Fly Fishing Experts
Return to all Experts Articles

Right- vs. Left-Hand-Retrieve Reels

by Philip Monahan

Have a question you want answered? Email it to us at

Fly Fishing Reelphoto by kasperbs

Question: I am a new fly fisher, using hand-me-down gear. The handle on my reel is on the left, which feels uncomfortable to me, but a couple folks have told me that I shouldn’t reel with my right hand if I cast with my right. Is this true? And if not, is it hard to switch the reel from left to right retrieve?

via email

Answer: As a lifelong right-handed caster and retriever, I am outraged that you have been subjected to this kind of abuse. Okay, maybe not outraged…perhaps mildly annoyed. You should reel however feels the most comfortable to you. You are not compromising any part of the fishing experience by using one hand or the other. I have heard a million times over the last 25 years that I shouldn’t reel right because (gasp!) I have to change hands on the rod every time I need to reel in.

This is ridiculous for three reasons. First, how often during the course of a day of trout fishing do you actually get a trout on the reel? (Okay, in saltwater this one doesn’t apply.) Second, if you’ve ever watched a Saturday-morning bass-fishing show, you may have noticed that most baitcasting anglers switch hands after every single cast, and it doesn’t seem to bother them. And third, the millisecond it takes to shift the rod from the right to the left hand isn’t going to cause you to lose any fish. Oh yeah, and here’s a fourth reason: Shut up and mind your own business, Mr. Fly-Fishing Rules Man.

That said, most fly reels come set up for left-hand retrieve, but changing them to right-hand retrieve is usually a snap. If you have the manual for the reel, the directions are in there. If you don’t have the manual, go to the manufacturer’s Web site to see if you can download a new manual. If you still can’t figure it out, take the reel in to your nearest fly shop, where they’ll surely do it for free. (Don’t forget to buy something you need as part of the bargain.) Then go fishing, and don’t listen to the “leftists” who comment on your new, more comfortable setup.

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
Bookmark the permalink.
  • Guest

    Likewise, I wish some (mostly older) fly fishermen would stop trying to tell people who wind with their left that they’re doing it wrong. If it feels right, stick with it; it’s a matter of personal preference.

  • Jslatosky

    I also cast and retrieve with my right hand.  I also live and fish on the Henry’s Fork where I catch many 20 inch-plus.  After a long run by a fish, it often runs toward me.  With my right hand I can turn the reel knob faster and maintain a tight line.  This is a great advantage in landing large fish on small barbless hooks.

  • Anonymous

    Actually in salt water you will find that you will cramp up less by reeling with he right hand. You use the left hand to hold up the rod and apply pressure on the line with a gloved hand. I use this technique with Tarpon and other large fish. I guess if you do cast lefty. I guess you can reel with the left hand as well using the right hand to hold the rod and apply pressure. I know i cannot reel fast and long with my left hand as I can with my right hand. I do agree fish how you feel comfortable. If you catch bog fish then you will most likely change your procedures to compensate for the fight. Most saltwater guides and fisherman reel with the right. I do know some who use the left.

  • Anonymous

    Ah men, Phil, right on the nose!

  • Anonymous

    I used to cast right reel left until I started using shooting heads. Having the reel handle pointing toward the running line cost more than a few fish as the line wrapped around the handle. Per a suggestion by a guide I switched over to cast right, reel right and have never looked back.  It might take a little longer to master, but once you start doing it, it is like driving a clutch – never even think about it. Many of the people I know, as they get more experienced have also switched to reeling right. I think fly shops are doing a disservice by selling left handed reels by default.

  • Billkiene

    I have been outfitting anglers with fly fishing equipment for over 40 years now and have some feedback. It has to do with the person’s body, being ambidextrous or not. Today casting right (dominant hand) and reeling left is the industry standard but if the person wants to cast “right” or has a terrible time reeling left then I set them up right hand crank. Otherwise, not to go against the grain, we set everyone else up left hand crank.

    Many who started cranking left will change over to right after one salt water trip.

  • Raff50

    As a converted “Spin Fisher” I became  accustomed to reeling left handed. When you use a “Spinning” reel you cast with your right, reel with your left.  Spin cast & baitcast fishers cast & retreive right handed. I bought left hand bait caster reels because I’m used to reeling left handed. Phil is absolutely right, “TO EACH HIS OWN”.

  • Okieflier

    Great response! We fly fish for fun and not to be elitist.

  • I was surprised to find that only about 11% of people are in their right brain, um. . . I mean are left handed. I cast with my left and reel with my right. Why? As Phil says, it feels most comfortable for me. It’s amazing how many people openly dismiss people who are left handed when discussing this topic.  Many left handed people have to adapt to a right handed world. (try using scissors with your left hand.) Most annoying to me is when guides have only left handed reels on their boat.  For that reason, I always try to bring my own rod and reel.  Interesting tidbit Have you ever seen a casting demonstration by “Lefty” Kreh? he uses his right hand for the demonstratation. He can cast equally well with his left hand. I asked him about this and he said it keeps the complaints down from the right handed people. 🙂

  • Fpattillo

    Thank you from a right, right.  I mostly bonefish and my key is to reel with the dominant hand.  When a bonefish gets into your backing and then turns 180degrees right at you, you have to reel so fast, only your dominant hand stands a chance.  That only my opinion. 

  • Larry Kenney

    Having been sneered at for years by folks who think my left hand wind reels are a sure sign that my fly fishing bona fides are suspect and that I’m no better than a converted spin fisher, this piece amuses the hell out me…….. 

  • B Larson

    You forgot the number one reason given in the past. It is easier to reel with your dominant hand. NOw I never have becasue I feel I have enough to do with line control to add switching rod hands but I say to each his own. Better yet learn to cast with eaither hand.

  • AlQ

    these comments are obviously from the right! (grin) if you are a right handed caster, like me and fish mostly saltwater it is easier to lift with your strong hand and wind with your weaker hand. plus less is more, it is a much simpler deal to strike and reel with no changing over. Sometimes a second CAN make a difference.This makes the most sense to me, but their are no rules and whatever works comfortably for you is right! Just want to represent those of us on the other side! (grin) It’s fishing for crying out loud, have fun!

    • Jeff

      A good fisher person will fish with right or left hand depending on the situation and the way the water is flowing. This being said at some point you will have to switch hands to reel in so no matter what hand you reel with it’s right. I fish with both hands but only reel with my right.

  • Anonymous

     Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that.  

    While I agree with Phil that an angler should retrieve with whichever hand feels most natural (and that the Fly-fishing Rules guys can go jump in the lake) , there is another factor to consider in the choice of which hand winds the reel:Assume that you’re a right-handed angler.  Most likely, you’ll have the most strength in your right arm and hand.  So for larger fish (salt or fresh) you’ll probably want to retain control of the rod with your “best” and strongest hand and arm, leaving reeling in to the left hand.  I’ve had plenty of trout that while they didn’t take me into my backing, their size, spirit and the effect of current made me very glad that I was using my strongest arm and hand to bring them in.Also, whichever hand you pick, I wouldn’t recommend doing it one way for salt and another for fresh water fish, whether based on size or otherwise. Some fresh water fish can be as big and tough as many salt water species, and why bother to learn two different ways to do the same function, with the attendant risk of messing up when you might make a mistake?

  • Jhjones

    I slightly  disagree. Changing hands to reel after hooking a fish does allow a brief period of time (maybe even more than 1 millisecond) that one loses line control. If a big fish decides to make a run towards you you will not have a tight line and he could throw the hook. When I teach beginners how to land a fish I stress line control by having them always hold the line between two fingers and stripping in with the left hand behind where they are holding. When the fish settles down, get the line on the reel and go from there.

  • Steve Zakur

     Thank you,Phil. I love it when I ask a shop to spool up a reel for right hand retrieve and hear the terms “Old School” and “Traditional” to describe the set-up. No, it’s just the way I happen to like it.

  • No Slime Slinger

    Most righties reel right handed, so they fight the fish with their left.  You are exactly right that whatever feels most comfortable is the way to go. I reel left handed preferring to fight the fish with my right arm. However, I encourage all I instruct in casting to cast with their left hand for part of the time when they are fishing, thereby becoming proficient with both hands. That will help your endurance immensely when casting for long periods of time.

  • striper33

    I started fly fishing when I was 13, over 50 years ago.  Of course my first reel was a Medalist.  Guess what?  Right hand crank only.  No reversible spools then.  In fact when I travel nowdays I always carry my own reels to avoid having to “re-learn” retrieves based on left hand crank.   Lastly I was in the Keys last week fishing tarpon.  When a tarpon is barreling back towards the boat, I want to be cranking with my dominant hand, my right hand. 

    • Paul Ellis

      Actually, it’s easy to change the medalist from left to right or visa versa; just take the spool out and flip the drag/click pawls to reverse the direction of activation.
      On the larger reels that have a drag adjustment knob like the 1498, back off the drag knob, swing the drag shoe away from the center disc with the four grooves in it, pull that disc out, turn it over and put it back in. Simple.

  • Pingback: Here Come the Reel-Hand Police | Alex Cerveniak()

  • Kev NZ

    I think it depends how ambidextrous you are. I am not very. My right hand is clearly more dominant and is much better at tasks requiring precision. Winding a small diameter reel at speed requires much more precision than holding a rod up. Hence I prefer to wind right-handed.

    Yes, there is a split second where you have to swap the rod from one hand to another. But I don’t feel this results in many fish lost. I frequently swap hands during the course of a fight with a big fish as I scramble downstream on the rocks following a fish. Where I do feel I will lose fish is if I can’t get the loose line onto the reel quick enough. My right hand does this quicker than my left.

  • Huck Fin

     Good article and by the way Lefty Kreh also feel you should reel with the hand you can reel the fastest with. Thus right handed folks usually reel fastest with the right hand and lefties reel fastest with their left hand. I was lucky to have read this early on in my fly fishing learning stage so I did not suffer mental or physical distress.

  • Dapperfly

    I’m a right side dominant person.  When I’m fighting a fish, my fly rod acts as a lever.  I can exert pressure on the fish, but the fish can also exert pressure on me.  What would make more sense: using my weak left arm to do the heavy work or the other way ’round?  It’s a bit like arm wrestling.  Wouldn’t  you arm wrestle an opponent with your dominant arm?  I sure would.  
    Winding a reel is a dumb activity that takes almost no strength; it only requires a little bit of coordination and training.  Want a good training activity?  Try patting your head while rubbing your belly.  If you can’t master that, you need one of those single-handed, lever-action reels.
    There are lots of people who have learned, when using a knife and fork, to cut with one hand and then switch the knife to the other hand to eat.  They may feel comfortable eating that way, but it’s inefficient (and gauche).  Changing your rod from right to left when fishing is pretty much like switching hands with your knife and fork when eating. 

  • West Md

    I agree Mr. Monahan, I don’t see why it would matter which hand someone uses to reel in a fish or line.  Use what is comfortable.  Spinning reels are set up for a left hand retrieve and  bait casters, trollers etc., use right hand retrieve.  To my way of thinking, what’s the big deal?

  • Ajmartino

    I agree 100% I can’t think of one time when I have lost a fish because I reel RT handed even in the salt

  • SoCalKayaker

    I cast with my right hand and reel with my right hand.  I find it interesting regarding people commenting on having to switch hands when a fish is hooked.  For freshwater, if the fish is not pulling line out, I bring the fish in by pulling the line in with my left hand while holding the rod with my right hand; for largemouth bass, this prevents then from getting any slack, jumping, and throwing the fly.  If the fish does take line, then I have plenty of time to switch hands and reel in line when appropriate; most of the time, I am making sure the line is not tangled as it goes out, the drag/rod is tiring the fish, and then I can start to reel line in once they slow down.

  • Ron

    I am old school. Everyone use to reel right. When a Alaska Guide wanted me to use his reel I asked him if he reeled right or left. His answer was “right, I am not going to waste my casting arm fighting fish”. 

  • Fredaevans

    Great ‘tongue in cheek’ response.  I’m a right hander and all my reels are set up for a right hand retrieve. One reason for this the reel handle is pointing away from your fly line as you haul/cast.

  • Mark Sosin

    In salt water fly fishing when challenging fish that will run a considerable distance, it is important to reel with your primary hand.  The reasons are simple.  You can reel faster with your primary hand and you can reel for a longer, continuous period because your primary hand is stronger.  Most of the better fly fishermen I know reel with their primary hand.  I’m right-handed and I always reel with my right hand.  Very few anglers are truly ambideterous with equal strength in both hands.  Consider, too, that once you hook a fish, your first task is to clear the line as the fish runs off.  Once the line is “on the reel,” you no longer have to switch hands.

    Mark Sosin 

  • gerry geenen

    i have fished for 50 pluss years and always change my reel to right hand retrive i am right handed and it seems comfortable to me but to each his own.
    gerry geenen

  • Dawiese

    @ Newbie:  Before you re-wind your reel for left retrieve try casting with your left hand for just a couple of days.  Not only to determine if you’ll like it, but to learn fly casting with and arm that has no casting memory (assuming you’re a right spin/bait caster).  Orvis’s Complete Fly Fishing Guide recommends it if your having trouble getting your timing down between your back and forward casts.  Once you feel comfortable switch back to right hand. 

  • Bcasey

    Avoid the dark side!  Cast right, reel left Luke.

  • Sayfu

    Good response.  I am a rt, and rt. and didn’t make the switch to left hand retrieve like a lot of fly anglers did because I fly fished for steelhead early on, and wanted to be able to pick up line onto the reel fast when I had the chance and I can reel much faster with my coordinated hand then with my left hand.  A bone fish guide told my friend that took a trip to the XMAS Islands for bones that if he cast rt. and reeled left, he should think about switching the line to rt hand retrieve telling my friend his rt hand/arm would get plenty tired casting for bones, and then playing fish with the rt. arm as well.  It would be a welcome break to play the fish with the left arm.

  • Sayfu

    One of the basic points made by those advocating not to switch is they point out that when one used a spinning reel, and cast right handed they easily reeled left handed.  The observation should be made that the spinning reel handle turns in a much bigger circle making it much easier for the off hand to make the turns.  A trout reel entails turning the handle in a much tighter circle, and harder for the off hand to accomplish when speed is needed.  And in this regard a point has been made on these threads that when more pressure is put on the tackle in salt water fishing especially, the need to crack with the dominant hand is a deciding factor.

  • Gjeffrey

    you have no idea phil- a right handed fisher, should hold the rod in the right hand and cast over his right shoulder. and then wind with the left hand. its all about holding the rod in the dominant hand, not the winding of the reel. its not rocket science, its common sense.
    a tennis player throwing up the ball with the left hand to serve, dosent make him / her a left hander ! – its all about the racket. same applies to fishing!

    • nbflydude

      Actually, it’s whatever feels comfortable to you. I cast with my dominant hand and reel with my dominant hand. I like to strip line in with my dominant hand too. My dominant hand is more sensitive to takes that way. If I’ve got a monster on the line and need the added strength of my dominant hand holding the rod, it’s an easy matter to switch hands and continue fighting the fish.

      Rule-maker! We’ve got a rule-maker here!

  • Myron Bali

    The OLd English style of casting right, retrieving right, was to keep the fish always on the main strong arm. We do it wrong by switching hands as soon as the fish is hooked. the rod is placed into the left hand only once the fish itself has put itself on the reel, then the fish is played on the reel with the main hand controlling the reel. That way the fish is always being controlled by the main hand, first by the rod then the reel till it is landed then released or capture with the main hand.

  • Pbastewart

    You know.  I am with you on this one.  I am right handed, and when I hear someone say, reel with your weak arm, and lift with your strong arm.  Now I could understand this philosophy if I were perhaps pulling in JAWS!!  However, the local fish aren’t even minnows in the ocean.  Last time I checked (and this was a long time ago) my left arm wasn’t that much weaker than my right in bicep curls.  For example, 5 lb bass or 10lb catfish, or 2lb trout, aren’t going to give an arm that can curl say 40lbs much trouble.  Think about it that way.  Reel however and whatever makes you happy!!!  Now if you habitually throw your line say 3 ft in front of you or 20 feet past your aiming point, well there are more problems with the situation than reeling. Practice the cast more than the reel.  If you can’t get the lure where you want it to go, you won’t have to worry about which arm is pulling the fish in anyways.

  • Nick

    its more efficient to strip line and reel using the left hand when casting with the right especially when using dries and the timing for setting the hook is crucial. The reason most people retrieve with the right hand is only because that’s what they are used to on the spinning rods. When setting the hook matters you will hook more fish when you cast with the right and hold the line in your left hand which allows for a more efficient and faster reaction. As the line in the left hand is pulled on and the tip is raised at the same time the speed is increased.

  • Keith Frazier

    Learning to retrieve, reel and cast with both hands is extremely beneficial especially with bank fishing. If you fish a lot then try to practice with your weak hand/arm %25 of the time to gain strength and technique. It’s always good to keep at least one of each left/right hand retrieve reels and when your comfort level approaches equality, then your confidence level will soar! This goes for anything (driving nails, throwing a football, writing)so challenge yourself and unlock your natural ambidextrous abilities!

  • Ray Craemer

    The thinking I have heard is that with big, powerful fish – Marlin, Pacific Sails, Tarpon, etc. that you can reel faster and longer with your primary hand. I don’t necessarily agree, although the people I respect – Kreh, Wejebo, Apte and the like all seem to agree. I have caught Tarpon and Pacific Sails on the fly and did not see the need to change hands. I am left handed, a Master Maine Guide who specializes in fly fishing but do not have a great deal of experience with very large fish – a lot of smaller ( 14 – 24″) trout. I perfer to not have to swap hands, but that’s me.

  • for the chrome this season I changed all my spey&switch rods to RHReel because i’m pudgy and the reel handles kept catching on my wader pocket, and it ended up being so comfortable that I switched my salt reel over for this week that im in florida, and will switch all my trout reels as soon as I get home. The handles are out of the way, ive caught a couple steelhead and redfish with no problem tossing the rod from hand to hand after they’re hooked up, and the biggest advantage I found is that drag adjustments are much easier now that the knob is facing me instead of away from me while casting and during the initial hookup. I usually take a while to get the slack to the reel anyway, stripping and feeding line with my left hand

  • I agree that the focus should be on comfort. If you are used to switching hands that is okay. For hobby fishers small details do not matter so much.

  • Tim T

    I’m glad to hear someone say that what I’ve done for years is not wrong. I don’t know how many guides have told me what I do is wrong and I should change immediately.

  • Shakeyfly

    I’m shocked at the amount of people who actually give a rats ass about the way other people fish. haha

    Oh my god you write left handed? You animal.

    I think this author is spot on. Do whatever the hell feels best for you. Who are these people who say you’re doing it wrong?


    “the millisecond it takes to shift the rod from the right to the left hand isn’t going to cause you to lose any fish.”
    OYES IT CAN! I persevered with LH wind, right-handed casting, and it’s well worth it – casting, line management, striking, playing. Mind you, everyone can do as they wish – you just came over as dogmatic.

  • Pingback: Right or Left Hand Retrieve? Which is Best?()

  • johnnyruin

    Even in saltwater ninety percent of the time I am stripping the line in by hand, so with regard to retrieval it doesn’t really matter which way the handle on the reel is pointing. For the small percentage of cases where I am using the reel to retrieve line, I use my right (dominant) hand, because it is faster.

  • IFM

    As a newbie to fly fishing, I can’t find anything anywhere on what your opposite hand is doing while casting. I see people holding the line and pulling it in their back cast. But I’m not really sure why or if they’re pulling line off the reel or pulling the line in.

    • What you’re seeing is typically one of two things: either the angler is simply holding the line to keep whatever extra line is off of the reel from going out of the rod tip, or they are “hauling” the line, which increases the line speed. It’s a bit too complicated to explain in this reply, but watching someone who knows how to cast and asking them to explain it to you will make it all pretty clear.

      • IFM

        Thank you Marshall. I will keep looking for more videos and try to meet some people who fly fish. I live on the Chesapeake bay and know tons of anglers. Not one that fly fishes. Lol

        • viola surveh

          Watch every single video Lefty Kreh ever made, and you will have many epiphanies.

  • K.G. Wragg

    I would be grateful if someone could tell me how to stop a spool on a fly line from free wheeling giving out to much spare line after a cast, I need to know how I put a brake on the spool.
    Thank you.
    K.G. Wragg

    • Jeff

      You need to tighten the drag.

  • Aaron Reed

    “Mr. Fly Fishing Rules Man” … Ha! Love that!

    Interestingly, it’s a real bonus to find a left-hand winding (or convertible to left-hand) vintage fly reel, but most modern fly reels are set-up that way from the start. Good point about the baitcasters. I grew up fishing conventional and it always puzzled me that I easily switched hands with baitcasters, yes, after every cast, but a spinning reel set-up for right-hand wind just felt awkward. Ah well, it all worked out.

  • genelarson

    My first serious fishing was with a Mitchell 300 spinning reel which had the crank on the left side. When I picked up fly fishing a few years later, I assumed left hand retrieve was the best way to do it, so I did. I have a fishing buddy who astounds me by adapting to either hand. He has many reels and has always used them as them came to him without any thought to changing the retrieve. Left, or right, either is fine. But to be able to flawlessly do it either way freaks me out.