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Fly Fishing Reels - A Buyer's Guide

Custom Shop Reels - IN STOCK

Yes, it's true, fly reels can be just as expensive as the actual fly rod in hand. Certain reels can go upwards of a thousand dollars or more, but this sort of dollar outlay is rather luxurious. A more frequent price range for fly reels is between $60 - $600. What determines this price? Well it really comes down to the quality of materials used, the design and the size of the reel. The fly reel is an important part of the equation because it houses, and manages the actual fly line. Line comes in, line goes out — it is a continual process in fly fishing so anglers do need a well functioning reel to oversee this process. Whether you are stripping line out for a longer cast or trying to manipulate a presentation, line should peel off the reel smoothly without getting tangled. Also, let's say that you hook a fish and it's off and running. The fly reel must maintain tension and keep the line spinning off the fly spool in a somewhat, controlled fashion. Line management is key to landing fish and keeping you fishing efficiently. So what are the important considerations when choosing the right fly reel? Let's go over them.


Most fly reels on the market today are made from varying qualities of aluminum. Higher end models are machined from aircraft-grade stock, while lower end models are poured into a mold — resulting in a cast-construction. Keep in mind that although the price is right, cast aluminum is more liable to break than fully machined aluminum reels. Another important consideration is the finish on aluminum reels. Manufacturers speak of Anodizing or Alox Finishes. Most are either Type II or Type III finishes that create a protective layer to the surface of the metal. Anodizing helps to protect the reel from gouges or dings and fights corrosion which can be especially prevalent when fishing in salt water. Type II anodizing is more common than type III because it is cheaper and can be dyed with a broader range of colors. Type III is toughest, but usually only available in black or dark gray finishes.

Some reels are made from graphite or even plastic. Although these reels provide an option to beginner fly anglers, they are unlikely to hold up over time and their overall performance is quite representative of their price tags.

When it comes to drag systems, the growing trend is to utilize carbon fiber and/or steel discs that are stacked and pressed together to create tension. Some quality manufacturers continue to use cork discs. All of these materials can be found in quality fly reels but the main determinant of performance comes down to the size of the surface area as well as the underlying design of the drag.

Click Pawl drag systems are not known for creating much pressure, but rather — a steady unwinding of the spool. Materials for these are pretty bare bones, using small metal or plastic teeth that click over small grooves in the spool's interior. Anglers wanting to create more pressure with these reels are inclined to use their palm to slow the spin of the spool, and essentially create their "own" drag.

Some reels will use fancy wood or metal for their reel knobs, which is nice, but not overly significant in terms of performance.


Well you can start out with quality materials, but the end-result can be very different from model to model. Really, the basic parts of the reel are as follows: The body, spool, drag and bearing components. When you put these together what we're after is a reel that spins fluidly, is user friendly, has a dependable drag system and is durable.

Reel price is driven up with the amount of machining. A very smart trend over the past decade is the amount of "porting" that reels have — meaning the amount of holes cut out of the metal. What this does is keeps weight down in the body and spool of the reel. Typically, the more precision porting that a reel has, the higher the price tag.

Another consideration is the size of a spool's arbor. Arbor is a term heard frequently, which refers to the diameter of the spool's interior — that which the backing and fly line is wrapped around. Large Arbor reels have serious benefits in that line retrieval occurs much faster when reeling. Also, large arbor spools allow line to peel off the reel in larger coils which helps to eliminate memory and kinked fly lines.

The best drag systems are easy to adjust and provide smooth stopping power. Many folks have fallen in love with cork drags because of their smooth nature. The one problem with cork however, is that they require constant maintenance. The cork will wear down or become compromised by the elements that make their way into the reel. Thus, the reel needs to be taken apart frequently, washed and the cork needs to be oiled to stay true. Most cork drag systems are not enclosed or sealed, which makes them susceptible to degradation. However, that said, there are a few reels on the market today that do boast sealed cork drags.

Stacked carbon fiber or steel disc drags are perhaps, the most dependable drag systems on the market. The more discs or overall surface area, then the stronger the stopping power. But one very important design feature relies on whether or not the drag components are fully sealed. Fully sealed drag systems are the cat's meow, meaning that no maintenance is required beyond a very occasional splash down and even that may be overkill. Beware, there are many reels out there that brag of sealed drag systems and this is simply not true. Grit and grime WILL find their way in and this can seriously compromise performance. A drag that slips and sticks is well, a reel drag!

If you are someone who likes to adjust the drag frequently, then smart observation should be directed at the drag knob. Does it look easy to turn? This is a factor.

Reels that utilize a Click Pawl type drag often have a very classic look and feel. They also make a sound as the teeth click over the grooves in the spool. These drag systems do not provide stopping power, but rather, a light, steady tension. To increase tension, anglers must apply pressure with either their palms or fingers to slow down the spool. These reels are popular among anglers searching for small fish or if it is larger fish, then they must be comfortable with the human touch.

You could consider a reel's design as being streamlined if it is not bulky, possibly ported, and free of many pieces/parts. The weight of a reel is a serious concern out there, especially during days of seemingly, endless casts. Light reels that provide efficient, smooth performance are tough to beat. Furthermore, streamlined reels are user friendly and their pieces should fit together precisely. No one wants to deal with a spool that spins in an untrue circle or has a gap between itself and the reel body. Furthermore, spools that are easy to click in and out and do not leave you with a bunch of pieces and parts in hand, are much easier to deal with, especially while on the water.


Your reel should match the size of your rod. Typically, reels are built to work within a range of rod sizes, eg: 5/6 or 6/7 etc. What manufacturers try to take into account is how a certain reel will balance a particular fly rod. A rod is balanced when a loaded fly reel (backing & fly line) keeps the entirety of the fly rod holding parallel to the water's surface, when gripped appropriately at the cork. If it does not tilt, either up or down, then it is an ideal fit. This is a perfect world scenario. Some variance is no problem. Reels can be made to rest on a rod and hold line in most cases, but to really dial in casting performance and line management, balance should be considered.

Capacity is also very important. Meaning: How much backing can a spool hold for a given fly line size. Small fish and small water, most likely means: small rod and small reel. No problem. These reels do not need much backing capacity as the fish probably won't get too far away from you. But, if we're talking salt water game fish, large trout, salmon or steelhead, then they're going to cover some ground which means you had better have an adequate amount of backing. Another nice thing about reels that have generous capacities is that these spools keep the fly line from winding too tightly. Memory-filled line that leaves the reel in small coils can be pretty unruly.

Some benchmark capacities:

Trout: 50-75 yards of 20 lb backing

Salmon/Steelhead: 150 - 200 yards of 30 lb backing

Saltwater game fish: 250 - 400 yds of 30lb backing

Manufacturers that combine large arbor, large capacity and lightweight reel characteristics hit it out of the park with anglers. Add a smooth and stout drag system, well then, you got the complete package.

A note about Spey Reel sizing:

When balancing out a spey reel to a given rod, it's appropriate to have some upward tilt to the rod. The mechanism of the spey cast likes some added weight at the reel which becomes a sort of fulcrum point. Furthermore, anglers do not need to physically lift the rod overhead and a bit of tilt will certainly aid in line projection at the end of the casting stroke. A pretty trusted way to pick out the correctly sized fly reel is to size up 3-4 line sizes. So if you have an 8 weight spey rod, you'll be looking at reels that are weighted for an 11-12 weight single hand rod. Now this is "ballpark", as each reel model will differ in size, capacity and weight. Reels for Switch Rods may balance out better by bumping up 2-3 line sizes, depending on rod and reel models as well as the type of fly line needed.

Where are you and what are you chasing?

People who plan on days in the salt should consider reels that have strong, steady drag systems, large capacities and an anodized finish.

Anglers who are following small trout and bass around can get away with lighter drags, less capacity, and a cheaper price tag.

People who are after Salmon and Steelhead need generous capacity and sturdy drags.

Like anything else however, you do get what you pay for. Sometimes it is hard to sacrifice quality, no matter the application.

Here are some manufacturer recommendations for:

Sage, Bauer, Lamson, Ross, Nautilus, Hardy, Galvan, Redington, Echo

Nautilus, Tibor, Abel, Sage, Lamson, Galvan

Sage, Nautilus, HardyLamson, Tibor, Ross, BauerAbel, Galvan, Redington, Echo

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