set drag on fly reel

Understanding the Drag on a Fly Reel

The late, great fly fishing legend, Lefty Kreh, had a clever method for understanding the drag on a fly reel and how to set it just right: Pull fly line off the reel using only your lips and then tighten the drag until you can’t pull anymore and the line slips from your mouth.

While you’ll want to remember this simple trick anytime you’re stuck on where to set the drag on your fly reel, read on to learn the ins and outs of how a fly reel drag works, the different types of drag systems used, and anything else you might need to know about fly reel drags.

Fly Fishing Reels
Fly Fishing Reels

What is Drag on a Fly Reel?

The term “drag” refers to the braking systems used on fly reels to slow the rotation of the spool in order to control and apply pressure to a fish on the line. Think of a fly reel drag like the brakes on a car; it’s what gives you stopping power, in our case, “fish-stopping” power.

A drag system on a fly reel also pulls double duty as backlash prevention, keeping the spool from overrunning when the line is stripped. This function should not be overlooked as the chore of untangling rat’s nests robs you of precious fishing time.

What are the Different Drag Systems on Fly Fishing Reels?

There are two distinct drag systems used in fly fishing reels: disc and click-and-pawl.

I’ll go into the technical differences between both systems below, but first I’d like to talk a little bit about why you might choose a disc drag reel over a click-and-pawl and vice versa.

fly reel drag
back off fly reel drag
reel spool off body
spool removed from body of reel to show disc drag

Disc drag fly reels are by far the most popular drag systems used in modern fly reels. Head to your nearest fly shop or sporting goods store, and chances are, 90 percent of the fly reels on display have disc drags, with perhaps only one or two models featuring click-and-pawl drags.

But why is this?

There are three reasonable answers:

  • Disc drags offer more fish-stopping power than click-and-pawl reels.
  • Disc drags start up smooth to protect light tippets and maintain consistent pressure throughout the fight.
  • Disc drags offer a wide range of adjustments to help you meet the conditions at hand.

On top of those compelling reasons, many disc drag fly fishing reels are made to withstand the harshest conditions, making them ideal for saltwater fly fishing. By sealing the drag systems within the frame of the reel, sand, dirt, and corrosive saltwater are kept out of the reel’s most crucial-yet-vulnerable components.

So what’s wrong with click-and-pawl reels?

Well, nothing’s really wrong with them. It’s just that they’re essentially an outdated technology with many of their biggest issues solved by the advent of disc drag reels.

But despite the problems associated with click-and-pawl reels (more on those later), many anglers, especially those fascinated by the history, tradition, and romance of fly fishing, keep click-and-pawl reels as prized pieces in their collections. There’s just something special about the lively zzzzzzzzzzzzing! of an old click-and-pawl as a big rainbow trout rips line like a demon.

What is Disc Drag on a Fly Fishing Reel?

Disc drag is a type of drag system that uses compressed washers made of various materials to create friction against the spool in order to apply tension on the line.

disc drag on fly reel
disc drag on fly reel

Here’s how it looks in practice:

You hook a fish, the fish runs. As soon as the fish starts pulling line off the spool, the pressure of the drag washers against the spool provides the necessary resistance to fight the fish.

That’s the basics of how a disc drag on a fly reel works. Pretty straightforward, right?

Well, that’s just the beginning. Within the broader category of disc drag fly reels, there are two design variations that are worth knowing: draw bar disc drags and sealed drum disc drags.

Guide Pro Tip: Maintain you’re fly reels and you’ll catch more. Read 👉 Tips and Tricks to Maintain a Fly Reel

Draw bar disc drags are the most widely used across the board, found in fly reels at all levels of quality and price. The draw bar design functions more or less how I described above two or more circular discs, most measuring between 1 1/2″ to 2 1/2″ inches in diameter, are squeezed together against the metal of the reel’s spool, creating drag pressure.

Most draw bar disc drags use at least one washer made of cork, a natural material with several attributes that make it ideal for use in fishing reel drags, the most prominent being its extremely smooth startup. Unlike many man-made plastics and polymers used for disc drag washers, cork washers compress and rebound very gradually, which sort of eases the drag into full engagement.

When line is pulled, the cork washers first compress fully, then gradually rebound to their full size. Instead of an abrupt jolt as the drag engages, you get a smooth ramp up that could be the key to protecting your tippet and landing that fish of a lifetime.

maintain fly fishing reel
Clean and maintain fly reel

The cork washers used in draw bar disc drag reels are also very good at dissipating heat, which is helpful when fishing strong fish capable of long runs. One of the main arguments against using cork, however, is that for it to function properly it must be lubricated.

Lubricating cork washers requires access to said washers, eliminating the possibility placing them in a fully sealed drag housing. Since draw bar disc drags are mostly unsealed, the issue of water or debris entering the drag is a serious concern.

So while many saltwater anglers do rely on the smooth stopping power of cork to fight big fish in the ocean, know that you can’t go dunking your draw bar disc drag in the salt without a thorough cleaning at home.

The other most common varieties of disc drag systems used in fly reels are sealed drum disc drags. By placing the disc drag mechanism inside a fully sealed housing built into the frame of the reel, these reels solve the issues associated with unsealed draw bar drags I just mentioned, making sealed drum disc drag fly reels the go-to choice for saltwater fly anglers and anyone who regular fishes in muddy, sandy, or otherwise gritty conditions.

Beyond the sealed housings, some of which are completely sealed and impenetrable while others use rubber gaskets to protect the washers, sealed drum disc drags function just like draw bar disc drag systems drag washers create resistance against the spool. Since accessing sealed drags isn’t usually an option, synthetic materials like nylon, Teflon, Delrin, and other plastics and polymers are used in place of cork as they require zero maintenance.

You may find that lower-end sealed disc drag fly reels don’t offer quite the same stopping power as comparable draw bar designs. This is typically a result of smaller drag washers being used which is simply a matter of design efficiency and minimizing the overall weight and bulk of the reel the larger the washers, the larger the drag housing, the bigger and heavier the reel. However, with such a massive gain in long-term durability and reliable function no matter how nasty conditions get, a small dip in stopping power is easy to look past.

What is Click and Pawl Drag on a Fly Fishing Reel?

click and pawl drag
click and pawl drag

Also called a “spring-and-pawl” click-and-pawl fly reels utilize the most basic version of drag systems available. Here’s how they work:

  • A toothed gear is attached to the spool of the reel.
  • A spring-loaded “pawl,” which is nothing more than a small triangular piece of metal, rests against the teeth of the gear.
  • When the spool spins, either from stripping line by hand of from the pull of a fish, the pawl bounces along the teeth of the spool, creating a repetitive “click” sound that gives the drag mechanism its name.

The action of the pawl bouncing over the teeth of the gear is the primary means of drag pressure afforded by a click-and-pawl reel. While many click-and-pawl reels do have tension knobs to change the strength of the drag pressure, the range of adjustment on most is extremely limited. When fishing for pint-sized quarry that can be stripped in by hand like trout or panfish, the drag capabilities of a click-and-pawl reel may never see any use beyond preventing reel overruns.

But what happens when you hook into a fish that can pull line off your spool?

To be fair, click-and-pawl reels do offer some fish-stopping power, just not a lot. However, to overcome this, anglers who use click-and-pawl reels adjust drag pressure manually by literally slowing down the rotation of the spool by hand. This is known as “palming” and requires lots of practice and more than a little finesse to pull off successfully.

So should you get a click-and-pawl reel?

In all honesty, if I have to talk you into it, the answer is probably no. You’ll find comparable disc drag reels that are less expensive and offer more fish-stopping power, more versatility, and more ease of use.

How Do I Set the Drag on a Fly Fishing Reel?

On disc drag fly reels, adjusting the drag is as simple as turning the drag knob located on the face of the reel. A clockwise rotation tightens the drag, increasing the pressure; a counter-clockwise rotation loosens the drag, reducing the pressure.

That’s how you adjust the drag. But finding the proper drag setting to accommodate a specific fishing situation is an entirely different story and there isn’t a single straightforward answer. It’s a balancing act, and like everything else in fly fishing, it all depends.

Through practice and experience on the water, you’ll develop a sort of sixth sense when it comes to setting your drag to fight any fish you hook into. But until then, here are some factors to consider and guidelines to follow when setting the drag on your fly reel:

Use as much drag pressure as possible without breaking your tippet.

This is a lesson many of us learn the hard way don’t crank down the drag so much that your tippet goes “Pop!” Eventually, you’ll know how much drag pressure you can use for given tippet sizes, but one of the best ways to get a feel for it is to use a scale. Fish-weighing scales like the Dr. Meter scale are ideal.

To set your reel’s drag using a scale, string up your rod like you’re about to start fishing. Hook the scale to the welded loop at the end of your fly line, then have a helper pull line with the scale while you hold the rod and reel and make drag adjustments. Have your helper call out scale readings to give you an idea of what the different drag settings feel like.

The drag pressure on your reel should never exceed two-thirds the breaking strength of your tippet.

It’s easy to get caught up thinking that more is better when it comes to drag. But in many ways, your drag is only as strong as the weakest link in your system, which in most cases, is your tippet.

Whenever possible, try to give yourself a buffer against snapping your tippet by never tightening your drag beyond two-thirds the breaking strength of your tippet. If you have a scale, this should be easy to figure out. If you don’t have a scale, play it by feel and when in doubt, stay on the lighter side.

Take a dynamic approach to drag adjustment.

Be ready to make several drag adjustments while you’re actively fighting a fish. It certainly takes practice to develop the coordination necessary to adjust your drag on the fly, but if you can adapt to what the fish is doing, more fish will find their way to your net.

That’s as much as I can reveal through text about the mysteries and nuances of how to set the drag on a fly reel. Now it’s up to you to go out there and test these tips and techniques on live targets.

What is a Centerpin Fly Fishing Reel?

But before I wrap this up, I wanted to touch on centerpin reels, a peculiar style of reel that looks like a fly reel, but because of its design and intended use, it isn’t a fly reel at all.

Yes, centerpin reels look like fly reels, but here are a few reasons why they’re in a class of their own:

  • Centerpin reels are used with thin monofilament line; not fly line.
  • Centerpin reels are cast more like a spinning reel or baitcaster, relying on terminal weight to deliver the offering.
  • Centerpin reels are used primarily for float fishing, i. e. fishing bait, jigs, or other lures, under a bobber, for species like steelhead, salmon, and trout.
  • Centerpin reels are fished on long rods in the 12 to 15-foot range, giving anglers better line control at long distances.

And here’s the real kicker . . .

  • Centerpin reels have no drag. With spools that spin freely, anglers can achieve extremely long drag-free drifts as line can be pulled from the spool by the tug of the current with minimal resistance. To fight and land fish on a centerpin reel, anglers have no choice but to palm the reel. And without drag to prevent line overruns, casting a centerpin reel without producing an epic rat’s nest is a feat unto itself.

So there you have it center pin reels are effective fishing tools but aren’t technically fly fishing reels.

Wow! Who Knew Understanding the Drag on a Fly Reel Could be So Involved?

While there’s still lots of interesting ground to cover related to specific materials and designs used in fly reel drags and the performance advantages they offer, I hope the information I covered today brought you one step closer to fly reel drag mastery. And remember: If you ever forget how to set the drag on your fly reel, pop that line in your mouth, give it a pull, tighten the drag, and when the line slips, you’re ready to fish. Thanks for the tip, Lefty!

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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

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