DI-Fly: How (and Why) to Spool a Fly Reel

In this tutorial, Fly Fishing expert Andy Sparhawk helps guide any angler looking to add line to their reel through 4 easy steps.

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Is there anything more exciting than brand new fly fishing gear? It doesn't matter if it's a new rod, reel, or even a new fly pattern. The anticipation of getting out there and putting your new gear to use is all part of the fun.

Fresh out of the box, a new fly reel represents the potential of a personal best—a 20in brown or the song of a new reel's disc drag system, singing smooth jazz of a big 'bow taking line. Those are tunes you hope not to forget. The anticipation is almost too much to bear for fly fishers, but those experiences will have to wait just a little longer, that is, if you don't have your reel spooled up with line.

As with most businesses in our service-based economy, fly shops are more than capable and happy to add line to a reel the correct way. For an eager fly fisherman, having your line spooled is a luxury. Time is money when you're taking time off to purchase gear and even more valuable when your time could be spent on the water. Still, for some, adding line to a fly reel is a matter of pride, allowing the opportunity to better understand a tool that they will need to trust in critical situations. Wouldn't we all rather have confidence in a reel set-up because of hands-on experience instead of taking someone's word for it?

Luckily, adding a fly line to a fly reel is no more complicated than changing your oil. Following a few easy steps, plus on-demand resources like YouTube, will ensure that anyone can master the skills necessary to add fly line to a fly reel. Throughout this tutorial, I take any angler looking to add line to their reel through these steps. Along the way, I provide context and considerations when building your line onto the reel.

Two disconnected reels sitting on a flat wooden background.
Photo by Andy Sparhawk

The Order of Line for a Fly Fishing Reel

Reel > Uni-Knot < Backing > Nail Knot < Fly Line > Loop to Loop < Leader > Surgeon Knot < Tippet

1. The Fly Reel

The reel foot connects to the fly rod at the reel seat. It is your line storage system and the mechanism that holds the line. Additionally, the reel provides tension, releasing line at different velocities depending on the needs of the angler. The last benefit of a reel is that it retrieves the line either when a fish is on or when it is time to move locations or end the day.

Before one adds line to the reel, it is wise to consider the reel knob orientation first. That is to say, which side do you want the reel knob on to retrieve line. Traditionally, it is standard to reel with your non-dominant hand. For instance, if you are right-handed, you will crank with your left hand. Hence, the reel knob should be on the left side of your outfit, to the inside of your body. If you're left handed, the knob will reside on the right-hand side. The knob would still be to the inside of your body.

Which Hand Should You Reel With?

There are some valid arguments to having an outside knob orientation. Many guide services set up their guide rods with knobs to the outside. Since guides deal with many beginner fly fishers, a knob to the inside can catch and tangle fly line with a neophyte angler. Offering an outside knob placement is one less opportunity for a tangle.

Do You Reel in a Fly Rod?

Another reason guides may choose to have knobs situated to the outside is instructional. While the client may have never held a fly rod before, they may have done some conventional fishing. In traditional fishing, cranking the reel knob is the sole source of retrieval. Conversely, the fly reel takes a back seat to strip in line in the majority of fly fishing. Thus, taking away a student's temptation to reel to develop sound fly fishing habits is advantageous.

A counterintuitive knob handle orientation isn't just for beginners. More experienced anglers may prefer the knob on the outside. Excess line while casting or stripping presents anglers with a hang-up risk, no matter the skill level. While casting, many experts encourage holding on to the line when shooting to avoid line recoiling horizontally around the knob and rod. In any case, retrieve orientation is a preference that each angler can choose for themselves. Take a look at your reel manufacture’s website or the accompanying instructions to switch knob sides.

2. Tie Backing to the Reel Spool

If you are happy with how your reel is set up, you can connect it to the fly line system's first component, fly backing. The connection can be made with a variety of knots. My recommendation is to use a uni-knot around the reel arbor. Naturally, an arbor knot works as well.

Securely attached, have a friend help you reel the backing on to the reel by inserting a pencil or pen through the backing spool. While your friend applies tension, retrieve line onto the reel evenly across the arbor. Be sure to leave a portion of line to attach to the next component, the fly fishing line.

How Much Backing Do I Need?

Most freshwater reels are loaded with between 100 and 150yds of backing. In the case of saltwater reels, the amount of backing is increased to 250yds.

The backing line is your insurance policy for a fish running far enough to exhaust the length of fly line loaded on your reel. However, the backing primarily increases your reel's arbor circumference, filling the volume of your reel with it. Increasing the arbor size will improve line pick-up efficiency. Line pick up is the amount of line that each revolution of your reel retrieves. The line retrieved is greater for each rotation of a large-arbor reel than smaller- or thinner-arbor reels.

The backing allows anglers an opportunity to customize their fly set up with different colors of backing to accentuate the fly rod outfit's aesthetics. Whether you set up your reel personally or with the help of a fly shop, it is helpful to ask which backing colors are available. If utility is more important, choosing a backing color with a prominent contrast with your fly line selected can help you gauge the amount of line that is out.

3. Tie the Backing to the End of the Fly Line

The backing is tied to the end of the fly line with a nail knot or albright knot. A nail knot looks intimidating, but your success can be improved using a nail knot fly tool. The nail knot is a useful knot to know in case any of the loop-to-loop connecting in subsequent steps breaks. I encourage you to have a handy instructional guide of knots in your fly gear for a refresher if the need arises. The booklet (or app) and a knot tool can save the day and are thoughtful additions to any fly fishing preparation list.

An image of someone holding an Orvis nail knot fly tool.
Photo by Orvis

IMPORTANT: The Connection

Make sure the backing connects to the back of the fly line. The back portion of the fly line will always be the side that uncoils first from the fly line spool. Many fly line producers even mark this side. Since the fly line has a taper, it is vital to follow this for the fly line to cast correctly. Repeat the process of reeling line onto the reel that you did with the backing.

Securely tied to backing with a nail knot, the fly line is the primary driver when casting flies and offers strength when playing fish. Fly line comes in various tapers for different casting situations, and designs that float and sink at multiple intervals for specific fly fishing situations.

4. Connect the Leader to the Fly Line

A recent fly line innovation has been the standardization of a loop-to-loop connection to fly lines. As the name suggests, a welded loop at the end of the fly line, similar to a perfection loop knot, connects to a loop on tapered leaders, making the connection (and removal) of leaders to the fly line effortless. Once connected, a leader is the transparent portion of the fly line system. The leader is driven by the heavier, weight-forward line to unfurl with a tiny fly attached to the end with a clinch knot.

How Long Should a Leader be on a Fly Line?

As a standard, a tapered fly leader should match the length of the fly rod. If your fly rod is 9ft long, choose a 9ft leader to start. As flies are added and removed, the leader will shorten. Connecting tippet to the end of your leader ensures that the leader remains at that standard length. Connect tippet to leader with a surgeon knot—another intimidating looking/ sounding knot that is surprisingly easy to make and handy to connect monofilament lines like leader material to tippet.

Have Any More Questions?

If you're a visual learner, Spruce, another Curated Fly Fishing expert, walks you through how to spool a fly reel in the video below. Get ready to follow along so you can get spooled up and out fishing ASAP.

Did You Know?

You can purchase reels through Curated with line already added? Ask your Curated expert if you'd prefer this option. Even if adding a line to your reel isn't a matter of pride, understanding the materials and knots that comprise fly fishing systems offer greater insight and a better appreciation of fly fishing. Yes, today, we are all too happy to have oil changes or lawnmowers tuned for us, but when service fails, it's nice to know how to get things done yourself.

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Written By
I'm a Colorado kid and a lifelong angler. From bluegills in area ponds to high alpine lakes of the Rocky Mountains, I've fished it all. I have learned to appreciate the challenge of fly fishing and love the support more and more over the years. Probably the only thing I love more than fly fishing is...

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