History: Ages ago, when the Macedonians began to fool local trout and grayling with artificial flies, there were no fly reels. These anglers would hold gathered silken fly line in a bunched and folded wad in their free hand. It’s easy to see the potential pitfalls in such a system and it was only a matter of time before someone chose to solve the problem and introduce a mechanized way to manage line. Since the introduction of the first modern fly reels in the 1800s, the sport of fly fishing and its techniques have changed dramatically.
Today’s modern fly reels consist of five major design elements: an external frame for durability, a reel foot for easy attachment to the fly rod, an arbor for line storage, dispensing, and retrieval, an internal drag system that can help an angler maintain optimal fighting pressure against a running fish, and of course, a handle to make the whole system go round.
Fly fishing reels are single-action, which means one revolution of the handle gives you a single revolution of the spool (multi-action or “multiplier” fly reels have been developed and marketed on and off for decades, but the most successful models have been of the single-action style). In truth, a single-action fly reel really puts you in touch with your fish during a fight, making for a more intimate experience.
Generally, the smallest and lightest fly reels are termed “standard arbor reels.” Mid arbor designs boast a wider-diameter spool, yielding a slightly faster retrieve, and large arbor reels give the fastest line retrieval or pick up speeds available. When fishing for strong-running fish like steelhead, tarpon, bonefish, and other saltwater species, large and mid arbor fly reels are the most useful, as these fish can run toward an angler creating the need to gather line quickly.
Machined Aluminum: The most structurally sound reels are constructed of machined aluminum, entirely cut from bar stock in the way the David was carved from a block of marble. Elegant in their simplicity, machined reels are comprised of the fewest assembled parts, so there’s fewer things that can go wrong. Sophisticated design standards ensure these reels function as a smoothly as possible. Ounce for ounce, these reels are the strongest and most precise on the market. Drag systems can produce lots of friction and lots of heat. Machined reels also allow for ventilation in the system, reducing the possibility that the drag system will freeze or lock up due to overheating.
Anodization: Unlike powder-coated or painted fly reels that can chip and scratch easily, anodization is an electro-chemical process, which forces the finish into the fly reel itself. This makes for a far more scratch-resistant fly reel that will serve you many years in the field.
Smooth Rotation Engagement: Start-up inertia is the single biggest obstacle to landing a fish. A reel that requires the smallest amount of energy to start turning, avoiding a “spike” in sudden resistance, is the best choice when seeking to reduce stress on a fish taking line. Such spikes in start-up energy can place stress on terminal tackle, snapping leaders and light tippet, typically on the first run of the fish. In this respect, a fly reel is only as good as its drag system, and a drag system is only as good as the materials and design that go into it.
Click and Pawl Drag: Some things never change. When it comes to classic trout fly reels, this is certainly true. For the most part, even contemporary click and pawl drag system fly reels have the same functioning drags as the earliest fly reels made. In essence, a bit of pressure is applied to a metal triangle (pawl) that clicks along a toothed-gear attached to the reel’s spool. This simple, but functional approach to fly reel design keeps the reel from over-running and backlashing your fly line when a fish heads down stream. Although not very technical by today’s standards, this proven approach to classic fly reel design makes for some of the best trout fly reels available today, as they are simple, beautiful and worthy.
Disc Drag: Drag systems employing cork and synthetic discs (usually Rulon) consistently perform at the top of industry standards. These are the smoothest systems around; they dampen the transition from stillness to rotation resulting in the least-jarring spool engagement and fewer fish lost to start-up jolts and other snags in the energy transfer system. That may sound like a mouthful, but it means fewer broken leaders and more successful catches. The materials that go into a great drag system must be durable enough to withstand high levels of pressure, heat, and friction. Retaining its shape no matter the drag pressure, treated cork has proven to be a superior drag material because of its compressibility.
Arbor: The arbor is the interior cylinder of the fly reel’s spool; it’s what your fly line wraps around. Recent design trends have emphasized an arbor with a greater circumference. With large arbor reels, line coiling or “memory” is reduced, and the rate of line retrieval is increased. Most importantly, outgoing drag tension is mitigated as line is depleted, decreasing the chance of losing that once-in-a-lifetime trophy on a long run. Fishing a large arbor maintains a tighter connection with the fish, reducing slack and giving you more control over unpredictable fish-fighting conditions.