When putting together our first fly fishing “outfit” (rod, reel & line), we find ourselves making decisions about equipment that we probably don't know much about. This is when having a local fly shop is a very nice advantage. They have the expertise and knowledge to assist you with your selection. Arming yourself with some knowledge a head of time will help whether you can visit a fly shop or if you call a mailorder company.
A fly reel doesn't get a lot of attention but it is an important piece of gear and there are certain aspects of a fly reel that should be taken into consideration (beside cost) before making a decision on which model to buy.
The job of the fishing reel is to hold line. This is true whether you fly fish or fish with a spinning or bait casting rod. When retreiving, the line should go on the reel smoothly and evenly. Likewise, when a fish is running the line should also come off the reel smoothly and evenly without getting tangled. If the line doesn't come off the reel smoothly when the fish is running it could cause the fine leader to break. When you're winding line on the reel it's helpful to run the line between a couple fingers of your rod hand adding a little tension. This will help the line go on the reel in tighter coils which will help prevent the line from tangling on the reel.
When a fish is running line off the reel, it is the drag that keeps the line from getting tangled (if it was tight going on the reel). Drag is the tension on the line as it is leaving the reel. Most reels will have a drag knob which increases or decreases tension. If the drag is set too high for the strength of the leader you're using then the fish will break off. If it is set too light then the line comes off too quickly and the angler can't control the fish. Experiment with your drag setting by pulling line off the reel at different settings. If you're not sure what the drag setting should be, set it in the middle of the range until you become familiar with how it works. You'll know better after you've caught a few fish.
If the reel is an external rim model you can also “palm” the reel as the fish is taking line off the reel. The outside of the reel revolves in an external rim model. If the spool revolves inside a fixed frame than it can't be “palmed”. By palming the reel you can put light pressure on the spool as it turns and that will slow down the fish. A word of caution though – keep your fingers away from the revolving spool and reel knob when the reel is spinning.
A less important consideration is whether you like the sound of the reel. Reels sound differently from one to the next and usually the more expensive models are not as loud. Of course this is personal preference. Some anglers like to hear their reel as the fish is taking line off the reel and as they are reeling the line back on the reel. Most reels have a soft click as the line comes back on the reel and a louder click as the line is coming off the reel.
Most reels are easily converted from left hand wind to right hand wind or vise versa. Most of us today who cast with our right hand, reel with our left. You can, however, cast with your right hand and when you hook a fish, change hands, put the rod in your left hand so you can reel with your right hand. Either way works. For me I would rather not have to change hands when I've hooked a fish so I like to reel with my left hand. If you have more than one fly fisherman in the house, it's less confusing to have all the reels set up the same way. If that's not possible, make sure your reels are clearly marked so you don't get them mixed up.
To change the drag you take the spool out of the reel frame and usually flip a spring or a disc over to make it work in the opposite direction. Instructions should be included with your reel or if you buy it from a retail store, they will be able to change it for you. If you ask, most mail order companies will also switch it for you when ordering. If the reel has line on it and you switch the drag, you will then have to take all the line off the reel and wind it back on in the opposite direction so the drag is on the outgoing line.
Another consideration is weight and size. If you are buying a 5-weight rod, you will be buying a 5-weight fly line and thus will need a reel for a 5-weight line. If you buy a reel that is too small it may not be able to hold all of the line and backing (we'll discuss backing when we talk about fly lines). If the reel is too big the line and backing won't fill up the reel. This reel will be too heavy for the rod and will be cumbersome to fish with.
The actual weight of the reel is also important. When you look at a selection of reels that are compatible with a 5-weight line, you will notice quite a variance in weight. The weight of the reel is determined by how technical the drag is inside the reel and by the material used to manufacture the reel. Lighter materials like aluminum and carbon fiber are often found in the more expensive reels while the less expensive reels are often made from die cast. These are all very good materials. Be aware of the difference in weight and buy the lightest reel that is within your budget.
Another consideration is the availability of spare spools. You should start out fishing with a floating line which is what we use most of the time. But later on you may find that you want to buy a sink-tip line to use when the water is deep and the fish are down on the bottom. If you buy a spare spool for your reel, you'll be able to take out the spool that has the floating line on it and insert the spool with the sink-tip. Having a spare spool will make it easy to switch back and forth between the two lines and the spare spool costs less than buying second reel.
Like matching the fly line size to the rod, it's also important to match the size of the reel to the rod and line. While price often dictates what we purchase, keep the following points in mind while shopping for a reel:
1.Is it the correct size for the line you're using.
2.Does it have a drag adjustment.
3.Are spare spools available.
4.Can it be changed from left to right hand retrieve.
5.Do you like the way it sounds.
6.Is it made by a reputable company? If it needs to be repaired someday you'll want to be able to contact the manufacturer.
If you ask me for a couple of personal suggestions, I would
recommend a reel like the Sage 1650. It can hold a 5-weight line and about 120 yards of 20 lb. backing, it's fairly lightweight, well made, and has an excellent drag. It's easily converted from left to right hand wind, spare spools are available, and it is large arbor. It retails for $99.00 and is a reel that you won't “out grow” and will be happy with years from now. There is also a 1680 for 7-9 weight lines. Sage
A second choice would be the Redington Crosswater CW2 4/5/6. Similar construction and features. I don't think the drag is as good as the 1650 but a very nice reel for the money. Reel retails for $55.