An In-Depth Guide to Choose a Fly Reel: Everything You Need To Know

how to choose a fly reel

Fortunately for fly fishermen, the process of choosing a fly reel is not nearly as complicated as the process of choosing a fly rod is since fly reels are not nearly as purpose-specific fly rods are.

However, choosing an appropriate fly reel for any given type of fly fishing does involve a bit of consideration and an understanding of the different types of fly reels, the different types of materials that are used to construct them, why spool diameter is important, the different arbor sizes that are available, why backing capacity is an important consideration, and the different types of drag systems.

So, while this might sound like a lot of different aspects to consider in order to choose an appropriate fly reel for the type of fly fishing you intend to pursue, I assure that the process of choosing an appropriate fly reel is not nearly as complicated as the process for choosing an appropriate fly rod is!

Freshwater vs. Saltwater Fly Reels

So, the first aspect that you need to consider when choosing an appropriate fly reel is to understand that, like fly rods, fly reels are divided into two categories consisting of those that are designed for use on freshwater and those that are designed for use on saltwater. However, unlike fly rods which are clearly divided into freshwater and saltwater categories, this distinction is not nearly so clear when classifying fly reels. For instance, fly rods are all classified by length, line weight and, action and thus, freshwater fly rods are classified as those that are designed to cast fly line weights 1 through 6 whereas, saltwater fly rods are classified as those that are designed to cast fly line weights 6 through 14.

However, no such distinction exists for classifying fly reels. Instead, whether a given model of fly reel from a given manufacturer is designed for freshwater or saltwater use is dependent on the range of line weights it is designed to hold, the size of its arbor, its backing capacity and, the type of drag system it has as well as the internal construction of the drag system. Thus, we will examine each of these aspects in greater detail below.

Materials and Construction

Thus, the first thing that you need to consider when choosing a fly reel is the material from which it is constructed. Thus, you also need to be aware that fly reels are made from one of three different materials and thus, they also have three different price ranges.

For instance, inexpensive fly reels are often made from a fiber-filled composite material and are created by either injecting or pressing the composite material into a mold. In addition, fly reels made from composite materials generally have a dull, grainy, appearance that is less aesthetically appealing than fly reels made from either molded aluminum or machined aluminum. But, they are also very resistant to both impact and scratches.

On the other hand, there are other fly reels that are made from molded aluminum which are often more expensive than fly reels made from composite materials but, they are also often more aesthetically pleasing. But, they are not as tough as those made from composite materials.

Then, there are fly reels that are machined from a solid block of aircraft grade aluminum using highly sophisticated CNC milling machines and they represent the pinnacle of fly reel production. Therefore, because this type of fly reel is made by Computer Numerical Controlled milling machines, the design of these reels can range from the very simple to the very complex. In fact, some designs are so complex, they can stagger the imagination!

Consequently, machined aluminum fly reels are the most expensive of the three types of fly reels because they require very sophisticated machinery and highly trained machine operators as well as several hours of machining to create them. Thus, owning an intricately machined, aluminum, fly reel is akin to owning a Mercedes Benz or a Rolls Royce with an accompanying price tag. In fact, CNC machined fly reels can range from a couple of hundred dollars to a couple of thousand dollars!

Line Weight Range and Backing Capacity

Another aspect of choosing an appropriate fly reel for your intended purpose is to choose one designed to hold an appropriate range of fly line weights because, the heavier a fly line is, the larger its diameter will be. Thus, all fly reel manufactures design their various models of fly reels to hold a specific range of fly line weights along with a specific number of yards of “backing” (a thin diameter line made from braided Dacron) with a specific tensile strength.

For instance, a given fly reel might be designed to hold line weights 3, 4, and 5 with a different length of backing for each fly line weight.  Thus, said fly reel might be designed to hold a 3 wt. fly line and 150 yards of 20 lb. backing or, a 4 wt. fly line and 125 yards of 20 lb. backing or, 175 yards of 35 lb. gel-spun backing (which has a smaller diameter than standard backing). Or, it might hold a 5 wt. fly line and 100 yards of 20 lb. backing or, 150 yards of 35 lb. gel-spun backing.

In addition, the reason that a fly reel’s backing capacity is important to consider is that most fly lines measure between 90 feet and 110 feet which does not give an angler much distance to work with when fighting large fish species. Thus, in order to increase the distance over which a fly fisherman can fight a large fish, they attach the back end of their fly line to their backing which is then wound onto the fly reel’s spool underneath the fly line.

Therefore, it is imperative when choosing a fly reel for any intended purpose to choose one with the correct line weigh range as well as an appropriate backing capacity.

 

Fly Reel Spool Diameter

Yet another important aspect of choosing an appropriate fly reel is to choose one with an appropriate spool diameter. However, before we can discuss this aspect, you need to be made aware that fly reels consist of a frame which holds the spool and a separate and detachable spool which holds the fly line and the backing.

In addition, fly reel spools range from the very small to the very large and, while this is not important to some fly fishermen, it is of great importance to others. Therefore, some fly fisherman like to match the diameter of their reels to the length of their fly rods. For instance, a fly fisherman might want to mate a 6 1/2 ft. or 7 ft. fly rod with a reel that has a diameter of 2 3/4 inches or 2 7/8 inches and, mate their 9 ft. fly rod with a fly reel that has a diameter of 3 1/4 or 3 1/2 inches.

However, it should be noted that this is purely a matter of aesthetics and personal choice since the reel’s line weight range and backing capacity are far more important than the diameter of the reel’s spool.

 

Fly Reel Arbor size

Next, we need to discuss the three different sizes of fly reel arbors. But first, you need to understand what a fly reel arbor is. Thus, a fly reel arbor is defined as the drum in the center of the spool that the backing and the fly reel are wound onto.

In addition, you need to be aware that there are three different sizes of fly reel arbors which consist of standard (aka small) arbors, mid-arbors (aka medium) and, large arbors which, in turn affects both the outside diameter of the spool and the rate at which the fly line and backing are retrieved.

Thus, some fly fishermen prefer fly reels with standard (small) arbors because they find them more aesthetically pleasing than those with mid-arbors or large arbors and, this is especially true when mating a fly reel with a short fly rod that is meant for casting over short distances.     However, the smaller a fly reel’s arbor is, the smaller its diameter is and thus, the less fly line or backing it will retrieve per single rotation of the spool.

On the other hand, when using longer fly rods to cast over longer distances, fly reels with standard arbors require far more time and energy to retrieve the fly line and thus, the large majority of fly fisherman prefer to use fly reels with mid-arbors or large arbors because the larger the arbor is, the more line it will retrieve per single rotation of the spool.

 

Fly Reel Drag systems

Next, we need to examine fly reel drag systems because there are two different types and they differ significantly in their construction and the amount of tension that they can place on the fly line and backing.

So, you first need to be aware that fly reel drag systems are divided into spring-and-pawl drag systems and disc drag systems. Thus, as the name implies, spring-and-pawl drag systems consist of one or two springs affixed to the inside of the reel’s frame and a triangular shaped piece of metal called a “pawl” who’s pointed end engages a gear attached to the inside of the reel’s spool. Thus, in order to increase or decrease the amount of tension placed on the fly line, the angler turns a knob attached to the outside of the reel’s fame which, in turn, places more or less pressure on the spring or springs.

However, a disc drag system replaces both the spring and the pawl with a series of small, round, wafers which are encased in a metal canister. Thus, in order to increase or decrease the amount of tension placed on the fly line, the angler again turns a knob attached to the outside of the reel’s fame which, in turn, places more or less pressure on the discs contained inside of the drag mechanism. Therefore, disc drags are able to place far more tension on the fly line than a spring-and-pawl drag system is.

Therefore, as a general rule of thumb, spring-and-pawl drag systems are reserved for fly reels with relatively small diameters and standard arbors while, all mid-arbor and large arbor fly reels have disc drag systems. Consequently, small diameter fly reels with spring-and-pawl drag systems are generally considered freshwater fly reels while, large arbor fly reels with disc drags can be used for either freshwater or saltwater.

Balance

Last, you need to be aware of the concept of balancing your fly reel with your fly rod. The reason that this is important is that a fly rod & reel outfit that is too heavy in the butt end will feel awkward in the hand when casting and thus, it will negatively affect your casting accuracy. On the other hand, an outfit that is too heavy at the tip end will cause you to have to expend more energy when casting and thus, it will cause your casting arm to tire much faster than an outfit that is properly balanced. Therefore, a perfectly balanced fly rod & reel outfit will remain horizontal when you hold the grip in your hand and you then remove all of your fingers from the grip except for your middle finger.

Conclusion

Thus, choosing a fly reel from among the many different types and brands of fly reels that are available is partly a matter of personal preference and partly a matter of the particular purpose for which you intend to use it. However, of all of the concepts mentioned above, choosing the correct drag system and balancing your reel with your fly rod are the two most important aspects to keep in mind.

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