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Choosing a Fly Reel


Selecting a fly reel for trout fishing has become, like many things in fly fishing, a somewhat unnecessarily complicated adventure. The problem is, reels have gotten so well-made, so functional, that you almost have to know what you are looking for. In the old days, reels held the line, your spare hand was the drag, and that was it. Tippets almost always broke when fighting an unusually large trout, and the rare one you did haul in was a great cause for celebration.

Well things are different today. Drag systems have changed, there are retrieve ratios (always buy 1:1 for trout), and everyone carries around an extra spool or two to change lines when conditions change. As is the nature of all information posted on the Big Y Fly Co. web site, we are here to try to simplify the whole thing.

Fly Reels Function

First, lets start off with the function of the reel. Well the first thing a fly reel was ever designed to do, was to hold the line. Keep it in a nice, convenient, compact location, where we can strip it out as we need. Then we wanted the reel to ’reel’ in the line preferably with a fish on, but also without. Guess what, almost every fly reel out there will do these things to satisfaction. The ultra cheap models, have lots of imperfections that cause the line to get caught up in the housing of the reel, and with a fish on a light tippet you will end up being frustrated in no time. The ultra cheap models will also in no time cease to work altogether, forcing you to pony up more dough and thereby negating the only advantage the ultra cheap model had to begin with. In short, stay away from the ultra cheap models.

Fly Reel Drag

After the original function of the fly reel has been satisfied, the next thing to look at is drag. The drag is the fly reel’s system for applying pressure to the fly line, so when you get that big fish, the fish has to work to pull the line out. A good drag will do just that, provide even tension the whole time. There are two types of drag out there, ‘spring and pawl’, and ‘disc drag.’ Fly reel companies all over have been bragging about the disc drag, it works like the disc braking system in a car. The disc drag system is THE system of choice for large game fish, from large trout on up. But I frankly prefer the spring and pawl system for 90% of my trout fishing, because it is smoother. Less likely to snap off a 6x tippet when the hooked trout makes a sudden change of direction. So in my humble opinion, if fishing a 5 wt or lighter, don’t forget about the good old spring and pawl. Although it is getting harder to find in a quality reel, it is still out there.

Fly Reel Size and other Considerations

This used to be fairly automatic. Match the weight of the rod with the reel, and the line. This is still true today. Although many manufacturers now tout the weight of the fly reels, and the less fatigue you will have after a day of fishing. I am skeptical that a couple of ounces of weight from the fly reel will make that much difference to your fatigue factor. Although I do agree, that the ‘feel’ should be correct, and if possible try out your fly reel on your rod before purchasing. Or if you purchase the reel from the same manufacturer as your rod, they should be counter balance each other, and the ‘feel’ should be perfect.

Another size consideration is arbor size. Even on trout reel 5 wt. or less, large arbor reels are available. Large arbor reels store the line in larger coils, thereby minimizing line memory, which allows for longer casting. They also increase drag consistency, since the spool isn’t spinning as often, a very nice benefit when using the disc drag reel. And the retrieve rate is faster than standard reels as well.

One last consideration is ease of spool changes, most moderate to expensive fly reels now all are easy to switch out spools, so you can switch from floating to sinking line, or what ever changes you like to make. But it doesn’t hurt to try it out before purchasing, and also check to see how much spare spools are, while you’re at it.


Fly reels, like all aspects of fly fishing has come along way, in functionality, specialization, and price. Although due to improved manufacturing techniques, it is still possible to get a decent fly reel for about 100 bucks. You also can spend a small fortune, to decorate your fly fishing ensemble.  All things being equal choose the one whose ‘feel’ you like the best. Then you should be happy with your purchase for years to come.