Do I Need A Large-Arbor Fly-Fishing Reel?

A gloved angler holds a Helios 3 rod with a large-arbor Mirage LT reel.

When it comes to the essential gear for fly fishing, there’s your rod, your line, your leader, your fly, and, of course, your reel. While you may think of a fly reel as something that just holds your line, the truth is also helps you cast and land fish.

When you’re shopping for a new fly reel, here are few things to consider:

Line size

Like fly rods, fly reels are built to go with certain sized fly lines (and certain amounts of backing). The larger the size of your fly line and the larger the fish you’re after, the bigger your reel should be.


A drag system applies resistance to the fly line as the line is stripped from the spool. Depending of the fish you’re after—brook trout or bonito—you may need a reel with little drag or one with enough braking power to stop a freight train.

Click-and-pawl drag systems are found on older reels and on new, less expensive models. While click-and-pawl systems work, they offer fewer settings and have less stopping power. Click-and-pawls can be jerky, too, which is bad for light leaders.

Disc-drag systems are found on better-quality, higher-cost reels. Because off the smooth way they work, they’re ideal for powerful gamefish and/or ultra-fine, ultra-delicate leaders.

Arbor size

Up until about a decade ago, most fly reels looked like the one Charles F. Orvis patented on May 12, 1874. Ventilated and narrow, these old-school reels held backing and line close to their centers and near their spindles. Because of this, they forced you to rotate the reel many times to retrieve your line.

With a simple change, large arbor reels upgraded all this and revolutionized fly reels. This is why they’re the hottest thing in fly fishing since bead-head nymphs.

Large Is Now in Charge

Large arbor reels are wide and have oversized spools. These spools hold their line in a position that’s away from the center and the spindle. For everyone from trout fisherman to salt water or anglers, this offers several key benefits.

Benefit # 1: Less time reeling

The best reason to use a large arbor reel is the fact they allow you to spend less time reeling in your line. For example: Most old school, 5-weight trout reels had spools measuring 1 ½” in diameter. If you start cranking a reel like this when it's empty, you’re only retrieving 1.6 inches of line per each revolution.

By contrast, a modern, large arbor 5-weight reel with a spool 2 ½” or bigger retrieves 8 ½ inches of line per crank. That’s about 500% faster—and a huge advantage on the water.

As a fly angler, you’re constantly strip off long lengths of line for casting and then reeling it up again while playing a fish or moving to a new location. What used to be an aggravating chore is much quicker and easier with a large arbor reel.

Benefit # 2: More backing, thicker lines

With their wide, oversized spools, large arbor reels hold more backing. While trout and bass anglers don’t need huge amounts of backing, more is always a good idea. If you hook a fish of a lifetime and need extra backing, it will be there.

If you’re a saltwater fisherman or salmon/steelhead angler, lots of backing is essential. Any reel that takes more is a godsend. It will give you more confidence in being able to play and land these fast running fish.

Wider, bigger spools also allow for thicker fly lines. Some streamer-specific fly lines, some sinking fly lines, and all Spey lines are thick. To fit them on a reel, you’ll need the kind of oversized spools found on large arbor reels.

Benefit #3: Easier on your line

On a larger arbor reel, your fly line is coiled in large loops around the spool. This reduces tension on the line and helps prevent line memory. The larger loops also result in larger coils when the line is on the ground. This helps lessen tangles and knots.

Benefit #4: Improved drag

If you’ve ever loaded line onto an old-style, small arbor reel, you know how the diameter of the line grows and grows as you put more of it on. In reverse, this means your drag functions at a varying rate. On a large arbor reel, this isn’t as much of an issue because the diameter of your line (and the spool) is more constant. So, when a fish runs, drag is pulled at a more consistent rate. Also, it takes less revolutions of the spool to pull longer lengths of line off the reel.

Benefit #5: They look cool

A lot of new fly rods are almost high-tech and cool looking as an iPhone. Many large arbor reels are just as fun too look at. And the little eye candy they offer makes them nice to look at when the fishing is slow (or you’re showing off your gear to your friends).

Upgrade Your Fishing Experience

The more you think about it, the more you realize how much of your fishing time is spent pulling line on and off your reel. If you’re looking to change reels, large-arbor models will instantly fix this problem and upgrade your experience on the water.

To find one that works for you, your best bet is to go see several options in person. Test the drag, talk to a sales associate about the internal parts, take the spool off, and get a feel for the weight of the reel. If possible, bring along rod you intend to use. Try it out with the reel, feel the balance, and see if it matches and feels comfortable to you.

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