When to Upgrade Your Fly Fishing Reel

Check out this guide for the tell-tale signs that it's time to upgrade your fly reel, and some main features to look for when shopping for a new reel!

Several fly fishing reels lay in a pile.

Photo by Joseph Smith

For many anglers, fly fishing can seem like a daunting sport to enter. There is a lot of gear and lingo that can make it confusing, so to help with that, many companies offer starting packages such as the Orvis Encounter, Orvis Clearwater, or the Temple Fork Outfitters NXT Combination. These are great introductory packages that contain everything an angler would need to start fishing, including a fly reel. Once the angler progresses enough in the sport to ask, the question invariably arises: when is it time to upgrade? In this article, allow me to offer my thoughts on different types of reels and when it is the appropriate time for an upgrade.

In What Order Should You Upgrade Your Reel?

The Hardy Marquis Click and Pawl Reel.

Hardy Marquis Click and Pawl Reel. Photo by Jason Smith

For most anglers, the obvious time to upgrade is when the function of the entry-level package no longer meets the performance level that they want to achieve. In all honesty, for most anglers, the first place to start is not the reel. The least expensive place to begin often yields the best results, which is a quality fly line. Although the Orvis Clearwater fly line is a good entry-level line, better lines such as the Scientific Anglers Amplitude Smooth Infinity Line or the Monic Icicle Floating Fly Line will add distance to casting.

Likewise, as an angler’s skills improve, they may attempt different fishing techniques and a line that is specifically geared toward that technique will yield results far better than a reel. A sinking tip fly line might be better suited for streamer fishing or a tropical fly line would be best for your upcoming trip to the Florida Keys. Having said that, often other items need to be upgraded as well.

Once the line is upgraded, the fly rod should be the next item to change. Most of the beginner packages come with a moderate action fly rod. As fly casting skills improve, often a faster action or different weight rod may be what is required. For example, dry fly fishing for native brookies in North Carolina's Smoky Mountains is far more enjoyable with an ultralight fly rod than a beginner package set up. Often, when a fly rod is upgraded from that entry-level rod, it becomes time to think about that new reel.

Reasons for a Reel Upgrade

Some reasons to purchase the rod and reel at the same time are below.

Better Balance

The weight of the reel often helps to balance the rod. By having a balance point around an inch below the top of the grip, less effort is required to cast and long days on the water will not be as taxing on your arm and shoulder.

Technical Demands

Some reels are simply better suited for different applications. If you are a die-hard nymph angler, a full-caged reel is better at preventing the narrow fly line and long leaders from becoming pinched between the spool and frame. Likewise, a sealed drag found on saltwater reels is better at preventing the corrosion commonly found in saltwater environments.

Stronger/Different Drag

The Orvis Mirage Reel.

The Orvis Mirage reel. Photo by Joseph Smith

Although for most trout fishing situations, the drag is not a major consideration. If you plan on throwing bait fish flies to northern pike or hunting steelhead, you will require a stronger drag. Saltwater anglers may desire a sealed disc drag such as the Orvis Mirage to help prevent saltwater corrosion. Likewise, from a nostalgic perspective, a bamboo fly rod setup for dead drifting dry flies on Pennsylvania's Limestone Creeks pairs better with a click and pawl reel.

An Upcoming Trip

Perhaps you are fortunate to have the trip of a lifetime coming up. A trip to fish for giant trevally in the Seychelles or backpacking through Wyoming's Wind Range not only requires gear up to the demands of the trip, but often an inexpensive spare is required to prevent a ruined trip, in the event of gear failure. Even if you are taking a guided trip in Montana, new gear adds extra excitement for trips.

As a Gift

Show me a fly angler who turns down a new reel as a gift and I will show you an imposter. Father's Day, Mother's Day, birthdays, and Holiday gift giving are all perfect opportunities for an upgraded reel. Even children who have taken up the sport will need upgrades at some point.

Your Old Reel Broke

This is probably the most obvious reason for an upgrade. Many of the entry-level bundles include reels that are not intended to be the most durable, and less expensive reels often have very limited warranties.

Common Reel Materials

Reels are made from different materials. Depending on the material used, the reels will have varying properties which will affect the cost. To better understand what some of the advantages and disadvantages are, here are the materials that are commonly used.

Molded Plastic

These reels are by far the least expensive and may not be much of an upgrade from the entry-level reel that came in the combination setup. These reels often are paired with less-than-stellar drag systems and are not very durable. Drops can easily cause breakage.

Cast Aluminum

The Orvis Clearwater reel.

The Orvis Clearwater reel. Photo by Joseph Smith

These reels are made when molten aluminum is poured into a mold and are easy to mass produce. The Orvis Clearwater reel is an example of a quality reel in this category. The manufacturing process, however, does make these reels more prone to breakage or distortion from drops or when excessive pressure is placed on them. These reels also tend to be slightly heavier for their size than other reels. For most freshwater situations, these reels will stand up well.

Machined Aluminum

The Lamson Guru Reel.

The Lamson Guru Reel. Photo by Joseph Smith

These reels are the most expensive, most lightweight, and most durable reels out there. They are machined from a single piece of bar stock aluminum and often come with an anodized coating to prevent corrosion. Anglers who purchase one of these reels can reasonably expect a lifetime of enjoyment and most of these reels come with a lifetime warranty to back this claim up. These reels work in both freshwater and saltwater conditions. The Lamson Guru is an example of a reel in this class.

Other Important Features

Aside from the material that the reels are made from, anglers will often hear about other features that make reels stand out. Here are some of the more common ones.

Arbor Size

The Lamson Litespeed Reel.

The Lamson Litespeed Reel. Photo by Joseph Smith

This is essentially the size of the spool. Reels are made in basically three arbor sizes: standard, mid-arbor, and large arbor sizes. Most modern fly reels come in the mid-arbor and large arbor sizes, such as the Lamson Litespeed which features an ultra-large arbor. The benefits of a larger arbor include less line memory from being coiled on the spool and more importantly, larger arbors have higher rates of line retrieval which makes playing fish easier.

Drag System

A fish lying next to the Orvis Battenkill Reel.

The Orvis Battenkill Reel. Photo by Joseph Smith

Reels will have a disc drag or click and pawl drag system. Most modern reels feature a disc drag system. Disc drags tend to be smoother and can apply more pressure than a click and pawl drag. Disc drags often will come sealed which increases the durability and abuse that these reels can take and still function. This makes this style of reel popular with the saltwater fly fishing crowd. Click-and-pawl reels, such as the Orvis Battenkill, have fewer moving parts and are less prone to malfunction. They are easier to clean and repair. When extra drag is required, anglers need to manually apply it with the palm of the hand or a finger. Palming a reel is an art form and is learned over many years.

Warranty and Place of Manufacture

Introductory reels are not the most durable and are mass-produced imports. Most of the higher-quality reels will come with a lifetime warranty and are made in the USA. There is better part fitment and better reel function with these. Also, if you ever have problems with your reel, these reels can easily be serviced. When you purchase one of these better reels, you are purchasing an experience and not just a fly reel.

Final Thoughts

The Orvis Battenkill Reel, Reddington Zero, Ross Colorado LT, and Red Truck Diesel Classic.

Orvis Battenkill Reel, Reddington Zero, Ross Colorado LT, Red Truck Diesel Classic. Photo by Ted Smith

With fly reels, each price point comes with different features. These features have the potential to help you progress with your fishing skills and make your outings more enjoyable. Hopefully, this article has helped you decide when the time is right for a reel upgrade. If you have questions or need help selecting a fly reel or any other gear as you head out to your favorite fishing hole, please reach out to me or another Fishing Expert at Curated. We would love to help. Tight Lines!

Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith
Fly Fishing Expert
Joseph here! How can I help?
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Written By
I am an avid fly fisherman. Luckily, I have a pond in my backyard exactly two minutes from my fly tying bench. If there is open water, I will fish just about every day. Although I grew up fishing the fabled streams of Pennsylvania, I love to travel and fly fish for diverse species both fresh and sa...

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