Considering the rod, line, and reel, the reel is the least important part of your fly fishing outfit. Right? A good rod provides power to punch out a well-executed cast facilitated by a smooth, supple, matched line. All the reel does is hold the line. Not so fast! While you may not need some elements of the reel to be the highest quality based on the size of fish you typically pursue, the reel must handle that notable instance when luck blesses limited skill and a behemoth grabs your fly. While the prospect of a monster is remote on streams where stocking programs plant fish with the expectation of 100% harvest before the inevitable fish kill as the water warms, beasts can be present in any stream cold enough to support year-round survival.
Hence, the most common questions we need to address are:
- What fly reel should I buy?
- Are fly reels reversible – important for lefties!
- What size fly reel of trout?
- Does fly reel size matter?
- What makes a good fly reel?
All things considered, the reel included in any decent combo package is good enough for stocked trout. If you expect to catch anything bigger than the typical one-pound stocker, evaluate your reel against the points below before spending money. There are three basic choices - the standard single retrieve, a multiplier, or an automatic retrieve. Unless you have a unique situation, the single retrieve reel will do just fine. This type of reel has a 1:1 ratio where a single turn of the handle brings in a length of line equal to the circumference of the spool. When evaluating a reel, consider size (capacity, weight (w5), quality (materials, construction, finish), and performance (arbor, drag, retrieval system, noise, left or right-hand retrieve).
Size is the most critical criterion since it dictates line capacity and weight. The reel must balance with the rod, and manufacturers make this easier by designing against specific line weights plus backing. Therefore, a reel rated as 3/4 wt will hold either a three wt or four wt line with backing. Look above the handle on the fly rod to see the target line weight. The reel should be able to accommodate going up or down a line weight, providing flexibility to handle different streamside situations. Since fly line weight is standard and the backing is very light, the actual weight of the reel itself becomes essential to balance the rod and minimize fatigue. An ounce difference is noticeable at the end of an all-day fishing expedition. For example, the inexpensive ($50) die-cast/machined aluminum White River Dogwood Canyon 3/4 wt fly fishing reel weighs 5.3 ounces. By comparison, spending $54 gets a fully machined 4.2-ounce Aoka fly fishing reel from Piscifun. Attach the reel (with line) and observe the balance point to check whether the reel is the correct weight. Ideally, it is at the end of the handle. If the reel is too heavy and you are concerned about fatigue, you must upgrade - the quality drives weight.
Quality is the sum of materials, construction, and finish. Manufacturers machine good fly reels from a single aluminum block with a hard, anodized, corrosion-resistant finish. The intricate designs are lovely to look at and reduce weight by removing material. The more "spidery" the design, the higher the cost since the reel will spend more time in the cutting machine and reduce the overall throughput of the assembly line. You want a design that is both light and durable but not delicate. It must be tough enough to bang against rocks in the rough terrain around mountain streams and will resist the inevitable drops from slips and falls. Avoid less expensive reels made from cast aluminum or composite materials if possible. These are a step down from machined aluminum, are heavier, and may not include robust components or offer comparable performance characteristics.
Regardless of construction, make sure the spool fits tightly on the frame. Any gap between the two could snag or nick your fly line. A good reel has stainless steel gearing to fight corrosion and should include a one-way roller bearing to keep the line from backing up.
Performance is the final attribute. The standard single retrieve fly reel has a 1:1 ratio. If your primary target is mostly brook trout on mountain streams or stocked fish, the ratio doesn't matter. You will never get those fish "on the reel" with the need to crank the handle and use the mechanical advantage of a higher ratio to work the fish. Instead, you slowly retrieve the line hand over hand, allowing the rod tip to absorb the shock of pulls and runs. If you expect to encounter larger fish whose lunges rip out line and get onto the backing, a large arbor reel holds more backing to provide working length as you deal with a once-in-a-lifetime catch.
Most reels have a disk drag. It can be made from Teflon, glass composite, cork, or a variety of proprietary materials and operates by compressing the components together in the same way a disc brake slows a vehicle. Regardless of the material used in construction, a good drag will not bind. To test for binding, set the drag and pull against the line. It should pull smoothly away from the reel. If the line slips or jerks, the drag is defective. Any slip sends a shock down the line that could cause a light tippet to break. Take the spool off and look at the drag mechanism. The drag will be sealed on higher-quality reels, protecting it from sand.
As you spin the reel, listen for noise. Some reels make a reassuring click while others operate in stealth mode, utterly silent. Neither is better than the other; it's a personal preference. If you fall on the side of silence, the click will drive you crazy – so avoid those. Finally, if you like to crank with your left hand, confirm the reel allows either a right or left-hand retrieve. Good reels feature a quick, no-tools reversible bearing to account for southpaws.
After picking the right reel for your rod and line, look for a spare spool. Eventually, you will want to go up or down a line weight, and having an extra spool with a different weight line already loaded makes changing a trivial operation. Since manufacturers evolve designs to give us something else to buy, pick up a spare spool while they are available for your model.
So, what about the price? You do not need to spend hundreds of dollars on a nice reel, especially when starting. Sticking with Cabela's/Bass Pro and Piscifun as the points of comparison, Cabela's RLS II series fly reels are all machined 6061 aluminum with the 3/4 wt being 5.0 ounces running $100. The Piscifun Sword fly fishing reel, precision CNC machined 6061 aluminum, is only $65 and much lighter at 4.1 ounces. The bottom line is it does not have to cost a fortune to get a good solid reel that will last for years, maybe a lifetime, if you pay attention to quality. As your needs change and your commitment to fly fishing grows, you can investigate the additional features of the higher-priced reels, but for now, stick with any of the sound, reliable models available at the low end.