How to Choose the Right Fly Fishing Reel

Published on 02/20/2023 · 10 min readDo you have the right gear to land some big ones this season? Check out this guide to finding the right fly fishing reel with Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith!
Joseph Smith, Fly Fishing Expert
By Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith

Wild Cutthroat Trout. Photo by Joseph Smith

Are you new to fly fishing, or a seasoned pro? Perhaps you are looking to upgrade your gear, or match a reel to a new rod. In this article, we will discuss the different types of fly-fishing reels and figure out which is the best option for you.

The Importance of a Fly Reel

When fly fishing for trout and smaller fish, the fly reel can often seem like an afterthought. It merely holds the fly line and serves as a counterbalance to assist with fly casting. But once a large brown trout takes a dry fly attached to a 7X tippet, or a tarpon starts an aerial show, the reel will quickly become the piece of gear that dictates whether this will be the one that got away or the one in your photo.

Aside from the integrity of your knots, once a sizable fish has been hooked, the startup inertia, strength of the reel’s drag, and its ability to protect tippet will be the greatest predictors of success. As with much fly fishing gear, many varied fly reels exist, and choosing the correct one can often be a daunting task. With that in mind, here are some features you should consider.

What to Consider When Buying a Fly Reel

How much should I expect to pay for a reel?

This is often the first question everyone asks. However, the answer depends on your budget. A quality beginner freshwater reel runs about $150, while an entry-level saltwater reel usually starts around $500. True, there are less expensive options out there, but the adage “buy once, cry once” applies. Often the “bargain” reels do not feel like a bargain when the drag explodes while fighting the fish of a lifetime or you find you are replacing the reel every fishing season! Different features can be found at different prices, so learn more about fly reel price points here.

What species are you attempting to catch?

The larger the fish, often the larger the required reel. Trout and panfish anglers use smaller reels than anglers chasing steelhead, pike, bass, or even sailfish. Make sure your reel is designed to accommodate the fly line weight you are fishing.

How should the weight of the fly reel affect the balance point of the fly rod?

This question, although commonly asked, is moot. How does one define balance? Standing on your lawn and finding where your fly rig fulcrums on your finger with no line out? What happens when 30 feet of line is out (the amount the AFFTA uses to standardize fly line weights)? How about 50 feet? The answer is that the balance point will constantly change as you fish. As long as the reel is the correct size for the fly line weight of the rod, you will be fine.

Different Types of Fly Reels

Fly reels can be broken down into different types based on their drags and construction material.

Types of Drag Systems

Orvis Battenkill. Photo by Joseph Smith

The drag of a fly reel is similar to the brakes in your car. By using friction, the drag stops a fish from running and taking out line. Mainly, fly reels produce this friction in two different ways: the disc drag system and the click and pawl. Then, disc drags can be further broken down into drawbar discs and sealed drum discs. There are many reasons for choosing one drag system over another.

Tibor Back Country Lite Cork Draw Bar Disc Drag. Photo by Joseph Smith

Draw Bar Discs

The more common option consists of two or more circular discs that compress against the metal of the reel’s spool. Cork is often used here because it has heat-dissipating properties and can compress and rebound gradually—allowing for a smooth drag start-up.

  • The downside to cork is that it must be occasionally lubricated. This is typically not a major service event and can be done from home.
  • This precludes the drag from being sealed, which means an angler must be more careful with making sure dirt and grime do not enter the drag system.

Sealed Drag System

Newer technologies have made sealed drags reliable and viable options. Inside the drag are synthetic washers—such as nylon, Teflon, and Derlin—which compress against the metal of the reel spool.

  • Quality and degrees of “sealed” drags have a wide variance.
  • The downside is that if the seal fails, so too does the drag.
  • The repair is not an easy, at-home fix and the reel must be sent in to the manufacturer or replaced.

For both of these disc drag systems, the drag can be adjusted with a knob that will gradually tighten the drag—making on-the-fly changes easy. For these reasons, most anglers prefer disc drag reels.

Orvis Battenkill Click and Pawl Reel Drag. Photo by Joseph Smith

Click and Pawl

This system is created by a clicker—also known as a pawl—that snaps along the teeth of a gear to produce drag.

  • While elegantly simple, this design sacrifices the ability to finely adjust the drag.
  • Although some click and pawl reels do have a four-position clicker, this is not something that can be adjusted with a fish on.
  • To add more drag, the angler must place the palm of their hand or finger on the reel, and ”palm the reel”. This is a learned skill, and many anglers have broken off fish during the learning curve.
  • Nonetheless, for the minimalist, or someone fishing for trout or panfish, this drag is often adequate.

Types of Reel Construction

Aside from the drag features, the most common differences between reels are the materials they’re made from. Here are the more common materials, and the pros and cons of each.

Molded Plastic

These entry-level reels are by far the least expensive. They are often paired with a less-than-stellar drag system and are not very durable; drops can easily cause breakage.

Cast Aluminum

These mass-produced reels are made when molten aluminum is poured into a mold. The manufacturing process, however, makes these reels more prone to breakage or distortion from drops or excessive pressure. These types of reels—such as the Orvis Clearwater—also tend to be slightly heavier for their size when compared to others. Though they stand up well to most freshwater applications.

Orvis Clearwater Reel. Photo by Joseph Smith

Machined Aluminum

The most expensive, lightweight, 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 come with a lifetime warranty to back this claim up. These reels—like the Lamson Guru—work in both freshwater and saltwater conditions.

Lamson Guru. Photo by Joseph Smith

Features to Look Out for When Buying a Fly Reel

Arbor Size

This consideration 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. Larger arbors include less line memory from being coiled on the spool. More importantly, they have higher rates of line retrieval, which makes playing fish easier.

Technical Demands

Often, some reels are simply better suited for different applications. If you are a die-hard European-style 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 is better at preventing the corrosion commonly caused by fishing in saltwater environments.

Warranty and Manufacturer

Introductory reels are not the most durable and are usually massed-produced imports. Most higher-quality reels will come with a lifetime warranty. Plus, they are typically made in the USA and feature better part fitment and better reel function. Also, if you ever have problems with these reels, they are easily serviced. So I believe when you purchase one of these higher-quality reels, you are purchasing an experience, and not just a product.

Extra Spools

When purchasing a reel, the availability of additional spools must also be considered. Often, conditions will require using sinking lines in addition to regular floating lines. A spare spool is easier to change than changing an entire fly line—especially when streamside. Most fly reels provide the option of buying additional spools at a fraction of the cost of the entire reel.

Choosing the Right Reel

To help illustrate how this technical information applies to you, here are a few examples of different anglers and their specific needs.

Henry: New Angler Targeting Trout

Henry is a trout and panfish fisherman who primarily fishes with his children during summer vacations at his family’s cabin in Wyoming. Since he is beginning to incorporate fly fishing into his repertoire, he would like to find an inexpensive reel he can pair with an entry-level fly rod he has already purchased.

Fishing with Children. Photo by Joseph Smith

Features Henry Should Look For

  • Easy for beginning fly fishers – Henry is new to the sport and should seek out a fly reel that is not overly technical and will work for a variety of situations as well as being kid friendly.
  • Inexpensive – As he will not use this reel extensively, money can be saved and put towards other items he will need as he enters the sport.
  • Lightweight – Since he is fishing for trout, a heavy-duty fly reel is not needed. The lightweight aspect of this reel will reduce arm fatigue, especially as he learns to cast.

Reel examples include: Orvis Encounter, TFO NXT, Orvis Clearwater

Tommy: An Ultralight Purist Trout Angler

Hardy Marquis Click and Pawl Reel. Photo by Jason Smith

Tommy is an avid fly angler who has been fishing for many years. Recently, he purchased an ultralight fly rod for dry fly fishing for small native brook trout in Pennsylvania and is looking for a reel to aesthetically balance his new rod. Price is not a major concern.

Features Tommy Should Look For

  • Lightweight – Since Tommy will be hiking into remote areas, a lightweight reel will be beneficial. As he will be targeting small fish, a strong drag is not needed.
  • Durable Construction – Hiking over boulders can often lead to slips and drops of equipment. A durable reel will help prevent breakage; and in the event breakage occurs, a good warranty is a must.
  • Aesthetics – As a strong drag is not required, a traditional click and pawl reel may pair nicely with the ultralight rod.

Reel examples include: Hardy Marquis, Ross Colorado, Orvis Battenkill, Sage Click

Deanna: Saltwater Angler Looking to Upgrade

Snook. Photo by Joseph Smith

Deanna is an angler who loves to prowl the Florida Keys casting baitfish imitations to tarpon, snook, bonefish, and other saltwater species. She recently upgraded her rod to an Orvis Helios 3D and is looking for a reel that can withstand the corrosive conditions of saltwater fishing.

Features Deanna Should Look For

  • Strong Drag – Since the fish she’s targeting are strong and hard running, a disc drag is a must.
  • Durable – Saltwater is corrosive, and the reel needs to be able to withstand rust. A reliable warranty is a must.
  • Large Arbor – A larger arbor will assist with quick, accurate casts (less line memory) and will help fight larger fish.
  • Availability of Extra Spools – Fishing conditions often change, and the ability to change to an intermediate or sinking fly line is easier to accomplish with an extra spool or two.

Reel examples include: Lamson Guru, Orvis Mirage, Tibor Everglades, Ross Evolution R Salt

Final Thoughts

Different Click and Pawl Reels.   Photograph by Joseph Smith

As an extra bonus for those of you who have read this entire article, here is a tutorial to help you set your new reel up. 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 Curated Fly Fishing Expert for free, customized advice. We would love to help. Tight Lines!

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