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Fly Reel Review

At Fly Reel Review we review lots of different fly reels. I personally own a lot of fly reels and have fished many of them for a couple of decades.

We also have input from other fly fishermen like you. First let's cover some basics.

Choosing a fly fishing reel can be difficult because there are so many choices, but fly reels are actually very simple devices. Fly reels are MUCH simpler than spinning or baitcasting reels for example.

Simpler? But fly fishing is so complicated, isn’t it? Maybe, but reels are the simplest part, and there are decent choices for every budget, whether it’s $30 or many hundreds of dollars.

Let's start at the beginning, the real basics. Skip ahead a few paragraphs if this is old hat to you.

A fly reel serves at most two purposes.

1) A fly reel holds the fly line and backing.

For many freshwater fly reels, that's all!

The fly line is the thick plastic like line that you cast. Fly lines are actually made of super secret space age materials so that manufacturers can charge lots of money for them (although they used to be made of horse hair). Even the cheaper ones are great these days.

The fly line is about 100 feet long, and if you hook a big strong fish you might need more line. The fish might run further than 100 feet (see #2 below).

The fly line is connected to backing, which is extra line – it’s a thinner ordinary line. I typically use Dacron line specifically sold for the purpose and called “backing.” A reel can hold anywhere from about 50 yards to several hundreds yards of backing, depending on the reel size.

2) Fly reels, at least most for saltwater use and many used in freshwater too, also have a breaking device called a "drag."

When a fish pulls hard enough to possibly break the line, it instead pulls out line under pressure, hopefully tiring the fish enough so you can eventually land it. That’s all a drag is. It’s usually adjustable, often via a large nut like thing on the side of the reel you manually mess with.

With an ordinary spin or baitcasting reel, you cast the line off the reel. Not with a fly reel.

Instead, you “strip” the line off the reel before casting. To strip, a verb, simply means to manually pull the line. So you pull the line off the reel, maybe 40 or 50 feet or even more if you’re a good caster, before casting.

When you retrieve the line, to make the fly look lifelike and hopefully trigger a fish to pounce on it, you manually pull it or "strip" it in.

When line is being pulled off the fly reel, for example by a big fish you’ve hooked, the reel spool and attached handle rotate. Quickly get your hands out of the way if you’ve hooked a big fish or you may bruise your fingers or knuckles!

Some fly reels don't have a drag but you can simply press on the edge of the reel spool as it spins. This is called "palming" the reel as you usually use your palm to do this. I often use my belly, but it’s still called “palming.” Go figure.

There are also "anti reverse" reels where the reel doesn’t rotate when line is pulled out, but they're mechanically much more complex and not as common. Simple is good, especially in a harsh marine environment.

Another difference is the hand you use to retrieve. With a spinning or baitcasting reel, you retrieve with your weakest hand and use your strongest hand to hold the rod.

For example I’m right handed so I hold a spinning rod with my right hand and retrieve with my left hand. Most fly fishermen reverse this. A right handed fly fisherman, like me, retrieves with their right hand and a left handed fly fisherman retrieves with their left hand.

Why? Well, most fly reels don't have gears, so retrieving line while fighting a good fish requires strength and endurance. Your dominant hand has the most strength and endurance. Fly reels come in either right hand or left hand retrieve, and many modern fly reels are convertible.

A relatively recent development in fly reels, say ten year ago or so, is "large arbor" fly reels. The arbor is the diameter of the fly reel spool, and with a large arbor more line is retrieved with each revolution. This is not very important for many fish, but for fish that run long and fast like tuna and marlin, is wonderful. Less reeling, less of your hand cramping during long fights, and you can retrieve faster too. For most freshwater fish and many saltwater species too, this just doesn't matter.

So what's the difference between a decent $30 fly reel and a $500 fly reel?

Expensive fly reels tend to be lighter, which can matter when you're casting endlessly, and they have smoother drags. Really that's about it, other than maybe aesthetics.

A good inexpensive fly reel, with maybe an extra spool for quick line changes or perhaps two inexpensive fly reels instead, are all you need to start, and maybe all you'll ever need for most fish like trout, large and small mouth bass, pan fish, striped bass, bonefish, bluefish, weakfish, etc.

Now if you want to set the world record for Marlin on the fly, you’ll need a bigger budget, both for salt water fly reels and other gear, probably plenty of travel, and lots of charters!

Check out our fly reel reviews, and feel free to send us feedback!