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Trouts Journal

A Guide To Buying Your Next Fly Reel

Ivan Orsic / Mar 28, 2018

What makes a good fly reel? From my perspective, a good fly reel doesn't fail, wobble, fall apart, or seize. It simply gets the job done and looks good while doing it. In the world of fly reels, there are countless designs and design choices to choose from. Finish, material, manufacturing processes, sound, look, durability, drag, size, backing capacity...there are a lot of things to take into consideration when purchasing your next fly reel. The season is starting up and it's a great time to upgrade your old gear for your upcoming season. With that in mind, we’ve done our best to separate and simply explain each of these factors to help the process of purchasing your next fly reel a painless one.

Construction AKA Material and Manufacturing

Perhaps the most important and most cost impacting feature to take into consideration when purchasing your next fly reel. The more energy and time, as well as increasing quality of material required to manufacture a fly reel, the higher quality and higher priced a fly reel will be.

Molded Plastic (<$)

Molded plastic reels are the least expensive and least durable reels on the market. The potential for breaking a molded plastic reel is high when dropped. Generally, these reels are paired with neither powerful nor impressively fine-tuned drag systems and are intended for introductory purposes. Plastic reels are perfect for your first set up and can stand up to simple fly fishing demands like storing line, retrieving and letting out line.

Cast Aluminum ($)

A cast aluminum reel is manufactured when molten aluminum is poured into a mold. Because of the inherent nature of pressure cast aluminum, the propensity for a cast aluminum reel to fracture or bend is higher when that reel is dropped or abnormal pressure is applied. The resulting reel is generally heavier than fully-machined aluminum reels and won’t have the same structural rigidity and strength that a machined reel will have. Casting does have benefits as there are certain shapes that can be more easily achieved, see the deep V of Redington Behemoth. In general, a cast aluminum reel can stand up to most freshwater applications.

Example of Cast Aluminum Construction: Redington ID reel

Machined Aluminum ($$-$$$)

The most durable, lightweight and expensive material and manufacturing process used when producing fly reels is machining solid bar stock aluminum. Machined aluminum reels are anodized which increases the reels durability, corrosion resistance, and as a result, lifetime. This is the premium material and manufacturing method used for producing fly reels and excels in both fresh and saltwater.

Abel is well known for their amazing machining. Displayed is a sneak peak at the new Abel TR.


In general, the size of the reel should match the size of the rod. There are no standard sizes used by reel manufacturer to denote the size of their reels. Some manufacturers will denote the intended reel/rod size in the name. For example, the Ross Evolution LTX ⅚ is intended to be paired with a 5 or 6 weight rod. While others, like Orvis, will note a reel size which has an associated rod weight recommendation. For example, the Orvis Mirage II is recommended for use on a 3 to 5 weight rod, while the Orvis Mirage V is recommended for use on a 9 to 11 weight rod. As a general rule, matching size to rod weight is appropriate. Why? Two things: weight/balance on your rod and how the drag is tuned, designed and manufactured. A 2 weight reel will not have the same ability to stop fish or protect tippet as a 6 weight reel and I'd venture to say that the 2 weight reel might not even fit the entire 6 weight fly line...let alone backing.

Arbor Size

The arbor of a fly reel is the diameter of the spool where the backing is attached. The larger the arbor the quicker the rate of retrieval of line and backing. Arbor sizes are broken up into three groups: standard, mid-arbor, and large arbor. Most modern fly reels are either mid-arbor or large arbor reels. The standard arbor (which is the smallest size arbor) is rarely seen in modern fly reels. However, they are very prevalent in the click and pawl reels that are still produced today like the Orvis Battenkill and click-and-pawl reels from Decade Reels. This isn't to say that click-and-pawl reels are limited to standard arbors, as the Colorado LT features a large arbor. The standard arbor makes sense on smaller, lighter trout and small warmwater rigs where the reels serve more as a line holder than a high-end fish stopping machine.

A Decade Reel and it's standard arbor.

As noted, the large arbor reels have the highest rate of retrieval of line and backing. Large arbor reels also have the benefit of producing less line memory and more consistent drag performance as the effective reel diameter remains relatively constant while line leaves the reel. Large arbor reels are perfect for chasing species that might go on a more extended run. They allow the angler to recover quickly after a big run.

The Sage Spectrum LT and Redington Rise III Fly Reels both feature a large arbor design.

Mid-Arbor reels have the benefit of increased backing capacity and are generally more lightweight than their large arbor cousins. If balancing your rod and reel is important to you, there are certainly benefits to using a mid-arbor reel.

In a family of large arbor reels, the Nautilus XL MAX sports a mid-arbor design for increased backing capacity. It's the only Nautilus X Series reel with a mid-arbor design.

Drag System

The Drag Systems used in fly reels can be broken up into two categories: Click-and-pawl and Disc Drag.

Click and Pawl ($-$$)

Click-and-pawl is an old school friction based drag system that generates a bold click sound when a fish takes line. Click-and-pawl drag systems are by their very nature, simple in design. This allows for maintenance and repairs to be done very easily. Click-and-pawl drag systems can be adjustable, however, it never provides any real stopping power and is best supplemented by “palming the reel” with your hand to truly control the amount of stopping power applied. Reels like the Orvis Battenkill, Decade, and the Ross Colorado LT Fly Reel all sport click-and-pawl drags. There are some (like Kirk Deeter), who view click-and-pawl reels as simply lineholders and noisemakers. However, there are a large number of click-and-pawl enthusiasts who enjoy the classic design, additional challenge of self-applying drag ("palming"), and most importantly "that sound" click-and-pawl reels generate.

Disc Drag ($-$$$)

Most modern reels sport disc drag systems as they not only apply a more consistent smooth amount of pressure, but they can also apply a significant amount of pressure. That makes disc drag systems applicable for both protecting light tippet when fishing for trout or for putting the brakes on a feisty gamefish (fresh or saltwater alike), as long as the disc drag is tuned for that specific application. That is to say, a 4/5 weight fly reel like the new Ross Gunnison ⅘ Fly Reel is tuned to stop fish of a comparable size and is tuned to protect the lighter tippets that will be fished in most trout scenarios. In comparison, a Nautilus CCFX-2 10/12 is designed to apply more than 20 pounds of stopping power to the end of your fly line. It's designed to put a halt to a tarpon, not protect your 6x tippet on a two-pound trout hooked in the South Platte.

Fully sealed disc drags are become more and more popular because nature of the sealed drag eliminates the need for additional maintenance and this can prolong the life and allow for a little more abuse from the angler.

Other considerations

Manufacturing Country & Warranty

Companies like Nautilus, Abel Reels, Ross Reels, and Hatch Outdoors all manufacture their entire reel lineups in the United States. Not only that, but each of these companies offers limited lifetime warranties. At Trouts, we put a premium on those products which are built in the United States. From our experience, these products are made exceptionally well and the companies are proud to put their name on each and every one of the products that come out of their doors. The tolerances and quality of machining seen in USA-made reels and to a slightly lesser degree Korea are impressive to say the least. There are greater inconsistencies in manufacturing quality in reels produced elsewhere.

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