Which Hand is the “Right” Hand for Reeling?


Written by: Phil Monahan

This redfish didn’t seem to care which hand I was reeling with.
Photo by Irene Kato

One would think that, after 25 years of fly fishing, I would be immune to ridicule for reeling with the “wrong” hand. But there I was just last month, on a boat off the coast off Lido Key, with a seasoned fly-fishing guide goofing on me. One of my fellow anglers even tried to explain to me why I was “doing it wrong.”

As a lifelong right-handed caster and retriever, I have been subjected to this kind of ludicrous lecturing on a fairly regular basis. And I’m sure that many of my fellow right-reelers have endured the same fate. So I’m gonna lay it down nice and slow right here: You should reel with whichever hand feels the most comfortable to you. You are not compromising any part of the fishing experience by using one hand or the other. 

I have heard a million times that I shouldn’t reel right because (gasp!) I have to change hands on the rod every time I need to reel in. This is ridiculous for at least three reasons. First, how often during the course of a day of trout fishing do you actually get a trout on the reel? (Okay, in saltwater this one doesn’t apply.) Second, if you’ve ever watched a Saturday-morning bass-fishing show, you may have noticed that most baitcasting anglers switch hands after every single cast, and it doesn’t seem to bother them. And third, the millisecond it takes to shift the rod from the right to the left hand isn’t going to cause you to lose any fish. Oh yeah, and here’s a fourth reason: Shut up and mind your own business, Mr. Fly-Fishing Rules Man.

Another reason I’m not supposed to reel with my right hand is that I should use my stronger arm to fight the fish. However, no less a luminary than Lefty Kreh has argued that you should reel with whichever hand you can reel fastest with. Not to mention that tiring out your casting arm by fighting multiple big fish would surely lead to feeble casting by the end of the day.

All that aside, most fly reels come set up for left-hand retrieve, but changing them to right-hand retrieve is usually a snap. If you have the manual for the reel, the directions are in there. If you don’t have the manual, go to the manufacturer’s Web site to see if you can download a new manual. If you still can’t figure it out, take the reel in to your nearest fly shop, where they’ll surely do it for free. (Don’t forget to buy something you need as part of the bargain.) Then go fishing, and don’t listen to the “leftists” who comment on your new, more comfortable setup.

How many of you reel with the same hand you cast with?

33 thoughts on “Which Hand is the “Right” Hand for Reeling?

  1. Bruce Pierce

    The information offered here is exactly the opposite from my experience. Most reels that I have purchased have come set up for right hand retrieve. All guides I have worked with ( who felt it necessary to comment) were unhappy with my reeling left handed. Generally, they explained that I could reel faster with my right (dominant) hand. My left hand and arm lack strength compared to my right. It is much easier for me to manage powerful fish like Tarpon with my stronger arm. My left hand has been dexterous enough to reel with enough speed to catch plenty of Tarpon and bones plus a couple of Permit. I believe one should use the method which works best for him or her. When it comes to trout, I don’t think it matters a bit.

    Reply
  2. Adam U

    When I first started I casted and reeled with my right hand but since then I’ve switched to the cast right reel left crowd and can say that while its a little awkward at first once you’re used to it its by far the more comfortable and less clumsy way of doing things. I can’t see why anyone would want to switch hands but if it feels better to you I say go for it because especially for trout its really not that big of a deal.

    Reply
  3. Jay

    Cast with my right, reel with my left.

    I would agree with Bruce above who says this article is the opposite of what of he’s experienced or heard. I thought a majority of fly fishers (including guides and other professionals) ascribed to the Lefty Kreh philosophy. It’s just always made more sense to me to just play the fish with the same hand I cast with… less fumbling and no need for special coordination. I often fly fish for bass on the surface, and strikes can be very quick and explosive. I don’t always have time to switch hands until after the fish is on the line… and then it just seems clumsy trying to maintain tension on the line which may or may not (most likely not) be tight to the reel. I’m almost always using my rod hand to maintain line tension as well- a finger or two holding the line tight to the grip on the rod while I reel up slack with my “free” hand. That pretty well sums up why I reel with the left. When I use a baitcaster, I reel with the right because that’s what I grew up doing, and line tension is never (or at least not supposed to be) maintained with your hand as it is in fly fishing… it’s a totally different approach in that regard.

    Reply
    1. Tj

      Great example as i also like to take bass on the surface and you need a quicker set and line in your hand from the get go… Weird that you switch it up on the spin rod though, interesting.

      Reply
  4. ron

    cast right ,reel left. Cause that’s how the rod I was given to learn on was set up. never knew anything else. and at this stage of the game im sticking with what I know. im sure the many king salmon ive landed over the years couldn’t tell the difference

    Reply
  5. John Leslie

    I cast right and retrieve left. It was comfortable for me but not the norm here in the Maritimes and more specifically the Miramichi.

    Reply
  6. James

    It’s a bit like “Omaha” “Omaha” it could be the Right or sometimes the left, and sometimes you just skip the reel and strip it in. The goal is to land the fish……

    Reply
  7. BugBoss

    Surprising that I was just thinking of this issue while cleaning/light-lubricating many old Hardy and Orvis reels.
    As a young-en, all the old trout bums in Pennsyltucky that tolerated my presence switched hands and reeled right-handed. Four decades later that process is second nature to me; likely the same for many others of my generation.

    Reply
  8. Doug T

    I am a cast right reel left guy,

    I noticed during a competition a friend (and competitor) of mine had his nymphing rod set up with a right reel. He casts with his right. When he had a fish on I noticed him switch hands mid fight to pick the fish up on the reel, then switch back to fight him with his right hand. I believe this is an inefficient way to fight a fish.

    I admit when my dad set my reel “backwards” (went from right to left) originally I thought why would I reel with my left? Like anything after a little bit I got used to reeling with my left, and now reeling with the right feels weird. Just like anything if you practice you will get used to it. Also I find its more comfortable to fight a fish with my right hand, and believe it to be far better to be comfortable fighting a fish then comfortable reeling.

    Oh I also love to get fish on the reel, unless its a small arbour with a large fish in a lake.

    Reply
  9. kp

    Right-Left
    When you’re a little creek-hopper, you barely use the reel. I heard right-right a lot in Andros, and yeah, it probably could have helped with endurance during casting, but I just learned this way in the rockies.

    Reply
  10. Steve C.

    I have been fly-fishing for 77 years cast right and reel right and have fought many fish and have never experienced any problem with left arm weakness on large fish as I use the method of turning my body not just using my arm muscles.

    Reply
  11. Mike Kirkpatrick

    As a guide in New Zealand i see both ‘styles’ but have noticed over the years a definite trend towards problems very early in the battle when switching from the casting hand to quickly retrieve with the smae hand. The problems invariably arrise when the fish rushes towards the angler on the transition and a loop gets caught over the reel or hand – as soon as the fish changes direction a jam up and bust off occurs. Happens a lot more than you’d think here… Oh and for the record, i cast right and wind left with the rationale being i want the same hand on the cork i cast with to keep it all cleaner and my power hand (rt) putting the heat on early in the battle away from snags etc. The winding hand is a co-ordination thing and easily learned.

    Reply
  12. tim f

    New to fly fishing, however I cast and reel right. I have always reeled right beginning with the first spincast snoopy rod to spinning reels to baitcasters and now fly reels. reeling left feels terribly unnatural and awkward.

    Reply
  13. LOUIS KILL

    THE DISCUSSION IS IDIOTIC, JUST SAYING, I REMEMBER WHEN IT STARTED YEARS GO IN THE KEYS SUDDENLY IT WAS COOL TO BUST FOLKS GRAPE FRUITS IF THEY REELED LEFT … YES THE GUY REELIING LEFT WAS PROBALLY A FRESH WATER ANGLER AND A NEOPHYTE…AND THAT ADDED FUEL TO THE FIRE … I REEL LEFT HANDED… I AM RIGHT HANDED NORMALLY … IN A ANOTHER SPORT (HOCKEY) I SHOT LEFT HANDED FOR 40 YEARS.. BUT LIKE I SAID I AM RIGHT HANDED NORMALLY AND I REELED BILLIONS REVOLUTIONS WITH MY LEFT….

    A GOOD WAY TO GET A GUIDED OFF YOUR BACK IS SAY YOUR LEFT HANDED IN THE FIRST PLACE

    YES THE GUIDES IN THE KEYS ARE SOME OF THE BEST IN THE WORLD .. FOR SOME REASON THEY PICK ON LEFT HAND REELERS AS NEOPHYTES …. AND I DONT UNDERSTAND IT. I GUESS IT JUST A TRENDY THING MOST NEW GUYS CAN REEL BETTER . WITH THE RIGHT CAUSE THEY ARE RIGHT HANDED SO THERE IS SOME MERIT IN THE DISCUSSION I HAVE MY OWN FLATS BOAT AND I AM A GUIDE BUT MY PERSONAL REELS ARE LEFT HAND REEL ……….LOUIE

    Reply
  14. Steve

    Thank you for writing this! Someone needed to do it. Yes. I have heard the argument as well. I started rigging right hand retrieve to try out Lefty’s advice, and then I preferred it because It felt much more natural and faster to a) get the fish on the reel fast and b) I found I can actually “fight the fish” just as well with the rod in my left hand as the right. I don’t even think about switching the rod from my right and to left; it just happens. I am not dead set on this set up and some of my reels are rigged left; Maybe I just enjoy rebelling against the mainstream convention a little bit.

    Reply
  15. TFm_Florida

    Thanks Phil for speaking up. With you covering my back I feel it’s time to finally come out of the closet – power to “strong hand casters & reelers”…! ;-)

    Reply
  16. Tj

    The way that is “correct” for a right handed angler is to cast right handed and real left handed. This is how i was taught growing up around many guides on the San Juan river, and guiding there myself. This being said my point has been made as to whats right, i’ll go a step further and say there is nothing finite about fly fishing, the number of styles/techniques are infinite so do what feels right. I have been known to break a rule or two with great results myself.

    Reply
  17. Patrick T

    I have been fly fishing for 32 years now and have always cast right reeled right without issue. I have fished and landed many species of fish both large and small. In my years fishing I have found one thing to be true….. if you are enjoying the process and still landing fish then your fishing experience is a success. It doesn’t matter which hand you reel with as long as you are enjoying your time on the water. If someone cannot respect that you reel a certain way then it might be time to find someone else to fish with.
    Tight lines everyone!

    Reply
  18. Pete S.

    Interesting. Haven’t given it much thought. Most of my fly reels came as left hand retrieve, so that’s the way I use ‘em. However, i have an old Ocean City reel that can only be used as right hand retrieve, and I use it from time to time, too. To further complicate things, my bait caster is a right hand retrieve and the spin caster is a left hand retrieve.

    Reminds me of something my grandpa says: “I’d give my right arm to be ambidextrous.”

    Reply
  19. Tightline

    Now seems like a good time to make the issue even more confusing. I think I’m more comfortable casting with my right, and retrieving with my left while fly fishing because I learned to spin fish that way first which is almost always cast right, retrieve left. That said, when I’m using a bait caster I cast with my right, switch hands and reel with my right, fighting the fish with my weaker left arm. Also, when using large conventional saltwater tackle, I absolutely have to reel with my right hand and hold the rod in my left. I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen a reel like a Penn International 50# set up for left hand retrieve. Bizarre, yes, but I know quite a few other anglers that do the same.

    Reply
  20. opie

    What about switch hitting? Being ambidextrous on the rod could only improve ones fishing IMO. A goal of mine that i have yet to start working on….soon

    Reply
  21. Peter Nilsen

    A lot of this nonsenses come from younger fishermen that were brought up using spinning rods. I started with bait casting rods where almost all reels were right-handed. When i did use spinning reels in the 70′s and 80′s, I felt awkward at first but got the hang of it after a while. The winding of a spinning reel is done in larger circles, and I adjusted. But, when i graduated to fly reels, I naturally felt when winding in small circles, like the bait casting reels, it was easier to use the dominate hand. I could reel faster because of using the old bait casting reels. Switching hands with the rod, no problem!

    Reply
  22. Capkirk

    I cast right and reel left as a general rule. Two years ago I tore my right rotator cuff and bicep tendon in March. My annual week long wilderness fishing trip was in September, I told my physical terrorist I had to be able to cast by August. He assured me I would be fine. September came and after making camp and fishing for two full days my right arm was destroyed, with three days remaining I casted left and reeled left and had a blast. Who would have known you can do what you need to do on the river. I am told I’m 96% healed and things are much better, but it is good to know what you are capable of doing. Still casting right and reeling left.

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  23. Bob

    Cast with my right , reel with my right. If a guide ever goofed on me for reeling with the wrong hand I’d tell him or her ” see how wrong your tip is going to be”

    Reply
  24. JMC

    I had a fish jump off the hook and then started chastising me for being a cast right, reel right. He said I was doing it wrong and refused to be caught by me. I think he went back and told all of his fish friends. I have not caught a fish since.

    Reply
  25. Bill Callan

    I spin fished right right for thirty years before I took up fly fishing and briefly tried right left but 30 years of habit is hard to break. When I spin fished I would make the switch before the lure or worm hit the water. Can’t do it as fast with a fly rod because you can’t switch until the fly has landed but I don’t think I have ever missed a fish because of the switch.

    Reply
  26. Ryan Ratliff

    I’m left handed…I don’t switch hands fly fishing or conventional. I just say I am a right hand crank purest…as this is the traditional way to crank. I understand the reeling in faster with your dominate hand, but if that is what you are used to, than who cares! If we are going to argue about something I know there are more important things out there…and if everyone just right hand reeled it would be easier for me to borrow your rods or give them a cast or two on the stream!!!

    Reply
  27. Mike A

    I am right handed and cast right and reel right. I learned it that way and am not going to change it. I would rather take the time to improve my casting skills and learn not to scare fish before I have a chance to catch them. I am still working on that.

    Reply
  28. Gene

    I cast right, reel left. It is more natural for me to do it this way because switching hands takes time, creates slack in the line, and may create a situation where I am not in control of the line. That said, I doubt that long-time anglers doing it “Their” way have not adapted to whatever method they chose long ago and work well with it. I’m about to embark on teaching my left-handed grandson to spey cast and I’ve set up his reel for right hand retrieve.

    Reply
  29. Mike Conner

    Hey Phil. I have written about this over the years, too. And while guiding, have witnessed more than a few fly fishers “wither” a bit while reeling with their non-dominant hand on tarpon, and fail to keep a bent rod when big bonefish or others “doubled back” on them during the fight. Even with large arbor reels that pick up line quickly. As you said, it is personal choice, a comfort thing. For the record, I cast left, reel left, always. The switch-over concern is a non-factor IMHO. As for a speed test (not stamina) Pull all of the fly line and perhaps 30 yards of backing off of two fly outfits, one left hand reel and one right, at a park or a big backyard and get out a stopwatch. Have someone time you as you reel up as fast as possible. Here is betting that your dominant hand wins nearly every time.

    Reply

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