Fly Reels – What to Buy

This page is intended to explain the basics of fly reel design and operation, and to help you find a good real. We’ll explain what we look for in a good reel; and we’ll point you towards some of the better models on the market. (Skip straight to our reviews >>)

Orvis Fly Reel Review

How to Select a Fly Reel

Generally speaking, the fish you are pursuing will dictate the type and size of fly reel you buy. For example, if you’re catching tarpon or salmon, you’ll be casting a heavier fly than you would use for trout and grayling. That means you’ll need a heavier, thicker fly line. The fish will probably fight harder too, so you’ll need enough room on the spool for, say, two hundred yards of backing. As a general rule, I’d say you’ll need at least an 8- or 9-weight line for saltwater species and larger freshwater species, and anything from 3 to 7 or 8-weight for the smaller species. If you’re chasing monster tarpon or salmon, think 10- or 11-weight. Not sure about what you need? Ask someone who knows, as getting this wrong could make things very difficult.

Setting up a Fly Reel

WARNING: switching the handle from left to right changes the line retrieval direction. This will cause you to reel in the line either forward or backward, depending on which side you place the handle. It also requires some dis-assembly and re-assembly of the reel, as you need the drag working in the correct direction.

Our advice? Decide which hand you want to wind with before you add the line. Although it is possible to reverse the line by stripping all the line off and winding it back on, it’s a pain. You’ll need to switch the spool or drag direction, which may be fiddly. If you do this, I’d recommend changing the drag over a large towel, in case you drop a part. I’d also recommend finding a wide open space, tying the end of the line to something, then walking the line out in a straight line. If you pull it off by hand in one spot, you may end up with one very large tangle!

Buy a Fly Reel

You can spend all kinds of money on a fly reel – from a few dollars to a few hundred, easily. What you’re buying depends heavily on what you need the reel to deliver, and how you expect it to perform. We mentioned above that the size of the reel should correlate with the size of the target fish. The same is true of the quality. The bigger and stronger the fish you’re after, the more you should be prepared to spend.

Below we’ve put together a list of what we believe are among the best value reels available. There are more, of course, and much of this is personal choice. Nevertheless we hope this guide will steer you in the right direction.

Best Entry-Level Fly Reel

Piscifun Sword in Aluminium

One of the best deals on the market. For the price, it’s hard to beat the quality and craftsmanship of this fly reel. Use it for left or right retrieval in salt or fresh/sweet water. It’s water resistant so you shouldn’t expect any drag fails, even when you splash it or dunk it in the drink (which is inevitable, no?). One thing to keep in mind… It is a mid-arbor reel so your backing will be limited. If you use a 6-7-weight outfit, you should find it just right. Larger than that and you should think bigger. Who would’ve thought you could find a ‘no worries’ reel for less than $100?! If it was a name brand reel you can bet it would be nearer $150.

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Recommended Vintage-Look Fly Reel

Best Mid-Range Fly Reel

Best Trout Reel

Best All-Round Fly Reel

There are so many great fly reels that it really comes down to personal choice. If you want an all-rounder, you want a reel you can use in both fresh and saltwater, which means you should pick from what is truly a wonderful selection of sealed drag reels. I’ve tried many of them, and would generally be happy with any one of them. However, my favourites would have to be, in order of preference:

Best Sealed Drag Saltwater Fly Reel – 1 of 4

Orvis Mirage

We typically don’t like to play favourites BUT, when it comes to sealed drag, big-game, saltwater fly reels there are a couple of reels in a class of their own. This is one of them. The others are the Tibor Riptide, Galvan T-10 and the Hatch Finatic Plus (below).

The Orvis Mirage is made with top-notch performance parts on every level. Consider the drag system: it is based on the same principles used for brakes on fighter jets. The carbon and stainless components give you consistently reliable, smooth, incredibly powerful, and endlessly adjustable drag. At the time of writing there are two spool choices – both large arbor. According to Orvis you should “pick the high-capacity deep spool for blue water species or the ‘freak’ spool for the highest amount of line pick up for the serious tarpon angler, nearly a foot per crank and nearly 40% faster line pick up than the Size VI reel with the same spool capacity.” This reel is manufactured as well as the top big-game reels in this category (think Nautilus, Einarsson, Hatch…) yet, at only about 2/3 the cost, it’s undoubtedly the better value choice.

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Best Sealed Drag Saltwater Fly Reel – 2 of 4

Best Sealed Drag Saltwater Fly Reel – 3 of 4

Galvan T10

We love this reel. Not only does it come from the people at Galvan, who are a pleasure to deal with, but also it’s a true delight to fish with. The aesthetics are very pleasing (I ordered a green one, which I love): the rounded spool, frame rims, contoured counter balance, frame and drag are all an improvement on previous models. The ventilated drag knob, especially, allows for more precise control. While speaking of drag, I should say the guts are also innovative, featuring a new system made from stainless steel and a cutting-edge heat & wear resistant thermoplastic. Totally unique. Also, the reel does not use ball bearings, yet still retain the hallmark smooth, quiet action. Completely sealed and safe from harsh salty water, you will not be disappointed with the performance, versatility and durability of this reel. Something to keep in mind… For faster, harder-running species like the bonefish, the spool on the T-8 simply isn’t large enough. You’ll want the larger backing capacity of the T-10 to get the job done!

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Best Sealed Drag Saltwater Fly Reel – 3 of 4

Summary

The reels here, and many others besides, are more than capable of coping with everything the average fly fisherman can throw at them. Clearly some are better than others – especially where the drag is concerned – but at the end of the day, it comes down to your budget. Being lucky enough to own several of these reels, I have to say the more expensive ones were worth the extra cash. For me at least, the joy of ownership is extreme!

Background

Unlike almost any other kind of fishing reel, fly reels don’t play a role in casting – only holding and retrieving line. To make a cast, the fly line must first be stripped off the spool by hand, leaving enough line free of the spool to make the cast possible. The reel then remains more or less untouched while fishing. Unless it is needed to shorten the amount of free line available, or to assist with landing a fish, you don’t need the reel at all. It is this simplicity, perhaps, which makes fly fishing so popular with fishing purists. (In fact, those looking for an even simpler way of fishing a fly could check out ‘tenkara‘, where no reel is used at all!)

Multiplying Ratios

Some attempts have been made to improve on the simplistic design of the fly reel. Some iterations include the multiplier gear, which allows for a faster line retrieval rate of 2:1 or 3:1. These are no longer popular. The additional weight, complexity and expense is usually not considered justifiable. Some say it also detracts from the purity of the sport. There is also the automatic fly reel, which employs a coiled spring to retrieve the line with the push of a button. These have fallen out of use as well due to weight and limited line capacity. Today, those looking for a faster retrieve would typically opt for a larger ‘arbor’ reel, where a greater diameter spool creates a faster retrieve more organically.

So traditional fly reels with a simple 1:1 ratio remain the norm today. That isn’t to say they haven’t advanced. For example, in many cases they have evolved to be ambidextrous – allowing the angler to have the crank handle on either side of the reel. Additionally, they now commonly incorporate some kind of drag system (usually disc-type). This allows for greater control of a running fish, without the need to apply pressure to the spool manually. Those who have fought large fish on fly – especially a fast sportfish like a tarpon, bonefish or GT – will understand the importance of a good drag only too well. See our video: “why we love bonefish“.

Preferred Use

Fly reels are most popular for use in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers but have also been adapted for saltwater applications. In saltwater applications they usually have a much larger spool diameter. As mentioned, this provides more line and backing capacity, which is optimal for larger ocean fish. In addition, they typically use aerospace aluminum, electroplated and/or stainless steel components, along with sealed or waterproof bearing and drag mechanisms, all to help slow corrosion.

One important thing to note with fly reels is the size of the fly reel. This should be commensurate with the size of fish being targeted. That is to say typically, the larger the fish, the larger the fly reel needs to be, in order to handle long runs and retrieve line at an adequate speed.

Features

  • Varied arbor size: Small, medium and large which ultimately affects the overall size and line capacity of the reel. Smaller arbor = more line capacity & less efficient reeling, while a larger arbor = less line capacity & easier line retrieval, but larger, heavier reel.
  • Varied construction materials: Fly reels can be fabricated from different materials, each with its pros and cons. These include injection molded plastic (lightweight, less expensive, light-medium use); stamped metal (medium weight, less expensive, light-medium use); cast aluminum/alloys (medium weight, moderate price range, light-moderate use); composite/carbon fiber (lightweight, more expensive, all levels of use); machined aluminum (light weight, more expensive, all levels of use).
  • Quick-release spool: Spool release button or lever secures the spool from spinning until you are ready to unspool or retrieve the line.
  • Variable drag options: These are commonly available on most modern fly reels. If a ‘Spring and Pawl Drag’, you will find an adjustment knob on the frame edge or back, while ‘Disc Drags’ usually have a knob or wheel located on “side” of the spool.
  • Ambidextrous handle: Such a configuration is a nice feature available on most fly reels, allowing the angler to choose which side to place the handle (left or right) to maximize line retrieval.