Choosing a Fly Reel

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Choosing a fly reel can be a bit mind-boggling.  So here are ten questions to ask when choosing a fly reel.  

Smouldering Good Looks or Unashamedly Strutting Its Stuff?


Q 1. What are you fishing for?  Are you fishing for trout?  Or larger freshwater predators such as pike or salmon?  Or for saltwater fish such as bass, tarpon and bonefish?

Trout reels tend to be smaller since they are likely to need less backing line.  Salmon reels tend to be bigger since salmon are more powerful and are likely to strip more line from your reel.  For the same reason saltwater reels are usually bigger to handle larger fish.  If you are fishing for saltwater species make sure you choose one that is saltwater corrosion resistant - I ruined my old Orvis Battenkill by fly fishing for bass.

Q 2. What size reel? 

The reel must be big enough to hold the fly line and backing.  The reels vary in diameter accordingly.  A 3/4 reel is tiny.  A 5/6 reel is smaller than a 7/8 reel.  Pike and saltwater reels are usually big enough to hold a 9/10 line.  Salmon reels are usually big enough to hold a 9/10 or 11/12 line and significantly more backing than a trout reel.  Most manufacturers will specify the amount of backing as part of the specification.  With salmon reels I tend to err on the big side as I like to seat the line on a couple of turns of PTFE or electrical tape to ensure the line does not spin when wrestling with a big fish.

Q 3. What about weight?

Smaller reels are usually lighter and match the weight of the rod.  You should be able to balance the rod and loaded reel on one finger just below the top of the rod handle where your thumb goes when casting.  Pike, salmon and freshwater reels tend to be heavier but again should balance the weight of the rod.  Personally I will often fish a 7/8 reel on a 5/6 rod because it makes for a faster tip action to the rod.  For the same reason I quite like a heavier salmon reel.

Q 4. Materials and build quality?

Most reels are now made from polymer composites or aluminium alloys.  The alloys can be diecast or machined.  Machining gives a greater strength-weight ratio and borrows from aeronautical engineering technology.  The composites tend to be inexpensive.   Whatever materials chosen it is important that there be very little play between the reel and spool.  Otherwise your fly line will ruthlessly exploit any gaps in order to jam itself between the two.

Q 5. What finish?

There are plenty of beautifully finished shiny reels on the market.  My personal preference is for a matt, non-reflective finish rather than some of the modern aeronautical 'bling' that is available.  Maybe it's just me but I don't see the point of advertising my presence to the fish by heliographing to them with my new reel.  

Q 6. What about drag?

The drag allows you to control the rate at which the fish strips line from the reel.  Turning up the drag slows the fish.  The simplest reels don't have a drag system but rely upon 'thumb drag' in which the thumb or hand controls the rate at which line is stripped from the reel.  The downside is that it takes a lot of skill to get this right and initially you will lose fish.  Most modern reels have some form of disc-drag system operated by a lever or dial.  The most important thing is that it be easy to use.  In the excitement of playing a fish you do not want to lose a fish because you tightened the drag when you meant to slacken it.   In addition the drag system must be easy to use with wet, cold (sometimes blue!) fingers.  The drag lever or dial should be reasonably large and easily accessible.  The best ones are large, centrally located on the reel so they are easy to find with a non-slip grip.  Discreetly concealed nipples are out; centally located 'star' drag systems are in.

Q 7. What about spare spools?

Don't forget the cost of spare spools when making your choice.  Spare spools are handy if you intend to fish with a range of lines - floating, intermediate, sinking are the most popular.  For this reason, most manufacturers include at least one spare spool as part of the package.  With the advent of cartridge disc systems in which the line is held on a composite disc which slides on and off the spool it has become almost the normal to supply a reel and three cartridge spools.  For those who prefer to fish with just a floating line and interchangeable braids of different densities the number of spools is less critical since it is the braids that are exchanged rather than the lines.  If you buy a reel that is about to be discontinued play safe and buy a couple of extra spools anyway.  Manufacturers may keep spare spools in stock for only two years after a reel has been discontinued.

Q 8. Large arbour reel or standard?  

The big advantage of large arbour reels is that there are fewer coils in the fly line and the coils are looser.  This means that the loops that form in a fly line with time are fewer, looser and more easily eliminated by stretching the fly line.  The down side is that you cannot get as much backing on to a large arbour reel.  Some manufacturers (such as Cortland) supply both standard and large arbour spools. 

Q 9. Other things to consider - reel cases and reel bags?

Many manufacturers supply a simple reel case to protect the reel when not in use.  More recently some manufacturers (Greys and Cortland to name just two) now supply reels with a reel bag holding the reel and spare spools.

Q 10. How much do I need to spend?

A good reel does not have to cost the earth.  Many of the Greys and Cortland reels (from £25 and £59 respectively) represent great value for money.  The G-series reel was introduced by Greys as an introductory level reel but I really like it. 


What do I use? 

I am a bit old fashioned - I still like BFR (British Fly Reels) and the Rimfly at less than £25 is a very good reel.  And the BFR Magnum has to be the best-selling salmon reel of all time.   Their understated cosmetics, robust construction and simple no-nonsense drag systems mean that they last.  I use a Greys G-Series G3 reel for trout fishing on the river and a BFR Magnum 200D for salmon fishing.  They are pretty hard to beat.  


Finally, if you found this Guide helpful can you let me know by voting for it - see below.  Thanks.

Catch fish, Dennis.


Search eBay for MAGNUM 200D

The BFR Magnum - may not look very sexy but it is hard to beat.



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