reels for fly fishing

Fly Fishing Reels – Which Style is Right for Your Combo

There’s nothing quite as majestic as connecting with Mother Nature, fly rod and reel in hand, and fish just waiting to be plucked from the cool waters below.

But first thing’s first. You’ll need to get your rod and reel selection on lock. For the sake of argument, and because this article focuses on fly fishing reels, let’s just assume you already have your rod. After all, a fly reel is one of the more finicky types of reel you can own.

Finding the Right Fly Fishing Reel For You

While the fly fishing reel is often touted as a lesser component of the fly fishing experience, it is still an important consideration. Remember, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A quality fly reel is invaluable whenever you hook a once-in-a-blue-moon fish and you need to reel the catch of a lifetime in.

Veteran fly fishermen all agree that there’s no sound more satisfying than the one made by the mechanical hum of a high-quality fly reel, especially when the drag is resonating over the weight of a large fish at the end of the line.

Today’s fly reels are far more than just a line holder, they balance the fly rod, and perform at a high enough level to ensure that you can bring in any big fishes that you manage to hook. Here are some factors that you should consider when you buy your next fly reel:

The Importance of Fly Reels and Why You Shouldn’t Cheap Out

When most people start their fly fishing ventures, they just choose the cheapest fly reel that they can find on the shelves. That’s mostly due to the fact that they lack the funds to get a quality reel or they just aren’t into fly fishing enough yet to justify such a hefty investment.

Another reason could be that they’ve bought into the myth that most people pass around, the rumor that a fly reel isn’t an important piece of equipment since all it did was hold your line. While it’s true that the primary function of a fly reel is to hold the line, it also helps you when it comes time to fight a fish.

modern fly fishing reel
modern fly fishing reel

The quality of the drag on your fly reel could make the difference between bringing home a 30-incher, or bring home nothing at all. Many people have their first fly reels fail on them when they hook a large fish and quickly realize that their downplaying of its importance was made in error. Don’t let a catch get away, just choose a good fly reel from the get-go.

Key Points to Consider When Choosing a Fly Reel


The most important thing that you should consider when picking out a fly reel is whether or not it can hold a sufficient amount of backing and fly line for the weight of the rod that you’ll be using. If you bought a five-weight fly rod, you should choose a fly reel that can accommodate the fly line weights from four to six.

Most fly reel manufacturers will produce models in different weight classes to ensure that every consumer can get the fly reel that’s right for them and their rod. When you choose the right fly reel size, you’ll ensure that it can hold enough backing for when you catch a huge fish that tries to run for its life. That is important because you don’t have the reeling speed and ease that you would with a standard spinning reel.

Drag System

Another important aspect of choosing the right fly reel is making sure that the model you pick one with a drag system that can accommodate all your needs. The drag system on a fly reel is what makes the difference in performance between a $50 fly reel and $500 fly reel.

This is the point of the process where you have to start considering what type of fly fishing you’re going to be doing as well as the species of fish that you hope to catch. A drag system on the cheaper end won’t be able to handle big catches trying to run away such as saltwater bonefish.

That said, a budget fly reel should have no problems catching trout provided that the unit itself isn’t defective.

Weight and Size

Just like rods, fly reels are rated based on their weight and size. When you’re looking to buy a new reel, you need to match the reel size to the size of your rod to ensure that the combination is perfectly balanced.

Choosing the right size fly reel will reduce fatigue over long periods of casting since the balance is greater and therefore puts less strain on your arms and your rod. It’s easy to match rods and reels, just look at their ratings.

For instance, if you use a five-weight trout rod, all you have to do is buy a five-weight fly reel to go with it. The other things that you should consider when looking at the reel size is the type of line that you plan on using as well as the backing capacity. Most reels you’ll find can handle two to three sizes of line.

A size 3.5 Lamson reel can handle a seven, eight, or nine-weight line. Switch and Spey reels are oversized so that they can accommodate larger shooting head fly lines whereas saltwater reels often focus on providing more backing capacity as saltwater fishes are more likely to put up a fight.

Feature Considerations

Trying to distinguish the differences between fly reels is actually quite easy. Remember, fly reels have a limited number of component systems. There could be a few screws, pins, and other parts in the drag system of your reel but these simply serve the purpose of adjusting the drag. Most of the more significant differences between fly reels are related to the following design aspects:

Retrieval System

One of the main purposes of a fly reel is to hold unused line, we all know that’s true, but their second job that’s arguably just as important is their ability to retrieve the line when trying to bring a fish in. Most fly reels do this in one of three ways.

The three types used are referred to as single action, multiplying action, or automatic action respectively. Single action fly reels are the ones that you’ll see most often in conventional fishing. A full crank of the handle will turn the spool once.

In contrast, multiplying reels use an elaborate network of gears to create two or more revolutions in the spool whenever you turn the handle. Automatic retrieval reels work entirely different from the first two.

They store tension when the line is fed out — like a bow storing potential energy — and then release the safety latch when you need to retrieve the line which allows the spool to spin back very fast so that you can get your line back as well as whatever is on it.

For basic fly fishing, single-action reels are more than enough. Beginners should consider starting out with single-action reels as they will be better able to concentrate on improving their skills since they don’t have to familiarize themselves with the features of a fancier reel.

That said, if you plan on catching species that have a tendency to make long runs, you might want to consider getting a multiplier reel. In the same way, those who intend to catch deep-water fish would be best off using an automatic retrieval system.


There are two ways to construct a fly reel: pre-casting and machining. Pre-cast reels are made by pouring molten metal into a mold — a process used to produce cast iron tools since the 5th century BC.

antique fly fishing reel
antique fly fishing reel

Precast reels tend to be heavier and less durable than their machined counterparts but they can be found at lower price points making them an affordable option for beginners or those on a budget.

The reliability and affordable price tag or precast reels make them a good option when you’re just starting out in fly fishing. Machined reels, on the other hand, are milled out of one solid block of metal.

This process of manufacturing leads to a reel that is both lighter and stronger than those made through precasting. Machined reels will last you your entire lifetime and offer excelsior performance through the decades.

As you’d expect from such great construction, they are more expensive than precast reels. You should also take note of the finish on the reel. Anodized finishes are better equipped to survive saltwater — one of the most corrosive threats to fishing reels. An anodized finish is essential if you plan to fish in the ocean.


Drag is one of the most significant features of any fly reel. The drag gives you the power to stop a large fish from pulling all the line off your reel. There are two types of drag systems currently on the market; click and pawl, and disc drag.

Click-and-pawl has been used traditionally but offers less stopping power and adjustability when compared to disc drag systems. Click and pawl drag systems are good options if you’re chasing small species such as trout or sunfish or if you’re buying a fly reel on a tight budget.

Disc drag still offers a smoother and more efficient drag system. It’s a fantastic choice when you’re trying to stop a large fish dead in its tracks or if you need to stop a big trout smoothly.


The arbor is the cylinder at the center of your reel that the backing and fly line are wound around. Most of the reels that you’ll find today have some form of a large arbor. If you plan on chasing warm water or saltwater species, be sure to choose a reel that has a larger arbor.

Larger arbors can help you during smooth runs as well as retrieving your line quickly when the fish turns around and charges towards you. Classic trout reels tend to feature a smaller arbor due to the fact that they are built with beginners in mind.

These reels are lighter, cheaper, and have a low profile when compared to their bulkier, large-arbor counterparts. The size of the arbor on your reel will partially dictate the performance of your rod in one way or the other.

Small arbors are generally cheaper and lighter than large arbors are. Due to that, it makes the most sense to stick to a small arbor unless you absolutely need a larger arbor. Remember, it’s much easier to use light rod than it is to swing around a rod that weighs more than an adult catfish.

Using a lighter arbor that reduces the overall weight of your rod will help you stay sharp and reduce fatigue over long fishing trips. If you’re hunting for a fish that’s known for its will to live and tendency to run, you’ll need a fly reel that can hold a lot of line.

When all other factors are more or less equal, a larger arbor will retrieve line faster than a smaller unit would. This makes it rather valuable when trying to catch lake trout, bonefish, and other species that pull faster than you can say “I’m all out of line.”


The last aspect of a fly reel that you should think about before making your choice is the finish and color of the reel. Natural chrome and matte black finishes are the ones you’ll see most often but there are manufacturers who release reels in other colors as well.

With more and more manufacturers getting into the fly fishing industry, most anglers can find reels in any color they want. Some anglers say that shinier finishes might reflect light into the water which could spook the fish.

The chances of this happening to you are slim to none but it’s worth thinking about. If you are truly concerned with the chances of reflected light scaring away your catch, just go for a model that sports a matte finish.

The factors that we’ve gone over above were related to the act of casting or reeling in a catch, but you don’t fish in the vacuum of space, you fish in the real world, with real fish, and of course, real variables that should be considered when choosing your reel.

Target Species

When choosing a reel, you should always think about the behavior of the fish that you plan on catching. Some fish like lake trout are caught in deeper waters and like to put up a fight. To catch these types of fish, you’ll need to have a reel that can hold a lot of line while still having a smooth and strong drag system.

It should also collect line quickly to ensure you can keep up with your dinner. In contrast, these details aren’t as significant if you’re trying to catch brook trout in shallow water or a bluegill in a small pond.


It’s important that you use the right equipment based on where you plan on fishing. Fishing in the coastline of Florida is much different from going to the calm lakes of North Carolina or the chilled streams of Appalachia.

Different fly reels perform better in some locations than in others. If you fish in the ocean a lot, you’ll need equipment that can handle the corrosive saltwater as well as a sealed reel to protect the internal components.


When it comes to choosing a fly reel, there’s only one thing we can tell you; choose one that you like in the appropriate size but don’t kill your wallet over it. While this piece of advice may sound vague, it’s as truthful as it’ll get.

If you have a $200 or $400 saved up that you can spend on your first fly reel without getting in trouble with your landlord, spouse, or parents then you’re sure to come home with a great piece of fly fishing equipment.

The options that you’ll find in that range include the Ross Evolution LT Fly Reels, the Lamson Guru Series II Fly Reel, and the Lamson Lightspeed Micra Fly Reels. If you have $400 saved but can only spare $150 or even $50, you can still get a reel that lets you learn the fly fishing basics and hone your skills.

The good options that you’ll find in this price range are Waterworks Lamson Liquid Fly Reels, the Ross Flystart Fly Reels, and the Ross Rapid Fly Fishing Reel. The Ross and Lamson fly reels are among the most recommended options and are highly praised in the angler community.

Despite being at the entry-level price range, the fly reels listed about will give you years of good use.

Closing Thoughts

Selecting a fly reel might seem like a difficult choice to make due to the wide range of options available but don’t suffer from analysis paralysis. Our site provides detailed reviews and suggestions to help point you in the right direction.

If you look at the key factors that we’ve mentioned above, you should be more than qualified to choose a model that fits your needs. Now that we’ve taught you about each feature, its purpose, and what to look for, just think about which reel works best for your intended usage.

Now to get out there on the water and land that next trophy fish or meal for the frypan!