Saturday, March 21, 2015

Fly Fishing Reels: Before You Buy

The never ending debate amongst anglers goes like this..."a fly reel does nothing but hold your backing and fly line, so don't spend a lot of money on your reel."  "A fly reel does a lot more than hold your backing and fly line, so make sure you buy a good one."  "Large arbor reels are better reels."  Here's FCFF no non-sense take on the subject..."it depends."  But before I explain and give a final say, allow me to walk you through reels 101.  

Action of Fly Reels

  • single action reel is the most popular type of fly reel on the market today.  This means the reel has a 1:1 retrieve ration. A complete turn of the handle equals one complete turn of the spool.  Mechanically, this style of reel is simple and if made with quality parts, should last a lifetime.  
  • multiplying reel has a retrieve ratio greater than 1:1.  Obviously, the benefit of this feature is an angler's ability to retrieve line faster when reeling.  Mechanically, they are more complicated than a single action reel, and if high quality parts are not used, then these reels can cause problems (speaking from experience). 
  • By the use of a trigger, not a handle, an automatic reel, automatically retrievers fly line. Mechanically, this means more moving parts, probable to high failure rates, and adds un-necessary weight to the reel  To be short and direct, do not purchase this type of reel. 

Drag System

Classic Spring and Pawl Reel

By today's standards, a spring and pawl reel is considered to be a traditional reel, representing out-dated technology.  Much of that statement is true; however, I personally believe that click and pawl reels can be used in any fly fishing situation.  Why?  Click and pawl reels have been landing fish, from trout to tuna, for over 100 years.  How?  The reels are almost mechanically fail-proof, and truth be told, it's the angler...not the reel (or rod) that lands the fish!  To over emphasize the point, do you need a high-tech drag system to land a 2lbs trout on a 9ft 5wt rod...absolutely NOT! The benefits of using a click and pawl reel are; it can be lighter than reels with drag systems; and the reel is designed to feed-out line smoothly which may help prevent tippet breaks.  Lastly, and a personal favorite of mine, a click and pawl reel allows you to fight (palming the reel) a fish, in what I believe to be the most natural way possible. But, if you are consistently targeting large fish (+20lbs) you may want to look at reels with high-tech drag systems.

Large Arbor Reel with Cork Disc-Drag System

High-Tech Disc-Drag reel systems are the industry rage!  These type of reels, use various materials that essentially act like a brake on a car.  A quick turn compresses the inner pads and your reel can now, virtually stop a truck!  Another quick turn, and your drag system smoothly lets out line for fine tippet fishing applications.  Not all disc drag's are made the same.  Generally speaking, domestic made reels versus imports may cost more, but you'll get better engineering, better parts and over all, a lifetime of better performance.  But, the question is, do you need a high-tech disc-drag reel? Based on my personal experience, and for those who are targeting smaller fish (-20lbs), the answer is NO.      

Note: Before moving on, we should mention the following: a 2lb fish in a fast moving current, with rocks and sub-merged trees, will test an angler using a light weight, e.g. medium action 4wt rod with a spring and pawl reel.  Again, the choice of equipment (reels) depends on situational and personal preference factors. 

Fly Reel Line Weight

It's simple, remember fly rod weight = fly line weight = fly reel weight.  
For Example:  9ft 5wt = WF 5 F = 5 weight reel.

Now days, especially with medium and larger arbor reels, you may see a reel that is labeled 4/5 weight or 6/7/8 weight.  This simply means that the reel has the capacity, depending on how much backing line is added, to carry multiple weight (diameter) lines.  This beg's the question, can I use my 6wt reel on my 4wt fly rod.  Answer: Yes, but it may feel heavy in the hand.  Can I use my 4 weight reel on my 6 weight reel. Answer: in a pinch, yes, but not recommended.  Overall, it is always best to match the reel weight with the rod weight.  

Note: I typically line-up my reels. I do this because I like how the extra weight loads my rod. For example, I will add a 6wt line to a 9ft/5wt rod. Due to the larger diameter of the 6wt line, I will then reduce my backing so the rod-reel-line is properly balanced.

Left or Right Handed Reels

Buying a reel that offers both left and right handed retrieves is optimal, and does not effect the overall performance and value of the reel.  Plus, if you ever hand the rod down to a family member or have a desire to sell it, a left and right retrieve option is a must have feature.  Note:  Many beginners make this sure to spool your backing and fly line properly so the spool's revolution matches a left of right handed retrieve.   

Spare Spool and Large Arbor Reels

Modern Large Arbor and Spare Spool

Spare spools are a matter of convenience and personal preference.  Most fisherman inter-change spools to change from a floating line to a sinking line.  However, what most fisherman fail to realize is that 95% of their time on the water, will only require floating line (depends on waters fished). So why buy an extra spool lined with sinking line, and then carry a heavy-bulky object in your vest that you rarely use?  If you find yourself in a situation that requires various types of sinking lines, then you may need a spare spool with a sinking line. Personally, I do have a spare spool (only one), but I travel the world, and I fish in highly specialized waters. Overall, let's say for trout fishing, I don't find spare spools to be a must have item. To go deep, you can lengthen your leader and simply add split-shot; or you could use inter-changeable sinking tips (Poly-Leaders, for example).  The downside to these methods is the casting 'feel' stroke (it may feel clunky).  As I initially stated, it's a matter of convenience and personal preference.  Lastly, if you do not buy spare spools when you purchase your reel, in the future, finding a spare spool that fits your reel, might become challenging.

Now days, it's hard to find anything but a large or medium arbor spool. When compared to a traditional spring and pawl reel, the overall size will be much different and the width of the spool will be wider (i.e. one hockey puck vs. two stacked hockey pucks).  Though the large and medium spools may look much bigger than traditional spring and pawl reels, the over all weight might be the same. The advantages of the larger arbor reels are: ability to reel in line faster, and less coiling of the line, when stored.  Other than looking cool for some folks, in my personal opinion, when fishing for smaller game, the benefits of large arbor reels, are minimal.  In other words, don't expect your large arbor reel to help you cast better or catch more fish. 

Note: We recommend buying reels that offer an exposed rim so that the angler may palm the reel (this may be hard to find in older spring and pawl reels).  Palming is a technique where the angler gently applies pressure to the exposed rim of the spool while the fish runs.  The small amount of pressure from the palm of the hand becomes your drag system.    

Weight of the Reel and Backing Line

Large Arbor spooled with backing and fly line

When you narrow down your reel choices, I would always recommend going with the lightest, yet structurally strongest reel possible (not the strongest drag system).  Why? With a light weight reel and a well balance outfit, you'll be less likely to experience hand-wrist-arm stress/fatigue. Note: beware of low cost, light weight reels made from plastic parts.  

If a trophy fish were to make a long run, say +200 feet and you did not have any backing attached to your 90ft fly line (standard fly line length), then you would be faced with a big problem.  To counter this issue, we typically attach 20lbs or 30lbs Dacron line to our fly line and reel (30lbs Dacron is typically used for larger reels and big game fish).  But, how many of us freshwater anglers (trout) can honestly say that we have had a fish run over 200 feet. The take away message: if you are fishing for smaller fish, and you want to lighten the total weight of your reel, then don't add the total manufacture recommended amount of backing. 

Saltwater Reels

Large Arbor Saltwater Reel. Fish is already into the backing!

A reel of any sort worse enemies are salt and sand!  You could use your freshwater reel in saltwater conditions, but if your real is of poor quality and you do not properly clean you reel after use, it will ultimately corrode and fail.  Things to look for in a good saltwater reel: high quality parts designed to take saltwater punishment, and your reel needs to hold at last 200 yards of 30lbs backing (ocean fish are big, strong and fast!).  Many high-end ($) reels today have been engineered for both sweet and saltwater.  But, remember to chose the lightest weight reel possible (not the strongest drag system).

Final Thoughts

I spent nearly my whole life fishing spring and pawl reels.  When I switched to large arbor reels, I did not catch bigger, or more fish (but, I did spend more $ on my reels).  If I lost a trophy fish on a spring and pawl reel, it felt more than felt GREAT!  In fact, I would go so far as to say, that we have lost the art of fighting fish (palming, etc).  We now rely on drag systems that could stop a train. Now days, for my rods #1-#6 I do not use a reel with a drag system.  I believe the use of a drag on these types of rods/reels, is totally unnecessary.  

Always remember, the most important equipment in fly fishing is not your reel, it's your brain and heart.  

Enjoy.  Thanks for reading.