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

Published on 01/23/2023 · 12 min readIn this tutorial, Fly Fishing Expert Andy Sparhawk helps guide any angler looking to add line to their reel through 4 easy steps.
Andy Sparhawk, Fly Fishing Expert
By Fly Fishing Expert Andy Sparhawk

Photo by Pixabay

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 in waders, practicing fly casting, and putting your new setup 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?

Photo by Andy Sparhawk

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.

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 attaches 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 when a salmon, trout, or bass 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 for 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. So, if you hold your fly fishing rod with your right hand, don't be surprised if the fly fishing setup has the reel knob on the outside of your body.

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 trout 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 and just one of the many tricks guides employ to teach this type of fishing.

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 twisting 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 manufacturer’s website or the accompanying instructions to switch knob sides.

How to Change a Right-Handed Reel to Left-Hand Retrieve?

Right-hand casters traditionally like to reel with their left hand. To access the drag knob, a right-hand cast will be on the right side. However, with a few simple steps, fellow anglers can adjust the direction of the reel's direction so that the reel crank is on the right. Consult your reel manufacturer to adjust the reel knob to the opposite side.

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 onto 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 150 yards of backing. In the case of saltwater reels, 250yds is enough backing. Why more for saltwater fish? Well, if you've never had the chance to fish for bonefish, permit, or tarpon, I sincerely encourage you to experience salt. When trout fishing, a trout getting into your backing is truly a trophy fish.

The correct amount of 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 setup 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.

Dacron Backing vs. Gel-Spun Backing

While all backing is known to be low stretch and high strength, gel-spun backing is made with a synthetic resin known as high-modulus polyethylene. This small diameter, gel-spun material, also known by the trade name, spectra, is stronger than traditional dacron. This, along with a much smaller diameter, are the major advantages of gel-spun when pursuing game species like steelhead and marlin. These fish will definitely take you to your backing, and you'll be glad you have the extra feet of line and narrower spool that is afforded to you with this tough synthetic line. It is not something you'll need when fishing for small brook trout or other smaller trout or panfish.

It is also worth mentioning that traditional backing is hollow and made of tough polyester material with long strands of fibers. Gel spun is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). They are the same polymer making the world’s most common plastics, but one makes soda bottles and the other makes high-performance sailing lines or ultra-safe climbing ropes. Dacron is hollow and can be spliced, but gel-spun can't. There is another type of backing called micron made out of dacron fibers.

Is Fly Line Backing Necessary?

I've heard anglers say that if they hook a large trout that takes all of their fly line, that that fish "deserves" to get off. That's fair. Philosophically, you could make the argument that backing is not necessary for many freshwater fly fishing situations. You're never going to use your backing if you fish for normal trout. Not so when you fish saltwater or even large carp that will routinely take all of your line. You'll never see that sailfish without the proper line weight and selecting the correct types of backing. But there is one reason to have backing when fishing trout that reason lies with reel manufacturers. Fly reel spools rely on backing to aid line pick-up of large arbor reels and even help alleviate the chance of tangles and twists. My suggestion is to have some backing on for your reel to function properly, not to mention if you catch a monster and gladly cash in that insurance policy.

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

Backing is your insurance policy for a big fish with room to run. The front end of the backing is tied to the end of your 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.

Top Fly Line Makers

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. Some are designed to float on the water surface, called floating line, while others sink at multiple intervals and speeds.

4. Connect the Tapered 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 the leader’s 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.

There you have it! All you need now is your favorite knot to connect a nymph, streamer, or dry fly to the end of the line. Trim your tag end and you're ready to go!

Classic Flies to Have in Your Vest or Box

Dry Flies Made with bird feathers or foam, these flies float on top of the water.

  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Parachute Adams
  • Amy's Ant (Attractor)

Streamers Resembling small fish, streamers look like bait fish or small fish.

  • Wooly Bugger
  • Zonker

Wet Flies Imitating aquatic insects.

  • Hare’s Ear
  • Pheasant Tail Nymph

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.

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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