Starter Series: Choosing the Right Fly Reel

How to choose a fly reel, choosing a fly reel, choosing your first fly reel, buying your first fly reel

One of the missions of Texas Freshwater Fly Fishing is to promote fly fishing here in Texas.  In promoting the sport, education is needed for those that are new.  A lack of education and the fear of approaching experts was a major reason that it took me soo long to get into the sport.  So, providing easily accessible, honest advice to those just getting into fly fishing is something I am going to strive to provide.

When first getting into fly fishing, you need to focus on acquiring five things.  All of these can be expensive, but they don't have to be!  There are less expensive ways to go about getting started if you want, and hopefully Texas Freshwater Fly Fishing can walk you through this process.  Here is what you will need:

  1. Fly Rod
  2. Fly Reel
  3. Line Set-Up (Backing, line, leader, tippet)
  4. Accessories (flies, storage, net, etc.)
  5. Knowledge (where and how to fly fish)
Each of these five things will be discussed in its own article.

This second article will be your introduction to fly reels.  To help guide you in your learning about options in your first fly reel purchase.

After deciding what fly rod you are purchasing, the next thing to decide is what fly reel you need.  Now, some people might give me flack for this, but I am of the opinion that the fly reel is usually the least important aspect of your fly-fishing set-up, especially for beginners.  So, if you are just getting into fly fishing, or trying it out to see if it is something you will like, I would NOT spend a lot of money on your reel.  Spend that money on the line, rod, and flies.

But to help you make your fly reel choice, there is some important information that you need to know.  Understanding what a fly reel does is the first step in deciding what you need in your first fly reel.  The reel, in your fly fishing system, does three things, it holds your line, it retrieves your line (the slack and sometimes when fighting a fish), and provides "drag" to slow the line leaving your reel.  

To make the best decision on your first fly reel, you should know how the reel is constructed, what size the reel is and size arbor it has, and what the drag system is (and if it is sealed.) 

Fly Reel Construction

There are two basic ways that a fly reel is constructed, machined or cast.  Machined reels are "carved" out of a block of high grade aluminum, and a cast reel is made by pouring molten metal (usually aluminum) into a mold.  Here is a brief rundown of each:

Machined Reels

  • Usually stronger reels that can withstand more "abuse"
  • Usually lighter
  • Can absorb/withstand more heat when fighting a fish
  • Are typically more expensive

Cast Reels

  • Usually the least expensive option
  • Strong enough to hold up in almost all situations
  • Getting better (stronger and lighter) all the time
For my first venture into the world of fly fishing, I wouldn't worry too much about how the reel is made.  Like I mentioned earlier, I would try to save money on the reel.  And although it might not be as "flashy," a cast reel will work just fine for your first fly reel.

Reel/Arbor Size

Reel Size

To make your first reel purchase as simple as possible, try to select a reel that is designed to hold the size line you plan on fishing and will balance the size rod you chose (we discussed Choosing the Right Fly Rod here).  Most fly reels are designed to hold multiple sizes of line, and you will see that written somewhere on the reel or box.  So, for example, if you decided to go with a 5 weight fly rod (like TFFF suggested) you should probably look for a size 4/5 or 5/6 fly reel.  This means that the reel is designed to fish size 4 or 5, or 5 or 6, fly lines.  However, it is not the end of the world if you cannot find the "right size" reel.  I have fished size 7/8 reels on 3 weight rods, and it worked just fine.  But do try to find a reel that is not too heavy for your rod, throwing off the balance and making fishing less enjoyable.

Arbor Size

The arbor is basically the "spindle" that the fly line (and all it's components) wraps around on the reel.  Fly reels are typically made with arbors in one of three sizes, small arbor, mid arbor, or large arbor.  In most freshwater fly fishing situations, the size of the arbor does not matter all that much.  However, the larger the arbor is, the more line you can pick up with each rotation of the handle.  This allows you to pick up slack faster.  In situations where you are fighting a larger fish, or a fish that might run right at you, being able to reel in your line faster can help.  However, larger arbor reels are usually larger, so a smaller arbor reel might be a little bit lighter.

In choosing your first fly reel, I wouldn't worry too much about the arbor size, unless you are planning on using that reel for saltwater most often.  And as far as the reel size goes, I would just try to match the size of the rod I am going to fish.

Drag Systems

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One version of a click drag system.

The drag on a reel is a system that is designed to slow down the spool when line is being pulled off.  To break drags down simply, there are two basic drag systems in fly reels, click drags (click and pawl) and disk drags.  Here is a little more info on each of those:

Click and Pawl Drags

It is easy to hear when someone is fishing a click and pawl drag system reel.  Whenever line is pulled off, you hear the unmistakable "clicks" of the pawl (a metal tooth) that pushes against the teeth on a gear.  This serves as enough pressure to be a break that will prevent overruns (birds-nests) in your fly line.

Why fish a click and pawl drag system?  Because they are usually less expensive, lightweight, simple (very few parts), proven (been around for a long, long time), and nostalgic and fun.

Why not fish a click and pawl drag system?  Because it is more difficult to apply pressure and protect your fly line system when fighting a fish.  You are the one to control how much pressure is put on a fish when you are fighting it.  And because they do not come in "sealed" systems, meaning you will have to perform some maintenance.

Disk Drags

A disk drag system is your other choice.  These are a more modern approach to drag systems on fly reels.  They function by applying pressure to pads, or disks, that tighten down against the spool.  This system is usually easy to adjust the tension on the spool, just by turning a knob.  There are different levels or quality options for disk drags that usually correlate to the material that the pads are made out of.  Some are plastic, and are more susceptible to breaking down (flexing and bending) and are not as smooth.  Some are cork, which can also break down over time, but are much smoother and do a better job to protect your line from breaking.  And the last option is a carbon fiber pad that is long lasting, won't flex/bend, light weight, and very smooth.

Why fish a disk drag system? Because they are smoother and easier to control, allowing you to easily protect your line system from breaking when fighting a fish.

Why not fish a disk drag system?  Because they are typically more expensive and if they do break down, you often have to send them in to get repaired.  Also, you don't get the retro, unmistakable clicking sound.

Sealed vs Open Drag Systems

Some reels will have a sealed drag system, and some will not.  Sealed drag systems are built so that nothing can get into them.  Dirt, sand, water, salt, will all be kept out, protecting the drag system.  Open (unsealed) drag systems are the opposite.  Grit will penetrate into the drag system, so regular (but relatively easy) maintenance will need to be done.

Recommendation on Drags

If you are looking to get your first fly reel, I would probably recommend trying to get a disk drag system reel, but this is not necessary.  I only would recommend that because it would be one less thing to worry about when fighting a fish.  That said, if you know you are fishing smaller water for smaller fish, a click and pawl reel will fish just fine.  I use one 80% of time.  The only time I would recommend spending extra money to get a sealed drag system is if you know you plan on fishing saltwater with this reel.


So to wrap everything up, if you are looking to purchase your first fly reel I would make the following recommendations:
  • Primarily fishing small waters: Don't spend a lot!  Look for a decent quality, small, click and pawl reel that fits the size rod you have.  I have plenty of "vintage" reals that I picked up cheap and still fish.
  • Primarily fishing larger freshwater: Look for an inexpensive disk drag reel that fits the size rod you have. I have some Orvis, Cabela's, and Echo, that are good and a low price.
  • Primarily fishing saltwater:  Find a decent priced sealed drag system reel with a large arbor. Waterworks-Lamson and Echo make some at a decently low price.
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Selection of reels I picked up for a low price.

Many quality reels can be found on Facebook marketplace at good prices.  They just might need a little TLC before you fish them.  Like I mentioned earlier, I don't believe in spending a bunch of money on a fly reel before I know I am going to be fly fishing all the time.  Don't be afraid to send me questions about your entry gear, I am more than willing to help out!

I hope this article helped you learn a little bit about your buying your first fly reel. As I said before, be careful, once you start fly fishing, you will never stop.  If you have any advice for first-time fly reel buyers, let me know in the comments.

Peace out-side, y'all.