The Complete Guide to Buying a Fly Reel - Cheeky Fishing

October 29, 2021 8 min read

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction to Fly Reels
  2. Materials
  3. Design
  4. Drag
  5. Size

INTRODUCTION TO FLY REELS

Fly fishing reels are an essential part of your fishing equipment. At Cheeky Fishing we have developed a number of different fly reels to give you the best experience when on the water. When you are preparing to buy fly reels, we want to help you select the correct reel for your angling needs. Below you will find a description of what makes up a great reel which can be useful for selecting the right reel.

As fly fishing equipment has become more and more expensive, Cheeky Fishing has worked tirelessly to make sure you get the best bang for your buck. Fly fishing reels can run the gamut from $50 to $1,000 or more.  What determines this price? Quality of the fly reel’s material/anodization, the design, the type of drag system, and the size. Fly fishing reels are an important part of your fishing equipment. They house your fly line and are integral to the fishing process with fly line spooling on and off the reel during any outing. Good fly reels are also critical right after the hook set when you transfer fly line slack out of your hand and onto the fly reel.  Having smooth, even drag at this moment of transition, and then keeping a solid smooth drag while fighting fish, is critical, especially when using light tippet.

Understanding how all your fly-fishing equipment works together is important in determining the elements of a fly reel that are most important to focus on. Interestingly, one of the reasons fly anglers use such long rods, aside from casting, is to be able to fight powerful fish with light leader and tippet. This helps us pursue finicky fish in clear shallow water.  Rods are like shock absorbers: when setting the hook and playing a fish.  As an experiment, rig up your rod and attach the line to something solid or have someone hold the tip of the line by your feet. Now put a nice bend in the rod as if you are fighting a fish. Really lean on it! Now, with the same bend in the rod, grab the line with you hand and feel the tension you are actually putting on the line. It is amazing how slight the pressure really is. This is important because even the most miniscule disruption in smoothness while fighting a fish can lead to it throwing the hook, or worse, breaking the fly off in its mouth. Good fly reel drag, coupled with long flexible rods, are critical in maintaining the smooth, giving nature needed to properly play a fish.

Let’s take a look at the elements to consider when you are looking to buy a fly reel.

MATERIALS


Most fly reels on the market today are made from varying qualities of aluminum. Higher end models are machined from aircraft-grade bar stock, while lower end models are poured into a mold, resulting in a cast-construction. Keep in mind that although the price is right, cast aluminum is more liable to crack or break than fully machined aluminum reels. Another important consideration is the finish on aluminum reels. An anodized finish is important to combating scratches and corrosion. An anodized finish is especially important for use in salt water

Some beginner reels have tried to keep the price down by using graphite or even plastic. Although these reels provide an option to beginner fly anglers, they are unlikely to hold up over time and their overall performance is quite poor.

When it comes to drag systems, the growing trend is to alternate carbon fiber and steel discs that are stacked and pressed together to create tension. Some manufacturers continue to use cork discs. Often, the more disks used the smoother the drag. All of these materials can be found in quality fly reels but the main determinant of performance comes down to the disk’s surface area and the drag design.

Some anglers like hearing the traditional click of a reel like you might with the click pawl drag systems. Outside of the noise, this drag system is very basic and prone to performance issues.  Materials for this design are pretty bare bones, using small metal or plastic teeth that click over small grooves in the spool’s interior. Anglers wanting to create more pressure with these reels are inclined to use their palm to slow the spin of the spool. Bloody knuckles anyone?

Some reels will use fancy wood or metal for their reel knobs, which is nice, but not overly significant in terms of performance.

DESIGN

 

The basic parts of the reel are body, spool, and drag components. When put together, you should have a reel that spins fluidly, is user friendly, has a dependable drag system and is durable.

Reel price is driven up with the amount of machining. A very smart trend over the past decade is the amount of “porting” that reels have – meaning the amount of holes cut out of the metal. What this does is keeps weight down in the body and spool of the reel. Typically, the more precision porting that a reel has, the higher the price tag but the lighter the reel.  The fly reel should also balance your fly rod and some reels have become so light that they fail to do this properly. Finding the right balance is as easy as loading up a reel and putting it on the rod. Place one finger under the top of the cork handle. If it can teeter there without the reel side or the rod side plummeting to the ground, then it is fairly well balanced.

Arbor is a term heard frequently, which refers to the diameter of the spool’s interior (the hub that the backing and fly line is wrapped around). Arbor size is a very important consideration. At Cheeky Fishing, we believe in very large arbors. It just makes sense that, as long as you get the balance and the drag right, why not have the largest arbor you can? This allows you to pick up line ridiculously fast. Many fish are lost either by entangling your slack line on the first run or pulling the ol, “I’m gonna run straight at ya” trick. Having a large arbor to keep up with a torpedo heading right at you or getting that line spooled up ASAP will help eliminate these issues.   Also, large arbor spools allow line to peel off the reel in bigger coils which helps to eliminate memory and kinked fly lines.

Traditionally, reels have been full-frame, meaning that the spool is inserted into reel with metal fully encapsulating it —think thinks of the old Pflueger Medalist. Full frame reels have made a slight resurgence with the adoption of euro nymphing setups which use, basically, running line as its main casting line. Those utilizing this technique like full frames to guides the thin line away from any possible gap between the spool and body of the reel. As reels evolved and machining became more precise these gaps have become less of a concern with modern designs.

Modern reels now have the spool take the place of the traditional “cage” of the full frame design.  These contemporary, light and clean reels are less cumbersome, fly line comes off the reel easily, and arbor size increased without sacrificing light weight. This has also allowed for innovations in drag. Modern anodizing has also allowed to add bright color onto reels. Cheeky Fishing was one of the first to add bright color combinations to its reels, and now, almost every other manufacturer has followed suit. 

DRAG

 

Now to the meat of the reel: the drag system. Drag systems should be easy to adjust, provide smooth start-up inertia, and have stopping power.

Click pawl drags are intended to be very light and utilize a metal spring and a triangular point that clicks and applies pressure to a simple gear. But as simple as they are, they fail far more often than modern drags.

Cork drags are another traditional option. The biggest drawback with cork, however, is  they require constant maintenance and if they are sealed, which most are not, you have to be very precise in your maintenance—pulling apart tiny screws, coverings, and gaskets. Cork also deteriorates over time and can freeze up if it gets wet creating a skipping in the drag performance.

Stacked, alternating carbon fiber and steel disc drags are perhaps the most dependable drag systems on the market. The more discs, or overall surface area, the stronger the stopping power. But one very important design feature is whether or not the drag components are fully sealed. Fully sealed drags do not require maintenance. Beware, there are many reels out there that brag of sealed drag systems and this is simply not true. Partially sealed systems are great for freshwater usage and for light duty in salt. Reels should always be rinsed thoroughly, especially after use in salt water.  Even if your reel was not submerged in saltwater the line will bring saltwater back to your reel so they should be thoroughly rinsed.

Start-up inertia is just a fancy way of describing how a drag system ramps up from zero drag to a flat out screaming reel. For almost every situation, this is a far more important attribute to a drag system than how much stopping power is in the drag.   Enabling a large fish to take line out smoothly, especially at the critical moment after the strike when the slack is eaten up and the fish is transferred onto the reel, is what makes a great drag. A rough transition or any hitch in the run can cost you a trophy fish. Having a drag that you can crank down comes into play with larger species like tarpon or giant trevally, but the reality of these species is that you are using very high poundage leaders and tippet. With many large species that take long runs, it may even be necessary to back off of the drag if they are far into your backing. The drag from the line as the fish turns across you at long distances creates massive pressure and can cause knot failure and breakage. Sometimes you may need to lock it down, meaning that you lock the drag. This is mainly for extreme, edge of the earth fishing and is reserved for the end of the fight.

For most of us, the smoothness of the reel is far more important than the overall stopping power.

Drag knobs are personal preference, but should be easy to adjust, especially during the fight.

One feature beloved by guides is the no resistance retrieve. This gives you the ability to ”spin“ the line back on the reel to quickly take up the slack.

SIZE

Usually, reels are built to work within a range of rod sizes to take into account how a certain reel will balance a particular fly rod with backing and fly line on the reel. Using the recommended backing poundage and length plus the properly weighted line will fill out the reel perfectly. Check out this CHART for proper backing amounts. Here is a rigging tip: when rigging up at home, put all of the spooled backing on the reel and then measure back to cut it off. For example, if the recommendation is for 180 yards of 20 lb backing, put all 200 on the spool and then measure out 20 yards to cut off.  It is really important to have tension when you spool up you backing—think of it like packing a parachute, you need the backing tight so it can come off quick when it really matters. Couple this with great knots and, you guessed it, a premium reel with smooth start-up inertia and you are ready to tackle whatever your wits can get you into.

In conclusion, when you combine large arbor, large capacity, lightweight reels and add a smooth, stout drag system, you have found a gem. Those anglers who plan on days in the salt should consider reels that have strong, fully sealed drags, large capacities and an anodized finish. For occasional trips to the salt, fully sealed is nice, but at least partially sealed is recommended.  Anglers who are following trout and bass around can get away with lighter drags, less capacity, and a cheaper price tag, but being prepared for the unexpected giant is highly recommended. You only get rare shots at true beasts, so don’t blow it by not being prepared.

Cheeky Fishing helps to demystify fly fishing by enabling you to shop by fish type. This can help narrow down your choices. We do everything we can to give you options based on quality and price. All our reels deliver on both. Click Here to view a comparison chart.