How to Set Fly Reel Drags

Have a question you want answered? Email it to us at [email protected].

Question: What is the proper way to adjust the drag on a fly reel? And how do you go about making sure it’s set properly before you fish?

Sylvia P., via email

Answer: The role that your reel’s drag plays in any fishing situation varies widely: You don’t need drag at all for many trout streams, and you can’t live without it when fishing for large saltwater species. From my experience, most anglers set their drag too light because they’re afraid they’ll break off fish if it’s too heavy. Unfortunately, a light drag setting often results in longer fights that exhaust fish unnecessarily. On the other hand, it’s possible to set the drag too heavy, so that the reel does not start turning smoothly when the fish makes its initial, and usually hottest run.

Carl McNeil, New Zealand-based filmmaker and casting instructor:

When you boil it all down, the drag is there to help protect your tippet while managing control over the fish. For small trout, that’s usually a minor consideration, but for a tarpon, tuna, or giant trevally, it’s right up there on the fairly-damn-major scale.

I’ve never thought that you actually “fight” a trout; it’s more like you coerce it in. I set my trout reels with very low drag pressure, just a little more than will prevent overruns, and palm the spool to apply additional pressure as needed. Palming the reel is by far the most effective way to apply braking pressure, as it allows for infinite pressure variations in an instant, and most importantly, you can release pressure in a nanosecond—something that you can’t do if you have to swap hands or tilt the reel over to find a drag knob as your trophy ten-pounder starts knocking his head and screams off downstream.

For large saltwater species it’s a different ballgame altogether, and it all depends. Line class, species, and the ground I’m fishing over all contribute to the amount of drag I’ll set the reel on. For example, giant trevallies tend to be dirty fighters and will head straight for rough ground or the nearest coral bommie any chance they get, so when fishing for these guys I use heavy leaders and high drag settings—sometimes I tie on a straight leader of up to 80-pound-test and crank the crap out of the drag. It’s vital to keep a fairly shallow rod arc if you’re doing this because a raised rod tip can result in an exploding rod. And you’ll need 100% faith in your knots and top-quality hooks for this sort of performance.

Conversely, sand flats with little in the way of obstruction mean you can usually get away with lighter terminal tackle and correspondingly lighter drag settings.

When chasing salty critters, you’ll definitely be reaching for the drag knob during the fight, and depending on whether you’re a right- or left-hand winder you may even have to switch hands to get at the knob. A big drag knob that is easy to find in a blind panic and grip with wet hands is a feature that is often overlooked by reel manufacturers; many still go for overall aesthetic, rather than practical application.

For me, on a trout reel the drag is less important than the overall weight and the arbor size of the reel. For saltwater fishing, strong construction and a high-quality, super-smooth drag are the first things I look for.

Jim Bartschi, president Scott Fly Rods:

First, make sure your leader and tippet materials are fresh and your knots are well tied. No amount of fine-tuning a drag system will prevent break-offs on degraded tippets or poor knots.

The vast majority of fly-caught fish never test a drag system, so setting the drag to prevent any line backlash when stripping line off the reel will do in most cases. Drag settings do become important for species that almost always go deep into the backing—like tarpon or large bonefish—or for hard fighting species caught on foot without the benefit of a boat to stay on top of them.

So much depends on the breaking strength of the line, the equipment you’re using, the species in question, and the habitat you will be fishing. I use those clues and then estimate, by feel, how I can end up somewhere between no backlash on one end and not exceeding the breaking strength of my line on the other. I always err on the lighter side, as it’s easier to tighten the drag than it is to loosen it once you are into the fight. If you start out too tight, it will usually be over before you can adjust.

If you want to be—or need to be precise—use a pull scale.

Dave Kumlien, guide and executive director of the Whirling Disease Foundation:

There are several variables I consider when setting the drag: For example, what are the sizes of the critters I’m fishing for, the water types I’m fishing, and the strength of the leader I’m fishing with? If it’s fishing for potentially large trout on small flies using light 6X or 7X tippets, I set the drag very light—just enough drag to keep the reel from over-running when I strip off line. If I’m fishing for steelhead and using 1X or 2X to swing size 2 and 4 flies in heavy, fast-moving water, I set the drag heavier, but not so heavy that a steelhead “grab” won’t allow the reel to turn. And I don’t like an initial heavy setting. I much prefer a lighter drag setting and then, if necessary, I will adjust it heavier during the fight.

Matt Supinski, Great Lakes guide and owner of Gray Drake Lodge:

The drag setting you choose all depends on the following: 1. Your tippet size, rod weight, and rod action. 2. The species of fish you are targeting—its fighting ability, size, and general fighting history, (i.e. do they charge the angler when hooked, run the other way, jump, or play possum at first and then run like hell). 3. How “true” and accurate your reel’s drag settings are.

My usual approach—as a guide with a client whose skills may vary from novice to advanced—is to start the drag system on the light side, to compensate for any shock/striking heaviness that’s common with the excitement of hooking a good fish. As the fight plays itself out and the demeanor and size of the fish are determined, I will often adjust the drag on the client’s reel by just reaching over and making a click setting adjustment or instruct the client to do so on their own.

Before fishing, make sure you’re familiar with your reel’s drag system and that the drag is working properly. And always check for back-looping, tangles on spool, lube maintenance, and loose reel handles.

Capt. Carter Andrews, guide and fishing director for Islas Secas:

Whether you are fishing for trout, marlin, or anything in between, your fly reel’s drag is an important tool in successfully landing your fish. In almost every fly fishing situation, I start with the lightest drag I can get away with. The first run is typically where fly anglers may have a problem.

When I am on the flats for bonefish and permit, my initial drag settings are just short of free spool. Put your drag as loose as it will go, hold your rod in one hand and your fly line in the other, and rip off the line as fast as you can. If the reel backlashes, tighten it one-quarter turn and try again. Repeat this process until you don’t get the backlash. After you have done this a few times, you will know where your drag should be set.

You may ask, “Why so light on the drag?” Here is the situation: You have stripped out 60-80 feet of fly line, it’s all on the deck, the wind is blowing, you’re stepping on it, it’s getting wrapped around the butt of your rod, and you haven’t even made a cast. Here comes that 10-pound bonefish you have been waiting for. You make a perfect cast, and he eats the fly. You make a perfect hook set. He turns and runs at a blistering pace, and you’re doing a good job clearing the line, but then the last coil jumps off the deck and wraps on the butt of your reel and he’s gone.

That is why I set my drag just short of free spool. An angler’s line can wrap around the butt of the rod, his leg, a mangrove shoot, or your boat partner’s neck, and if the resistance on the reel is very light, many times the angler will have the time to get himself straight again. When fishing a light drag, you always have the option of palming the spool in that initial run if you need to. After a fish settles down, then you can tighten the drag and fight him off the reel.

The other option is to pull your drag on a scale. A good rule of thumb is to set your drag at 1/3 the breaking strength of the tippet you are using for the strike or hook set, and then 1/2 and 2/3 for the fight. Knowing your fly reel is important. They all tighten differently—some might require two full rotations to add four more pounds of drag, where another might take a half rotation. You need to know your reel and what it takes to add 1 pound of drag or 10 pounds. A good smooth scale will tell you everything. Keep in mind when you are pulling scales on your drag that there is a big difference between pulling straight from the reel and under the load of the rod. I like to use the same reels on all similar rods, so I don’t get confused with the difference in the drags from different reel manufacturers.

When I’m big-game fishing in Panama, I rarely fish with IGFA-approved setups. Most of my rigs are 30-80 pound. We are fishing for monsters in extreme conditions. Most all of these fish could be the fish of a lifetime for many anglers. Even with these heavy leaders, though, I have my clients start with a light drag, at least until they clear the line and have the fish on the reel. Then we turn it up. I do this to avoid having the rod ripped out of their hands if something wraps and goes wrong. The only time I start with nearly full drag is when I am fishing for snapper or grouper. These fish can be over 50 pounds, and we are hooking them in water up to 20 feet. If they get their head turned, they are gone. I use fly reels with 25 pounds of drag from the hook set. We either land them or they put us in the rocks.

There are many different views out there, but these methods work well for me.