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Reel Stuff

By Bill Luscombe, 🕔Mon, Mar 21st, 2011


A fly reel is pretty much just a glorified container for your fly line. Most are constructed of aluminum, either molded (melted and poured into a form) or cut from solid bar stock. Reels cut from solid bar stock aluminum are stronger and generally more precisely manufactured than the molded ones. Aluminum fly reels are also either anodized or not. Anodized reels are corrosion resistant and stand up to salt water much better than untreated aluminum reels.

Some reels are made from more expensive alloys, and still others are constructed of graphite. The aluminum reels are by far the most common, but graphite reels are making big gains and their price is coming down quickly. Graphite has the added advantages of being extremely light, strong and rust/corrosion-proof when compared to the metal reels. Reels made from exotic alloys are very good, but they are extremely expensive also . . . too much so for this man.

Fly reels come in three types of actions: single, multiplier, and automatic. Single action reels, as the name implies, wind one turn of the spool for each turn of the handle. The handle is attached directly to the spool and there are no gears involved in the action. It is simple, reliable, and by far the most popular.

Multipliers are designed much like a spinning reel, for each turn of the handle the spool turns three to five times. Gears inside the reel are designed to multiply the number of turns of the handle thus increasing the speed of your retrieve. However, anything with gears is just something more to go wrong. Anglers who tackle large fish that run great distances can find them useful, but most of us find them expensive and heavy.

Automatic fly reels have a spring retrieval system that, when pressed, automatically winds in all the extra line between your line hand and the reel. When you hook a fish you set the hook and simply press a button on the reels and a return spring winds up all the excess putting the fish on the reel much faster than you having to wind in all the excess while trying to play the fish. However, this quick rewinding very often results in tangles and lost fish. Automatics are also heavy and bulky due to the size of the spring in the reel. Overall, automatics should be avoided as well; they are neat toys but not all that practical. For the vast majority of fly-fishers a single action reel is all they will ever need.

All fly reels come with one of two types of drags, either a pawl (gear) or a disc (friction) drag. Pawl style drags rely on pointed metal pieces called pawls that are attached to the reel housing. They are supported inside the reel by springs. The spring tension is adjustable on most and when the reel is assembled the pawls fit into the teeth of a gear fixed to the back of the spool. As the spool turns the pawls are pressed against the springs and the pawls click as they rub from one tooth of the gear to the next. The tighter the spring tension the greater the resistance the pawls produce before allowing the gear, and thus the spool, to turn. The vast majority of lower priced reels have pawl drag systems and they are very reliable.

Disc drags work very much like the drum brakes of a car. There is a nylon or asbestos brake shoe that rubs against a metal wheel. This metal wheel is attached to the reel housing or is free floating around the spindle and often has slots in its side. A retractable pin attached to the back of the spool fits in one of the slots when the line is pulled off the reel and this causes the wheel to turn. When the wheel turns the brake shoe rubs, resulting in drag. The drag tension is adjusted from a dial on the outside of the reel housing. Disc drags are more expensive and are found more often on reels designed for larger fish. Disc drags are smoother than pawl drags and generally can be set to a much heavier tension.

No matter whether the drag is pawl or disc, fly-fishers must make sure that the drag is adjustable. Not very many reels come with non-adjustable drags, but they are out there and they should avoided. The drag on a trout reel should only be set as stiff as is necessary to stop the spool from "free spooling" when you strip line off in preparation for casting. Unlike spin-casting reels, fly reels are seldom used to actually put drag pressure against a fish unless the fish is very large or fast. With larger fish such as steelhead or salmon, a good drag is necessary to do just that, but trout rarely require such tactics.

If you take a close look at different reels you will notice that there are two styles, internal spools and external, or exposed, spools. Internal spools have the edge of the spool enclosed by the reel housing, external spools do not. The exposed spool design allows the fisherman to "palm" the spool when playing a fish. By placing the palm of the hand lightly against the spool edge when a fish is making a run the fisherman can apply drag to the fish. It is an added feature that makes you feel more in control of what is going on instead of having to rely on the reel drag. It is a personal choice and neither style is necessarily better than the other.

When purchasing a reel many factors must be considered. Fly line weight, fish size and speed, and fresh or salt water are some of the more important. Trout reels need not be too sophisticated as they will be used for smaller fish in fresh water. The big game saltwater fly-fisher is in a whole different ball game however, and he will need a larger capacity salt resistant reel with a drag able to slow and stop very large, fast running fish. One reel seldom fits all an angler's needs and opportunities.

Regardless of the reel you choose, check to ensure that the spool has a counter-balance on it. For small trout this is not needed, but anything over about two pounds can make a good run and a running fish pulls line off the reel at a fast rate. The spinning spool will bounce and vibrate badly sometimes causing the tippet to break if it does not have a counter-balance to offset the weight of the reel handle. It's a good thing to keep in mind when looking over reels.

When you finally go to make a purchase you will notice that nearly all new reels are set to wind right handed. They wind clockwise using the right hand to wind with. For most new fly-fishers this seems backwards. Most beginners wind with their left hand and hold the rod in their right. It seems awkward to have to cast using the right hand and then change hands to reel in a fish, and it is. That is why most reels are reversible. Instructions included with each new reel will show you how to reverse the reel's drag so you can wind it left-handed. It is a personal choice and you can suit yourself; I find left-hand wind more comfortable.

Finally, manufacturers tend to love to dress up reels in order to jack up the price while only marginally increasing the functionality of the reel. You should stick with a basic serviceable reel that will perform the job you want it to do reliably. That is not to say that you should go out and buy the cheapest reel you can find, but purchasing a very expensive reel more often than not results in a very good reel at an exorbitant price. Good serviceable reels can be found at very reasonable prices and anglers should not allow themselves to be talked into buying expensive reels when a simpler, cheaper model will do the job just as well.


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