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Make it Sing: How to Choose a Fly Reel

To the seasoned fly fisherman, there is no sound sweeter than the mechanical hum of a quality fly reel, especially when the drag sings under the strain of a big fish. Whether you’re new to the world of fly fishing or are brushing up before selecting your next reel, watch Backcountry Gearhead Brandon Collett run through the basic features you’ll want to consider when looking for the perfect fly reel. Just need a quick refresher? Check out the highlights below.


Like rods, fly reels are assigned a weight designation.  The weight is not a reference to the physical mass of the reel, but an indication of what species and fishing style the reel is intended for. Regardless of what species you plan on fishing for, you’ll want to make sure the weight of the reel you choose matches the weight of the rod you plan on using. For example, if you’re fishing a 5-weight trout rod, you’ll want to pair it with a 5-weight reel.


The two basic construction styles for fly reels are pre-cast and machined. As the name implies, pre-cast reels are made from liquid metal cast in a mold. These reels are typically heavier and slightly less durable than their machined counterparts, but they can also be had at a more reasonable price point. The reliable performance and affordable price of pre-cast reels makes them a great choice if you’re looking to get started in fly fishing. Cut from a solid block of metal, machined reels are the strongest and lightest reels available. Although they can be pricey, machined reels are built to last and perform at a high level year after year.


When selecting a fly reel, you’ll also want to consider the type of drag system. The two main types being click-and-pawl systems and disc drags. Compact and lightweight, click-and-pawl systems are ideal for small fish species, smaller rivers, and protecting light tippets. Featuring a disc brake, not unlike those used on a car or bike, disc drags provide the stopping power needed to slow down bigger species of fish.


The last thing you’ll want to consider is the arbor size on the reel you select. Standard size arbors fit easily in a pocket thanks to their smaller size and are generally less expensive than large arbor designs, making them a great choice if you’re shopping for your first fly reel. Large arbor designs increase retrieval rate and reduce fly line memory, helping you fight larger fish and avoid line tangles out on the river.


Video Transcription

Hey, this is Brandon from We’re out here on the Provo River just outside of home base in Park City, Utah. Today, I’m going to run through how to choose a fly reel. When choosing a fly reel, the first thing you’re going to want to look at is where you’re fishing and what you’re fishing for. For example, when fishing a small mountain stream for six inch brook trout, you’re going to need a different reel than you would if you were hunting hundred pound tarpon off the Keys.

Secondly, you’re going to want to pair your fly rod and line weight with the size of the reel. For example, an eight weight fly rod should be paired with an eight weight reel. If you were to put a four weight reel on there, it wouldn’t balance the setup properly, and you’d also be undergone for larger species because you wouldn’t have enough line capacity or a strong enough drag.

Once you’ve determined these two factors, you can then move on to finding out what’s going to be the best fly reel construction, drag system, and arbor size for your needs. When it comes to fly reel construction, it comes down to two choices, precast or machined. A precast reel is born from liquid metal being poured into a mold, and then it hardens to form its shape. These reels generally are heavier, and not as durable as a machined reel, but they’re a great way to get into fly fishing and get a high-end reel without breaking the bank.

Machined reels involve a process in which the reel is cut from a solid block of metal. This is a more expensive process, but it leads to a lighter and stronger reel. A machined reel is truly meant to withstand a lifetime of fly fishing use. Another thing to consider is the finish on the reel. An anodized finish will stand up to salt water, which is very corrosive, and this is essential if you’re planning on fishing in the ocean.

The next thing to look at is drag. Drag is what offers resistance while fighting a fish, it’s your braking power. There’s two main types of drag out there, click and pawl or spring and pawl systems versus your disc drag. So this reel here is what we call a click and pawl system. It’s the simplest drag system of our fly fishing reels, and it’s going to have more of an open drag as opposed to a closed drag. It offers minimal resistance compared with our disc drag systems by using a click and check system that correlates with grooves on the inside of the reel. It’s perfect for small fish and smaller rivers and streams, and protecting small tippets.

This reel here is going to be a disc drag system. This works like the disc brakes on a car or a bike. It increases the overall efficiency of the drag system by consistently adding drag pressure. You can adjust the drag with the disc system inside the braking mechanism by simply twisting, tightening, or loosening the little knob on the side. With a disc system what’s different from a click and pawl is you’re going to have a disc that is braking against the actual reel. This is ideal for fighting larger and powerful fish, and slowing them down in those fast runs.

The last thing to consider when choosing a reel is the size of the arbor, standard versus large arbor. The arbor of a reel is the cylinder at the center of the reel that the backing and fly line is wound around. Standard arbor reels tend to be lighter, less bulky, and are often less expensive than their large arbor counterparts. These reels are ideal for small stream and trout fishing, and are also great for people just getting into the sport. Large arbor reels allow you to pick up line at a much faster pace than a standard arbor. This gives you a huge advantage when fighting a big fish. Its larger circumference also helps reduce fly line memory, so you’re not dealing with a coiled line all day.

So that covers the basics on how to select a fly reel. Keep in mind that you can get much more in depth into the technology of reels. So if you have any further questions about fly fishing or anything else we sell at, feel free to chat or call our knowledgeable Gearheads.

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