Reel Facts

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Question: I just started fly fishing this year, and my wife says I can get a new fly reel for Christmas. My question is this: I fish for trout exclusively. Do I really need a high-tech drag system that could stop a truck?

Craig C., Robbinsdale, MN

Answer: There are a couple parts to that question, but let’s deal with the biggie first—the one about what you “need.” In truth, there are few specific pieces of equipment a fly fisher really “needs.” If you had to, you could probably catch a trout with three feet of monofilament attached to the end of a curtain rod. To be serious, though, many thousands of huge fish—even salmon and saltwater game fish—were caught on good ol’ click-and-pawl Pflueger Medalist reels back in the day. And there are still many Pflueger aficionados out on the water today. So, no, you don’t need a high-tech drag system anymore than a suburban commuter needs a BMW to get to work. A Ford Fiesta will do the same job, just not as comfortably or impressively.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t want one. Fly fishers are, for the most part, gear junkies. We love beautifully made, well-designed rods and reels. I own several reels that I love simply for how cool they look. And there’s something deeply satisfying about a reel whose mechanism operates flawlessly as you reel in or peel line off it. To test a fine drag by pulling line off the reel makes you appreciate the science and craftsmanship required to create such a system.

Which brings us back to the drag part of your question. A fine trout drag is judged not by its stopping power, but by how well it protects fine tippets. If you are fishing 7X or 8X and you are fighting a trout off the reel, the smallest jerky or hesitant movement of the drag mechanism can cause the tippet to break. What you want in that circumstance is a reel that engages smoothly and with little force to start. The term you hear bandied about is “startup inertia,” by which reel manufacturers mean the amount of force required to start the spool turning when a fish begins a run. If there’s a lot of startup inertia, the spool refuses to move when first put under pressure, and then it releases quickly. Such a shock can easily break a fine tippet.

The other thing to consider is that a reel lasts a long time. If you spend the money now on a really nice reel and take care of it, you may use it for decades to come. So only you can answer the question of what you need/want, based on such factors as your finances, your level of gear addiction, and your wife’s tolerance. Good luck.