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How To Decide Fly Reel Size

by Philip Monahan

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Question: I just bought a new 5-weight rod. How do I know what size and weight reel I need to use with it?

Rob V., Lafayette, CO

Fly Reel WeightAnswer: I asked Orvis tackle designer Steve Hemkens for some help on this one, and he acknowledged that there is no mathematical formula that allows you to compare a rod’s advertised weight and length to the weight of a reel. He recommends that you take the rod to a fly shop and try it with several reels recommended for a 5-weight line to see which ones balance the best. Ideally, you’d want to have line and backing on the reels, but line and backing represent just a fraction of the total weight when compared to the weight of the reel itself.

Hold the rod as if you were going to cast it to see where the “pivot” point is for your particular grip. This point is one inch below the top of the cork handle. Put the reel on the rod and then try to balance the outfit on your finger at that pivot point. If the outfit is properly balanced, it should pretty much balance perfectly, with the weight of the reel offsetting the weight of the rod out to the tip. If the reel is too light, the tip will fall toward the floor. If the reel is too heavy, the butt will tilt downward.

The truth is that reel manufacturers do a pretty good job of policing the widths, diameters, and capacities for reels designed for a specific line weight, Hemkens says, so the biggest differences are in weight. For years, rod makers have been touting the lightness of their products, but a super light reel is not always the best thing. If it does not offset the weight of the tip of the rod at the pivot point, a reel can make a high-performance rod feel heavy, sluggish, and less responsive. That is why your best bet is to go into a good fly shop with selection of reels you’re interested in buying and put them on your rod to see which one looks and feels the best.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at
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  • Sylvaneous

    “a super light reel is not always the best thing” Often, when a rod feels heavy, it feels tip heavy, what we have adopted to call ‘swing weight’. A heavier reel moves the center of mass further back and makes a rod less tip heavy. It helps to smooth the casting stroke. It makes the action of the rod feel different, a little slower because you are trying to rotate more mass, BUT your wrist isn’t trying to hold up a heavier tip that is applying more unbalanced torque on your wrist. As companies work to make lighter and thinner aluminum machined reels, it actually works AGAINST the caster. And with today’s rods being almost exclusively a heavier, 4 piece variety, we have a heavier rod with a lighter reel giving more tip-heavy and less comfortable fishing rod. Save a few hundred dollars and get a simpler, more standard reel, not the $450 air-light jobber.

    • James

      An excellent point!

    • TC

      “… And with today’s rods being almost exclusively a heavier, 4 piece variety… ”


      • Sylvaneous

        4 piece rods are heavier than the same 2 piece rod. All rods that I see now are 4 pc. I am very glad that I have been doing this for 30 years and have some great 2 pc rods instead of being saddled with “pack rods”
        for every goddamded thing. 2 pc rods are far more elegant. The 3 joints of a 4 pc. make them inferior to a 1 joint rod.
        so that’s why.

        • TC

          Digital scale. Get one. Start weighing.