How to Buy a Fly Reel

by Mike Hogue


Customers always amaze me in different ways. I suppose that is why I enjoy working with them. Recently I had some very unusal questions about reels. I had some even more interesting questions about applications and choices in selecting a reel.

To become better consumers I always think that information is the best way to go, learn what is that you want, identify the features that are important, set a budget and then find what is that you are looking for. This is the ideal way to buy something whether you are shopping for an SUV or a new fly reel. You need to identify what is you are fishing for, the size of the tackle and then look at how much you want to spend.

A couple of things generally hold true in fly reels. Usually, in FRESHWATER fishing the fly reel is just a place to hold a line. If you learn how to strip line and how to control the line you can usually land most kinds of fish. This is true whether you are using a hand made $500 reel or a reel that was purchased at a garage sale. All these assumptions get thrown out the door when you try to land a big fish, you are fishing saltwater or salmon/steelheading ( fish that run ) or where you are playing larger fish on very light tippets or perhaps you are spey casting. Most of these situations require specialized tackle and reels.

One rule to keep in mind is if it is a big fish, you need big tackle. One customer was prepared to shell out almost $5000 to go tarpon fishing and wanted to use a $25 reel. This person set himself up to ruin a once in a lifetime trip by using inferior tackle for that application. It would alot like trying to use a Volkswagon Beetle to haul gravel for a new interstate highway. You might get there, but the trip wouldn't be too pleasant.

Lets take a look at some of the reel's functions and features. A few of these you might know about and some you may not have considered before.

Fly reels are generally made of aluminum. Cheaper reels are made from castings, while more expensive reels are bar stock that are hand turned on lathes. Usually pressed cast reels are cheaper due to labor costs when compared to a bar stock reel. It is also believed that bar stock reels are more durable and stronger than reels which have been pressed. Pressed reels are mostly painted, while bar stock is anodized which fuses the color to the metal in a heat process.

A reel is connected to the seat with a long sanded metal object called the reel feet. The feet slide into bands or clips called a reel seat. We are lucky that all of the folks that make reels a few years ago agreed on one standard in which seats on rods will accept any reel. This standard was agreed to by AFTMA ( which is the American Fly Tackle Manufacturer's Association ). For those that remember this the old Pfuleggers almost never fit anything, you had to file the feet to get them to fit into a seat. What totally sucked is you shelled out for a very high dollar reel, you might have had to file it to get it onto your rig. Be forwarned, if you buy reels made more than 10 years ago, it might fit on a seat or might not.

A reel has a handle of course which is used to turn the spool. There are several creative designs but most are screwed into the spool, some are machined and attached to the face. Usually in fly tackle we have only one handle, although some designs have two knobs. A handle should be secure, not wiggle and be solidly attached. I have seen a few that barely get the job done. Some have knobs that spin freely, while the handle itself is stationary. Most are metal although some have wood or plastic inserts.

A spool is the part of the reel that holds the line. Attached to the outside of the spool is a small weight that is called a counter balance. This acts as balance so that the spool spins freely and true. In most modern reels, the counter balance is decoration but in older reels, if the weight wasn't there it didn't turn true. This is primarily due to the weight and size of the reel. Think of the counter balance like the weights on your tires.

Spools generally have exposed rims, this is called the palming rim. If you are playing a fish you can cup your hand on the outside of the rim and slow the fish or play it with a palming rim. If you are playing a fish on light tackle with light tippets, this often is a better choice because it doesn't stress the tip of your rod as much or risk breaking the tip of the rod. It also can help you from breaking off the fish when using light tippets.

The arbor is the center of the reel. A large arbor has a large inside center while a regular arbor has a smaller inside center post. Usually large arbor reels are heavier while a small arbor reel is lighter. The main advantage here is that a large arbor makes the line pick up faster and creates less coils in the line. If you don't use alot of backing when spooling the line, you will pack it in tightly creating lots of coils. When you cast this out, it will cork screw and spin almost any fly into a doughnut. This one reason for using backing or also to increase the size of the reel as you up the size of the line. If you have a small arbor with little backing, don't leave the reel in hot trunk of your car or you are likely to make permenant sets and coils into the line.

Drags are the part of the reel that creates pressure and prevents the line from free spooling or back lashing. If you remember the old bait casters, these babies free spooled and back lashed to beat the band. You spent half you time cutting, yanking and ripping out line which is why you didn't get much fishing done. The drag is created in several ways: spring /pawl or disc drag. Click drags are springs that mostly put pressure against a gear and keep it from free spooling. It doesn't create alot of pressure on the line and mostly is an anti-back lash thing. These reels are noisy for instance the old Hardy reels sounded like a cat wrapped up in a paper bag. Disc drags are either pads or gears. In a pad system the the drag has a caliper like the breaks on a car, the caliper clamps against a disc and as the pressure increases, the clamp tightens. A gear systems uses bearings and gears and a one way clip that controls the amount of pressure against the gears. As the pressure increases, the force increases.

A couple of ideas: Always hand wind line. One brillant idea a few years ago was to use gel spun spider wire for backing. Great idea. The theory was that you could put fine line on any reel and use that reel for saltwater or salmon fishing since the spider wire was about 25% the size of the standard backing. Just pack that baby full. Trouble was that when folks machine wound spider wire either: 1) they couldn't get it back on the reel after the line played out ( because it was packed too tight) or 2) it exploded spools since the line was packed on so densely. A fair amount of this stuff was Kevelar and it saws guides right in half when the backing ran quickly against a guide. Not sure what spider wire is good for, but you can keep it. It is not environmentally friendly and takes about 50 years to break down. I strongly recommend boycotting this stuff.

Don't pack a flyline on really tightly. If you put say a 6 weight on a 3 weight rig, you create loads of coils. If you must do this, go buy a double taper line, cut it in half, attach that and create a micro shooting head. You can save the back half and use that later. I know of one person that did this sort of system on a 2-3 weight for midge fishing to get more backing. He cut the DT in half and then spooled on more backing, this way if you got a big fish on that was going to run, you could still use light tackle. Great idea for steelheading, with a six weight with a large arbor reel.

If you are buying a spey line, and spey rod, get a spey reel. That stuff is like fettuccine. It is wide and thick, the line is extra long in length and you need a ton of backing. The basic rig looks more or less like a can of pork and beans. If you try to put the line on a standard reel, it will take about 10 yards of backing if you can fit the line on the reel at all.


For more Info Contact:

Mike Hogue / Badger Creek Fly Tying / 622 West Dryden Road, Freeville, NY 13068

Phone: 607-347-4946