February 21, 2024 4 min read

If you’ve ever been in the market for a reel, chances are you’ve read or been told about a product’s drag. Drag is no doubt an important tool for any situation where you might find yourself fighting a fish on the reel, but this feature is too often portrayed in the wrong way to anglers. If I had a dollar for every time somebody showing me a new reel cranked the drag down all the way and handed it to me to test out… I wouldn’t be rich but I could definitely buy a couple extra spools of tippet or something. Anyway, it’s enough to have noticed. 

Understanding drag is no different from the other unsung skills of fly fishing: If you look past the flashiness and the extremes, there’s value in the little things. Sure, it’s cool that your reel can stop a runaway commuter bus, but the likelihood of needing the maximum resistance from drag is astronomically low compared to the intermediary settings. This becomes especially true when dealing with the lighter lines sometimes necessary to fool the big ones. You worked hard to hook those fish, so losing them because your drag is too loose or tight never feels good. If you’re interested in getting a better grasp on a powerful piece of technology now in almost every modern reel, follow along to explore the wonderful world of drag control. 

Photo Caption: A nice fall redband wrangled by the Cheeky  Sighter 350 in Central Oregon.

First off, let’s go over a few things that can go wrong during a fight. There’s the obvious ones like a nice piece of unseen structure or your heroic hookset, but the failure we have by far the most control over is the amount of pressure put on a fish. As far as resistance from a reel goes, this is where drag comes in. With too little drag a fish may be able to throw slack into your line or get out of reach of a realistic land. And if there’s too much pressure… We all know how that ends. Pressure doesn’t just involve how hard you resist against a run or a loss of tension from a fish swimming at you. Outside factors like current and your leader cutting sideways through the water can also put a great deal of strain on light lines, even if you think your drag isn’t that tight. Suddenly your 5 or 6x tippet seems a little sketchier. 

Naturally, the extra pounds of force from a river’s current are probably not what’s running through your mind while a fish peels line out of your hands. You’re in luck though, as most reels provide a simple learning curve in the form of that little turning dial on the side opposite the spool. When adjusting a reel’s drag, you’ll often hear or feel tiny clicks as each setting engages and your drag tightens or backs off. But how are these settings measured, and what’s the right one to use? 

Photo Caption: The controls to the new  Spray 400’s gasket drag system. 

Similarly to the break-strength ratings of everyday fishing line, resistance from different levels of drag can be measured in the amount of pounds it takes to pull line out of the reel. Each click on your drag knob represents a small increment of weight allowance or restriction. Want some homework? Tie a piece of stiff leader off of your fly line and attach it to a fishing scale, or any scale you can hook something to. By playing with your drag and taking readings on your scale, you’ll get an idea of what’s changing when you turn that screw. 

Photo Caption: The  Sighter 350 with another Deschutes redband.

Memorizing every single drag setting on your reel is completely unnecessary. Most reels don’t even have a way to show how much the drag is engaged. You’re not expected to know how much force you’re applying to a fish, but it is important to understand that force has a number associated with it, and that number can be too high or too low if you’re not careful. The general rule is to keep your drag at the tightest it can be without risking breaking your leader or tippet. This sweet spot is also very fluid as a fight might require you to adjust your drag multiple times. 

At Cheeky, we put a lot of thought into the function of the drag during the most critical time....The first run. The drag knob has a highly knurled surface so that wet, cold, slippery fingers easily grip the knob for an easy adjustment. The knobs width is wide enough to easily grab yet low enough not to catch line. The smooth transition from one end of the drag to the other makes it intuitively effortless when your mind is focused on what is at the end or your line.

There are plenty more facts about drag and the physics of fighting a fish you can find around, but at the end of the day you’ll just have to feel it out. There’s no magic number or formula that will tell you exactly where to have your drag set, but even if you’ve never had a fish on a reel before it’s surprising how quickly you’ll be able to tell when something needs to change. It’s like when you first nailed your cast and never looked back— drag is just another piece of gear to get in tune with. After all, out of your basic fly rod, reel, and line, your drag is the only tool with the sole purpose of helping you fight fish. You owe it to yourself to feel comfortable with it.

Oh, and if you find yourself with a calculator on the water at some point, you’re trying too hard.    


Meet the Author: Ben Groppe is a multi-species angler and overall fish fan, dedicated to enjoying, preserving, and occasionally documenting the fisheries he loves. Off the water, he’s sharing his passion as one half of the blog  Long Haul Fly Fishing.