Pro Tips: How to Choose a Fly Reel

Written by: Paul Fersen

Anglers have a wide array of choices—in materials, drag systems, sizes, and prices.
Photos via

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.) 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. Cast-aluminum reels, formed by liquid metal poured into molds, work fine and can last for years, but the highest quality reels are machined aluminum. Simple Rule: If you can afford it, 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.

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 by Tim Bronson

4. Drag System—The drag system 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 in 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.

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 is much larger in diameter, and therefore the reel can 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 is the reel is much bigger and didn’t balance a light trout rod. The mid-arbor reel—smaller than a large arbor, but still a larger arbor than the original spindle—allows 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.

Here’s an informative video that explains some of these concepts in more depth:

Click here to check out all Orvis fly reels..

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