How Fly Fishing Reels Work

How Fly Fishing Reels Work

Are you wondering how the fly fishing reels work? After all, unlike the spinning reels, which are all-round fishing gear used for a wide range of purposes, fly fishing reel is only used to cast artificial flies. And with fly fishing dealing with casting the line with a weightless artificial fly, you may be wondering what role the reel plays in casting and fighting the catch. So, after thorough research, we decided to compile the following article on how fly reels work.

The fly reel is a unique fly fishing gear that does more than just store the fly line and backing. Fly reels are finely tuned often machined from aluminum devices that control the line, balance the rod setup and apply drag to a running fish.

Fly fishing is a recreational fishing technique that uses its unique fishing gear, including the fishing reel. So in this article, we’ll show you how fly fishing reels work and how to set it up. We’ll also give you examples of some of the best fishing reels in the market to help you catch more fish.

What is a Fly Reel?

Fly fishing is a unique angling technique that uses artificial flies to attract and catch fish. (1) And with the artificial flies being too light to help cast the line, anglers need a unique casting technique to help them catch fish.

Other than the techniques, you also need some unique gear to help you cast the line, and one of the most crucial fishing tools underrated by many anglers is the fly reel. After all, many anglers who don’t know how fly-fishing reels work argue that their primary function is holding the fishing line.

Fly fishing reels are single-action reels usually operated by simply stripping the lines using one hand while casting using the other hand. And in terms of mechanical construction, little has changed since it was patented in 1874 by Orvis Charles in Vermont.

The original fly reel by Orvis includes a reel made using a light metal with perforated holes that helped make it lighter. (2)

Orvis’s design allowed the fly line to dry faster than the solid-sided reels. The main functions of the fly reel haven’t changed over the years, and it includes:

  • Storing the fishing line
  • Providing a smooth, uninterrupted drag when fighting a catch that is trying to run away in the opposite direction
  • Counterbalancing the rod’s weight when casting (2)

History Of Fly Reels

So, before we get into the details on how fly fishing reels work, we need to understand the origin of these reels and how they have evolved over the years. Earlier fly fishing reels didn’t have a drag mechanism; instead, they came with a pawl/click mechanism that prevented the reels from overrunning when the fish or angler was pulling the line from the spool.

Guide Tip: Selecting a fly reel can be tough, prices, performance and what type of fish you’re chasing affect the decision. Checkout this article on How to Select the Correct Size Fly Fishing Reel

Plus, they placed the crank handle on the right side. And to slow the running fish, anglers palmed the rim, which meant applying hand pressure on the spool’s rim. (2)

The pawl/click mechanism was later modified to provide an adjustable drag. But it wasn’t adequate to handle the huge, slow-moving fish. During the 1960s, the automatic fly reels were quite popular as they could pull the line with a flick of their lever.

But they had limited line capacity and were heavy; therefore, they have since been replaced in popularity by the manual reels. (2)

Fly Reel Arbor Size
Fly Reel Arbor Size

Luckily, modern reels come with a sophisticated disc-type drag system make using composite metals. Modern fly reels offer consistency, increased adjustment range, and resistance to the heat produced by the drag friction.

Want to learn how to set the drag on a fly reel?

Read – Understanding the Drag on a Fly Reel

They also have a huge arbor spool that helps with quick slack line retrieval, maintaining consistent drag, and reducing line memory. Plus, the angler can switch the crank handle position from the left to the right and vice versa. (2)

Difference Between Fresh and Saltwater Fly Reels

The saltwater and freshwater environments have different characteristics, so you need different fishing gear for both. And due to the high salt concentration in oceans, freshwater reels can rust faster when used in oceans.

But you can fish in freshwater lakes using saltwater fishing gear, although it’s not advisable since the ocean has huge and powerful waves that require powerful gear. (3) The fish in the oceans are bigger than the ones in freshwater lakes.

Since the sea and ocean environments have huge fish species, the saltwater reels have a bigger arbor design than the freshwater fly reels. The huge arbor reel provides more backing and line capacity, improved retrieve ratio, which comes in handy when dealing with the long runs associated with ocean fish.

And to prevent corrosion, they have stainless steel parts with waterproof and sealed drive mechanisms and bearings; plus, the spool and frame are made from aerospace aluminum. (2)

How Fly Fishing Reels Work

A fly reel is one of the simplest fishing reels in the market, described as a drum onto which anglers wind the backing and fly line. To wrap the fly line around the drum, all you have to do is turn the little handle on its side. And to remove the line, you have to pull it out using your hand. (2)

Fly fishing reels are single-action, manually designed equipment. And when you rotate the handle on its side, the spool retrieves the line generally in a ratio of 1:1. So other than storing the line, the reel can help you fight a fish running away after being hooked. The bigger the fight in a fish, the more critical the reel is.

On the outside, the reel has two knobs (the drag adjustment and spool release knobs). The drag adjustment knobs help with reeling a caught fish in, while the spool release knob comes in handy when casting the line. (2)

set drag on fly reel
set drag on fly reel

Generally, all fly reels have a drag system that prevents the arbor from spinning too fast. And to make it easier or harder for the line to be pulled out, all you have to do is turn the drag knob on its side.

To tire out a fighting fish running in the opposite direction by exerting pressure on the line. (2) And with little practice, you can learn how fly fishing reels work and use it to your advantage when fishing.

Drag Systems

Reels come with four main drag systems, and this includes:

  • The caliper drag forces the caliper to brush against the reel’s spool
  • The Ratchet-and-pawl drag: this drag system clicks automatically when the spool spins.
  • The center-line drag is unique as it applies pressure near the spool’s axis of rotation. The most famous drag system among fly anglers is the center-line drag, as it can quickly stop a spinning spool. And all you have to do is press the drag adjustment knob.
  • The disc drag applies the pressure on the reel’s plates, which applies some pressure on the spool.

Therefore, make sure you pick the right fly reel with a drag system that matches your fishing technique. And if you have just started fly fishing and are learning how fly fishing reels work, we would advise you to try a reel with a center-line drag system. After all, it is the easiest to use and can help you tackle a trout trying to run after biting your bait. (2)

Balancing The Fly Reel, Rod, And Line

Besides knowing how fly fishing reels work, you also need to understand the importance of matching the right fly reel with the right rod and line.

Luckily, assembling a balanced fly fishing is quite easy; all you have to do is match the number on the fly reel, rod, and line. For example, you can check a 5wt line with a 4wt or 5wt line and spool it using a 4/5/6 reel.

For more details on matching the reel, rod, and line, please look at the following table: (9)

General freshwaterWeight:4/5/6/7Size: 4/5/6/7Weight: 4/5/6/7 Length: 8-9.5 inches
TroutWeight:4/5/6Size:4/5/6Weight: 4/5/6 Length: 8-9 inches
PanfishWeight: 4/5/6Size: 4/5/6Weight:4/5/6 Size: 8-9 inches
BassWeight: 7/8/9Size: 7/8/9Weight: 7/8/9 Size: 8.5- 9.5 inches
PikeWeight: 8/9/10Size: 8/9/10Weight: 8/9/10 Size: 8.5-9.5 inches
SalmonWeight: 8/9/10Size: 7/8/9Weight: 7/8/9 Size: 8.5-9.5 inches
SteelheadWeight: 7/8/9Size: 8/9/10Weight: 8/9/10 Length: 9- 10 inches

5 Best Fly Fishing Reels

Favorite Fly Fishing Reels
Favorite Fly Fishing Reels

Redington Behemoth Fly Reel

The Behemoth fly reel from Redington combines unique aesthetics and powerful drag to offer you the best fly fishing experience. Its sealed carbon-fiber disc drag system has enough halting power to fight freshwater species.

It has a die-cast, un-machinable construction coupled with an interlocking, large and durable arbor spool that functions and looks like premium reels. (4)

Behemoth is available in 5-reel sizes ideal for fly lines and rods ranging between 4 and 12 weights. The backing capacity of these reels is more than enough, except for the 11/12wt reels. Plus, its spool has a chunky width of about 1.4 inches, which makes it the best option for floating lines with huge diameters.

Behemoth reel is ideal for anglers using thick lines to target freshwater fish like trout and bass. This reel has a twin molded handle that offers you reliable feedback when fighting a huge fish species.

Plus, its oversized drag knob allows for better control and a great range of drag when pulling your catch. Unfortunately, some anglers complained that the 11/12wt doesn’t offer the best backing capacity.


  • Sizes: 11/12, 9/10, 7/8, 5/6, and ⅘
  • Construction type: die-cast aluminum
  • Weight: 5.7 ounces
  • Reel diameter: 3.6 inches
  • Spool width: 1.4 inches


  • It comes with a lifetime warranty
  • Available in a wide range of colors
  • It has a robust drag system
  • Affordable


  • Some anglers have complained that the knob of some reels is wobbly

Piscifun Platte Fly Fishing Reel

Unlike most fly reels, this fly reel comes set as a left-hand retrieve from the factory, and the only way you can convert it to right-hand is by contacting the manufacturer. This reel comes in 4 different models that are ideal for line weight ranging between 3wt and 10wt. Piscifun Platte reel has a fully sealed carbon-to-stainless drag that’s impervious to grit, sand, and water. Therefore, it requires little to no maintenance, except when washing it. (5)

And thanks to its unique design, this fly reel is perfect for salt and freshwater fishing. Its huge arbor design can pick up the line faster than most reels, which gives you an advantage over most saltwater and freshwater species.

And to help you fight a catch that is trying to run away, this reel has a huge arbor design that picks up the line fast. (5)

This reel is made from lightweight anodized 6061-T6 aluminum that will serve you for a very long time. And to help it shed weight but remain strong, the manufacturers made it using a heavily ventilated spool.

And thanks to its click retrieve-and-positive click drag knob, you will never have to worry about losing a fight to an aggressive fish. But some anglers have complained that it’s too heavy. (5)


  • Brand: Piscifun
  • Material: aluminum
  • Reel diameter: 3.6 inches
  • Sizes available: 9/10wt, 7/8wt, 5/6wt, and 3/4wt
  • Spool width: 1.1 inches
  • Weight: 6.2 ounces
  • Construction type: machined aluminum
  • Colors: black, gunmetal, and blue


  • It comes with a lifetime warranty
  • Affordable
  • Durable
  • It has a huge drag knob


  • Some anglers have complained that it’s a tad heavy

Waterworks-Lamson Guru S Series Fly Reel

As an updated version of the Guru reels, the Guru S series is higher performing and lighter than its predecessor. And that is because it was made using an enhanced spool machining method that concentrated materials where necessary.

Its main adjustments include new colors, a huge spool port for line drying, a narrower spool, and increased reel diameter.

The available reel models can work with a huge percentage of the fly rods in the market and lines ranging between 2wt and 10wt. This reel uses a narrower drag system and a similar conical drag technology as lots of Lamson reels.

With their current fly reel, Lamson upgraded their spool geometry to improve the line’s drying time, enhance retrieval rate, and opened ports to help reduce its weight. (6)


  • Brand: Waterworks-Lamson
  • Colors: arctic, olive green, and blaze
  • Materials: aluminum and stainless steel
  • Construction type: machines-aluminum
  • Weight: 4.41 ounces
  • Spool’s width: 1 inch
  • Reel diameter: 3.55 inches


  • Ambidextrous
  • Lifetime warranty
  • Durable
  • Easy to use
  • Fast retrieval rate
  • Available in a wide range of colors


  • It is a bit costly

Orvis Battenkill Reel

Named after a river near Orvis’s headquarter in Vermont, Orvis Battenkill has been around for over six decades. Its flawless and simplistic design makes it an ideal click-and-pawl reel for a wide range of freshwater fishing situations. Its unique drag system provides a reliable drag that helps you prevent overruns.

Battenkill has a large spool diameter for fast retrieval rate and a narrow spool that helps you avoid line stacking when retrieving it. Plus, its design and weight allow it to balance perfectly on short fly fishing rods.

Its weight, functionality, and design have made it quite popular among small stream fishers who need little to no drag. Unfortunately, some anglers have complained that adjusting the drag can be a bit challenging when fishing. (7)


  • Brand: Orvis
  • Construction type: machined aluminum
  • Color: black
  • Weight: 3.2 ounces
  • Diameter of the reel: 3.25 inches


  • Durable
  • Lightweight
  • It has a lifetime warranty
  • Its simplistic design makes it perfect for trout fishing


  • Adjusting the drag when fishing can be a bit challenging
  • Small spool size

Redington Zero Fly Reel

The Zero fly reel has set a new standard for affordability and lightweight performance as the lightest option in the 3wt class. This affordable click-and-pawl reel is perfect for lots of trout fishing situations. Zero fly reel is available in two sizes, and it’s ideal for rods whose size ranges between 1wt and 4wt.

Its non-adjustable drag offers the needed resistance to prevent overruns. Plus, you can apply extra stopping power by pressing your palm against its spinning spool. And for its size, the Zero reel comes with a huge arbor that makes it a fast line retrieval reel.

Its simple drag system makes it light and perfect for beginners or experienced anglers searching for a perfect reel for their small stream attire. But some anglers have complained that it has a non-adjustable drag. (8)


  • Brand: Redington
  • Hand orientation: ambidextrous
  • Weight: 0.35 pounds
  • Material: plastic
  • Reel diameter: 3 inches
  • Sizes available: 4/5wt and 2/3wt
  • Colors: avocado, sand, and black
  • Construction: die-cast


  • Cheap
  • Extremely light ideal for beginners
  • It has a lifetime warranty


  • It has a non-adjustable drag


Learn More About Fly Fishing Reels
Learn More About Fly Fishing Reels

What Do the Fly Fishing Reels Numbers Mean?

Fly reels are classified by weight, just like the fly rods. The size of the fly reels can run between 3wt to 12wt; remember, the bigger the number, the heavier the reel will be. Therefore, matching a 3wt reel and rod can help you catch smaller fishes like trout in the creek.

Do Fly Fishing Reels Have a Drag?

Yes, all modern budget fly reels have a half-decent disc drag. The high-end options have a reliable disc-drag system that exceeds the normal pawl-and-spring systems. They work perfectly and allow the line to leave the reels in a smooth motion.

Can Fly Reels Reel Backward?

Yes, most fly reels are reversible, but the method of switching direction varies with the manufacturer. Left-handed anglers will reel using their right hand and cast with their left hand. So, the ability to reverse reeling directions makes it possible for the reels to be used by both left and right-handed anglers.

Screaming Reels and Last Casts

The success of your fly fishing trip will depend on your technique, preparation, and gear like the fly reel. Therefore, you must stop assuming that the reel is there to store the line and learn how fly fishing reels work. Knowing how fly fishing reels work can play a huge role in reeling in a catch and losing the fight to an aggressive fish after it has bitten your bait.

Are you looking for some great How To Fly Fish Articles? Checkout this list:

Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How to Fly Fish


  1. Wikipedia contributors, fly fishing, Accessed September 6, 2021
  2. Wikipedia contributors, fishing reel, Accessed September 6, 2021
  3. Prabhat S, Difference between ocean and lake, Accessed September 6, 2021
  4. Amazon contributors, Redington Behemoth Fly Reel, Accessed September 6, 2021
  5. Amazon Contributors, Piscifun Platte fishing CNC Machined aluminum reel, Accessed September 6, 2021
  6. Amazon contributors, Waterworks-Lamson Guru fly reel, Accessed September 6, 2021
  7. Amazon contributors, Orvis Battenkill fly reel, Accessed September 6, 2021
  8. Amazon contributors, Redington Zero fly reel, Accessed September 6, 2021
  9. MePharmres staff, Fly Rod Weight Chart, Accessed September 6, 2021
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