There’s no mathematical formula — at least one that I’m aware of — to help you select the correct size fly fishing reel. Instead, I recommend taking more of a “Goldilocks” approach to fly reel selection.
Here’s what I mean:
Head down to your local fly shop with your reel-less fly rod and ask to try out as many different fly reels as possible. Secure each reel to your rod and spend a few minutes with it to see if you like the combination. Say “No!” to the reel that’s too light. Pass on the reel that’s too heavy. Bid farewell to the reel that’s way beyond your budget, despite how cool it looks.
Eventually, you’ll come to a reel that feels “just right.” That’s the one you want.
Now, while you can buy a fly reel based solely on feel, there are some other factors to consider to ensure you get a reel that’s sized according to your specific needs as an angler. And in this article, I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know. First, let’s talk about line weight.
What’s Your Rod’s Line Weight?
A one-size-fits-all fly reel doesn’t exist. Practically all fly reel manufacturers offer fly reels for specific line weights. The reason for this lies in the fact as a fly line’s weight increases, so does its diameter—a 9-weight fly line is much thicker than a 4-weight fly line.
And the thicker a fly line is, the more space it occupies on the reel.
But instead of offering reels in single line weight sizes, most reels accommodate a range of line weights. For example, Redington offers their popular Behemoth reel in several combo sizes: 4/5, 5/6, 7/8, 9/10, and 11/12. Other reels, like the Orvis Hydros, are produced in sizes that accommodate a range of three different line sizes.
Since there isn’t that much of a difference in diameter between next-door-neighbor line sizes, reel manufacturers can get away with producing five different versions of the same reel instead of nine.
For us anglers, buying a reel that works with two or three different line sizes can be a real money-saver if you own multiple rods within that range. Let’s say you own a 4-weight rod and a 5-weight rod. Instead of buying separate reels for both, you can buy a Redington Behemoth in the 4/5 size, order a second spool and line, then simply swap out the spools depending on which rod you want to fish that day.
In short, start your reel buying process by finding a reel that’s designed for your rod’s designated line weight—most reels are clearly labeled.
If you stop the reel selection process here, however, you might not end up with the exact right fly reel for your needs. The next question to ponder is . . .
How Much Backing Do You Need?
If you’re just getting into the sport, you may not be aware that a fly line on its own does not complete the system. Most fly lines come out of the box at a standard length of 90 feet, which in most cases is enough length to play and land fish. But, if you hook into a strong, fast-running fish, every inch of line will race off the reel leaving you “spooled,” as they say.
Fly line backing, a thin-diameter braided line, is an insurance policy of sorts for those fish that run, run, run some more, and don’t stop running. Backing goes on the reel first before the thicker fly line is attached, and ideally, you want to add as much as the reel will hold.
Exactly how much backing you need depends primarily on the size and strength of fish you’re targeting. Here’s where reel size comes into play and where looking at the specs of different models is important.
You’ll find that reels with the same line weight designation but from different manufacturers (or different models from the same manufacturer) have different sized spools, and therefore hold different amounts of backing.
Bigger reels hold more backing. Smaller reels hold less.
So, when you’re comparing reels side-by-side, think about the type of fish you hope to catch. Are they lightning-fast bonefish? Get a bigger reel. Are they dinky little brookies? Get a smaller reel.
For a more detailed explanation on how to add the perfect amount of backing to your reel (i. e. the most amount possible without the reel jamming) check out this excellent video by Tim Flagler of Tightline Productions:
Finding a Reel Size that Balances Your Rod
The first two parameters I covered—line weight and line capacity—should narrow down your reel search significantly. Your next task is to find a reel that balances your rod.
- Secure the reel you’re testing to your rod’s reel seat.
- Find the “pivot point” of your rod which is usually about one inch below the top edge of the cork grip.
- Hold the rod up using only your index finger at the pivot point.
Ideally, the rod will be perfectly balanced atop your index finger, remaining more or less parallel to the floor. This will give you the best casting and line control performance with minimal arm fatigue for long days of fishing.
If the tip of the rod dips toward the floor, the reel is too light. A tip-heavy outfit might not seem like a big deal in the fly shop, but on the stream, will be a constant source of annoyance, will rob your casting performance, and could lead to increased arm fatigue.
If the butt of the rod dips toward the floor, the reel is too heavy. Your reel needs to have some weight to it to balance the rod, but too much weight could also give you casting problems and arm fatigue from throwing around that extra heft.
While this simple balance test will give you lots of good information about a particular rod and reel pairing, try to do some actual casting with the reels you’re testing. That’ll give you a better idea of how the combo will perform in real fishing scenarios.
Again, no exact science here. Go with what feels right.
What is the Arbor Size on a Fly Reel?
The arbor size of a fly reel refers to the diameter of the reel’s axle—AKA the “arbor.” In other words, the arbor is what the line is wrapped around. While it might seem insignificant, arbor size has a huge influence on reel performance and should be high on your list of considerations.
Before I get into the specifics of small, mid, and large arbor fly reels, let’s look at how arbor size affects fishing performance:
- Line pickup rate. The larger the arbor, the more line is retrieved with every rotation of the spool. Think of it this way: if you wrapped a string around a golf ball one time and cut it off then wrapped another string around a basketball one time and cut it off, which string would be longer?
- Line memory. The smaller the arbor, the more tightly your fly line will be coiled on the spool, increasing the amount residual coil left in the line when stripped off the spool—an annoyance that affects both casting performance and line longevity.
- Drag pressure. With every inch of line that comes off the spool, the overall diameter of the spool (arbor + backing + fly line) decreases and the pressure it takes to pull line off against the drag resistance changes. In terms of drag performance, a lack of consistency could result in busted tippets and lost fish.
Small Arbor Reels
For a long time, all fly reels had small arbors by default. Small arbor reels are still available and are considered more “classic” or “traditional” than the other options I’ll get to in a minute. Most click-and-pawl reels have small arbors, and while they don’t offer the same advantages of reels with larger arbors, get the job done when fishing for quarry that doesn’t put up much of a fight.
The main issues with small arbor reels, as alluded to previously, are slow line pickup rates, increased line memory, and inconsistent drag pressure. Basically, if you’re at all worried about reel performance, don’t get a small arbor reel. However, thanks to their overall smaller size and lighter weight, small arbor reels pair well with your most delicate fly rods used to catch little fish—1s, 2s, and 3-weights.
Large Arbor Reels
It’s widely held that the advent of large arbor reels is perhaps the greatest advancement in fly fishing technology in recent history. All the problems that arise from small arbors are almost entirely solved with large arbor reels:
- By increasing the size of the arbor, line pickup rates skyrocket.
- The fly line is held in larger coils, reducing line memory.
- As line is pulled off the reel, the overall diameter changes very little, resulting in consistent drag pressure all the way to the spool.
You’ll find large arbor fly reels available for practically all line weights to accommodate the full spectrum of fly fishing disciplines from freshwater trout and bass to bluewater tuna and marlin.
Mid Arbor Fly Reels
Mid arbor reels offer many of the same benefits of large arbor reels, though not as prominent. One potential upside to mid arbor reels is an increase in line capacity, providing room to hold extra backing. If that’s something you’re interested in, check out the ever-handsome Hatch Finatic reels, available in both mid and large arbor versions.
What’s the Difference Between CNC and Die Cast Fly Fishing Reel?
The difference between CNC and die-cast reels is a matter of materials and manufacturing processes.
A CNC machined reel is carved out of a solid chunk of bar stock aluminum by a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine. This is how the top tier of fly reels are made today, producing some of the strongest, most durable reels on the market. After the reel components are carved out, the aluminum is then anodized making them corrosion-resistant for use in saltwater and other harsh fishing conditions.
Die-cast reels, on the other hand, are made by pouring or injecting molten metal alloy into molds or “dies.” Considerably less expensive to produce than CNC machined reels, die-cast reels are some of the more budget-friendly options available, and depending on the brand, offer a decent level of durability. Die-cast reels can’t be anodized, however, so exposure to saltwater could result in corrosion.
How to Remove the Spool on a Fly Reel
Every reel is slightly different, but here’s the basic procedure for removing the spool from a fly reel:
- Most reels have what’s known as a “spool nut” that are concealed by a cap, often with the reel’s brand name or logo on it. The spool nut is usually located on the opposite face of the drag adjustment knob.
- Loosen the spool nut by turning the cap counterclockwise.
- Once loose, simply pull the spool free.
That’s about all there is to it. Remember this procedure next time you need to swap out spools or remove one for a deep cleaning.
Choosing the Correct Size Fly Fishing Reel Doesn’t Have to Be Difficult
While there is a lot to think about when choosing a fly reel, don’t get bogged down in the minutiae. As long as you choose a reel that’s designed to work with your rod’s line weight, offers enough line capacity to hold plenty of backing to tame your quarry, and balances your rod in a way that feels good to you, you’re all set. Take it a few steps further by looking at arbor size, materials, and durability, and you’ll be well on your way to a rod and reel combo you’ll love fishing.