After you have chosen your rod, the next step in building a setup is choosing a fly reel. Again, we have to ask ourselves a few questions. The first is “what rod weight do I have?” as you will then need a reel that is numbered for the correct reel-to-rod pairing. So if I have a 5wt rod, I’ll need a reel that is labeled for a 5 weight such as: 4/5, 4-6, 5/6, etc. Once we have a reel that fits our rod weight, we can dive into the style/type of reel that works best for what you need. Let’s go over the details about reels that may can cause confusion or make your decision a bit more difficult. The goal here is to simplify reel selection.
The Arbor of the reel is the diameter of the spool that holds the line.
Knowing which style of fishing you’re going to do will help determine this decision. If you’re going to be chasing big game/saltwater, you will want a large arbor reel. The reason being is these reels will pick up more lines per reel turn when reeling as opposed to a small arbor reel. This is important when fighting those large/saltwater species that tend to run a couple of hundred yards past the fly line.
A large arbor reel also works great for smaller game such as trout and bass, but a small arbor will also work great too. Smaller species tend to not run quite like big game fish and for most instances, you can fight a smaller fish simply by stripping in your fly line through your hands. In some cases, a small game fish will need to be fought on a reel, but the space in which you are fighting said fish is smaller, thus limiting the space in which it can run.
Drag – Sealed vs Non-Sealed
Again, knowing what style of fishing you’re going to be doing is key here. Sealed drag is a favorite for people who are doing a lot of saltwater fishing lately. Engineered materials used in drags, like carbon fiber, Delrin & Rulon, (some with Teflon impregnation), make great alternatives to cork, are more common and easier to source, and easier to incorporate into manufacturing than cork. There has been a surge to make most reels with a sealed drag these days, due to customer demand. However, having a sealed drag isn’t always necessary, and there are many big game saltwater anglers who still prefer cork drag.
However, click and pawl reels are quite common for anglers fishing for smaller species. If you’re chasing trout, bass, panfish, or other similar fighting species; having a heavy-duty sealed drag system isn’t usually necessary. It can be helpful for some of those big boys, but most can be handled with good line management. Though it seems that many trout reels are coming with a solid drag system that helps more with line management and preventing your line from backlashing, the drag rarely gets put to the test.
Plastic, Cast Aluminum, or Machined Aluminum
Are you hard on your gear? Clumsy? Then machined aluminum reels are the right choice for you. Sure, it costs more to make a machined product for a variety of reasons, but it will resist breakage and distortion better than an aluminum cast reel. Plastic reels are the least expensive and least durable reels on the market, however, they are great for basic introductory to fly fishing. They are capable of simple fly fishing demands like storing line, retrieving and letting out line. Cast aluminum reels are a step up from plastic molded reels and are made by pouring molten aluminum into a mold. Because of the inherent nature of pressure-cast aluminum, the propensity for a cast aluminum reel to fracture or bend is higher when that reel is dropped or abnormal pressure is applied. Cast aluminum is heavier than machined aluminum. However, it does not have the same structural integrity as a machined reel. Machined reels are machined out of a single block of bar stock of aluminum. They are then anodized to increase durability and corrosion resistance. Thus, resulting in a reel that can last a lifetime if properly maintained.
Different brands have different reel models for different types of species to target. Below, we have listed a few brands and some of their features to help you see some of the differences.
The RUN features sturdy cast aluminum construction, a smooth carbon fiber disc drag, and a large arbor for speedy line retrieval. For those who are just getting into the fly fishing game, this is a great option to get you on the water and fish without a lot of overhead.
Sage Spectrum C (Cast Aluminum/Small or Big Game)
The Sage SPECTRUM C Fly Reel features a large arbor with a rugged machined die-cast frame and generous concave vented spool. Equipped with the SPECTRUM Family One Revolution Sealed Carbon Drag and unexpected finishing touches like its fully machined drag knob and handle. The SPECTRUM C gives you more than the fish bargained for.
Ross Colorado LT (Machined / Small Game Click Reel)
Although it is the lightest reel in its class, you will not find any plastic here. A super-strong, fully machined aluminum frame and spool are paired with a handle machined from canvas phenolic rod – an industry first. This innovative material is found in the handles of high-end custom knives and also has the very useful property of increasing grip when wet.
Ross Animas (Machined Aluminum / Small or Big Game)
A fully-redesigned frame and spool are highlights of the new Animas. The spool shows off the cutting-edge manufacturing techniques Ross Reels has developed, delivering a design that is incredibly strong and visually stunning. The Animas also re-joins the family by incorporating an ultra-light canvas phenolic handle that gets tackier when wet. A new trouble-free spool release yields zero-maintenance performance, allowing the Animas to be ready for any fresh or saltwater excursion.
The Sage ENFORCER Fly Reel is new for 2023 and has been updated and fine-tuned for the power, reliability, and durability needs of the saltwater flats angler. Stronger frame, spool, and drag; the ENFORCER has quickly become a favorite shop reel for taming everything from golden dorado, permit, tarpon, bonefish, and beyond.
Ross Evolution R Salt – (Big Game)
Fishing in the salt is a grueling endeavor. The conditions are tough, and the fish can be even tougher; so Ross developed the Evolution R SALT Fly Reel to stand up to anything the sea can throw at it.
The R Salt builds on the foundation of its smaller sibling, but instead of the Evolution R’s 7-disc system, it features a supercharged 16-disc sealed drag system comprised of stainless steel and carbon fluoropolymer, producing nearly 30 pounds of drag pressure. Also an industry first, the R Salt features two smaller counterbalances on the spool – this innovative design reduces mass and creates perfect, vibration-free performance when line is being ripped off the spool on long runs.
This is one of our go-to saltwater reels for targeting the grand slam: permit, tarpon, and bonefish.
Hatch ICONIC Fly Reels (Small or Big Game)
The Hatch Iconid Fly Reels are workhorse reels that will keep you in the game whether you are chasing spring creek trout, surf fishing in So Cal, steelheading in Oregon, chucking nasty streamers to ravenous browns in Montana, or stalking permit on the flats in Belize. From small fish to big game and blistering-runs, the Hatch Finatic reels are some of the best in the business.