More Than You Want to Know About Fly Reels

Fly reels are wonderful tools. They hold your backing and fly line. They prevent big fish from taking all your backing and fly line. Some of them make a groovy sound when fish are trying to take your backing and fly line. And they allow us, fly shop owners, to sell them to you and make money.

It is believed that the Chinese invented the fishing reel back in 300 AD. We’re not sure what it looked like, but ancient writings reveal that a “winder” was useful in catching larger fish. The winder was considered an improvement over tying horsehair to the end of a long rod. I should mention that this “winder advancement” is now being doubted by Tenkara aficionados.

Skipping forward a few hundred years to the late eighteenth century, the English gentry and other snobbish types began employing reels. Craftsman around the country made various designs and they were attached to the rod in interesting ways. This was before duct tape, if that helps you visualize the time period. A multiplier reel was soon invented, as was a large-arbor reel. Did you catch that? The large-arbor reel was invented 150 years ago, but it’s only been in the last 20 years that they’ve become fashionable in modern fly fishing. I’m not sure what exactly this says about human ingenuity and societal progress, but maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. The other day, I saw a billboard on the Interstate touting an adult reading program. It said, “Learn to Read.” Think about it. I’ve also driven by a campground in the Sierras, situated near the site of where the ill-fated Donner Party camped in the winter of 1846-47. History tells us that there were people in the group who starved to death and resorted to cannibalism. The campground is named, “Donner Party Picnic Area.”

Moving on: There was a man named George Snyder, an American reel maker from Paris, Kentucky. He made some cool fly reels back in the 1820s. I don’t think they used the word “cool” back then but they were “fine as cream gravy” and copied by other reel makers. His basic design was later modified and used to make bait-casting reels. If any of you readers find one of his reels in your grandparent’s attic, I’ll give you 50 bucks for it.

Another American, Charles F. Orvis, designed and sold a fly reel in 1874. This design was patented and it included a narrow, perforated spool. The “Trout Model” sold for $2.50 in a walnut case, probably a lot of money back then. The original model did not contain a click, but the next model did. Charles was the founder of The Orvis Company, a major player in fly tackle to this day.

Meanwhile, back in Great Britain things were moving forward. Hardy is an English company—they’re still around today—which came up with a fly reel that served as the archetype for many modern fly reels. This model was humbly named the Perfect, and it had a detachable spool and an adjustable click drag. If you find one of these original Perfects in your grandparent’s attic, I’ll give you 50 bucks for it.

In 2012, Hardy introduced a limited-edition run of 250 Perfect Diamond Jubilee Reels to honor the Queen’s 60 years on the throne. How many other reel companies can say that? But alas, times have changed: Hardy was recently acquired by Pure Fishing, a company headquartered in Spirit Lake, Iowa. I should also mention that many of the current Hardy reels are being manufactured in that bastion of fly fishing expertise, South Korea. This has torqued off more than a few Hardy traditionalists, but to be fair, the Korean reels are very high quality.

As we move toward the modern era, a reel that should be mentioned is the Pflueger Medalist. While Orvis might lay claim to building the first great American fly reel, Pflueger might claim the first great American “blue collar” fly reel. The Medalist was a reel most Americans could afford. The early Pfluegers were click-and-pawl reels, but beginning around 1936, Pflueger began to market a reel with a drum brake design, very similar to what you would find on an automobile brake system. The reel worked great and was produced for many years. Back in the 60s and 70s all the cool guys who didn’t want to buy, or couldn’t afford an Orvis CFO, owned Medalists.

In the 1970s. Ted Juracsik designed the Billy Pate Tarpon reel. It was one of the first reels to utilize the draw-bar type of drag system. This is the type of drag where, as you tighten the drag nut on the outside of the reel frame, it draws the spool closer to the frame, increasing pressure. Between the frame and spool is your “drag surface.” On the Billy Pate reel the material used is cork. To this day, several high-end reels utilize cork as the braking material. Cork works well because the material compresses smoothly, and good cork drags tend to have low “startup inertia.” This term speaks of the reel’s initial resistance to movement. In other words, when the drag is engaged, a reel with low startup inertia will start rotating smoothly, and there will be a negligible difference between the drag ‘s resistance when the reel spool first starts to turn, and when it reaches top speed. Cork drags are tough to beat in this area; however, a person needs to occasionally lubricate a cork drag and keep it clean. Not a big deal, you might think, but there are people out there who don’t bother to reset their clocks for Daylight Savings Time, preferring instead to say to themselves, “Okay, so the clock says 6:00 but it’s actually 7:00—maybe I should get up and get ready for work.” They live this way until fall, when their clocks will be correct again. Folks like this should not purchase reels with cork drags.

This is where sealed drag systems come in. A fully sealed disc drag keeps out water, sand, mud and whatever. It requires no maintenance. Most manufacturers utilize a synthetic material, rather than cork. One of the most popular materials is Rulon, a PTFE fluropolymer plastic. Materials of this type have low coefficients of friction and perform very well. The drags are very smooth with a large range of adjustability, and they dissipate heat nicely. As a rule, I think reels with synthetic-material, drag surfaces tend to have slightly higher startup inertias than cork-drag reels. I’ll probably get snitty emails from somebody because I dared to make such an outlandish comment. Regardless, these reels are great.

Cast Reels vs. Machined Reels
While the very cheapest fly reels are made of plastic and graphite, most inexpensive fly reels are metal and are “cast,” rather than machined. The casting process involves pouring molten metal into a mold. Of course, not all casting is created equal. You can apply pressure during the casting process, which will make the product even stronger than a typical gravity cast, but that being said, most cast reels are very strong and dependable. The best cast reels tend to utilize some machined parts. Across the board, cast reels tend to be a bit heavier than machined reels, and generally lack the precise tolerances and refined look that many anglers have come to expect.
Machined reels are just that, reels machined out of a billet, a fancy word for block of metal, almost always aluminum in the case of fly reels. A machined reel just looks and feels like a precision piece of equipment. In reality, they are not much stronger than a quality cast reel, but they have become the standard, and with the advent of computerized CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine tools, small companies are able to design and build high-quality fly reels. There are advantages to machined fly reels. You can machine away much of the metal and create lightweight, very strong reels that have a nice, surface finish. Plus, they can be anodized efficiently.

Which brings me to a question I’m sometimes asked: Just how much reel do I really need? Well, that depends. If you’re a saltwater fly fisherman, don’t buy a cheap real because it will come back to haunt you. You may end up with assorted reel parts in the bottom of your flats skiff. Saltwater fish can be big and mean, and things happen very fast. You want a smooth, powerful drag and you want to be able to apply some heavy pressure at times. Also, an anodized reel that resists the corrosive effects of the saltwater environment is important.

Regarding freshwater fish, as a rule you won’t experience sizzling 100-yard runs. Yeah, there are steelhead and stripers and trophy brown trout that can do impressive things, but most of the time you won’t get into your backing, at least not very far. That being said, you still want a smooth and durable drag, and something that won’t fail you in a pinch. You also want a lightweight reel. As a fly shop owner who rents rods and reels, I’ve learned what holds up, and what doesn’t. Long story short: stay away from the most inexpensive reels. We have a box of these used reels here at the shop. They sit by the clearance rack under the little sign that says, “All Sales Final.”

We tried to get Vanna White for the photo shoot, but this was the next best thing.

Recommended Reels
There are a lot of good fly reels out there. I’ll mention a few that I especially like. A mid-priced reel that is simply outstanding is the Lamson Liquid. It’s a great reel for the money, and it’s durable. It is a cast reel with some machined parts. Its predecessor, the Konic II, held up well as a rental reel, and that’s high praise. The Sage 2500 series (?) fits into that same category of inexpensive, yet durable. Moving up in price, the Ross Evolution LT has been around for awhile, but I still like them. It’s a very lightweight machined reel and it has a nice disc drag. Perfect for trout. It also comes in some sexy colors. Finally, there is the Hatch Finatic. What do I like about the Finatic? Everything. Stacked, sealed, ultra-smooth, drag system. Built like a tank, yet lightweight. Futuristic, cutting-edge styling. The reel foot is actually a machined part of the reel—not screwed on like most. I could go on. They say you can’t “take it with you when you die,” but regarding my Hatch reels, I’m gonna try.