How to Buy a Fly reel

Reels IMG_6456

Choosing from among all the available reel models and sizes can be intimidating.

Photo Tim Bronson

A fly reel is a thing of beauty. Put one on a table in front of an angler and they will invariably pick it up, feel it, turn it, listen to the click, adjust the drag, and in essence fondle it. The longer they handle it, the better they like it. You can literally test the perceived quality of reels by the length of time anglers hold them. Reels are the jewels of the sport, and a great fly reel is something that is treasured as such.

There are hundreds of fly reels out there. Which one is the right one for you? Which one will not only strike your fancy, but do the job you need it to do? There are a number of factors to consider, but there are a few simple things to know about reels that will help you make the right choice. Let’s take them one at a time, simplify them, and then come up with a simple rule. 

1. Price—Depending on the quality and the make, fly reels run from as low as $39 to $900 and above. Don’t panic. A very good trout fly reel can be bought for around $125, and you can buy an excellent reel that will last you a lifetime and can be handed down to your children to treasure for under $400, depending on size. (For larger reels used in salt water or for larger game fish, this number is more like $500.) Due to advances in manufacturing, reels have come down substantially in price in the last few years, and a quality reel is not that expensive. There are, though, some magnificent reels out there that are hand-made and very expensive. Like a great cane rod, a magnificent reel is worth what we have to pay. Simple Rule: In a trout reel, you can buy a good reel for around $100–$150. You can buy a great reel for $250–$400. For a larger saltwater reel, you can buy a good reel for $200 –$300 and a great reel for $350-$500. Magnificent is going to cost more.

2. Material—Most reels today are made of machined bar-stock aluminum. What this means is a solid piece of aluminum is literally carved by a machine into the shape of the reel. The result is a beautifully smooth and sculptured work of art. There are composite material reels out there—as well as cast reels, formed by liquid metal poured into molds—but the highest quality reels are machined aluminum. Simple Rule: Buy a machined aluminum reel.

3. Click—As silly as this sounds, the sound or click made when line goes out or comes in is part of the wonderful aesthetic of a great fly reel. A good fly reel, when rotated, has a pleasing smooth click. If it sounds “tinny” or erratic and doesn’t bring a smile to your face, walk away. Simple Rule: The sound of a great fly reel should make you smile.

4. Drag System—This is what applies resistance and regulates the speed of the reel when the fish is running away and taking line off the reel. There are a number of drag systems out there, but most moderate-to-pricey reels use a variation of the disc drag. A disc drag is simply a number of discs made of self-lubricating materials that create various levels of friction as the drag knob is tightened. This is not as important in trout fishing as it is in saltwater fishing. Often in trout fishing, the fish is not going to pull a great deal of line off the reel, but a proper drag setting is still imperative in protecting your tippet. To be sure, there are those wonderful trout out there that will test a drag with the best of them. In saltwater fishing—where big, fast fish are streaking away from you—the drag system is critical. It is a big factor is fighting and tiring the fish quickly and keeping it from breaking off. All good reel companies offer good solid drag systems. This is perhaps the best reason to spend the money on a reel from a reputable company. Simple Rule: Buy a good quality reel and the drag system will be good as well.

Reels IMG_6459

A large-arbor reel (left) is usually heavier than a medium-arbor reel (center and right). The larger arbor will pick up line faster but won’t balance some light trout rods

Photo Tim Bronson

5. Arbor Size—In the last few years, reels have undergone a revolution in design. All reels used to have a simple, conventional spindle in the middle on which to attach and wind the line. It took a lot of revolutions to wind the line and backing on a reel. Then came the large arbor. The large arbor reel was much larger in diameter and therefore the reel could take up line much quicker, in some cases three times as fast, which is a great benefit in saltwater fly fishing. The downside for trout fishing was the reel was much bigger and didn’t balance a light trout rod. Soon the mid arbor appeared—smaller than a large arbor, but still a larger arbor than the original spindle, allowing an angler to have the best of both worlds. Simple Rule: Large arbors are now the prevailing reel in saltwater fishing due to increased backing capacity and faster retrieve. In trout fishing, the smaller traditional reel is still popular due to its light weight and aesthetic balance with a light trout rod, although the compromise mid arbor is now popular with trout anglers, as well.

6. Overall Size—Reels are designed to match with certain rods and line weights. They are designed to hold a certain amount of backing with a certain size fly line and balance well with that same size fly rod. A trout reel designed to balance with a 4-weight rod is a far cry from a saltwater reel designed to handle a 12-weight tarpon rod. Simple Rule: The beauty of a fly rod outfit is the balance and aesthetic of the reel and the rod together. Never buy a reel without the rod in hand, and make sure you love the two together. Just as in life, most blind dates don’t work out very well.

5 thoughts on “How to Buy a Fly reel”

  1. I am looking at the new Mirage 3 and 4. Can’t decide witch to get. I will be doing crappie- bass fishing. Should I get the 5-7, or the 7-9? Will the 7- 9 work for smaller fish?

  2. I was fortunate enough in life to have fooled at least one person into thinking I was worth a Hardy Viscount 130, a few decades ago. And fortunate enough to have purchased one of the very last boron rods available. Sadly, I have to find a 3 or four piece rod to backpack with, as the 2 piece 8’6 rod is problematic in the bush, tied onto my pack. I’m having to go further and further afield to experience fly fishing as it once was, close to town. Backpacking at my age is also problematic in that grams matter… a lot. So, I have been searching for a very lightweight alternative to my Hardy Viscount reel, but have found that reels in the size range nowadays, are at least 50 to 100 grams heavier than my trustee, eternal Viscount. It weighs in at 108 grams, empty. I’m hoping that someone out there knows of a reel in the 3 to 3.5 inch diameter range that is considerably lighter than the Hardy Viscount 150. Surely, after 40 years of tech, there must be a light trout flyreel out there somewhere.

  3. Im in the market for a few reels. My truck was stolen and with it a reel case full of abels, ross galvan and orvis reels. Im a traditionalist and use bamboo. Nothing looks more unGodly on a sweet bamboo than a goofy baitcaster wide large arbor reel. The retrieve speed be damned I cant find a decent galvan , orvis odyssey, even able tr is a mid arbor. I need a decent 2, 4,5,6,7 and 8 wt reel. I know its not going away but please for the love of tradition give us some options.

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