If you ask most fly fishermen how they choose their rods, reels and fly lines they will usually give you one of two answers. “My dad uses or used this brand” or “My friends use this brand” are by far the most common ways that someone comes to be a loyal customer of a reel or rod manufacturer. But let us suppose, for about as long as it takes you to read this article, that you wake up in a world where there are no brand names on anything to do with fly fishing gear. Let us also suppose that the day before this disaster you placed your reel bag on the back of your vehicle while you were loading up to head home from your last fishing trip. Just as you remember this, you swing into your driveway. As your car screeches to a stop your forehead falls onto the steering wheel just as your tears start to flow. The tears aren’t for the hundreds or thousands of dollars you just lost. Your tears are dripping onto your floor mat because you have no idea how to pick a fly reel by anything other than brand name or a referral from a friend.
This is a silly, if not dumb, over the top scenario. Maybe the part about losing your reels isn’t but the rest of it is. But it illustrates how hard it is to pick a new fly reel that is right for you.
The number one question that we get isn’t about what makes a reel right for that customer. It is; “What reels do you use?” Unfortunately this is like asking a car salesman what is his favorite car model. The answer you are probably going to get in a lot of fly shops is going to be; “This is my favorite;” as the shop guy reaches for the reel that they are overstocked in or there is a sales incentive for at that moment. Here are some basic things to think about when you are choosing a new reel so you won’t have to rely on anyone except yourself.
You can limit the frustration for yourself right off of the bat by determining how much you want to spend and then sticking to it. Remember, like most things, you get what you pay for and this is true with fly reels. Particularly when it comes to durability. Which brings us to the next facet that you should use to help you decide which reel is right for you.
How tough a reel is determined by three things. The first is obviously the material from which it is constructed. The second one that is often overlooked by many anglers is how does the manufacturers convert the material into the final product. The third one I will get to a little later.
Fly Reel Materials
Milled Aluminum –
It makes the most durable fly reel components by far and it is the most expensive. The reel components are literally “carved” out of one solid piece of metal. The is why a reel manufactured
this way has a higher cost and toughness. Side note here: There are a myriad of different protective coatings that are often proprietary to each brand. The coating protects the reel from denting, corrosion and cracking. Coating technologies among reel makers are very similar but the thicker the coating the tougher the reel will be.
Cast Aluminum –
It is a lower cost material and method for producing reels. Cast products will sometimes have flaws in the reel components caused by the introduction of outside gases or particulates during the casting process. If this occurs then there will be a weak area at the spot of contamination. Cast aluminum also tends to dent and crack easier than bar stock aluminum because the aluminum used for casting tends to be inferior.
Composite Materials –
These reels tend to be very lightweight. Reels from composites have some of the same problems cast aluminum has since they are usually not machined but molded instead. Temperature and torque are this materials worst enemy. In exceptionally cold setting composites can crack or break under torque or just being dropped. However; the reels build from this material are getting more and more hardy as the technology advances. The advantages are obvious to the angler, lower cost and weight on the rod.
Cast Steel –
Also known as “pot meta”l by many of us. This material is somewhat strong but also suffers from the same issues that occur in the casting process of cast aluminum, except to a greater degree. Cast steel tends to be heavy, crack and bend very easily. Denting and corrosion truly attack reels and spools made from this material. That is why cast steel reels need very good care, on and off of the water.
Reel frames and components made of plastic are by far the cheapest. There are very few pure plastic reels out there but there are a million plastic reel components that are paired with most of the materials above. Remember that the less plastic components in a reel, the higher the cost and probably the higher the quality.
This is an all-encompassing term when it comes to fly reels. Design plays a part in durability, weight, aesthetics, utility and cost of the reel. So I will talk about each part of separately. All are of different importance to different fly fishermen so you will have to decide which reel has the design for you.
Durability and Toughness
How long a reel survives on and off of the water comes down to the materials that I talked about before. However, there are definitely certain design features other than materials that can impact the reels lifespan. Look for things like how the reel handle is attached to the spool or how if the drag knob wiggles side to side. Here are a few other things to look for in the design of a fly reel that impact its durability.
- Does the reel spool have a metal spindle or is it some other material? Is it screwed on, soldered or attached some other way?
- Is the reel axle metal or some other material? How is it attached to the reel frame?
- How ported is the spool? Is the reel frame a full cage or not?
There are many more design elements that directly impact a fly reel’s durability. A simple rule is this; if it is pretty and light, then is probably less durable. Think about what happens to a quarterback when a defensive lineman sacks the QB as compared to the same defensive lineman running into an offensive lineman.
There was an industry arms race to make the lightest reels possible for many years. There are still many who fish that think the lighter the reel they can get their hands on the better. This threw the balance of many rods completely off and made casting them accurately very difficult. Try to match the reel to the rod. I mean by weight,
not by color. You might find that a little heavier reel will make the rod fish and cast better. This has the side effect of giving you a more durable and less expensive reel in many cases.
To some fishermen this matters more than anything else when they are choosing a reel. Color and engraving are all about the taste of the man or woman who is fishing with it. Often times the more elegant, streamlined reels that have lots of porting and scroll work tending to make them less sturdy. But if you don’t like how it looks, no matter how many other pluses it has, don’t buy it. You wont use it or be happy with it. This is a fun pastime and for many fly fishermen style is one of the things that makes it fun for them.
I am going to break this down into a one thing question. Does the reel do what you need it to effectively and easily? This starts and ends with the guts of the reel itself, its drag system. Most reels are usual one of two types these days, a modern disc drag or the eternal spring and pawl drag(although the Galvan Brookie has a unique drag system that I love for my light rods).
This is not going to be some esoteric debate about which is better and why. The only things to say are that most disc drags are sealed, have a greater range of tension and stopping power, require
less maintenance and have less mechanical malfunctions than a spring and pawl drag system. However, there is a time and a place for both and this is where personal preference, fishing environment, species and size of the fish all come into play.
Ultimately I prefer a reel with a smooth, low starting inertia sealed disc drag because it prevents the loss of fish and the need for palming the reel, which causes the loss of fish in many cases. For all around utility and ease of care a disc drag system can’t be beaten. This being said, I still fish with spring and pawl reels that perfectly balance the rods they go on, fulfilling my need for a little tradition here and there.
The next thing to look at is spool size. Is it a large arbor or not? There are hardly any reels today that don’t have a large arbor or a version that does. Large arbor reels have much faster line retrieval rates that make line management much easier in times of stress i.e. when the fish turns and runs at you for example. This being said it all comes down to personal preference. Many anglers prefer having more backing on their reels than a large arbor permits. However; most large arbor fly reels have been designed to hold more than enough backing for the average angler, saltwater and freshwater alike.
Selecting The Fly Reel That Is Right For You
Just like every fly fisherman, all reels are different. Each has its pluses and minuses, some real and some perceived as real because of second hand stories or generational bias(much like the argument between Ford and Chevy pickup drivers as to which one is better). Don’t limit yourself by making an uninformed decision or depending on a friends say-so when choosing your next fly reel. Use these four easy questions and you will end up with a reel that works for you, not one that your Uncle Fred likes.
- Will it fit the rod it is going on?
- Is it suited for the type of fish, the environment and casting you intend to use it for?
- Do you like how it looks?
- Does the price fit the quality?
Answer yes to all four and you have found your new reel.
About the Author Sean Johnson