll admit it or not, if you have to switch hands during the fight to reel in your fly line, you’re always putting yourself at risk for getting slack in your line that could possibly result in you losing a fish. It may only happen a small percentage of the time, but it can happen. Saltwater anglers generally fail to see this point because many times when they hook a fish it screams away in the opposite direction, quickly clearing their excess fly line for them. But in many freshwater situations, I often find that fish do the exact opposite, initially swimming towards the angler, and they find themselves switching hands before they’re able to get the excess fly line onto the reel. Here’s my question to the hand switchers, “If you like reeling with your dominant hand why not switch hands immediately after your cast? It seems to me it would make more sense to do this since you wouldn’t have to worry about switching hands during the fight. You would already have the rod in the correct position, right? It wouldn’t take long to get comfortable managing and stripping your line with your dominant hand. I could go on and on arguing for both sides actually, but I think in the end it’s really a matter of personal preference. Fish how you want, but don’t ignore situations when one hand retrieve will work better over the other.

What’s your opinion on this topic? We’d like to hear it. 

Keep it Reel,

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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19 thoughts on “Sunday’s Classic / What’s Correct Left or Right Hand Retrieve?

  1. I have to agree with “personal preference” and my personal preference keeps my left hand on the reel in freshwater and saltwater situations. While I understand the theory of reeling with your dominant hand, until I’m proven wrong I tend to believe that in a situation where the fish is swimming at you and you have to switch hands to get your dominant hand on the reel, how much distance has that fish traveled in the time it has taken you to switch??? Its it worth making the switch hoping that you’ll make up the difference being able to reel faster with your dominant hand? I tend to think not. I would rather keep my left hand on the reel at all times, not giving that fish any more advantage than it already has on me by giving it a second or two where I’m not picking up line. It hasn’t failed me yet. My 2 cents

  2. The way I see it, if you are pumping the fish in (something you see more in saltwater or with conventional gear), the the hand doing the heavy lifting should be your dominant hand, with the other hand reeling. I also agree with the argument of switching hands creating slack. The issue with switching after the cast is that you have to re-teach your hands to add action to the fly backwards (read: strip with a different hand). Which can be a pain, but still doable. Also, if you have at max 20 lbs line on your tippet, and it’s usually way less, are you saying that our non-dominant hand cant lift the same weight as your dominant hand? I’ll keep my hands non-dominant for now, and if I get my ass kicked a few times, might try changing it up. But I think being comfortable and knowing what works is more important than an extra 3 lbs of strength.

  3. I’ve stayed out of this argument in the past but I guess I’ll give my two cents now.

    I retrieve left hand for trout and right hand for salt or larger fresh water species. Here’s why.

    When trout fishing you are using light tippet and fighting the fish with the tip. The soft tip on a trout rod cushions the tippet but requires that you hold the rod at a severe angle. In this scenario the rod hand is doing the heavy lifting. Holding this rod position for an extended time requires the strength of my right arm. I’m applying littler or no force to the reel, save the drag.

    In saltwater I’m fishing heavy tippet and using a rod designed to fight fish with the but. This does not require the force at the wrist since the angle of the rod is much straighter. My left arm will pull on the fish just fine and I’m free to crank down on the reel with my right. It’s a much mor effective way to fight big strong fish. This is not theory, I’ve done it doth ways.

    That said, fish any way you like, I don’t care but I wouldn’t fish this way if I didn’t think it was right. I suggest you be open minded. I find the issue of changing hands to be a mute point. Your body already knows how to do this. It’s not a big deal. As for the fish running straight at you, it doesn’t matter because at the point you have thirty feet or so of line laying on the deck. You’re fighting the fish by hand until its on the reel. Once it is you’ll have plenty of time to change hands.

    Thinking about it is worse than doing it. Give it a try and see if you don’t agree.

  4. I have to go with personal preference as well.
    I have, as we all have, heard all the reasoning behind why left or right is better.

    I have always cast right handed and reeled with my left. Fresh or salt. On the random occasion I fish with a guide’s gear that is set up for right hand retrieve, it is always a disaster. While according to some, I should be better at reeling with my dominant hand. The reality is that my right hand has maybe turned a fly reel about 500-1000 times (figuring 10 fish at about 50-100 revolutions) so that means my left hand has done that motion in the hundreds of thousands!! No one can ever tell me that I reel better with my “dominant” hand.

    I always feel like a moron when I have to use the “wrong” sided set up. And I look like one too. Just ask my Islamorada guide, he’ll tell you.

  5. I’ll wade right in and take this to a higher pain level…I am “dominant right hand”, I reel “righty” in salt and “lefty” in fresh, unless I am chasing fish with more than 4X tippet. Bigger the relative size of the fish = the greater the need to get the damned fish on the reel.
    MOST freshwater fish don’t need to be fought from the reel. To add to the dominant reel hand discussion, I just watched a good angler break a rod tip on a two-pound bonefish while trying to reel it in with his less than helpful “trout hand”. As he quickly “tired”, the rod started to wobble as his reeling became less coordinated. The fish created some slack as he failed to keep the arc in the rod, and, as the rod bobbed and weaved, he got a loop of line wrapped around the tip-top. The fish zigged, the rod bent, and as quick as that, the line circumsized his Z-Axis, rendering an expensive rod out-of-commission. It boils down to be smooth and being comfortable. (The caveat to stripping in fly line while leaving the rod handle in your “dominant” hand and not using the reel because the fish isn’t a speedster is brambly undergrowth, line catching crevasses on jetties, tumbling/tangling surf action, or size-10 clodhoppers in a small casting area stomping all over your fly line, then reel up the slack with your “off” hand while pinning the “running” line with the crook of your pointer finger while holding the grip for few sections to keep a tight line to the fish.)

  6. If a reel can be switched Left or Right hand wind, I’ll set it up LHW.

    I fish with bamboo rods regularly and some (vintage) reels (like the Hardy Perfect or St. George) the LHW versions are a lot more expensive than the RHW. SImply because the LHW versions are ‘more wanted’. So I have no problems getting a cheaper reel and use the RHW with no problem at all.

  7. I can cast left or right handed at short distances, but in the salt i cast with the left – my preferred hand. Being used to switch hands trout fishing, when the trout runs in my direction i strip the line back till i establish contact with the fish, i set clear the line on the reel, then i finish the retrieve, rod in right hand and reeling with the left.
    When in salt i set the hook with the right hand (strip strike….anytime a big effort to remember doing that!!)
    clear the line with the fish running and as soon as i can
    i pass the rod in the right hand using the left to reel line in.
    I think this works FOR ME because i usually work with
    the two hands changing them at will fishing for trout….

    ***I think in the end it’s really a matter of personal preference > as stated by Kent

  8. I fish fresh waters and I cast left handed and reel left handed. I seem to have no problems. However I won’t switch hands until fish is in what I deem control. I use my right to strip as needed until switching hands is available then proceed to get fish on the reel.

    Keep up the blog! Even though I’m on the other side of the states it is still enjoyable and useful!

    Adam. Bend, OR

  9. When I first started fly fishing nearly twenty years ago the fly shop I bought my first outfit from advised and set up my reel for right hand retrieve which worked fine for me for a couple of years catching trout mostly in the 12 to 16 inch range. Then I started drifting larger rivers and catching fish in the 18 to 26 inch range, after losing a few which had impeccable timing jumping and spitting the hook just as I was switching my rod to my left hand I said enough of this traditional BS and switched my reel to left hand retrieve, now all my reels are left retrieve and whenever asked I always advise newcomers to the sport to set up for non dominant hand retrieve I also end up re-spooling a lot of peoples’ reels after they have lost a few fish when guiding them. So I am an advocate of keeping the rod in your dominant hand until the fish is in the net!

  10. I am right hand dominant. Funny thing is that when I spin fish I crank with left, but with flyfishing I switch hands so I cast and reel with my right! I have done this forever and it’s totally automatic! I never had a problem with my method to even remotely consider changing it! If you have to think about it in the heat of a battle – change – but if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it based on someone else’s awkwardness in applying what you do! It’s all about me and what makes me comfortable and relaxed in the pursuit of my hobbies! Suggestions are good but ridicule is out of order – especially relating to this benign subject! Been there – heard people remark about my switching hands, as if it’s any of their business! LOL!

  11. My plan, as of yet untested, is to fish salt with the opposite set-up as freshwater. My reasoning does not have much to do with reeling efficiency. I’ve caught trout for years and my “trout set” is hardwired into my right hand (left brain). As infrequently as I’ll fish salt, it would take me years of missing fish to re-wire my motor patterns. So, I plan on switching the set-up. My left hand (right brain) doesn’t know how to “trout set” so I don’t have to re-train it to strip-set in the salt. Hopefully I’ll get to test this hypothesis soon…

  12. I have always reeled with my non-dominant hand, but admittedly haven’t done tons of saltwater fly fishing. I have a question… If you cast with your right, strip using your left, then reel with your right, how does it work when you switch hands? Let’s say the fish doesn’t run away from you and you have to strip a couple times with your left, then you get it tight and want to switch hands to reel. Your right hand is currently holding the fly line against the rod to keep it from g

  13. I have always reeled with my non-dominant hand, but admittedly haven’t done tons of saltwater fly fishing. I have a question… If you cast with your right, strip using your left, then reel with your right, how does it work when you switch hands? Let’s say the fish doesn’t run away from you and you have to strip a couple times with your left, then you get it tight and want to switch hands to reel. Your right hand is currently holding the fly line against the rod to keep it from going slack, so do you switch this job to your left hand as you need the right hand to reel? It seems like it would be easy to make an error at this point, letting the line go accidentally… I guess I need to go try it!
    Or do you have to strip with your right hand if you’re going to reel with your right?

    • Mark,
      I believe we are over-thinking this right/left hand stuff. Your comment makes it all sound so complicated, when in reality those of us who switch don’t consciously think about it – it’s automatic! What’s weird is seeing someone reeling a spinning reel with the reel on TOP of the rod! I find it way more difficult to type this comment than reeling in flyline – but I have zero typing experience !

  14. It’s all about the hand you use to strip the fly line. Reel retrieve with your opposite hand. That is the reel handle is opposite the side you as not to catch the fly line on the handle. If steelheading for example you typically rollcast or belgium cast so is a non issue.
    That’s all. Tight lines all!

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