A simple tool — or not?

Paul Smith
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Here’s the real dope on reels

A few weeks ago, I wrote about fly rods and how to go about choosing one to suit your needs, skill level and budget. With so much good stuff on the market, both online, and in traditional fly tackle stores, shopping can be a daunting experience. Reels for fly fishing also require some thought and research before you hit the buy button or plank down cash at the counter of a brick and mortar outlet.

You might think that choosing what is essentially a spool for holding line to be a decision of lesser complexity. In simpler times, it was. Nowadays there is more to consider.

I know what’s churning around in some of your minds. If a simple no frills reel was good enough then, what’s wrong with it now? Nothing, I suppose, but there’s more to the story, and the times have changed. Are any of you folks still using rotary dial phones or watching the NHL finals in black and white?

So, here we go.

My first reel was a smallish J.W. Young and Sons 3.5 inch Condex. My father handed it to me in exchange for a decent third grade report card, along with a nine-foot fibreglass rod and a dip net. I was going fly fishing. That simple and functional no-drag reel served me well for many years. I actually still use it now and then for trouting smaller ponds and rivers.

I would not dare tackle a bonefish with it. I’m pretty confident it would end up in pieces. Like I said, the times they have changed. Now we mess with saltwater critters powered by afterburners and expect to subdue them to hand in short order. That’s asking a lot from our line spools.

Excuse me — “no-drag” is inaccurate and might mislead. Every reel has to muster enough resistance to stop the reel from spooling and tangling the line.

That’s when a feisty fish sets the reel spool spinning and by its own inertia ends up spinning faster than the line is stripping off. A nasty snarled up mess of line is the inevitable outcome.  My Condex had a non-adjustable click and pawl drag that prevented spooling and offered some degree of resistance to running fish. It also sounded very cool.

So, what sort of reel do you need? It depends on what you are fishing for. If you stick to pan trout, then something like my old Condex is all you need. Just enough drag to prevent spooling and you’re good to go.

Actually many anglers prefer to apply drag by palming the reel. You just press the palm of your free hand against the spinning reel spool, with the internal drag set just enough to prevent tangles.

You can also create drag by squeezing the outgoing line between your finger and the rod’s cork handle. Just be sure and wear a glove for nasty fighting fish. Backing line can cut through your fingers. I’ve been there and done that, with a scar to prove it.

So, bottom line: you can certainly salmon fish with a minimal drag click and pawl type reel, as long as you learn how to manually apply drag. These days you can buy a really nice machined reel of this sort for a hundred bucks or so. They are the minimalist’s preference.

No matter about necessity, you want a proper adjustable drag so you can play your salmon off the reel with no palming or pinching. Fair enough, there’s plenty out there to choose from, not like when Dad bought my first reel in 1967 in St. Anthony.

Types of drag

Adjustable drags come in three varieties: adjustable click and pawl, sealed friction drag, and exposed friction drag.

The vintage stuff is adjustable click and pawl.  How does click and pawl work? There’s a toothed hardened steel gear mounted inside the reel on the rotating shaft. It rides against a triangular piece of steel, the pawl, and it slows the rotation of the reel spool. The pawl is pressed against the gear by spring tension and in some reels it can be somewhat adjusted. It’s really just meant for over spooling purposes and leaves the fishing of the fish to the fisherman. These reels are simple, low maintenance, lightweight, and typically less expensive. I like them.

Incidentally, the notion of a screaming reel originated in the click and pawl days. It’s the sound of the pawl on toothed gear that we so love, so much so that many manufacturers mount a clicker on an otherwise silent disk drag reels that would otherwise functionally issue no such sound. In some cases you can switch it on or off according to preference.

Disk drag reels come in a variety of configurations and I only really have room to talk basics. They can be otherwise categorized but I’m going to separate the pack by sealed and unsealed, because in my view that’s the most fundamental design difference out there. If you are going to spend significant money, say more than $300 on a lifetime reel, this should be your first consideration and decision.

In open concept, the drag itself is simply a friction plate, typically faced with oil impregnated cork that rotates against another plain metal plate. A threaded drawbar keeps them pressed together to create resistance. In sealed drags graphite, stainless steel, Teflon and various plastics are common.

Sealed drags require no maintenance. You just fish away and rinse them off now and then. As you can imagine, it’s impossible to seal a click and pawl, and we are now talking about disk drags. Unsealed reels need to be greased, oiled and cleaned periodically, more so in saltwater or grimy conditions.

So, it’s a no brainer, right? Buy a sealed drag. Not so fast. In my view, the very best reels are open and unsealed disk drag format. Why?

I could never figure out why they stopped putting grease fittings on the front end of a pickup truck. Shouldn’t bearings last longer if greased periodically?

I’m certain of it. The same is true with reels. If you maintain a premium fly reel it will do duty for multiple lifetimes. If you avoid getting your hands greasy it will die painfully and prematurely. Likely it will seize up while you’re fighting a monster salmon.

That said, sealed reels will also last a very long time, but in my humble opinion, not several life spans.

Bottom line: if you maintain your stuff religiously, you might be best served with an unsealed drag. Unsealed drags are also repairable by handy owners.

Open drags also tend to have larger friction surfaces and dissipate heat more readily. At least that’s what I think. Most of the reels recommended by experts for tarpon, sailfish, tuna and other bubba sort of fish are of the open drag design philosophy. I tend to pay attention to these things. For salmon and trout, heat dissipation and giant drag surface is not an issue.

There’s more stuff to consider but I’ve run out of space. I hope I’ve at least given you some understanding of what goes on inside a fly reel. I’ll get into large arbour vs. traditional another week. That’s another big deal. I’ll give you the scoop on reserve line choices as well, since it is closely related to the arbor issue.  

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted at

flyfishtherock@hotmail.com  or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock.

Organizations: NHL

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