How Do I Choose a Fly Reel?

Picking a fly-fishing reel is a straightforward, simple process. To start, there are just three considerations for you to make: Target species, price, and the type of water you’re going to fish, salt or fresh.

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 is also a consideration.

Target Species: Trout & Freshwater Bass

  • These reels are the most varied on the market. Because these fish are smaller, powerful drag settings aren’t crucial.
  • Many people still love the old style “click and pawl”. With this style reel, 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 choice. 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.

Target Species: Saltwater Fish

  • Here you’ll need a strong drag and a large reel. Salt water 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.
  • Larger handles are nice on salt water reels. You’ll be spending more time reeling in than when freshwater fishing.
  • Tip: Wash your saltwater reels after every use to help keep parts moving. Salt water is tough on metal and will require you to use more care and maintenance than you would on a reel used in freshwater.

Pick a Price Range

Like with most things in life, you get what you pay for with fly reels. 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 its lifetime will be much shorter than 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 just fish every now and then and don’t plan on spending every waking hour on the water, stay on the lower end of the price spectrum. You simply won’t be beating the reel down through use like a fisherman who fishes every day.

There’s nothing worse than having to deal with less than perfect equipment while 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. If something goes for wrong with them, getting the problem fixed is easy.

Saltwater vs. Freshwater

When buying a saltwater reel, look for one with a sealed drag system (most freshwater reels don’t have them). This helps keep water 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 freshwater. 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 that you’re going to love looking at. You may prefer classic, old-school reels to match a bamboo rod or ones with updated, heavily ported, futuristic looking spools. Reels come in many colors and styles, so match it to your rod.

And don’t go cheap. It may cause you to spend 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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