Fly Reel Drag Systems Explained

Understanding the drag on a fly reel might seem like something that isn't worth learning about, especially if you only go fly fishing for trout. Trout barely take line off the reel so why would you need a drag system?
Fly Reel Drag Systems Explained

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Well, when that fish of a lifetime comes along, say a 16lb trout, or you’re fly fishing in saltwater for big fish like GT’s or even salmon in rivers, you’re going to need to know how to use your reel’s drag if you want to land a fish. Here is – fly reel drag systems explained.

What is a drag on a fly reel?

What is a drag on a fly reel

Drag is the fly fishing term for brakes. The drag on a reel basically creates some resistance through friction against the rotation of the spool of the fly fishing reel which in turn makes it hard to pull the fly line off the reel.

The resistance to the spool’s rotation is the drag system. It’s the one part of your setup that is going to slow fish down and allow you to control them during a fight. Your fly rod pretty much does nothing when a fish is pulling line, it’s all about the drag system.

The drag also allows you to set the tension of the spool so it isn’t free and doesn’t cause backlashes and tangles when you pull line off your fly fishing reel.

What are the different types of drag systems?

There are two different types of drag systems you’re likely to come across when looking at fly reels and they are very different, and for different situations. You can either find fly reels with a disc drag system or fly reels with a click and pawl drag system, also known as spring and pawl

If you are interested, you can check our post here on the Best Fly Reels.

How does a click and pawl system work?

How does a click and pawl system work

Click and pawl, or spring and pawl drags work by using a toothed gear that sits on the spool of the fly reel. There is then a pawl, which is a triangular piece of metal that is spring-loaded, that sticks into the teeth of the gear. When the fly line is pulled off the fly reel, the spool and gear spin and the pawl slows the spool down creating some drag and making a sound.

Can you adjust the drag on click and pawl fly reels?

Yes, most click and pawl fly reels have a drag knob that allows anglers to increase or decrease the drag setting but not by much. It does create enough pressure to be higher than free spool you can pull line off the fly reel to cast without getting a tangle and let a fish run.

To increase the drag, anglers can use palm the reel with their hands to add more pressure as needs be when fighting a big fish, but it won’t be very smooth and with one wrong slip you might break your leader or tippet.

What species should you use click and pawl fly reels for?

What species should you use click and pawl fly reels for

Click and pawl fly reels are ideal for smaller freshwater fish species like trout and panfish as these fish barely take any line off fly reels and you mainly use the rod to play them.

Do not go fly fishing with a click and pawl fly reel for saltwater species or freshwater fish like bass, steelhead, or salmon as you won’t be able to control them.

How does a disc drag system work?

Disc drags are made up of a series of washers that sit between the drag knob and the spool. The washers in a disc drag can be made of different materials such as Teflon or cork, and when you tighten the drag setting, the washers are pushed against the spool to slow it down when spinning and thus make it harder for your fly line to leave your fly reel.

Cork is probably the best material for disc drags as it makes the start-up of the drag super smooth and one of the best things about a disc drag fly reel is the amount of pressure you can put on fish when you want to.

You can also find a fly reel with sealed disc drag or a non-sealed disc drag, which we’ll discuss a bit later on.

Is the drag or on disc drag fly reels adjustable?

Is the drag or on disc drag fly reels adjustable

Disc drag fly reels are the most popular fly reels in the world and this is because you can adjust from zero drag to full lock on some of the best quality fly reels, like Makos. All you have to do is slowly turn the know to adjust the drag and make it tighter and tighter, and thus harder for a fish to pull line off the reel.

What species should you use disc drag fly reels for?

A disc drag fly reel is ideal when you’re fly fishing for large saltwater and freshwater species. When it comes to fish like bass or steelhead, being able to manage the fish during the fight and stop them from going down river or snagging your cover is imperative if you want to catch them.

When fly fishing in saltwater for anything from a bonefish to a sailfish, you are going to struggle and likely fail to win a fight or land any fish you hook unless you have a fly reel with a good disc drag.

Sailfish swim at 100km per hour and without a good drag will take all the fly line and backing off your reel in 5 minutes.

What is a sealed drag?

Sealed drags are fully encased in a water-tight enclosure that stops any dirty, grimey stuff or salt getting into the drag and causing it to fail. They were designed for saltwater and allow anglers to submerge their reel in the sea without having to worry about the drag getting a bit of dirt, sand, or salt in there.

An un-sealed drag is open to the elements meaning salt, dirt, and sand can find their way into the system.

Is a sealed drag better than an un-sealed drag?

Is a sealed drag better than an un-sealed drag

Both of these drags are excellent in certain situations and depending on who you’re talking to, you’re likely to get a different answer. Having guided saltwater fly fishing in Seychelles for the last 3 years I can tell you we only use un-sealed drags, but why?

Enclosed super high-quality drags seem to fail when put under too much pressure in my experience when fished on a 12 weight or above. They are great for a permit, bonefish, and other smaller salty fish.

But I have seen quality Hatch drag systems explode, Nautilus reels fail, Sage reels, Orvis reels, they have all come undone when the drag is set high against a GT or sailfish.

The issue isn’t just that they fail, it’s also that because the drag is enclosed,you can’t fix it, and have to send it back to the reels manufacturer, which is useless when you’re on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

With an open drag, like you find on a Shilton fly reel, you can open it up and replace the parts, and thus fix it with ease. Yes, it’s not meant to be submerged but it only takes 5 mins to clean and service if it does. Also, I have never seen a Shilton fail in 3 years and that’s with huge GTs, sailfish, and even marlin on the end of the fly line.

See our post here on Saltwater Fly Fishing for more guide.

How do you set the right drag setting on a fly reel?

How do you set the right drag setting on a fly reel

When you’re fishing for bigger fish, you need to pre-set your drag so the reel stops too much line running through the rod when you hook a fish, but making sure the drag is still light enough not to break your leader or tippet.

Drag pressure is measured in weight and in pounds like line and tippet and you never want to above 50% of the weight line in your setup during the fight. So, if you’re using a 100lb tippet for a GT, you should never set more than 50 lbs of pressure on the fish or your line could break.

But, you should start off much lighter than that. When looking for fish, your drag should be set on lighter settings with just enough pressure to stop the line tangling and backlashing when the fish takes its first run.

Once the fish is running on the reel, you can go from a light drag up to around 1/3 of your breaking strain. So you can set 33lbs of drag pressure when using a 100 lb line. You can then work your way up the settings to 50 lbs of pressure if you need to in order to control the fish.

Remember, your reel does all the work when fighting a large fish on a fly rod, the rod is pretty much useless. If you lift the rod during a fight, it just creates slack and you’ll lose the fish. This is because the rod is light and made for casting not fighting.

The above doesn’t apply when trout fishing though as the fish are so light and small they can be fought on the rod instead of on the reel.

How do you measure the drag settings on a reel?

How do you measure the drag settings on a reel

It’s very easy, all you need is a standard hook scale you’d use to weigh fish. First, set your drag on the reel, then put the rod at the angle it would be in a fight. Now, hook the scale through the line and pull until some line comes off the reel while checking the scale. Whatever LB it got to on the scale is your drag weight in pounds.

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