While the idea of an article how to choose a freshwater fly reel might seem like an oxymoron to those of you who are highly experienced at the age old art of fly fishing, the fact is that to those who are new to the sport, this seemingly simple task can actually be quite daunting. After all, you have simple fly reels made from molded composites such as graphite, more elaborate fly reels made from cast aluminum, and then, there are these fantastic expressions of what modern CNC machinery is capable of in the form of fly reels machined from a solid block of aircraft grade aluminum; some of which look like they should be displayed in an art gallery rather than mounted on a fly rod and used to catch fish! Then, there are two different types of drag systems to choose from. For instance, some fly reels have spring-and-pawl drag systems while others have disc drag systems and, while a spring-and-pawl drag is a pretty simple mechanism, some manufacturer’s descriptions of their disc drags sound more like sophisticated braking systems for high end sports cars rather than drag systems for fly reels! Thus, in the following article, you will discover what separates a freshwater fly reel from a saltwater fly reel and how to choose the best fly reel for your particular needs.
As with choosing a saltwater fly reel, the first step in choosing a freshwater fly reel is to determine what species of freshwater fish you intend to pursue since this will determine the type of drag system you need. For instance, as I mentioned previously, a spring-and-pawl drag system is a relatively simple mechanism that consists of a leaf spring which places pressure on a triangular shaped “pawl” that in turn engages a gear mounted on the back side of the reel’s spool and the strength of the leaf spring determines how much pressure can be exerted on the pawl. Also, while some fly reels that employ this type of drag system feature an external drag adjustment knob, others require that you first remove the spool and then adjust them internally while other are not adjustable at all. Thus, the main advantage of this type of drag system is that it is lightweight, mechanically simple, and relatively inexpensive to manufacture, and thus, it almost never fails or wears out because the only parts that are truly subject to wear is the pawl and the gear and these parts are usually constructed in such a way that they easily last the lifetime of the reel. However, even when a relatively strong spring is installed in this type of drag system, it’s still not able to place the amount of pressure on the pawl that is needed to fight and land large fish. Consequently, it is most often employed on fly reels meant for smaller fish species such as Trout that inhabit small streams where the fish does not have a lot of room to run and does not have the physical strength to require a stronger drag system. Furthermore, many fly fishermen find the sound that this type of drag system makes as line is stripped from the reel or retrieved onto it to be aesthetically pleasing and thus, many Trout fishermen have a distinct preference for fly reels with a spring-and-pawl drag system over those with disc drag systems.
On the other hand, when fishing for larger freshwater fish species such as Salmon, Steelhead, Pike, or Muskie, a much more powerful and robust type of drag system is required because, not only are these larger fish species physically more powerful, they often have far more room to run and thus, a spring-and-pawl drag system simply lacks the ability to place enough pressure on the fish to tire it out and thus, make it biddable to landing. Consequently, fly reel manufacturers have developed a newer type of drag system that is capable of placing significantly more pressure on the fish in the form of the disc drag. With this type of drag system, instead of employing a leaf spring which in turn places pressure on a pawl, both the spring and the pawl are replaced with a system of discs made from various materials such as cork or Rulon which are stacked on top of each other within a sealed outer case or contained within the frame of the fly reel itself which, in turn, engages the reel’s spool in order to place pressure on the outgoing fly line as it is stripped from the fly reel. Also, all disc drag systems feature an external adjustment knob so that the angler can easily adjust the amount of pressure to compensate for smaller or larger fish and to adjust the amount of pressure that is placed on a particular fish at any given time. In addition, most disc drag systems are either nearly or completely silent both when line is stripped from the reel or retrieved onto it and thus, some fly fishermen prefer them over spring-and-pawl drag systems for this reason alone. Furthermore, because disc drag systems are prone to wear, most are designed in such a way that the manufacturer can easily disassemble and rebuild them if necessary so that a single fly reel can last the lifetime of the angler.
Therefore, after you have determined whether you prefer a spring-and-pawl drag system or a disc drag system, the second step to choosing a freshwater fly reel is to decide what size reel you need since this will determine its backing capacity is. For those of you who are not familiar with the term, “backing” is a thin running line made from braided Dacron that is commonly available in 12 lb., 20 lb., and 30 lb. test weights but is much thinner than the fly line itself and thus, fly fishermen attach a given length of backing to the rear end of their fly lines in order to give them the ability to let a fish run well beyond the common 90 ft. 100 ft. length of the fly line. Therefore, all fly reels are designed to hold both a fly line and a given length of a given weight of backing which they commonly publish on their web sites as well as in the literature that accompanies the fly reel. Consequently, for the Trout fishermen who commonly fishes small to medium sized streams, a relatively short length of either 12 lb. or 20 lb. backing is usually sufficient but, for those anglers who commonly fish for larger species in larger streams or in open water, a significantly greater length of 20 lb. or 30 lb. backing is often required which, in turn, determines the physical size of the fly reel with those having more backing capacity being larger. Also, at this point, it should be noted that all fly reels are commonly available in one of three different arbor sizes (the drum at the center of the reel which the backing and fly line are wrapped around) consisting of standard arbors, mid-arbors, and large arbors and, aside from the diameter of the fly reel’s spool, the size of the arbor determines the rate at which the backing/fly line is retrieved onto the spool. For instance, because standard arbor fly reels have the smallest diameter arbor, they also have the smallest diameter spool as well as the slowest rate of retrieve while large arbor fly reels often have much larger spools as well as the fastest rate of retrieve. However, some fly anglers do not like the appearance of large arbor fly reels but, need a faster rate of retrieve than can be achieved with a standard arbor and thus, they compromise by purchasing a fly reel with a mid-arbor instead.
Last, the third step in choosing a freshwater fly reel is to determine how much you are willing to spend on it since fly reels are commonly constructed from one of three different materials. For instance, most inexpensive fly reels are constructed from a molded composite material and thus, while they are very tough and will withstand a significant amount of abuse, they tend to have a dull, matte, finish that most fly anglers do not find aesthetically pleasing. Therefore, the next step up is to choose a fly reel made from cast aluminum which is often coated or anodized with a much more visually appealing finish but, because aluminum is significantly more expensive than composites, fly reel manufactures are forced to charge more for fly reels made from this material. Then, there are fly reels that represent the pinnacle of both the designers and machinists arts in the form of fly reels that are machined from a solid block of aircraft grade aluminum. With this type of fly reel, the designer’s goal is often to eliminate as much weight as possible from both the fly reel’s frame and its spool in order to create the lightest fly reel possible while maintaining the structural integrality of the frame and thus, the result is often more akin to a work of art that should be displayed in a museum instead of used to catch fish! However, because of the design work involved as well as the expense of machining both a frame and spool from solid blocks of aluminum, this type of fly reel is commonly significantly more expensive than those made from either composites or cast aluminum. However, they are also commonly quite a bit more aesthetically pleasing than the other two types of fly reels and thus, many fly anglers feel that they are worth the added expense.
So, as mentioned above, the three steps in choosing an appropriate freshwater fly reel for your particular needs is to first determine what size fish you will be pursuing so that you can choose between a spring-and-pawl drag system or a disc drag system. Then, the second step is to choose one the three different arbor sizes based upon the rate of retrieve you require while noting the backing capacity of the particular model that interests you so that you will be certain to have enough backing at your disposal to be able to land the fish if it decides to make an extended run. Then, the third step is to determine how much a fly reel’s visual appearance is worth to you and how much you are willing to spend on it since fly reels often range from very inexpensive models to outrageously expensive ones and thus, the choice is up to you.