Trout Talk

The truth about fly reels

Are they fish brakes? Purring music-makers? Works of art? Answer: all of the above.

There are two schools of thought on this one. 

On the one hand, there are those who think a reel is nothing but a glorified line holder. They don’t see how spending money on fancy disc-drag systems makes any sense at all. 

On the other hand, some folks think a reel can make all the difference in the world when it comes to fighting and landing a fish. How many times, after all, have you heard someone coach, “Get ’em on the reel!” when the fight was on?

My problem is I don’t really know what school I belong in. 

I think it’s pretty fair to say that a high performance disc-drag reel is essential in many saltwater fishing situations. I wouldn’t mind watching someone try to land a mako shark that can swim 60 miles per hour by palming a click-pawl reel—but it isn’t going to be me. 

In the summer of 2018 Trout Unlimited sent four of their brightest college club leaders from the TU Costa 5 Rivers Program to explore the home of the world’s largest runs of wild salmon: Alaska.

I pretty much bottomed out on the fly reel follies back in my Field & Stream days when Tim Romano and I did a series of “motorcycle reel tests.”

You know… the best way to test the “startup smoothness” of reels is, naturally, to tie a fly line to the back of a motorcycle and let ’er rip.  I don’t know how much we really learned about drag systems with those tests, but we learned a lot about how to get people to read online stories about fly reels. 

In the trout world, I sometimes think the appeal of a reel is more about sound than anything else, and there is no sweeter music than the whir of a click-pawl reel as a trout peels away line after eating a fly. I once had a major reel company (I won’t say who because I’m not 100 percent sure they’d admit to it) tell me that they actually went through a few re-designs of reels to get the pitch of the clicker just right at trout fighting speed, about 8 miles per hour. Seriously.

And then there is the whole “aesthetic” business. Some people don’t care what reels look like, but I definitely do. Apparently so do others. Ari ’t Hart was a Dutch artist and angler whose reel designs were so prolific and so distinct that one ended up in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. I don’t have one of those.

The truth about reels?  I guess there is no “truth.” A reel is—and should be—whatever you want it to be… a completely utilitarian line holder… a high-tech fish braking system… a counterbalance for a fly rod to help your cast timing… a classic music-maker… or even just something cool to look at. 

Maybe a mix of many things.  

And if you’re not much into reels for any reason at all, well, there’s always tenkara.