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 >>)
- 1 How to Select a Fly Reel
- 2 Buy a Fly Reel
- 3 Best All-Round Fly Reel
- 4 Background
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.
Recommended Vintage-Look Fly Reel
What can we say about this beautiful vintage fly reel? In a word, awesome! This click-and-pawl fly reel is truly a minimalist’s dream. It has the classic style you would expect from a vintage reel, yet boasts a more modern, adjustable internal drag that works in conjunction with palming. It is constructed using quality modern materials and techniques, yet retains a simple and time-tested design, which allows it to maintain both lightness and good balance. Some things to keep in mind… It is a narrow, large diameter spool which reduces line stacking while increasing retrieval rate. Easily adjustable for left- or right-handed retrieval.
Best Mid-Range Fly Reel
Waterworks Lamson Guru Fly Reel
Smooth, smooth, smooth! Although this reel is reasonably priced, it has the quality look, feel and durability of any of the higher-priced, fully machined reels on the market. In addition to its extremely smooth and reliable operation, this reel offers great versatility for different target species. They come in 4wt-10wt. All with large arbor ratios and similar quality drag system to more expensive models. Things to keep in mind for this reel… The changeover from left to right retrieval is easy but a little different, so you may want to watch the online video first. Drag is easily adjustable during play. Also, it has a wide spool design and fast line retrieval.
Best Trout Reel
Redington Rise Fly Reels
Many trout enthusiasts consider this their ‘go-to’ reel.
There is no downside to this light-weight and extremely durable cork/teflon drag reel. Not only is it precision machined out of top-grade aluminum, it is also custom anodized and looks as good or better than some reels that are double or triple the price. Aside from the look, Redington reels offer crisp, reliable performance. From the drag, to the large-arbor design, and the easy spool swap, adding this stalwart to your collection is a no-brainer for trout fishermen. In fact, I know it’s not unusual for some anglers to own the same reel in multiple sizes. It’s kind of got a no-frills, old-school quality to it – but then again, so does trout fishing!
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
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.
Best Sealed Drag Saltwater Fly Reel – 2 of 4
Tibor has been committed to perfecting the fly reel for years and it’s hard to envisage a better creation that the ‘Riptide’. If you only own ONE fly reel, you wouldn’t be disappointed if it were this one. Technologically speaking, it is top-flight. Especially noteworthy is the flawless drag system, which was made to withstand some of the world’s fastest, hardest and longest-running big-game fish. Surely one of the reasons this reel has helped land 250 world records to date.
But in addition to this, it’s beautiful (I own a blue one as you can see here!) and it will be the envy of all your fishing mates.
Best Sealed Drag Saltwater Fly Reel – 3 of 4
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!
Best Sealed Drag Saltwater Fly Reel – 3 of 4
From performance to appearance, the Hatch Finatic 7 Plus large arbor fly reel is kind of like the Ferrari of fly reels; just not as snobbish. The performance and quality of this sealed drag saltwater reel is up there with the very best. Plus, it is one of the lightest, well-balanced and best looking reels around. Like many sealed drag reels, the Finatic is considered a crossover reel. Maybe it helps them sell more, but they say it’s because they can be used in both salt and fresh water. It is definitely versatility though. First of all, you can choose between mid- or large-arbor spools when ordering – giving you a choice of different backing capacities. Additionally, you can run a wide variety of line weights (from 0-15+). The sealed, multi-disc drag system with ‘Rulon components’, whatever they are, does, it has to be said, provide a very smooth drag. There’s virtually no startup inertia, and as much top-end grunt as most anglers will need. Oh yeah, and because it is sealed, there is no maintenance or lubrication required. Think of it as your “if I was stranded on a desert island and could only bring one reel” reel. Love it.
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!
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!)
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“.
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.
- 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.