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How To Buy Fly Fishing Reels

Fly fishing is part science, part art. While it is demanding, you can improve your chances by selecting a reel that suits the type of fish you want to catch and your fishing style. This reel becomes part of a "balanced" system when combined with your fly line, leader and fly.

How to Buy Fly Fishing Reels

Reels can vary greatly in cost. Make sure to choose a reel that can accommodate the type and amount of line you want to use and that pairs well with your rod.


  • Aluminum/Graphite
    • Most fly reels are made of aluminum, either cast or machined because of cost
    • The main consideration with aluminum is its finish
      • If you plan to fly fish in saltwater, buy a reel with an anodized finish since it will withstand the corrosive effects of salt air and water
    • A fly reel made of graphite is lighter
  • Line capacity
    • Many of today's fly reels come with large arbors, the spool's center where the fly line backing is tied. These larger arbor reels offer you several advantages:
      • Quicker line retrieval
      • Better line handling
      • Enhanced drag-pressure control
    • The larger arbor makes it easier to take in line, a big plus when a fish runs and then comes back at you
    • In fly fishing, you must keep constant pressure on the line so you'll be reeling to take up slack. A larger arbor helps in this situation.
    • The larger arbor reduces line coiling since the line pulls off with fewer corkscrews. This helps to keep the line from tangling.
    • You will get more consistent drag pressure from a larger arbor
  • Line weight
    • First, determine the type of fish that you want to catch. Smaller fish such as trout require a lighter line weight; bigger fish such as pike need a heavier line weight. In either case, the reel needs to match the line weight.
    • You need to match your reel to your line weight and rod
    • A five-weight reel matches up with a five-weight rod
    • Remember, fly fishing requires a balanced system so match the reel and rod. If you don't, you will hurt your casting accuracy and efficiency.

Types of reels

There are three types of fly reels to select: single-action, multiplier or automatic.

  • Single-action
    • This is the simplest and most common, a good choice if you a beginner
    • The fly line is stored on a spool and the handle attaches directly to the spool rather than a gear system found on most fishing reels. One crank of the handle provides one revolution of the spool.
  • Multiplier
    • Unlike the single-action, the multiplier reel attaches to a gear system that multiplies line retrieval with each crank of the handle. The advantage is quicker line pick-up.
  • Automatic
    • This reel allows you to simply flick a lever to retrieve line, a big plus when you have a lot of line out in the water. Fly fishing purists may disdain the automatic as taking away the challenge, but it does help in line control.

Drag systems

This is an essential feature of fly reels. Simply put, "drag" applies friction to the spool. This helps when you cast and when you play a fish, especially a larger fish. You can select from three types of drag systems:

  • Spring-and-pawl
    • This type of system is also known as "click-and-pawl" or "ratchet-and-pawl." It is the simplest and most affordable drag.
    • A spring pushes the pawl into a gear on the reel spool to create drag. Some models use a knob to increase or decrease drag tension, while others feature a fixed drag tension.
    • While this is the simplest drag system, the "spring-and-pawl" is best-suited for lighter fishing, such as trout and panfish
    • This system will work on larger fish if you want a challenge and are skilled at working a reel by palming, a technique where you press the palm of your hand against the spinning reel of the spoon as the fish takes line
  • Caliper
    • This option falls between the "spring-and-pawl" and disc system both in the way it performs and what it costs
    • Much like brakes on a car, a caliper pad pushes against the braking surface on the spool
    • This friction then slows the way a reel spool spins
    • Even though most of today's reels come with an exposed palming rim, if you plan to palm make sure the reel you buy has this feature
  • Disc
    • Generally found on more expensive reels, a disc drag pushes a large-diameter pad against the reel spool's braking surface
    • Just as with disc brakes on a car, pressure is applied directly, which increases control and the overall efficiency of the drag system.
    • Cork or synthetic materials such as Teflon are used in disc drag systems
    • Although more expensive, many believe cork provides a smoother, more consistent pressure and can be adjusted more precisely
    • You can also further increase control by selecting a reel that incorporates an exposed palming rim, usually a built-in feature on reels with a disc drag
    • Disc drag systems are ideal for fighting big, powerful fish since you get extra control and more consistent drag pressure


  • Larger spools offer quicker line retrieval, better line handling and enhanced drag pressure control
  • If you're palming, make sure the reel also fits your hand as comfortably as possible as well

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How to Buy Combos

  • Fly fishing is as much art as it is sport so your equipment becomes extremely important. Line, leader, tippet, fly, reel and rod work together as a balanced system.
  • If you are a beginner, you should consider buying a pre-packaged combo. This assures you of getting that balanced system necessary to increase your chances of landing fish and your enjoyment of the sport.
  • Get lots of practice and refine your skills by adding more equipment as you begin to master the art of fly fishing.
  • If you want an all-purpose combo, look for 5- or 6-weight rod and reel, with an 8- 9-foot rod, and a rod with a medium to medium-fast action. This combo will tackle nearly all of the fly fishing situations you may encounter.

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