What makes a good fly reel? From my perspective, a good fly reel doesn't fail, wobble, fall apart, or seize. A good fly reel simply gets the job done and looks good while doing it. In the world of fly reels, there are countless designs and design choices to choose from. Finish, material, manufacturing processes, sound (yes, the sound), look, durability, drag, size, backing capacity... all come into play when purchasing your next fly reel. The fall season is just around the corner and it's a great time to upgrade your old gear for the changing season. With that in mind, we’ve done our best to separate and simply explain important factors that go into purchasing a fly reel. In the end, the hope is that you will become a more self-sufficient angler or at the very least, have some interesting bar talk.
Perhaps the most important and most cost-impacting feature to take into consideration when purchasing your next fly reel is the construction, materials, and manufacturing. Typically, the energy, time, and materials required to build a fly reel is reflected in the overall cost of a fly reel. If you are looking at a high-priced fly reel, the quality is typically higher and the build process is more intensive than the cheaper alternatives. Let's go over the most common ones seen today.
Molded plastic reels are the least expensive and least durable reels on the market. The potential for breaking a molded plastic reel is high when dropped which, if you are rambling around those boulder-packed streams might happen often. Generally, these reels are paired with neither powerful nor impressively fine-tuned drag systems and are intended for introductory purposes. However, do not let these downsides turn you away, plastic reels are perfect for your first fly rod set up and if taken care of correctly, can stand up to the basic fly fishing demands like storing lines, retrieving, and letting out line for a long time. These are perfect to have as a spare stowed away under your seat or in your kit.
A cast aluminum reel is manufactured when molten aluminum is poured into a mold. Because of the inherent nature of pressure-cast aluminum, the propensity for a cast aluminum reel to fracture or bend is higher when that reel is dropped or abnormal pressure is applied, that is just science people. The resulting reel is generally heavier than fully-machined aluminum reels and won’t have the same structural rigidity and strength that a machined reel will have. When it comes to casting with aluminum reels there are some benefits, as there are certain shapes that can be more easily achieved, see the deep V of Redington Behemoth. In general, a cast aluminum reel can stand up to most freshwater applications. Come by the shop and give them a shot.
In comparison to the materials mentioned above, machined aluminum is the most durable, lightweight, expensive material out right now. When it comes to the manufacturing process of these reels, customers can expect their reel to be machined out of a piece of solid bar stock aluminum. Machined aluminum reels are typically anodized which increases the durability of the reel while also aiding in corrosion resistance. As a result, purchasers of a machined aluminum reel can expect a lifetime of use and typically a lifetime warranty as well. When it comes to fly reels, machined aluminum is not only the premium material but, the preferred manufacturing method used for producing fly reels. on top of it all, machined aluminum reels excel in both fresh and saltwater situations.
In general, the size of the reel should match the size of the rod. Unfortunately, there are no standard sizes used by reel manufacturers to denote the size of their reels. However, some manufacturers will denote the intended reel/rod size in the name. For example, the Ross Evolution LTX ⅚ is intended to be paired with a 5 or 6 weight rod. While others, like Orvis, will note a reel size that has an associated rod weight recommendation. For example, the Orvis Mirage II is recommended for use on a 3 to 5 weight rod, while the Orvis Mirage V is recommended for use on a 9 to 11 weight rod. As a general rule, matching size to rod weight is appropriate. Why? Two things: weight/balance on your rod and how the drag is tuned, designed, and manufactured. For example, a 2 weight reel will not have the same ability to stop fish or protect tippet as a 6 weight reel and I'd venture to say that the 2 weight reel might not even fit the entire 6 weight fly line...let alone backing.
The arbor of a fly reel is the diameter of the spool where the backing is attached. Without getting too techy here, the larger the arbor the quicker the rate of retrieval of line and backing. Imagine the size comparison to a 2wt reel and a Saltwater reel. Arbor sizes are broken up into three groups: standard, mid-arbor, and large arbor. Most modern fly reels are either mid-arbor or large arbor reels. The standard arbor (which is the smallest size arbor) is rarely seen in modern fly reels. However, they are very prevalent in the click-and-pawl reels that are still produced today like the Ross Reels Colorado Fly Reel and click-and-pawl reels from Orvis. The standard arbor makes sense on smaller, lighter trout and small warmwater rigs where the reels serve more as a line holder than a high-end saltwater fly reel.
As noted, the large arbor reels have the highest rate of retrieval of line and backing. Large arbor reels also have the benefit of producing less line memory and more consistent drag performance as the effective reel diameter remains relatively constant while the line leaves the reel. Large arbor reels are perfect for chasing species that might go on a more extended run. This system allows the angler to recover quickly after a big run. Mid-Arbor reels have the benefit of increased backing capacity and are generally more lightweight than their large arbor cousins. If balancing your rod and reel is important to you, there are certainly benefits to using a mid-arbor reel.
The Drag Systems used in fly reels can be broken up into two categories: Click-and-pawl and Disc Drag.
Click and Pawl
Click-and-pawl is an old-school friction-based drag system that generates a bold click sound when a fish takes line. Click-and-pawl drag systems are by their very nature, simple in design. This allows for maintenance and repairs to be done very easily. Click-and-pawl drag systems can be adjustable, however, it never provides any real stopping power and is best supplemented by “palming the reel” with your hand to truly control the amount of stopping power applied. Reels like the Ross Colorado, and the Orvis Battenkill Reels all sport click-and-pawl drags. There are some (like Kirk Deeter), who view click-and-pawl reels as simply lienholders and noisemakers. However, there are a large number of click-and-pawl enthusiasts who enjoy the classic design, the additional challenge of self-applying drag ("palming"), and most importantly "that sound" click-and-pawl reels generate.
Most modern reels sport disc drag systems as they not only apply a more consistent (read: smooth) amount of pressure, but they also apply a significant amount of pressure. That makes disc drag systems applicable for both protecting light tippets when fishing for trout or for putting the brakes on a feisty gamefish (fresh or saltwater alike), as long as the disc drag is tuned for that specific application. This is all to say, a 4/5 weight fly reel like the Ross Reels Evolution LTX Fly Reel was made to stop fish of comparable size and is tuned to protect the lighter tippets that will be fished in most trout scenarios. In comparison, a Nautilus CCFX-2 10/12 is designed to apply more than 20 pounds of stopping power to the end of your fly line. It's designed to put a halt on a tarpon, permit or gt, not protect your 6x tippet on a two-pound trout hooked in the South Platte.
Over the years we have seen fully sealed disc drags gain popularity. This is mainly because the nature of the sealed drag eliminates the need for additional maintenance and, less maintenance on a fly reel is something everyone wants. In many cases, sealed drag systems often see a prolonged life and allow for a little more abuse from the angler - I've been known to use the term "tools not jewels" once or twice.
Manufacturing Country & Warranty
Companies like Nautilus, Abel Reels, and Ross Reels, all manufacture their entire reel lineups in the United States. On top of this, each of these companies offers limited lifetime warranties, so remember that many times you are buying into your entire experience, not just a fly reel. At Trouts, we put a preference on those products which are built in the United States and in some cases here in Colorado. From our experience, these products are made exceptionally well and the companies are proud to put their name on each and every one of the products that come out of their doors. The tolerances and quality of machining seen in USA-made reels and to a slightly lesser degree Korea are impressive, to say the least. There are greater inconsistencies in manufacturing quality in reels produced elsewhere.