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Fly Reels

by Schmidt Outfitters Staff

Fly Reels
The reel is very important and can, in some types of fly fishing, be critical to the fly fishing angler’s success. When fly fishing for small fish, for example, the reel is hardly used for more than a line holder and winder. It is the balance of line and rod that is more closely associated with success.

On the other hand, fishing for larger game fish, such as steelhead, salmon, and many saltwater species, requires reels that are finely-tuned machines. When the fly angler is attempting to land a fish, such as a bonefish that can make sustained runs while taking line off the reel at more than 30 feet a second, a reel must be precisely engineered and built of the finest materials to perform well.

For the sake of discussion, reels can be broadly classified in two ways: by the type of drag system they have, and by the manufacturing process that produces the reel. Drag systems can be further divided into two types: click and pawl and disk drag. Manufacturing processes fall into two categories: non-machined and machined reels. All of these characteristics affect both the performance and price of modern fly fishing reels.

Drag Systems

Drag systems on a fly fishing reels are designed to let the angler add resistance to the line as a hooked fish runs. Using a view of the two extremes, adding drag is of little importance when an angler is fishing a 3-weight line, rod, and matching reel in the pursuit of bluegill. Drag systems for this outfit are almost all click and pawl, which adds very little resistance to outgoing line. In general, click and pawl drag systems are nothing more than a ‘clicker’ adding a small amount of resistance by engaging the teeth of a turning gear. It is an inexpensive way to vary the drag on a reel, and is most often found on smaller freshwater reels intended for trout, panfish, and similar game fish.
Smoothly adding or reducing drag is critical when an angler is spending an hour or more to land a tarpon on a 12-weight rod. Only the very finest of disc drags, which function in ways similar to the brakes on an automobile, can handle this kind of power. Disc drags are the most efficient of the drag systems, and also the most expensive. With the actual braking disc being made with materials such as Teflon and related composites, disc drag reels are aimed at the most intense of fly fishing quarry. When combined with the best of manufacturing processes, disc drag reels are the most expensive and efficient reels the fly angler can use.

Manufacturing Process

The type of manufacturing process used to produce fly reels accounts for their cost and durability. The most expensive process is machining the reels from a solid block of metal, most often an aircraft grade of aluminum. The process often uses computers to guide the machining, which results in finely tuned reels with smoothly turning spools and easily adjusted drag systems. When this type of manufacturing is used with well-designed disc drags, the finest and most expensive fly reels on the market are the result.
On the other hand, a reel of that capability might well be analogous to “hunting flies with a shotgun” when used in the wrong fishing situation. The fly fishing for bluegill example is reflective of this. A machined reel of solid aluminum has more strength, durability, and expense than is needed. Another less expensive manufacturing process is the use of stamped or forged parts that are screwed or riveted together. This produces reels that are perfectly suitable for many sport fish while costing around a hundred dollars.

In the best of all four worlds—disc drag, click and pawl, forged, and machined reels—some reel manufacturers are producing reels that are machined but inexpensive.


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