Fly Fishing Reels 101: An Expert Guide to the Types of Fly Reels

Published on 06/20/2023 · 8 min readBalanced with a properly selected rod and fly line weight, a fly fishing reel is an essential piece to an enjoyable day on the water.
Andy Sparhawk, Fly Fishing Expert
By Fly Fishing Expert Andy Sparhawk

Photo by Andy Sparhawk

Growing up, some of my earliest memories were of fishing for sunfish with a yellow and white fishing combo with Snoopy painted on an aluminum nose cone. I became very adept at slinging a two-toned bobber and bait with accuracy out to eager panfish.

My relationship as a novice angler with the accompanying reel with the plastic cover was simple: 1. Push the button to release the line. 2. Use the knob to crank in line. 3. Repeat as necessary.

This system worked out well until the inevitable birds nest required a willing grown-up to handle untangling duties.

Today, most of my angling is done with the combination of a fly rod and reel. I've rarely had to deal with a massive tangle that is common around the open face, metal bail of a spincast reel (but if I did, I'd handle it myself because I'm a big boy, now!). I now hold a greater respect for the role the reel plays in fly fishing. Balanced with a properly selected rod and weighted fly line, a fly fishing reel is an essential piece to an enjoyable day on the water and a deeper appreciation for fly fishing. This post identifies the critical attributes of fly fishing reels and discusses important considerations when comparing different types of fishing reels for fly fishing.

In their simplest form, reels provide three key benefits in fishing:

1. Storage: The need for yards of fishing line necessitates a storage system. Reels heed this call by storing a predetermined amount of line while restricting the line's ability to unspool.

2. Retrieval: Fishing reels allow for the orderly retrieval of released line.

3. Line Control: Fishing reels allow for the line to be released when needed, ideally in a controlled fashion, without birds nests, line twists, and backlash that are common with conventional casting reels.

Line Pick-Up Standard & Large Arbor Reels

An arbor refers to the spool of the fly reel. We mentioned that a primary function of the reel is to store fishing line. The arbor is that cylindrical mechanism on which fly line is collected by the angler and stored. The diameter of the spool plays a part in the retrieve, similar in practice to gear ratio.

Large arbor reels have become the norm in fly reel design—these larger diameter spools pick up more line per rotation than a smaller, standard-sized arbor. A large arbor reel is more suited to fishing for big game fish with heavier line, likely to take lots of line out and might come back racing. Each rotation that the reel makes will retrieve a greater amount of line than a standard arbor. By comparison, if you plan to fish for brook trout in beaver ponds, a large arbor may not be necessary. When shopping for a particular reel based on arbor diameter or size, look for the symbols “SA” for a standard arbor or “LA” for a large arbor.

Drag Systems

Up until you catch a large fish, the job of the reel seems a bit utilitarian. Collecting and storing line does not seem too different than the Snoopy reel I remember so fondly. True, but you'd be wrong to think that a fly fishing reel is just for holding and collecting line. At the very moment you hook into a big brown or smallmouth bass with room to run, you'll be grateful your reel has a correctly set drag system.

Controlling the line's release when a fish is hooked and speeding away is where the fun begins. Catching a fish can quickly turn from ecstasy to agony if your reel is not equipped to handle larger fish – perhaps that fish of a lifetime. Applying pressure to line is a crucial part of playing and ultimately netting a fish. If your reel’s drag is loose, you risk losing the fish from any number of situations that include shaking free or tangling line on submerged structure. If your drag is too resistant—SNAP!—a burst of speed might prove to be the difference between netting a trophy or losing that fly. In any case, the angler needs to do his or her best to expedite the process to avoid playing a fish to exhaustion. A smooth drag system aids your objective of applying the brakes to a wild fish.

Different types of drag systems help you gain smooth line control. Some reel drag systems are straightforward, hearkening back to a much simpler time for the sport. Others employ modern research and technology to propel the sport into the next generation. The best decision will depend heavily on the intended application of the reel, your preference, and your budget. Let's look at the different approaches used today in reel drag systems and discuss some of their applications.


A fly reel must apply pressure to slow and control the release of the fly line. The click-pawl system uses a small mechanical clicker, known as a pawl, that works against gears to slow the line's release. The applied resistance of the pawl can be adjusted in advance, and some reels have an adjustable drag knob that allows for drag adjustment. When more pressure is needed to slow down a running fish, the braking system is applied by laying the palm of one's hand or fingertips and thumb on the reel frame.

What this system lacks in mechanized control, the click-pawl systems make up in durability, lightweight construction, and a low-profile simplicity. The reels, such as the Orvis Battenkill reel, are a value and an excellent choice for smaller freshwater situations. Like any one of life's pursuits, there will always be purists; the click-pawl drag system certainly caters to the minimalist mindset.

Photo by Andy Sparhawk

Disc Drag

Disc drag systems in fly fishing reels replace the clicker with a disk within the fly reel. The discs are constructed from various materials, from plastic and cork to carbon-fiber versions, with the latter material considered superior and commanding a higher price point. The system works when a circular disc is pressed against the reel's frame, creating smooth and controlled resistance.

Unlike the click-pawl system, this modern drag system offers enhanced adjustability with a handy spool tension knob providing the angler with more control on demand. However, the disc can get sand and dirt in it, affecting its performance. In an attempt to eliminate the need for regular disassembly and cleaning, many reels now market a sealed drag system to alleviate or eliminate the need for reel maintenance.

Price Considerations & the Right Reel for You

The need for line pick-up and line control is key in deciding which reel is right for your needs. Additionally, the reel's construction is a final component to consider and factors into a reel’s price.

Fly fishing reel manufacturers make reels in two ways: die-cast and machined. Die casting is when the reel is formed by filling reusable dies or molds with molten metal. The other manufacturing method involves machining or carving a solid block of stainless steel. This version is called machined reels.

It is generally thought that machined reels are more durable than die-cast, but today many experts believe that die-cast can be just as rugged and sturdy as their machined counterparts. Nevertheless, how the reels are manufactured will play a part in the price and perceived value of the reel you decide to add to your set-up.

Understanding the differences and how a fly reel is used in fly fishing is critical to selecting a reel that fits your needs. While it isn't much different from conventional fishing reels like spinning reels, center pin, or baitcaster reels, fly fishing reels come with some important and unique components. Coastal and offshore fishing often demand heavy-duty gear to handle power fish like tuna or marlin. This specialized gear inevitably comes with a significant price tag but much-needed peace of mind regarding value.

Fly fishermen and women who have plans for eager cutthroat and brook trout in alpine lakes above 10,000 feet may opt for a more simplistic route. There is just something about the idea of casting bushy dry flies to cutties with a fiberglass rod and click-pawl reel that speaks to the tradition of fly fishing.

Best Fly Fishing Reels

Final considerations are to add an extra spool that will allow your reel to come through with adaptability, more so than a rod can provide. For example, I love to fish still water for big trout with a seven-weight rod using a floating line. But when I use the same rod for streamer fishing in a river, I like the ability to switch to a spool of sink-tip line. I can replace the spool of floating line with a sink-tip without even removing it from the rod, and best of all, I don't have to purchase an entirely new reel. It's like having two reels without the cost of buying two reels!

Another tip is to look for a lifetime warranty. Quality brands stand by their products. Be wary of any that don't offer a warranty.

Photo by Andy Sparhawk

Whether you're a beginner or experienced angler, saltwater fishing fanatic, or trout fishing bum make sure that the type of reel you choose is compatible with the type of fishing you intend to do, and the fly fishing rod and line weight. Ultimately, the best fly reels are the ones YOU like. Whether it's the sound or style, a reel is often the most customizable part of your fly fishing gear. So, identify your needs and customize. If you'd like to chat with me or one of my fellow Fly Fishing experts, please reach out to us here at Curated.

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