Ask the Experts: How Do You Set Your Drag Before Fishing?

The right drag setting can be the difference between a fish in the net and a “long-distance release.”
Photo by Chad Shmukler, Hatch Magazine

A few months ago, we introduced a new weekly “Ask the Experts” Column and asked you to pose some questions for our panel of experts. Our latest question for them to chew on is: “How Do You Set Your Drag Before Fishing?”

Their answers are below. If you’ve got a question you’d like to ask our panel, write it in the comments section below.

Patrick Fulkrod, The South Holston River Company (Bristol, Virginia):
A super loaded question considering circumstances and variables. On an initial evaluation of my drag setting, I will always fish with it set a little on the lighter side: loose enough, but not so it will backlash. If or when I hook a good fish, I will tighten as needed. I feel it is always easier (or more forgiving) in a situation to add more drag, rather than to lessen the drag.

Tim Linehan, Linehan Outfitting Co. (Troy, Montana):
The analogy I’ve always used when discussing how to set the drag on your reel is that it’s based on the same principle as the brakes on your car. The more you need the brakes, the more you apply. Simple as that. If you’re fishing a small trout stream with little or no chance of needing any brakes to slow down fish in order to better manage them, you don’t even need a reel with drag.  But as you move up the species list in size and weight, drag becomes very important and absolutely necessary. Generally you can also base the need for drag on rod weight. If you’re fishing rod weights of 1-4, you’re likely not really fishing for monster fish that will require the use of drag.  As you start heading upwards of 5-weights, drag will come into play.

So, how best to set the drag? Regardless of what species you may be targeting, you want to set the drag to accommodate the particular behavior, size, and weight of that species. Taking that into account, the standard way to check and properly set the drag is to assess approximately how much resistance you believe is necessary to let the fish run, so as to apply the brakes and also to prevent the spool from over running and creating a mess. This is a dance, and it’s often learned from trial and error. Too much drag and the fish will break off; too little and, well, you’ll lose the fish for other reasons.

When you’re ready to actually set the drag, simply judge how much resistance you want to start with by pulling line off the reel with the drag set to your liking. And keep in mind, there is always time to tighten the drag during the fight with bigger fish, especially salt water species. In the end, if you break a fish off because the drag was too tight, loosen it. If you break a fish off because the spool over ran, tighten it.

Brown Hobson, Brown Trout Fly Fishing (Asheville, North Carolina):
I’d rather have it too loose than too tight, but I don’t want it so loose that when the reel engages I get a backlash. I like to tighten the drag once the trout puts himself on the reel. I know if I can survive the first run of a big fish, I’m probably going to land him, so the worst thing I can do is break him off because initially my drag is too tight.

My plan is always to fight the trout by stripping with my line hand, and the drag is purely a back up. Sometimes when I’m fishing with a light tippet in an area dense with large trout, I will plan on using the reel because the drag is better able to dampen tippet pressure than I can and I will have to clear less line off the water. Really there is no substitute for experience when adjusting drag on a fish. Unfortunately new anglers will just have to break some off while learning how much pressure their rod/line combo will allow them to apply.

I’ll repeat the most important thing in my opinion: If you survive the first run, you will likely win the battle. Most of the big fish my clients lose break off in the first 5 to 10 seconds. The trout is too unpredictable at that point. Just keep him hooked until he settles down, and then increase drag/pressure whenever he is not kicking his tail or shaking his head.

Joe Demalderis, Cross Current Guide Service (Milford, Pennsylvania):
One of the mysteries of the Universe is how much to set the drag on a fly reel, and the answer is: it depends. So the mystery lives on. But there is a solution to this, and whether right or wrong, it’s how I do it and it’s worked out okay for a long time. Basically, just tighten the drag so it doesn’t backlash if you give the line a fast, long pull with your hand.

But, there must be more to it than that? Yes, there is. Add in the tippet strength, rod weight, rod action, hook size, fish species, and water conditions, and you will find some adjustments might be needed.

For many freshwater fish, the backlash rule works fine, but others like salmon, steelhead, giant carp, stripers, big pike, and muskies require a tighter drag. Your tippet strength will help you there. A 30-pound leader for pike or muskie will allow for a higher setting, and the same is true for freshwater stripers. Leader-shy salmon or steelhead need lighter tippets, so there you want the drag on the light side to keep that often blistering first run form breaking you off.

Remember, your fly line is pretty thick stuff, and as it zips through the water, it actually creates its own drag. How much you bend the rod, the rod action, and the angle you hold the rod also puts varying amounts of drag on your set up. I like to use these dynamics in playing or fighting a fish and not depend too much on the mechanical drag. A quick change in angle or rod height can put less or more pressure on a fish. Things happen fast, and a change of rod angle and the like can be made very quickly if needed. Then there’s palming the reel to add more drag on a drag set too loose.

Confused? Don’t be. Set the drag at that pre-backlash level. Go fishing. If you hook a big fish that needs more drag to quickly land before it fights itself to death, then tighten the drag knob a wee bit, or loosen it some if that was the direction we needed. Some people will tell you to never touch the drag when you have a fish on. Not so. There’s no such thing as never in fly fishing.

Mike Canady, Ellensburg Angler (Ellensburg, Washington):
How you set your drag on your fly reel depends on the species you are targeting, as well as the technique you are using. When fishing for trout with small flies and 5X or 6X, I generally set my drag as light as possible to protect the light tippet from breaking if the fish makes a big run. Likewise, when fishing big flies and heavy tippet, especially around brush or snags in the water, I will set my drag to “stun” (as tight as possible) to keep a hooked fish from making a beeline to the nasty stuff and breaking off.

Capt. Chuck Hawkins, Hawkins Outfitters (Traverse City, Michigan):
This is a complicated question. It depends on the species you are pursuing, the location, hook size, and tippet strength. For saltwater species, I use Lefty’s method: Pull the line off the reel with your lips only. When you can’t get anymore off, it’s set to the right pressure.

For stream trout on dry flies, I set the drag very light, just enough to control the spool. Same setting for streamers and trout. For the Hex hatch–big fish on size 6 and 8 hooks combined with fishing in the dark–I tighten the drag down. I don’t want that fish making any long runs in the dark in a log-strewn river.

Swinging for steelhead, I use a very light setting to keep my clients from pulling the fly out of the fish’s mouth w\hen they get a grab. When the fish takes the fly and the client feels it, often they raise the rod. If they do that with a very light drag, the fly stays in the fish. I can then tighten the drag for the fight.

In general, I lean toward a very light drag setting until I’m hooked up, and then tighten it down if needed to quickly land a large fish.

Capt. Dave Pecci, Obsession Charters (Charlotte Harbor, Florida):
Rule of thumb on my boat is to set the drag for 30% – 40% of the class tippet. That allows for startup inertia and any surging of the reel’s drag system that might take place. But you must consider the species you are fishing for. Snook and redfish fight in short bursts and like to move into the mangroves after being hooked. They need a bit more drag. Rockets like tarpon and bonefish need a slightly lighter setting due to the drag of the line moving through the water on blistering long runs. I always encourage my clients to go with a lighter drag setting and palm the reel (if they are comfortable doing so) when additional pressure is needed, such as turning or lifting a fish.

Rob Woodruff, Woodruff Guide Service (Quitman, Texas):
I set my drag based on the breaking strength of the tippet I am using. When fishing for bass or trout, I set up the entire rig and then pull on the fly to make sure that the drag will let out line at less than the breaking strength of the tippet. I always go with a little less drag tension than the breaking strength to make up for the effect of water drag on the line and leader.

When fishing saltwater for big fish that I expect to have a sustained fight, like tarpon, I use a scale (a Boga Grip or hand held luggage scale works fine) to set the drag at less poundage than the tippet breaking strength.

Doc Thompson, High Country Anglers (Ute Park, New Mexico):
Basically, the drag is used to help fight or tame the fish without breaking off and without fighting the fish beyond exhaustion. With that said, drag settings can range from light to cranked down depending on fish species, tippet, type of water, action of rod, etc.

When I guide and fish for trout, I like the drag setting to be a few clicks tighter than free spooling.  This keeps the line from backlashing when I’m stripping out more line. On the other hand, when I fish for permit and other saltwater species, I use a considerably tighter drag setting. At a certain point, it does become a balance between too heavy, causing a break off, or too light, causing extreme fish exhaustion.

I have found most people set the drag too light for a couple reasons.  One is they’re afraid to break off a fish, when breaking of a fish every once in a while is a fact of fishing. The other reason is they like to hear the reel scream with a running fish, but if it’s running because the drag is too light then we are adding unneeded stress to landing a fish.

Finding the exact drag setting is trial-and-error, but you can help yourself and the fish out by testing your drag.  A simple way to test the drag before you fish is to quickly strip out a couple feet of fly line with 2-3  strips. This will give you a general idea of the current drag setting. After that adjust and retest accordingly. Sometimes we have to adjust the drag during the fight; just be sure to do this smoothly with incremental adjustments.

Kip Vieth, Wildwood Float Trips (Monticello, Minnesota):
I have had 48-inch muskies that didn’t put much of a fight at all and never did get it on  the reel, and I have had 40-inch muskies that fought with a wildness of a fresh-run steelhead. A lot of it depends on the fish and what kind of mood they’re in. As a rule, I usually start with the drag probably on the lighter side. I find it easier to ratchet it down a bit, rather than risk losing a fish of a lifetime on a tight drag. Err on the side of caution.

9 thoughts on “Ask the Experts: How Do You Set Your Drag Before Fishing?”

  1. Excellent answers by all the experts. A subsequent question would be how to manage the drag when a fish takes out a lot of line. This was more of a problem before large and mid-arbor reels but can still be an issue now.

    As line is taken out by the fish, the effective spool radius decreases. As the spool radius decreases, the “effective” drag of the reel increases. Because the spool radius acts as a lever arm to turn the spool, as the lever gets shorter, it takes more pull to turn the spool against the drag. This is the reason that it is better to start with a bit if a lighter drag than a tighter drag, especially for a newbie who may not remember to back off on the drag when a fish has taken out a lot of line.

    Another tactic that was not discussed was palming the reel, which we old timers used to do before modern disk drags became common. Placing the palm of the reeling hand against the spool to create friction and extra drag is “palming the reel.” But keep your fingers away from the spinning reel handle. Salt water anglers have broken their fingers when attempting this. Better to lose the fish than to suffer an injury.

  2. So I have a bait caster and I had it for awhile … until today, while fishing I hooked a bass and after the release ,,my drag was loose and when I checked my drag settings it was on max/tight drag but I can still reel in and cast out… any help?

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