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Choosing The Perfect Reel [How-To Guide]

You’ll be surprised by how much of a difference a great fly reel can make during a fishing trip.

We’ve all seen one too many ads that promise us that one-fit-all fly reel for only $25 from Amazon. Please refrain from hitting the buy button on these. The chances of this reel failing you when you catch that once in a lifetime fish is extremely high.

So What’s The Best Fly Fishing Reel?

There are many scenarios where a certain fly reel will be more beneficial than another.

Here are some SIMPLE steps for picking out your next fly fishing reel:

  • Fly Rod And Fly Reel Fitment – What to consider when buying your equipment separately?
  • Reel Size – Does the reel size matter?
  • What is Drag on a Fly Reel? – Different types of drag systems. Which to choose?
  • Maintaining your Fly Reel – Maintaining your fly reel is key to increasing it’s longevity.
  • Appearance – Why would the appearance matter?
  • Cost – Cheap reels won’t last, but real expensive reels aren’t always the best.

Choosing The Right Reel For my Rod?

The best fly fishing rod, fly fishing reel and fly fishing line combinations are the well-balanced ones.

This is why a lot of anglers purchase fly fishing kits as they already come as a balanced system.

You simply match the numbers for each equipment. For instance, assuming you have a 5-weight(wt) fly rod, then you should also have a 5wt fly reel equipped with 5wt fly line.

Now, this guideline can differ. Depending on the fly rod material make, you can go one up or down in fly reel size.

Our advice is to stick to the 1:1:1 rule. Keep the all the weights consistent throughout your balanced combinations.

⦁ 5wt fly rod with a 5wt fly reel equipped with a 5wt fly line

Check out our well-detailed fly fishing rod guide if you haven’t yet purchased your fly rod.

Best 5wt fly reel for the money [Amazon Link]

Fly reel sizes explained:

In any case, the fly reel size matters. Larger sized fly fishing reels are typically better.

The larger the reel the larger its spool will be. A larger spool will be able to reel in more quickly compared to a smaller one. The larger spools will also provide better control at handling. It’s larger spool also lets you have more backing and fly line.

Additionally, the drag pressure will be better as well. As for those who use their hands and strength to reel, using your palm should make sure that the spool fits in comfortably in hand. This will increase the familiarity and performance.

So, the additional size will provide an additional advantage to any angler.

However, if you’re fishing for smaller fish then the larger reel size is unnecessary.

Fly reel drag systems explained:

The drag system is a really important piece to consider when purchasing your next fly fishing reel.

There are two drag systems on fly reels but they serve the same purpose; to slow the rotation of the spool.

When this rotation is applied with the drag system pressure, it helps control the fish on the end of the line.

Here are the two fly reel drag systems we will explain:

  1. Disc Drag
  2. Click-and-pawl (also known as Spring and Pawl)
Breakdown of differences between spring and pawl and disc drag fly reels.

Disc Drag System Explained

Disc drag fly reels are generally used for larger fish. They provide better resistance to a revolving reel which in return slows the speed of the fly line. When battling against larger fish, the more resistance there is, the better. This will cause the fish to get tired faster.

Disc drags work much the same way disc brakes work on cars and bikes. The disc is physically located in the middle of the spool.

This system has two or more circular discs which are compressed against each other. This creates friction when the spool moves against the disc which causes the reel to revolve slower.

This system is flawless when it comes to fishing larger fish. An advantage to using the Disc Drag is that the drag itself is controllable. You can easily adjust the intensity by turning the drag clicker.

You can increase the drag intensity by turning the drag clicker clockwise. The opposite of this is also true; decreasing the intensity of the drag by turning the drag clicker counter-clockwise.

One thing to note is that you don’t want your drag too strong.

When a fish pulls, one of the following will break off if the drag is full intensity: the fish, the knots on your hook, line set-up, or your tippet.

The most likely to break in this system will be your tippet. Your tippet is generally very light and thin in order to decrease it’s visibility. The drag can handle more pressure than your tippet.


Vintage reels with vintage floaters for fishing.

What Is A Click and Pawl Drag Fly Fishing Reel?

The click and pawl drag, also known as the click drag. This is the most traditional fly reel.

Unlike the discs in the disc drag, the click drag works by revolving a toothed gear over a spring clip. As the reel revolves, the toothed gear revolves against the spring click, also known as the click pawl. The reason for the name is because the clicks it makes when the line is being taken by the fish.

Here’s why you want a click drag fly reel.

If you’re only fishing for smaller fish in small streams, then this type of fly reel is for you. Unlike the disc system in a disc drag, the resistance it produces will only be felt by small fish. This resistance on the fly reel can also be easily controlled.

There are no such thing as left or right handed debates for these types of reels. The way the inner spring clips are engineered will work the same despite the direction of the spool. You just need to re-attach the handle on the right or left side.

Disc Drag vs. Click And Pawl – Which To Choose?

Disc Drag:

  • Less expensive – generally speaking.
  • Fishing for larger fish – can venture to saltwater fishing.
  • More fish-stopping power.
  • Consistent drag – also have control on the intensity of the drag.

Click And Pawl:

  • You want to stay traditional.
  • Fish for small fish only – drag is only felt by smaller fish.
  • Ambidextrous – can use both hands.

Wherever you fly fish, the chances of running into someone using a Click and Pawl over a Disc Drag is pretty low.

What’s The Arbor On A Fly Fishing Reel?

The arbor is the centerpiece of the fly reel that holds your backing and fly line.

When fly reels were first invented, they were invented with a small centerpiece.The smaller centerpiece allowed for larger spools.The upside to this is that you can add more backing or fly line.

The two disadvantages to a smaller centerpiece:

  1. Little line is returned when rotating your fly reel.
  2. More rotations means a tired hand.

Large arbors (spools) were created to counteract these disadvantages.

The opposite is true; the larger spools retrieve more line more quickly. This has quickly become the standard for anyone who is fly fishing for big-game fish.

Check out how to get a perfect fly fishing line set up on your fly fishing reel.

The Importance of Maintaining You Fly Reel!

There’s no avoiding maintaining your fly reel. You want your fly reel running smooth years after you first purchased it. The only way for your fly reel to run smoothly is to maintain it regularly.

By maintaining, we mean cleaning or even lubricating your fly reel properly.

How often? Here are some general rules of maintaining your fly reel maintenance frequently:

  • The more you fish
  • Fishing in dirty water
  • Saltwater fishing
  • Fishing in the winter season
  • Fishing on sandy banks
  • Placing fly reel down on the ground/mud often

If any of the listed above sound familiar to you, then you need to maintain your fly reel more often than your average user. It’s also a good idea to main it more often if you fly fish while you travel.

Having well maintained fly fishing equipment increases the longevity of your equipment.

A red and black fly reel.

Fly Fishing Reel Appearance

Now this definitely controversial but you want a fly reel that is visually pleasing.

This can generate excitement. It’s written in our DNA, we appreciate beauty and always get attracted towards it.

This excitement can help you get to the waters on those lazy days. Your aesthetically pleasing fly reel Instagram posts will DEFINITELY attract more followers too. I mean who doesn’t want that nowadays, right?

The downside to wanting a visually appealing fly reel is that others do too. Which means it’ll cost more just based off demand.

To add to this, they cost more without any physical benefits.

How Much Will My First Fly Fishing Reel Cost?

There’s no exact price for this. Everything listed above will impact the final cost. There are reels that range anywhere from $40 (CAD) all the way into the high hundreds.

If you’re looking at fishing for smallmouth bass, panfish or small trout in the river behind your house, then this entry level fly reel will do wonders. However, because of the material build, the life expectancy will only last a couple years at best.

This is why we recommend spending $100-$150 on a well built fly reel. Not only will you enjoy fly fishing that much more, but your fly reel will also last a long time.

Another reason with purchasing more expensive equipment that are finely built is that they hold their resale value. Not many things will beat the great feeling of selling old equipment for newer equipment.

In conclusion:

The most important part is picking the correct fly reel size that best matches your fly rod.

Our general rule is 1:1:1, picking the same weight for your fly rod, fly reel and fly line. Fully balanced combinations work best.

Larger fly reel sizes are typically better, but you shouldn’t always go for them. If you only fish for smaller fish, then you should lean towards a smaller fly reel.

The two drag systems on fly reels are the disc drag system and the click and pawl. Each one offers its own pros and cons.

Disc Drag offer more control and flexibility. They also allow you to control how intense the drag is. Which in return allows you to fish for bigger fish.

Click and Pawl is a traditional fly reel. It’s mainly used for smaller fish. You don’t see these as often as 30 years ago.

Most anglers forget the importance of maintaining a fly reel. Don’t let this be you. Regardless of where or what your fishing, your fly reel risks the chance of corroding.

To combat this, a good rule of thumb is to run it under clean slow flowing water. This will clean any sort of debris on the fly reel and fly line.

Controversial but you definitely want a fly reel that is visually appealing.

A good fly reel with the right size, drag system and appearance should cost you in the $100-$150 range. If you think this is a lot, remember that regular maintenance will help it keep its resale value.

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