HOW IMPORTANT IS
YOUR UL FLY REEL'S DRAG?

article and images by Bill Byrd.

Most of my fishing life, I've heard fly shop employees tell their customers that "fly reels just hold the line. It really isn't important what kind of drag they have, just so it won't let the line overrun the spool and bind up when you are stripping line off the reel." 20 to 30 years ago, maybe, but not with the modern drag systems we enjoy on fly reels today!

That certainly is one prevalent opinion, but my ultralight fly fishing experience catching big fish like this 7 pound largemouth (right) suggests otherwise.

I recently received an email from a fellow ultralight fly fisher who frequents this website. He related a recent experience: "When I bought my new 2 weight, I went with the recommendation of the fly shop, and bought a Ross Colorado. The Colorado is a spring and pawl reel and my first experience with a reel without a drag. The 4 pound bass is the first time I have had a fish on the reel since I started fishing the 2 weight. Do you have any thoughts about this reel?"

My reply to him: "It takes a good, smooth, reel with a silky smooth drag to handle big fish on UL tackle, even when there aren't rough grasses to cut you off. I'm glad you had the thrill of that big bass. People who experience that are surprised that a mid-sized bass would eat a fly that size, BUT THEY DO REGULARLY!"

I went on to say: "I disagree with the fly shop person on your reel selection, not about the manufacturer, but about the drag. Even my lightest reels have a silky smooth, readily adjustable drag system. You can't palm or match the smooth drag of a good reel with light tippets. Your reel's drag MUST be SMOOTH, readily adjustable, and let the line roll off effortlessly or it can overtax the tippet, and snap it off when a big fish surprises you. Most people in fly shops don't fish ultralight tackle, so they have no idea -- but they do have an opinion!

In the past 5 years, I've caught and released over a hundred bass 4 pounds to 9 pounds on ought weight to 2 weight systems with 4 pound tippet. I consider my reels to be VERY important in catching these fish. In addition to protecting light tippets, the way I play a fish, my reels help protect my rods, too!"

The image left shows several reels that I fish consistently. At first glance they all look about the same. Their size, weight, and drag systems are similar. ALL have disc, not "clicker" drags. Still there are VERY important differences in these reels.

The three reels pictured upper left to upper right all have easy to reach fully adjustable disc drag systems. They are all smooth and can be adjusted readily while playing a fish. The upper three reels are left to right, an Orvis 3/4 Battenkill disc, a Lamson LP-1, and a Lamson Litespeed LS-1. The reel pictured below center is a Bauer LM-1 "Little mac" which is also a reel with a wonderful drag system. One day on the water, I discovered a problem with the location of the Bauer reel's center spool drag adjustment.

I was checking out a new rod and had one of my Bauer LM-1s with 2-weight line fishing a weighted streamer when a fat bass attacked my fly. I raised the rod to get hookset, then the bass sounded QUICKLY! He had me in my backing in just seconds, and I wanted to dial up just a little more drag. With my spool spinning rapidly as the bass sounded, I couldn't get my fingers on the drag knob (shown below in center of spool) to adjust the drag! It almost cost me the 7 pound largemouth, because I was fighting him on 4 pound tippet!

This experience really made me wonder. I have seen other large arbor reels with this design, too. When I asked a local fly shop proprietor why the reel was designed in this manner, he off handedly said "you set the drag and don't re-adjust it. So how could it matter?"

Maybe I'm different, but I adjust my drag for varying conditions. I set my drag lighter at the end of a battle with a big fish to compensate for fraying tippet, or a hook that might have loosened up. That's why manufacturers make ADJUSTABLE DRAGS -- duh! For my money, I want to be able to adjust my reel's drag for changing conditions. I still fish my Bauer LM-1 and feel that it has a VERY good drag, but I am aware of the drag adjustment problem that can arise in the varying conditions of playing large fish on any fly tackle -- particularly on ultralight fly tackle. I suggest that you consider this information when buying fly reels.

In the image right, you see that the Orvis adjustment knob is on the OPPOSITE side of the reel, away from the spool winding knob. Even if the spool is spinning fast, the drag can be adjusted readily. When drag adjustments need to be made while playing large fish, the spool's spinning doesn't interfere with my ability to adjust my drag.

In the image below left my Lamson Litespeed large arbor reel also has a drag adjustment on the side opposite the active spool. The large star shaped knob is located centered on the back of the reel.

The Litespeed has a VERY large vernier styled drag adjustment, that adjusts very smoothly to just the right amount of drag in fine increments. It is one of my favorite drag systems on my ultralight reels.

Whether ultralighting for fat bluegills or small trout on a 3/0 weight to 1 weight, testy big gills, bass, or trout on a 2 weight, juvenile tarpon on a 3 weight, or brawling red drum on an 8 weight, I fish a reel with an easily adjustable drag system -- PERIOD! Now you know why.


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