Picking Your Reel: Click and Pawl vs. Disc Drag

When it comes to fly fishing reels, there are two different options to choose from—click and pawl or disc drag. Read this guide to see which option is right for you!

Close up of a fishing reel.

Photo by Matthew McBrayer

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Let’s admit it. Most fly reels out there are disc drags. Most of the hot new, large arbor reels all feature a disc drag that has an advertised start-up inertia and promised ability to never break off a fish. But why are there two different drag systems out there? Are disc drags really that great? Click and pawl drags seem to hang on and have even seen a resurgence recently, especially among the fiberglass fly rod revolution crowd. What are the differences between the two? If I were to get a new reel tomorrow, which should I get? What is the perfect reel for me? If you find yourself asking these questions, let me break it down for you and give you an honest comparison between the two drag systems.

Mechanics

Close up of a fishing reel.

Photo by Jason Smith

The drag of a fly reel is like the brakes of your car. The drag stops the fish from running and taking out the line. The science behind it is simple; it is friction. How we produce the friction, though, is where the differences occur. For fly fishing purposes, there really are two types of systems: the newer disc drag system and the tried and tested click and pawl. Disc drags can be further broken down into two different styles: drawbar discs and sealed drum discs.

Drawbar Discs

Cork Disk Drag laying on a table.

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

Drawbar discs are by far more common. They consist 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 cork can compress and rebound gradually, allowing for a smooth drag start-up. The downside to cork, though, is that it must be lubricated from time to time. This typically is not a major service event, but it 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 Drum Disc

This is where a sealed drag comes into play. Long the holy grail of reel design, the perfect, never-failing sealed drag has proven elusive. Newer technologies have made sealed drags more reliable and offer viable options. Cork drag was long the favorite for saltwater anglers for its stopping power, but with improvements in the sealing technology, most saltwater drags are now sealed. Inside the sealed drag are synthetic washers, such as nylon, Teflon, and Derlin, which compress against the metal of the reel spool. As you can imagine, there is a wide variety of quality and degrees of “sealed” drag. The obvious downside is that if the seal fails, so too does the drag, and the repair is not an easy, at-home fix.

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

Click and Pawl

Orvis Battenkill Click and Pawl Reel Drag laying on a table.

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

Click and pawl drag is created by a clicker, known as a pawl, that clicks through the teeth of a gear to produce drag. Hence the name “click and pawl.” As you can envision with this elegant simplicity, the ability to finely adjust the drag is sacrificed. Although some click and pawl reels do have a four-position clicker, this is not something that can be adjusted with a fish on. If an angler wants to add more drag, this is done by placing a palm of your hand or finger on the reel in the delicate art known as palming 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.

Simplicity

Although two washers rubbing against metal seems simple, for disc drags, if there is a mechanical problem, the reel is out of service and likely will need to be shipped back to the factory for service. Even sealed drags do fail, and getting dirt, grime, or salt in the drag can be problematic.

With click and pawl reels, this is where the simple design comes into play. Because there is nothing to this drag, simple maintenance is all that is required, and this can easily be done at home or even streamside if needed. Technical problems lead to a little downtime.

Weight

Disc drag reels tend to be a little heavier due to the extra parts. Typically, this is not a huge weight difference, but if you are trying to balance this on an ultralight, small stream rod, this may be problematic.

By way of example, an Orvis Battenkill Reel click and pawl weighs 2.8 oz while the Orvis Battenkill Disc Fly Reel weighs 4.4 oz. Even lighter disc drag reels are heavier—the Ross Evolution LTX Reel is 4.2 oz and the Waterworks-Lamson Litespeed F weighs 3.1 oz.

Drag

Drag is where the disc drag has a clear advantage. The click and pawl cannot compare to the smooth startup of a disc drag, nor can it compare to the adjustability of the drag. The power of the drag is better on a disc as well. For this reason, most saltwater anglers and those chasing bigger fish will use a disc drag. That being said, a good click and pawl drag will beat a cheap disc drag any day. There are quality issues involved.

Price

As you probably have realized by now, with fewer moving parts, the click and pawl reels tend to be less expensive. By way of example, the Ross Colorado Reel runs about $370, but the Ross Evolution LTX Reel is $395. Abel is a maker of great but pricier reels, but on the makes a click and pawl, the Abel TR Reel for $450, nearly half the price of Abel SDF Reel of $750. Having said all of that, less expensive disc drag reels are out there, but the drag likely is not as sealed nor as good.

Arbor Size

Historically, the click and pawl reels such as the Pflueger Medalist Reel or Hardy Perfect Reel were not large arbor reels. They had a narrow spool, and line stacking could become an issue. Newer click and pawl reels are now made in the large arbor configuration just as disc drags are. The large arbor creates a fast retrieval of lines with less line stacking and less line memory due to its large spool diameter. Unless you are fishing one of the throwback click-pawl reels, this should not be an issue for either reel.

Final Thoughts

Old and New Click and Pawl Reels.

Old and New Click and Pawl Reels. Photo by Joseph Smith

As you can see, there are many pros and cons to each of these options. If you are looking to do saltwater fishing or catch large fish, the disc drag probably is the best option for you. Likewise, if you are trying to balance your reel with an ultralight trout rod, a click and pawl may give you the smooth, light feel you are looking for. For most freshwater fishing situations, either option would likely work. In many ways, it comes down to aesthetics. Do you feel you need the stiff brakes of a good drag to bring your fish in, or is the spool simply a holder for your line?

The click and pawl is a minimalist's dream. If I need to talk you into a click and pawl reel, then it is not for you. If, on the other hand, the gentle purr of the click and pawl is seductive to you and you want a more raw, personal, connected experience, then the click and pawl might be right for you. As a longtime fly fisherman and Expert at Curated, I can honestly say I have both types and enjoy using both. When you are ready to try these out, come check us out! A Curated Fly Fishing Expert would love the opportunity to help get you outfitted!

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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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