When it comes to heading out fishing, whether near or far, fly fishers are people who do things the same yet always look to change things up. When you’re fishing close to home after a while you generally have your kit sorted out – you’ve got the flies you like, the rod, reel and line that does the trick, and of course the waders, hat and other accessories that make you feel happy or look cool (or some mix therein). Each outing provides a bit of feedback as to whether one went out prepared or was missing something. These individual events usually lead to researching new gear, patterns or techniques and too many flies. Locally, your kit evolves quickly enough as you’re out often and have the chance to refine your kit. When travelling, it’s a little more tricky to have the exact gear bag required: lack of experience in the target environment, changing conditions in a familiar scene, new developments in the industry to keep up with, let alone the limitations imposed by baggage restrictions when travelling. Having a core set of equipment that is familiar and reliable is one main factor to successful outings.
Without a doubt, the rod, reel and line are the key components in a setup that I feel influence my experience the most. The rod and reel are the two main points of contact we have with an entire setup so they both need to feel comfortable in hand and function well to a reasonable degree. My ‘reasonable degree’ is pretty high – I am very critical of the tactile feel of the gear I use. It has to look and feel nice in hand if I’m going to hold it for hours a day throughout a season.
Reels are an interesting item. There are a lot of different opinions on how important a reel is. Some would say it just holds line so anything will do. Looking back, I started with a click and pawl Daiwa reel and managed to catch fish. I still own the reel but can’t imagine a circumstance where I’d actually use it. Suffice to say, I think the reel is a lot more important. If you’re dealing with fish that are large enough that you’re playing them on the reel then without a doubt the function of the reel is critical. The two primary functionally important tasks of the reel are to
1) Pick up slack line. The fast the better!
2) Let out line smoothly when you need to let the fish take line
A tertiary (but important) role is to look good in photos! Pride of ownership and a bit of good looks will together make that fish pic look that much more special.
If you’re in the market for a new reel, here are a few key things to consider:
Design and Materials
A well-designed large-arbor reel is my weapon of choice. The larger the arbor the better - provided one keeps the weight and balance in check with the intended rod. When you fight with fish that make longer runs and tend to come back towards you afterwards it’s a huge benefit to have a reel that can pick up that line quickly. Many fish are lost due to slack or line management issues; the size of the larger arbor is an instant bonus.
For single-hand setups a lightweight design saves a lot of energy over a day of casting. Finding the right balance between lightweight construction and durability is an exercise that requires a look at your own style, habits and the environment you’re using the reel in. If you have two left feet and often throw your rod on the ground (we’ve all been there) then maybe you slide towards the more durable side of the scale. I look for the lightest reel that will balance my rod in trout-fishing scenarios and then start to beef up as I go towards larger species and especially saltwater. Construction and materials should be such that the reel can take a bump or two without leaving you stranded. I don’t care if I can back a truck over it – there are bigger issues at hand if that happens!
Materials used in construction: ideally lightweight, strong and corrosion-proof. Most options these days will feature an anodized aluminum construction. Any reel that I buy which handles a 6wt line and up should be salt-water capable – meaning that aside from the spool/frame, all other pieces need to be stainless/corrosion proof.
A 7wt reel that can handle the salt is a great tool to have; it’s ideal for bonefish setups, useful for small/light steelhead situations (e.g. skating dries in tight conditions, etc), good for warm water species along with many other roles.
Easy to Maintain
Maintenance of a reel should be straightforward. It should be easy to adjust/tune the drag settings, reverse the retrieve, etc. I’ve been on trips and had reels misbehave only to find out that I couldn’t get them apart to find the sand that was inside them. Now I’ll take reels that I can fully disassemble and work with. Reels that require regular lube/oil changes aren’t my cup of tea. Fully sealed internals reduce the maintenance required. One other nice feature is the ability to remove/reinstate the clicker. I usually dislike clickers in my trout reels, and like them on my saltwater stuff…
Drag is one of those things where guys will pick up a reel and dial it down to see how impossible they can make it to spin the reel. That is the last thing I’m interested in. Here are my key features I look at in a drag:
1) Butter Smooth – my ideal is to have a drag that starts up without any ‘stiction’ and continues to feed line smoothly. For trout fishing, more fish are lost when the fish first starts to pull line off the reel vs. during a run. I want that initial startup to be smooth and the rest is just a preference rather than a requirement. Strength-wise, the drag doesn’t need to stop a fish; it just needs to stop the line from being pulled off if you’re not palming the reel.
2) Easy to adjust with a well spaced interval. Primarily, a drag needs to be easy to adjust during a fight. In the same vein, a reel shouldn’t go from loose to tight quickly. I lost my largest Tarpon ever hooked due to a drag that went from zero to hero in a fraction of a turn (a borrowed reel, I’m over it now)
3) Can withstand the runs and heat from large saltwater species. Sustained runs from blisteringly fast fish are a reality of saltwater fishing and drags need to be able to withstand that kind of use. While many reels can handle that easily enough – I seem to see reels that can’t in the hands of a few people each year. In a mean sort of way, it always makes me smile…
4) As mentioned above, a sealed drag is pretty important to keeping both reel and angler happy over the long haul.
In the end it’s about finding a tool that you love to fish with and supports what you do. Something that is of great value (i.e. a balance of price and performance) and looks nice in a photo, doesn’t let you down in a remote location and has a lifetime of fishing built into it is what every reel should strive for.