How to choose a fly reel

A beginner's guide to choosing your first fly reel to help you pick the right one for your rod, line and type of fly fishing you do.

How to choose a fly reel
© Fly and Lure
How to choose a fly reel
Picture copyright © Fly and Lure
How to choose a fly reel
Beginners Fly reels Fly lines Estimated reading time 8 - 13 minutes

How does a fly reel work?

A fly reel is probably the simplest of all fishing reels. It's simply a drum onto which you wind the fly line and some thinner braided line called backing using a little handle on the side. Turning the handle of the reel wraps the line around the drum (or arbour as it's known). To remove line from the reel you simply pull the fly line above the reel with your hand.

A fly reel is basically a rotating drum for storing and retrieving your line.

Does a fly reel have a drag?

Yes, most fly reels have some kind of drag mechanism. This prevents the arbour from spinning too quickly when line is pulled off. There's usually a little drag knob on the opposite side to the handle that can be turned to tighten or loosen the drag and make it harder or easier to pull off line.

In all honesty, the drag won't see a lot of use if you're fishing for trout, as most fly fishers fight their fish by pulling in the line by hand. However, it does become more important when fishing for bigger fish, such as carp, pike or salmon.

Smaller reels tend to have smaller, less powerful drag mechanisms as they're not needed on small fish.

What sorts of fly reel can you get?

Fly reels come in various shapes and sizes to suit different types of fly fishing. These days people fish for all sorts of species using fly rods, from grayling, salmon and trout, to pike, carp, bass, mullet and a host of tropical species - even including big game fish.

Reels tend to differ in three main ways: their size, their construction and the type of drag they use. This affects their suitability for different types of fly fishing, as well as impacting their price and overall desirability.

Fly reels differ mainly in their size, construction and drag mechanisms.

What size fly reel should I choose?

Size is the most important consideration when choosing a fly reel. The main reason is that the fly reel needs to be the right size to hold the type of fly line you intend to use, plus a bit of that braided backing material. It also needs to balance your rod.

Fly lines are sold according to their line weight, which needs to be matched to the same line weight rod. So a #6 line goes with a #6 rod, which also goes on a reel suitable for a #6 line. If you buy a reel suited to a smaller fly line, your #6 line might not fit, while if you buy a bigger reel suited to an #8 or #9 line, it could be too heavy for your rod and cause it to feel unbalanced and uncomfortable when casting and fishing.

Most fly reels are suited to a small range of fly line sizes, such as #2-3, #3-5, #4-6, #6-8 etc, so select one that's a match for your rod and the line you intend to use with it.

Match the weight of your fly line to your rod and reel.

What sort of construction should I look for?

Fly reels are made in three main ways: bar stock aluminium, die-cast aluminium or plastic composite. The vast majority of those sold tend to be die cast aluminium reels as they are cheaper and easier to produce and work perfectly well, without the extra cost of the posher bar stock aluminium ones. A small number of plastic composite reels are on sale and are often very robust, but don't usually look as fancy.

Barstock aluminium reels are considered the best quality. They're machined from single blocks of aluminium and have a hard wearing finish and often look very stylish. They're lighter, often more resilient to being dropped and can sometimes stand up better to wear and tear. They can easily last decades if well looked after. The downside, of course, is that they're a bit more expensive to purchase.

Die-cast aluminium fly reels are the choice of most people. They're a bit heavier, but look good, work well and can be very competitively priced when compared to bar stock aluminium reels. The downside, apart from the extra weight, is that they're prone to warping or bending so you need to be careful not to drop or bash them. When looked after they're reliable and fairly long-lasting too.

Barstock aluminium reels are the best quality, but also cost quite a bit more.

What happens if I want to use a different line?

In fly fishing, it's pretty common for anglers to use different types of fly line within the same trip. Early in the day, the fish might be holding in deeper water where a slow-sinking intermediate line lets you reach them. However, as it warms up and the flies start to hatch you may need to switch to a floating line so you can fish for them feeding on the surface.

Most fly fishers buy spare spools for their reels and store a different line on each one - maybe a floating line, an intermediate and a medium sinking line if you fish on still waters. The downside is that the spare spools typically cost about half the price of the reel, because they're effectively half a reel! If you bought a posh bar stock aluminium reel, that can make things a bit expensive, though the price is generally bearable on cheaper die cast reels.

Spare spools typically cost about half the price of the reel itself.

What if I have lots of fly lines?

If you do have lots of lines you might want to consider a cassette fly reel. These can be made from either bar stock aluminium or die cast but have a special lightweight plastic cassette spool instead of one made from metal. You usually get a few spare spools with each reel, which can save you well over a hundred pounds on the price of buying full metal spools.

Cassette reels use cheap plastic cartridges to hold the line, which massively reduces costs.

Are fly reels left or right handed?

The handle on a fly reel is generally used with your non-writing hand, so if you're right-handed you'd have the reel handle on the left side. They're designed to work in one direction only, but most models can be converted to turn in the opposite direction by taking them apart and flipping over a few washers inside. The vast majority are already set up for right-handed people, so unless you buy a left-handed reel or are a left-handed person, you'll probably never need to change the retrieve direction of your reel.

Unless you're left handed, you'll probably never need to change the retrieve direction on your reel.

What fly reels do you recommend?

We've used and reviewed dozens of different types of fly reel over the years and each has their own pros and cons. It also depends on your budget and whether you'll need to buy lots of spools. For most beginners who are fishing on small stillwaters for trout we'd recommend going with a die-cast aluminium reel. There are loads on the market and most of them are very good. There are also some surprisingly good budget reels available on Ebay, too.

High end
If you've got a higher budget, you might want to go with a bar stock aluminium fly reel. They won't catch you any more fish, but they are better made, more hard wearing and look and feel a lot nicer in the hand. Prices for these start at around £150 and go up to £500 or so. If you're a river angler, the Orvis Battenkill is a nice lightweight reel perfect for smaller rods. We also loved the now discontinued Orvis Access.

The mid-range is dominated by die-cast aluminium reels, which is what we tend to use for most of our fishing. We really like the Loop Multi, Guideline Favo and Sage 2200 series. These are all really stylish reels, have great drag systems and have proven reliable and well made. Expect to pay around £100-120 for one of these, depending on the size.

Budget fly reels also tend to use a die-cast construction, but you'll generally find them fitted with cheaper plastic cassette spools. Again, these are fine for most fishing, though they're typically quite large and heavy, so are only suited to higher line weight fly rods. The Greys GTS500 and Snowbee Onyx Cassette are good value at £50-72 including 3-4 spools and a case.

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