How Do I Choose A Fly Reel?

A close-up of the three fly-fishing reels on rods lined up along a fence.

Choosing the right fly-fishing reel depends upon three main variables: target species, price, and whether you're fishing fresh or saltwater.

With all the reels on the market, looks may also be a consideration. After all, you’ll be spending hours with this reel attached to your rod. Picking one that looks good and matches your style or coordinates with other gear makes the purchase even more rewarding.

1. Decide On Your Target Species

Your target species will determine which line weight(s) are ideal for the rod and accompanying reel. Most reels are designed to handle a range of line weights and the right amount of backing, and balance properly on a coordinating rod. For instance, an Orvis Hydros reel in size II is designed to hold 3- to 5 WT lines, and balance on a 3- to 5 WT rod. But a size V reel is designed for 9- to 11 WT lines and rods and is much bigger than the II, meaning it’s heavier and won’t balance well with, say, a 3- to 5 WT rod. Let the target species lead you to the right line and rod weight, which in turn will give you the ideal reel size.

Trout & Freshwater Bass

  • These reels are the most varied on the market. Because the fish are smaller, powerful drag settings aren’t crucial.
  • Many anglers still love the old-style “click and pawl” reel, where you rely on the reel’s clicker system to slow down the spool’s speed (and the fish). In addition, you can place your free hand on the rim of the reel to use it as drag control.
  • The most important aspect of picking a trout and bass fly reel is to match the size of the spool to the size of the rod. Your rod will be a designated weight (WT). Fly reels come in designated WTs, too. Matching a 5WT rod with a 4/5 WT reel or a 5/6WT reel is a good strategy. Go with a size larger if you’re fishing streamers and have a streamer-specific line or you will be adding longer sink tips. This makes it easier to gather up line as you reel in.

Saltwater Fish

  • Here you’ll need a strong drag and a large reel. Saltwater fish often pull much harder than most freshwater fish. Follow the same idea and match the reel size to the rod WT, but think about over sizing it a bit. This allows for more backing, which you may need when a powerful fish takes off on a long run.
  • One of the most important variables in choosing a saltwater reel is a sealed drag, which helps protect the reel from the saltwater’s corrosive effects. Saltwater is tough on metal and will require you to use more care and maintenance than you would on a freshwater reel. Tip: Wash your saltwater reels after every use to help keep the parts moving.
  • Larger handles are nice on saltwater reels. You’ll be spending more time reeling in than when you’re freshwater fishing.

2. Pick A Price Range

You get what you pay for in a fly reel, as you do in most things. Most cheap reels are just cheap. For trout and bass fishing, you can get away with a reel that’s less expensive. But rest assured, it won’t last as long as a well-built, more expensive model.

In saltwater fishing, cheap reels might not make it through a full season. Corrosion from salt water and sand will kill them, quickly.

  • If you plan to spend a lot of time on the water, do yourself a favor: Spend the money on a higher-end reel. You’ll thank yourself when you don’t have to deal with internal parts that aren’t working correctly or drag knobs that no longer turn.
  • If you fish just every now and then, stay on the lower end of the price spectrum—you won’t be beating the reel down through use like an angler who fishes every day.

There are few things worse than dealing with less-than-perfect equipment on the water. Spending a bit more on a reel ($100–$200) will relieve you of the frustration of faulty parts and subpar performance. These reels also come with better warranties, so if something goes wrong with them, getting the problem fixed is easy.

3. Saltwater Vs. Freshwater Reels

As mentioned above, when buying a saltwater reel, look for one with a sealed drag system (most freshwater reels don’t have them). This helps keep saltwater from getting into the guts of the reel and turning the parts into rusted, unusable pieces.

While you can get away with a standard drag system on a saltwater reel, you need to be relentless in how you maintain it. This means pulling the line off after every use, washing the line and the spool, taking the spool off the reel seat, and spraying the reel with fresh water. Periodically, you’ll need to pull the drag system apart, wash the interior of the reel, and grease all the moving parts.

Final Casts

Pick a reel you’re going to love using and looking at. You may prefer classic, old-school reels to match a slow-action bamboo rod, or reels with updated, heavily ported, futuristic-looking spools. Reels come in many colors and styles, so match yours to your rod.

And don’t go cheap. If you do, you’ll wind up spending more money over time, replacing cheap reel after cheap reel, rather than spending a bit more on one that lasts a lifetime.

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