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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 You can email your fly fishing questions to us 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.

  • Ralph

    I like that the two books you referenced were both from a time long before any kind of graphite rod was in widespread use let alone a rod that uses similar thermoplastics to those used in modern fighter jets. I also like how you make it sound like “fishing” and “casting” are mutually exclusive. I do plenty of fishing within rod length as well but I certainly wouldn’t want to be constrained to that. Placing your fly any distance past that would be considered… a cast. Im glad you know your fly fishing history, and that’s exactly what everything you just stated is… history. A bamboo rod from 1959 is much heavier than rods today, while the relative weight of the reel has change significantly less than that. Try casting 60 feet of weight forward line (another something that came into widespread use after both of those books were published) with your reel on. Now take it off, and set it on the ground and cast that same line. You’ll immediately notice that the line feels exponentially heavier at the loading point of the cast. This is referred to as “swing weight” Yes you are right that there is no set fulcrum, it moves with the length of line you are casting. You have an interesting argument which I feel demonstrates your lack of experience… with modern materials at least…. “swing weight”- do your homework on that concept next time.

    • Henry K

      I have never fished a bamboo rod and do not own a bamboo rod, so you are mistaken about my fishing history.

      Swing weight is the moment of inertia. It is the resistance of the fly rod to rotating around an axis. It depends upon the distribution of mass along the fly rod blank because the distribution of mass from the center of rotation determines the swing weight. This is different from rod/reel balance. Rod/reel combinations that balance perfectly at the same point can have different swing weights.

      Swing weight is both the difficulty in getting the rod to move/swing and the difficulty in getting the rod to stop moving/swinging. It is NOT decreased by getting a heavier reel. Actually swing weight is increased with a heavier reel because now you have the heavier reel that you need to both start and stop moving. Remove the reel and you decrease swing weight.

      Your comment about modern materials suggest to me that you think that rod reel balance has become more important with current rods and reels. Contrary to that view, if rod and reel balance were important, it would be more evident with heavier and older tackle which have greater mass and greater swing weights. Therefore, the importance of rod/reel balance would be more obvious to Charles Ritz and Vince Marinaro. As to modern tackle. I suggest you read what my friend Gary Borger has to say about the importance of rod/reel balance.

      A fly rod is not cast like a teeter totter with the rod and reel rotating around a fixed fulcrum. The entire rod and reel is moved through a stroke path. Take a fly rod and cast it without the line. It has “feel” which is the moment of inertia. Add and fly line and cast the line and the feel of the cast is due to angular momentum of the rod (swing weight) and the momentum of the moving fly line bending the rod. It is the moving line outside the rod that “balances” or provides the dynamic resistance that causes the rod to bend. If you add the mass of the reel, this adds nothing to the “feel” of the moving fly line. It actually detracts because now you have to start and stop added mass of the reel. Adding mass, adds work. Less work means it is easier to cast the line without a reel.

      But when we holding a rod in a fixed position during fishing, the rod/reel balance is important for maintaining the rod/reel in what ever position we want (neutral, tip up or tip down position). A rod should balance in the hand so that it assumes the relative rod tip position that you want when you are fishing WITH the average amount of line that you would normally have out of the guides. Since we fish with fly line off of the reel, it makes no sense to balance the rod/reel with all the line on the reel. Strip off the amount of line equal to the fishing distance and then balanced for the rod/reel position you want.