Choosing a fly reel

Fly reels are relatively simple bits of fly fishing gear and it's fairly easy to choose the right one for your rod when you know how.

Choosing a fly reel
© Fly and Lure
Choosing a fly reel
Picture copyright © Fly and Lure
Choosing a fly reel
Fly fishing tips Fly reels Fly lines Estimated reading time 6 - 10 minutes

What does a fly reel do?

Primarily your fly reel is there to act as somewhere to store your fly line. It's not really used for a lot of the time when you're fly fishing, unlike a conventional fishing reel.

For most stillwater trout fishing, you'll be pulling in your catch by "stripping" the line in by hand. However, if you hook a fish at distance or if you catch a large one that swims off with lots of line, you might need to fight the fish on the reel.

What is fly line backing for?

Backing, as the name suggests, is attached to the back end of your fly line directly to the reel. It performs two main roles.

Firstly, if you catch a really large or fast moving trout it could swim away with your entire line as they're often only 90 feet in length. The backing is made from 20lb braided line and lets the fish swimming a bit further, so you're less likely to be snapped off.

The other reason for backing is to increase the size of the fly reel's arbour, which helps reduce the likelihood for the fly line to develop coils.

In most cases for stillwater or river trout fly fishing, you'll never see your backing. Having a big trout taking you down to the backing is a pretty uncommon occurrence for most fly fishers.

Why do they differ in size?

Fly rods are designed for casting fly lines of specific weights. For catching tiny trout in a mountain stream you'll likely be using a 1 or 2 weight fly line, while for trout on a reservoir you might favour a seven or eight weight line.

Heavier fly lines are bigger and take up more room on the reel and also need to go on bigger rods, so the reels required for these are larger.

You need to match the line weight rating of your reel to that of your line and your rod. If you've got a five weight rod, you also need a five weight line and five weight reel, too.

Why do they differ in diameter?

There are a couple of reasons for the diameter of fly reels differing between models. On a fly reel the line attaches to the middle of the spool, which is known as the arbour.

Fly lines can develop a bit of memory which causes them to go a bit curly if they're attached to reels with smaller arbours for a long time without being stretched, so makers have gradually made medium and large arbour reels which help reduce line memory.

The other benefit of medium and large arbour reels is that the bigger diameter means that the retrieve speed is faster. If you are trying to keep the tension on a fish by reeling in quickly, you'll need to make more turns of the reel handle on a small arbour fly reel than you would on a large arbour one. As a result, large arbour reels are ideal if you're fishing for bigger, faster running fish.

The Airflo Xceed reels are made from machined aluminium. Very sturdy build quality but a little on the heavy side compared to some other models on the market.

What are fly reels made from?

There are three common methods to produce modern fly reels: plastic composite reels, die cast aluminium reels and CNC machined aluminium reels.

Plastic composite reels, like the Orvis Encounter series, are extremely robust and very competitively priced, but they're on the heavy side so aren't always the best match for a really light fly rod. They're great for beginners and children as they are cheap and virtually indestructible.

Die cast aluminium reels are probably the most common. They're fairly strong, mid priced but not as light or as strong as machined aluminium reels. They tend to be slightly rougher in finish compared to the posher machined aluminium reels.

Machined aluminium reels are typically the highest quality. They're carved by computer controlled drills from a single block of aircraft grade aluminium and are both extremely strong and very, very light. Since they're harder to make and are higher in quality, they tend to be the most expensive.

Do I need extra spools?

You will only need extra spools if you want to fish with a sinking, intermediate or midge tip line - which could be useful if you fish a larger stillwater. However, many stillwater and river fly fishers get by with just a single floating line the whole year round.

Due to the design of the fly reel, the spools for some models can be almost as expensive as the reel itself, so if you plan to use several types of fly line and need multiple spools you may want to consider a cassette reel that takes cheaper plastic cassette spools, rather than more expensive machine metal ones.

Are fly reels left or right handed?

Fly reels typically come set up for left handed retrieve, as most fly fishers are right handed and hold the rod with their right hand while fighting their fish.

However, if you want to change a fly reel to a right hand retrieve, most reels come with instructions for changing the retrieve direction to let you do this. It's fairly easy and only takes a few minutes.

What is the drag for?

The drag is there to apply extra pressure to the reel to make it harder for the fish to pull line off the reel. In general, this is only an issue if you're fishing for larger fish or regularly fight fish on the reel.

Disc drags are the best for such purposes and are now the most commonly used type of drag on fly reels. Older style reels use click pawl drags. These are more simple but there's nothing wrong with them and they're more than adequate for most trout fly fishing.

How should I attach the backing to the reel?

Backing is usually attached to the reel using an arbour knot, but a grinner or uni knot will do the same job.

Before you add the backing you'll need to work out how much you need to add. Most fly reels will give you some information on the reel's capacity with a typical fly line, so will tell you how much backing to load onto the reel so it fills the spool to the top and leaves enough room to wind the line in without it scuffing against the edge of the reel.

How much should I spend on my fly reel?

To be brutally honest, you don't really need to spend a huge amount on a really fancy fly reel as most of the time it's going to be used only for storing fly line. However, you might want to buy a lovely looking reel because it looks good on your rod and is a pleasure to use - which is perfectly fine, and is indeed what most fly fishers do.

A basic, half decent low end fly reel will set you back around £40 and will be perfectly adequate for most people. If you want something more stylish, then £75-120 can get you a really beautifully made mid-range reel, and there are some truly stunning high end ones if money isn't an issue.

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