There are a lot of factors to consider when purchasing a new fly reel, so understanding the differences between how they’re made and what their different features are is essential to making a practical gear choice.
Fly reels are primarily categorized in two ways, by their drag system. The “drag” is the friction within your reel that slows fish down and can be manipulated with either discs or click and pawl, but these components work in very different ways. We’ll start breaking it down below.
Reels with a disc drag operate in a similar way to how the brakes in your car work. Plates (aka discs or washers) are tightened or loosened against the spool of your reel in order to slow it down. The original designs of this technology are still in use today, with one or more of the discs in use made of cork, which needs to be properly cared for and lubricated. This means the angler needs to have access to the cork, thus preventing it from being sealed from salt, silt, sand, and other debris that we often encounter on the water. If you’re fine with having a reel that requires some amount of maintenance, cork is hard to beat for its gentle stopping power and ease of use with more delicate tippets. Because of this, it’s highly popular in the Rockies and other trout fishing areas, and is available in many different Abel brand reels (shown below with cork visible).
If you’re looking for something that’s low maintenance but still has the easily adjustable features of a disc drag, you’ll want something that has a sealed drag. These reels are often built for saltwater applications but are more than capable in freshwater scenarios too. There are many USA-based brands building high quality sealed disc drag reels; Hatch (based in California), Nautilus (based in Florida), Tibor (based in Florida), Galvan (based in California), and Ross (based in Colorado) are just a few of the solid brands available today, with different features and specs depending on where you want to fish and what species you plan to target. Sealed drags are especially nice to have in saltwater fishing because even though they don’t have the super smooth and gentle stopping power of cork (internal components are often built from polymers that don’t require a reapplication of lubricant, like Teflon), their sealed systems mean little to no maintenance other than a rinse after exposure to salt or sand. Always keep in mind that salt is still highly corrosive, so you’ll want to ensure you get all of it out of your line and backing and off of your reel after a day on the flats. With a sealed drag, there is added assurance that your drag mechanism will continue to work properly for years to come with even just that small amount of care. Shown below is a fully sealed disc drag mechanism on an Abel reel.
One manufacturer that I intentionally left out of the sealed drag list above is Waterworks-Lamson (based in Idaho). Lamson reels are slightly different even still, and bring up another aspect of reel construction that I’ll dive into shortly; finish and material.
Waterworks-Lamson has a unique sealed drag system that is easy to adjust with the turn of a knob like the previously mentioned disc-drag systems, but rather than the discs that are used in those technologies, Lamson has a proprietary conical drag system that allows for zero start up torque and decreases maintenance even more. One of their machined aluminum reels is shown below.
With traditional disc drag reels, it’s important to let the drag out (or loosen it) completely at the end of the day/when it’ll be stored for a while. This keeps the discs from remaining compressed for too long and wearing down, and is particularly relevant with cork models. With Lamson’s conical drag, the same surface area of discs that are typically used in larger/more powerful reels are configured into a pair of cones that are machined with angular precision; allowing the stopping power of larger, heavier reels (that have larger, heavier discs) in a smaller, lighter weight reel. Lamson has other technologies that pair with their conical drag well, but this technology is one of the biggest selling points when shopping for a new reel. The other is their affordability; while they’re made and designed in the USA, Lamson offers cast aluminum reels that keep expenses down. The Liquid collection of reels (which all have their proprietary conical drag) starts out around $110 USD. That’s a great deal for a saltwater ready fly reel made in the US, and a huge reason I always point brand new anglers in Lamson’s direction (and no, this isn’t even remotely sponsored by Lamson, they're just the only reel manufacturer I own more than two reels from).
The biggest takeaway for disc drag reels? They have the strongest stopping power for big game fish, and those with a sealed drag are the best option for saltwater fishing.
Cast vs. Machined
Above I mentioned that the less expensive reels available from Lamson are cast aluminum. What does that mean? And how is it different from other reel materials, like machined aluminum? Below are three different Lamson reels; the two on the left are made with machined aluminum, the one on the right is cast aluminum.
Casting is the process of pouring molten aluminum into a mold. This allows faster production than machining but also creates a harder product. Harder isn’t inherently bad, but in some cases it can mean more brittle, which means if you drop or run over your reel (we all have that one friend…sometimes we are that one friend), then it’s more likely to crack rather than warp or dent. This isn’t a deal breaker, but is a factor to consider if you’re particularly clumsy.
Machined aluminum is aluminum that is cut from a larger block (aka billet) into its final desired shape via a controlled material-removal process (typically CNC in the reel manufacturing world). This process leads to a final product that’s lighter weight and slightly more durable/easier to repair; but perhaps most importantly, it provides a better surface for anodizing. Anodizing is the process of converting the aluminum surface to be more durable and corrosion-resistant (typically done in a desired color), which protects the metal from the elements, and is particularly relevant in saltwater environments. Shown below is a fully machined, anodized aluminum, sealed disc drag reel from Hatch, on the water in Costa Rica (where it performed exactly as it needed to).
If you’re looking for a well priced reel that still has killer drag and can be used in the salt, then the cast options are a great way to go. But if you have the extra bucks to spend on a machined reel, they can definitely be worth the investment.
If you’re into the romance and history of fly fishing and primarily fish freshwater, then you may be more interested in the old school cool drag system that is the click-and-pawl (or click pawl). While these reels are suited for lighter weight/smaller stream fishing (think 0-5wt rods), there’s also a large demand for them in the world of steelhead fishing. This is largely due to their simplicity of design; there is little between you and the fish, which is very appealing to many purist anglers.
Disc drag reels sometimes have a mechanism added to them that makes them “click”, which can help you hear how quickly a fish is taking out line. This idea of the click came from the OG click-and-pawl reels, which have no real way of adjusting drag, and instead the angler uses the palm of their hand pressed against the spool to slow down/stop a fish in their tracks. This is a difficult skill to master and can easily make you lose fish when you’re first getting a feel for it, but it’s also a ton of fun...even if you end up with some bloody knuckles from your reel handle. The loud clicks that blast out of a click-pawl reel when a large fish takes your swung fly are heart stopping and incredibly hard to beat.
Some of the most well known click pawl reels in fly fishing history are those of Hardy, made in England and shown above. These reels have their own cult following, and while some are kept like jewelry and never fished, others are fished but meticulously maintained. Because of how long Hardy has been around (founded 1872), the history of the company would warrant its own post. You can read more about Hardy here, or watch the documentary about them titled “The Lost World of Mr. Hardy” (available on Amazon Prime).
One big thing to keep in mind is that a click-and-pawl reel has a completely exposed internal mechanism (ie not sealed in any way). This consists of one or more clickers (aka pawls) that tick against the teeth of a gear (shown above). The lack of a seal makes them highly unsuitable for saltwater fishing. Lots of small, exposed parts (usually including brass) are not something you want exposed to harsh elements. It’s important to keep these reels clean and well lubricated to prevent corrosion even just from freshwater and silt.
Some reel manufacturers have multiple pawls for added drag resistance; these reels do have an adjustable drag in that sense; you can engage or disengage the number of pawls in contact with the gear to increase or decrease the amount of resistance it provides. A machined aluminum reel with a 6-pawl drag, meant for steelhead fishing, is shown above. In the video below, only four pawls are engaged; this creates less drag than having all six pawls engaged would. You can also hear the resulting clicks that are so addictive to Spey anglers.
Biggest takeaway for click pawl reels? They're noisy and classic and a lot of fun, but they do require a bit more maintenance because of their construction. You'll find a ton of history with them and they're amazing for freshwater fishing, particularly small streams and swing fishing.
Lastly we have centerpin reels. If you look at a centerpin reel, you might think that it’s a fly reel, and that’s the only reason I’m mentioning them in this article. Centerpin reels are designed for casting terminal weight (more like a spinning or baitfishing reel), and hold monofilament rather than fly line. They’re also used primarily for fishing with floats, either bait, jigs, or other lures. Weirdest of all, they have no drag, which allows for better and longer drift fishing, but also allows the line to free spool when casting...which can mean a birds’ nest in your reel. Centerpinning can be a very fun and effective way to fish, but it takes a lot of practice to master casting them without destroying your monofilament.
Regardless of what kind of reel you end up choosing for your rod set up, the last piece you’ll need to decide on before getting on the water is the drag direction. Most reels come ready to go with the drag set to left-hand retrieve already (the most common form of retrieve for those who cast with their right hand). If you’re left handed, or a big game saltwater angler, you’ll likely want the drag to be right-handed. This can often be done at home yourself, but some reel manufacturers (like Nautilus) don’t have an interchangeable drag and that’s something you should look into prior to purchasing. If you’re buying a reel that’s preloaded with line or backing, make sure to note the direction there as well; most drags can be switched easily, but if the line is already on you’ll need to remove it all and spool it up again if you’re wanting to change things from left to right or vice versa.