Fly Fishing Gear
Fly Reels Buyers Guide

Fly Reels - Buyers Guide

Fly reels are pretty boring things. Generally, they just sit around and "just hold line". Oh, sure, you'll notice them when you pull out line from the reel to cast - but, by and large, they just sit there not doing much of anything.

Yet, that all changes the minute a big fish tags onto your fly. At that moment, the fly reel becomes one of the most important pieces of equipment. Under stress - such as when a big fish is yanking out yards of line every second - a poor quality fly reel will shows its true colors, leading to lost fish and potentially damaged or broken equipment.

For this reason, it makes good sense to get a good fly reel right out of the gate - instead of deciding to get a good reel after watching a hunge fish disappear into the river due to fly reel failure.

To help anglers venturing to Montana to get the right fly reel for their needs, I've prepared a short buyers article about it. If you want to skip all this reading, I've listed the essence below.

Shop & Compare Popular Fly Reels

Orvis Fly Reels - Orvis reels stand the test of time, as my own 20 year old battenkill fly reel attests to.


Fly Reels at Cabela's - Browse and compare a wide selection of fly reels from among popular brands, such as Cabela's, Ross, Sage, Scientific Anglers and others.


Extra Spools - Need a spare spool? Well, here's the place to look for it.


Quick Recommendation on Fly Reel Features to Get

  1. For general all-around use, get a disc-drag fly reel. Click and pawl is certainly nice, but rarely are such drag systems needed anymore.
  2. Weather resistent. Your fly reel will get wet. Make sure that the reel is rust-proof (made of non-rusting components).
  3. Fly Reels that cost less than $30 are generally cheaply made inside. The drag is uneven and they break down quickly. Spend more and you'll have a fly reel for a decade or more.
  4. Get a single retrieve fly reel (the most common). Don't get an automatic or multiplying retrieve - these are nice for saltwater but not for freshwater fly fishing.
  5. Make sure, repeat, make sure that you match up the fly line weight with the fly reel weight. Thus, if you have a 4-weight floating line you plan on using, you want to get a fly reel designed for 4-wt line.
  6. Order a spare spool when you order the fly reel. You will want the spare spool sooner or later, and most likely, by the time you want it the type of spool you need will no longer be available!
  7. If you want one recommendation, go with an Orvis Battenkill (see Orvis Fly Reel) section. I have a Battenkill, its 20 years old, and still works as good as the day I got it.

Buyers Guide to Fly Reels

This short guide has been prepared to help new anglers find the right fly reels for their needs.

Understanding the Two Types of Drag Systems

Fly reels have two different types of drag systems - the disc-drag and the spring-and-pawl. Both are excellent drag systems, but the "spring and pawl" variety is fast disappearing, being replaced by "disc-drag" systems.

The "spring-and-pawl" drag system is the original drag system and is still as good as the day it was invented. This type of drag system uses gearing inside the fly reel to allow the fly line to exit the fly reel at a very steady and uniform rate. This type of drag system is excellent for trout and other smaller fish.

By contrast, the disc-drag system works similar to that of the braking on a car. A pad inside the fly reel can be adjusted, putting less or more tension against the fly line. In this way, the drag of a disc-drag fly reel can be adjusted to almost infinite levels.

Once upon a time, when these type of fly reels came out, the "jerkiness" of the way the line left the fly reel was stuff of legends. Today, however, virtually all fly reels have at least halfway decent disc-drags in them - and many of the top fly reels have disc-drag systems that exceed the spring-and-pawl systems in terms of allowing the fly line to leave the fly reel in a smooth motion.

By and large, if you are a new angler, go with a disc-drag system. First, if only becuase spring-and-pawl fly reels are difficult to find. And secondly, a good disc-drag model fly reel is basically equal to or better than all but the most hideously priced spring-and-pawl models available.

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The Retrieval Systems of Fly Reels

Their are three types of retrieval systems in a fly reel - the single action, the multiplying fly reel, and the automatic fly reel.

A single action fly reel reels the line back in at the same rate that you turn the handle on the fly reel. In other words, it has a 1:1 relationship - a single full turn of the fly reel equals one full turn of the spool. These types of fly reels are by far the most common, the most reliable and the most simple to use - all excellent virtues when fly fishing.

A multiplying fly reel retrieve system allows line to be brought back onto the fly reel significantly faster. This is accomplished through a confusing network of gears that allow one turn of the fly reel handle to equal 2 or more turns of the spool (the spool holds the line). While this seems nice at first blush, truthfully, these fly reels can be kind of a pain - at least for fishing in rivers. Automatic fly reels have a well-deserved reputation as being tempermental, awkward to use at times and make it needlessly difficult to change spools (say, to go from floating fly line on one spool to sinking fly line on the other spool).

The third type of fly reel retrieve system, the automatic fly reel retrieve, does just what the name suggests - it retrieves all fly line without the angler having to do anything. The fly reel, instead of having a spool which is then turned by a handle, instead has a trigger. When released, the trigger allows the fly line to zip back into the reel. This isn't needed, or actually wanted, when fly fishing for most freshwater fish - particularly when fishing on rivers. But can have uses if you are fly fishing in huge lakes or in Saltwater.

Make Sure It Matches!!!

Once you've whittled down your search for fly reels, the final step is to just match your fly reel with the type of fly line and fly rod you will be using. If you have a 5-weight rod, you will want to get a fly reel for a 5-weight rod. Additionally, you will then want to get 5-weight fly line. As you can see, you want the fly rod, the fly reel and the fly line numbers to match (give or take one position - it is ok to use a 4 weight reel and fly line on a 5 weight rod).

Other Things to Think About

Most likely, at some point, an angler will want to have an extra spool for their fly reel - such as to have one spool contain weight-forward floating line while the other spool contains sink-tip line. However, like all other things these days, fly reels come and go in a hurry. And when the fly reel disappears, so to do the spare spools.

Thus, a word of warning - get a spare spool at the time you order the fly reel. You'll be happy you did down the road.

Shop & Compare Popular Fly Reels

Orvis Fly Reels - Orvis reels stand the test of time, as my own 20 year old battenkill fly reel attests to.


Fly Reels at Cabela's - Browse and compare a wide selection of fly reels from among popular brands, such as Cabela's, Ross, Sage, Scientific Anglers and others.


Extra Spools - Need a spare spool? Well, here's the place to look for it.


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