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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.

Modern fly reels are more than just line holders. The correct reel will help balance the fly rod, perform smoothly, and most importantly, help you land that big fish. Following are some things to look for as you consider your next reel purchase:


Like rods, reels are often rated by weight or size.  When looking for a new reel you will want to match the reel size to your rod for a correctly balanced outfit; for example, if you’re fishing a 5-weight trout rod, you’ll want to pair it with a 5-weight reel.

Other things to consider when looking at reel size are the type of line you will be using and backing capacity. Most reels can handle 2 to 3 sizes of line. For example a size 3.5 Lamson reel will handle a 7, 8, or 9wt line

Switch and Spey reels are oversize to accommodate larger shooting head fly lines, while salt water reels often feature more backing capacity as those fish are prone to long runs.


Fly reels are constructed in two ways: pre-cast and machined. Pre-cast reels are made from liquid metal poured into 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.

Machined reels are milled out of a solid block of metal. This process leads to a lighter and stronger reel; machined reels will last a lifetime and offer the best performance over time; not surprisingly, they are also more expensive than pre-cast reels.

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.

dan gates fish
Dan with a new switch setup using the Echo Ion Fly Reel.


Drag is one of the most important features of the fly reel. The drag provides the braking power to stop a big fish from pulling all of the line off of the reel. There are two main systems on the market: click and pawl, and disc drag.

The traditional style is click-and-pawl and offers less adjustability and stopping power than a disc drag system. Because of this, the click-and-pawl is a great system if you are on a budget or chasing smaller fish such as sun fish or small trout.

Disc drag provides the smoothest and most efficient drag system. It is a great choice for stopping large game fish, or when you need to smoothly stop a large trout on light tippet.


Arbor refers to the cylinder at the center of the reel that the backing and fly line is wound around.  Most modern reels feature some type of large arbor as they retrieve line faster and create less ‘memory’ in the line and leader. If you are chasing warm water or salt water species, pick a reel with a larger arbor as this will aid in smooth runs as well as retrieving a lot of line quickly when the fish turns and runs back at you.

Classic trout reels are generally smaller in arbor, as are beginner fly reels. They are usually lighter, less bulky, and less expensive than their large-arbor counterparts.

Among Backcountry.com Expert Gearheads there are plenty of people who love nothing more than discussing fly fishing (myself included). So if you have any other questions about rods, or anything regarding fly fishing, please get in touch with us.


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