Fort Collins Beginner Fly Fishing Lessons: Fly Reels

Today’s Blog PostFly ReelsThe never ending debate amongst anglers goes like this…”a fly reel does nothing but hold your backing and fly line, so don’t spend a lot of money on your reel.”  “A fly reel does a lot more than hold your backing and fl…

Today's Blog Post

Fly Reels

The never ending debate amongst anglers goes like this..."a fly reel does nothing but hold your backing and fly line, so don't spend a lot of money on your reel."  "A fly reel does a lot more than hold your backing and fly line, so make sure you buy a good one."  "Large arbor reels are better reels." Here's FCFF no non-sense take on the subject..."it depends." But before we explain and give our final say, allow us to walk you through reels 101.  

Action of Fly Reels

  • single action reel is the most popular type of fly reel on the market today.  This means the reel has a 1:1 retrieve ration. A complete turn of the handle equals one complete turn of the spool.  Mechanically, this style of reel is simple and if made with quality parts, should last a lifetime.  
  • multiplying reel has a retrieve ratio greater than 1:1. Obviously, the benefit of this feature is an angler's ability to retrieve line faster when reeling.  Mechanically, they are more complicated than a single action reel, and if high quality parts are not used, then these reels can cause problems (speaking from experience). 
  • By the use of a trigger, not a handle, an automatic reel, automatically retrievers fly line. Mechanically, this means more moving parts, probable to high failure rates, and adds un-necessary weight to the reel.  To be short and direct, do not purchase this type of reel. 

Drag System

Classic Spring and Pawl Reel

By today's standards, a spring and pawl reel is considered to be a traditional reel, representing out-dated technology. Much of that statement is true; however, I personally believe that click and pawl reels can be used in any fly fishing situation. Why?  Click and pawl reels have been landing fish, from trout to tuna, for over 100 years.  How?  The reels are almost mechanically fail-proof, and truth be told, it's the angler...not the reel (or rod) that lands the fish!  To over emphasize the point, do you need a high-tech drag system to land a 2lbs trout on a 9ft 5wt rod...absolutely NOT! The benefits of using a click and pawl reel are; it can be lighter than reels with drag systems; and the reel is designed to feed-out line smoothly which may help prevent tippet breaks.  Lastly, and a personal favorite of mine, a click and pawl reel allows you to fight (palming the reel) a fish, in what I believe to be the most natural way possible. But, if you are consistently targeting large fish (+20lbs) you may want to look at reels with high-tech drag systems.

Large Arbor Reel with Cork Disc-Drag System

High-Tech Disc-Drag reel systems are the industry rage!  These type of reels, use various materials that essentially act like a brake on a car.  A quick turn compresses the inner pads and your reel can now, virtually stop a truck!  Another quick turn, and your drag system smoothly lets out line for fine tippet fishing applications.  Not all disc drag's are made the same.  Generally speaking, domestic made reels versus imports may cost more, but you'll get better engineering, better parts and over all, a lifetime of better performance. But, the question is, do you need a high-tech disc-drag reel? Based on my personal experience, and for those who are targeting smaller fish (-20lbs), the answer is NO.      

Note: Before moving on, we should mention the following: a 2lb fish in a fast moving current, with rocks and sub-merged trees, will test an angler using a light weight, e.g. medium action 4wt rod with a spring and pawl reel.  Again, the choice of equipment (reels) depends on situational and personal preference factors. 

Fly Reel Line Weight

It's simple, remember fly rod weight = fly line weight = fly reel weight.  
For Example:  9ft 5wt = WF 5 F = 5 weight reel.

Now days, especially with medium and larger arbor reels, you may see a reel that is labeled 4/5 weight or 6/7/8 weight. This simply means that the reel has the capacity, depending on how much backing line is added, to carry multiple weight (diameter) lines.  This beg's the question, can I use my 6wt reel on my 4wt fly rod.  Answer: Yes, but it may feel heavy in the hand.  Can I use my 4 weight reel on my 6 weight reel. Answer: in a pinch, yes, but not recommended.  Overall, it is always best to match the reel weight with the rod weight.  

Note: I typically line-up my reels. I do this because I like how the extra weight loads my rod. For example, I will add a 6wt line to a 9ft/5wt rod. Due to the larger diameter of the 6wt line, I will then reduce my backing so the rod-reel-line is properly balanced.

Left or Right Handed Reels

Buying a reel that offers both left and right handed retrieves is optimal, and does not effect the overall performance and value of the reel.  Plus, if you ever hand the rod down to a family member or have a desire to sell it, a left and right retrieve option is a must have feature.  Note:  Many beginners make this sure to spool your backing and fly line properly so the spool's revolution matches a left of right handed retrieve.   

Spare Spool and Large Arbor Reels

Modern Large Arbor and Spare Spool

Spare spools are a matter of convenience and personal preference.  Most fisherman inter-change spools to change from a floating line to a sinking line.  However, what most fisherman fail to realize is that 95% of their time on the water, will only require floating line (depends on waters fished). So why buy an extra spool lined with sinking line, and then carry a heavy-bulky object in your vest that you rarely use?  If you find yourself in a situation that requires various types of sinking lines, then you may need a spare spool with a sinking line. Personally, I do have a spare spool (only one), but I travel the world, and I fish in highly specialized waters. Overall, let's say for trout fishing, I don't find spare spools to be a must have item. To go deep, you can lengthen your leader and simply add split-shot; or you could use inter-changeable sinking tips (Poly-Leaders, for example).  The downside to these methods is the casting 'feel' stroke (it may feel clunky).  As I initially stated, it's a matter of convenience and personal preference.  Lastly, if you do not buy spare spools when you purchase your reel, in the future, finding a spare spool that fits your reel, might become challenging.

Now days, it's hard to find anything but a large or medium arbor spool. When compared to a traditional spring and pawl reel, the overall size will be much different and the width of the spool will be wider (i.e. one hockey puck vs. two stacked hockey pucks).  Though the large and medium spools may look much bigger than traditional spring and pawl reels, the over all weight might be the same. The advantages of the larger arbor reels are: ability to reel in line faster, and less coiling of the line, when stored.  Other than looking cool for some folks, in my personal opinion, when fishing for smaller game, the benefits of large arbor reels, are minimal.  In other words, don't expect your large arbor reel to help you cast better or catch more fish. 

Note: I recommend buying reels that offer an exposed rim so that the angler may palm the reel (this may be hard to find in older spring and pawl reels).  Palming is a technique where the angler gently applies pressure to the exposed rim of the spool while the fish runs.  The small amount of pressure from the palm of the hand becomes your drag system.    

Weight of the Reel and Backing Line

Large Arbor spooled with backing and fly line

When you narrow down your reel choices, I would always recommend going with the lightest, yet structurally strongest reel possible (not the strongest drag system).  Why? With a light weight reel and a well balance outfit, you'll be less likely to experience hand-wrist-arm stress/fatigue. Note: beware of low cost, light weight reels made from plastic parts.  

If a trophy fish were to make a long run, say +200 feet and you did not have any backing attached to your 90ft fly line (standard fly line length), then you would be faced with a big problem.  To counter this issue, we typically attach 20lbs or 30lbs Dacron line to our fly line and reel (30lbs Dacron is typically used for larger reels and big game fish).  But, how many of us freshwater anglers (trout) can honestly say that we have had a fish run over 200 feet. The take away message: if you are fishing for smaller fish, and you want to lighten the total weight of your reel, then don't add the total manufacture recommended amount of backing. 

Saltwater Reels

Large Arbor Saltwater Reel. Fish is already into the backing!

A reel of any sort worse enemies are salt and sand!  You could use your freshwater reel in saltwater conditions, but if your real is of poor quality and you do not properly clean you reel after use, it will ultimately corrode and fail.  Things to look for in a good saltwater reel: high quality parts designed to take saltwater punishment, and your reel needs to hold at last 200 yards of 30lbs backing (ocean fish are big, strong and fast!).  Many high-end ($) reels today have been engineered for both sweet and saltwater.  But, remember to chose the lightest weight reel possible (not the strongest drag system).

Final Thoughts

I spent nearly my whole life fishing spring and pawl reels.  When I switched to large arbor reels, I did not catch bigger, or more fish (but, I did spend more $ on my reels).  If I lost a trophy fish on a spring and pawl reel, it felt more than felt GREAT!  In fact, I would go so far as to say, that we have lost the art of fighting fish (palming, etc).  We now rely on drag systems that could stop a train. Now days, for my rods #1-#6 I do not use a reel with a drag system.  I believe the use of a drag on these types of rods/reels, is totally unnecessary.  

Always remember, the most important equipment in fly fishing is not your reel, it's your brain and heart.  

Fort Collins Beginner Fly Fishing Lessons: Fly Rods

Today’s Blog Post Classic Split Cane Bamboo RodsBy now you understand how fly lines, and matching leader-tippet to hook size are extremely important.  In my opinion, the next most important step  is your purchasing your fly rod.  Where …

Today's Blog Post

Classic Split Cane Bamboo Rods

By now you understand how fly lines, and matching leader-tippet to hook size are extremely important.  In my opinion, the next most important step  is your purchasing your fly rod.  Where to start?  I will approach this as though you are a beginner and you are looking for a well balanced 'starter' rod. 

Modern Graphite Rods and Reels

Design: Each fly rod has been designed to cast a specific line weight.  For example: a six weight fly rod has been designed to cast a six weight fly line.  The chart below is a guideline, not a rule, for balancing rod-weight, and fly size.  

Rod/Line Weight
Fly Size Range
1/0 - 12
2/0 - 10
3/0 - 8
4/0 - 6
6/0 - 4

Length:  Single hand fly rods range from 6ft to 10ft.  Two handed rods (commonly called switch and spey) range from +/- 11ft to +/- 15ft.  A typical starter, all purpose single hand rod, designed to fish for trout or bass, is a 9 ft 5 or 6 weight.  For local New England waters, I would pick a 9ft 5wt.  Now what 'Action or Flex," do you pick?

Action: Not all rods are the same.  Each material (bamboo, fiberglass, graphite, boron) possesses physical properties which, along with proprietary manufactured tapered designs, determines the characteristics of a fly rod performance.  Plus, there are entry level rods, and high end rods with both fast, medium, and slow actions.  Each manufacturer has their own action indexing system and as a result, there is no set standard for measurement.  For Example: An Orvis 9 ft 5 wt Helios fast action rod will feel and perform differently than a Scott S4 9ft 5wt fast action rod. Before I dive deeper into this discussion, just what are I am talking about when I use the word 'Action,' or "Flex.'

In the fly rod industry, when we use of the word 'Action or Flex,' we are referring to the bend of the rod. Technically, 'action' is defined as the relative resistance to bending as you move down the length of the fly rod shaft. The below picture clearly shows the 'bend' of a fly rod designed to be fast, medium or slow.

Let's take a closer look at the available 9ft 5wt actions:

Fast Action or Tip-Flex: due to the specific tapered design of the blank, these rods bend less, and are stiffer. Plus, they don't call them 'tip-flex' for nothing.  In other words, the rod is designed to flex only from the tip-top to about 1/3 down the rod.  As a result, when you catch a fish, the rod's butt and mid-section do the work for you, and your ability to feel and play the fish is entirely different from medium and slow actions rods. However, fast action rods tend to cast farther and have become the most popular action-type rod on the market today (both with beginners and advance fly fisherman). The stiffness of these rods will help you mend and pick up line easier, create tight loops with ease, create higher line speeds allowing you to punch line through strong winds, make longer cast in almost all situations with greater ease, and significantly increase your ability to cast larger flies and heavier weighted fly lines.  In other words, with moderately correct casting form, the rod does much of the work for you. In Patagonia Argentina, where sustained winds of 25mph are the norm, a fast action rod, such as a 9.6ft 6wt, is a MUST have!        

Medium Action or Mid-Flex: these rods bend more than fast action rods, and generally flex from the tip-top to the middle portion of the rod, or generally the 2/3 mark down the rod.The remaining 1/3 of the rod, from about +/- the middle of the rod to the rod butt, will provide the angler with a stiff feel which aides in casting and fighting fish. Despite fast action rods being the most popular, the medium action rod, in my opinion are the most versatile fly rods on the market. In the hands of a competent caster, you can do everything a fast action rod can do. If you prefer slower line speed for subtle dry-fly presentations, and a forgiving tip which allows you to play the fish and avoid tippet breaks, then I would highly recommend a medium action rod.     

Slow Action or Full-Flex:  Though manufacturers make slow action graphite rods, historically, when it comes to slow action rods, we tend to think bamboo and fiberglass. Now think very slow line speed and ultra sensitive tip-top protective action.  A sensitive tip-top action will absorb strikes and prevent fine tippet, such as 8X, from breaking. A slow action rod is used by many small stream dry-fly fisherman who prefer delicate short distance casts looking to feel the action of a fighting fish from the tip-top of the rod, to his/her hands. However, there are a handful of old school purist who will, for example, purposely use a 9ft 9wt slow action rod (mostly for saltwater fishing because when you use heavier lines and flies, your casting stroke changes and a slower action rod enhances performance).

Note:  Learning on a slow action rod, in my opinion, can be very challenging for a beginner.  Why? To obtain optimal fly line and fly rod performance, an angler must be consistently patient and develop timing (as seen in a River Runs Through It).  Personally, I grew up fishing a 9ft 6wt slow action fiberglass rod.  As a youth, I hated it...I wanted instant gratification.  But, it was the only fly rod I had, so I stuck with it. Now, as an adult, after learning how to use this tool, I cherish every moment I cast with this rod! 

Final Thoughts 

As a beginner, as you develop your casting stroke, it could take you several years to finally determine which flex style you prefer. To accelerate your understanding of fly rod performance, I would ask your local fly shop to provide you with a variety of rod-reel-line set-ups. If you do this make sure the rod-reel-line is properly balanced; otherwise your wasting your time. Also, don't be afraid to ask a friend to try his/her well balanced rod-reel-line.  For me,  I tend to favor the following actions: medium-fast, medium, and medium-slow. I also tend to line-up my rod/reel. In other words, if I am using a 9ft/5wt, I will add 6wt line to my reel and adjust the amount of backing so I don't over spool my reel (I no longer follow Mfg's guidelines for line-reel-backing amounts).

Fort Collins Beginner Fly Fishing Lessons: Hook Size

I grew up thinking, the bigger the lure/hook, the bigger the fish.  I suppose if you’re fishing for large toothy species, that rationale may apply.  In the trout game, large hook thinking is mostly unfounded, and in many situations, could sev…

I grew up thinking, the bigger the lure/hook, the bigger the fish.  I suppose if you're fishing for large toothy species, that rationale may apply.  In the trout game, large hook thinking is mostly unfounded, and in many situations, could severely effect your success.      

Size Does Matter -- Read On.

Tippet Size
Tippet Diameter
Approximate breaking strength in Super Strong nylon (pounds)
Balances with fly sizes:
22, 24, 26, 28
18, 20, 22, 24
16, 18, 20, 22
14, 16, 18
12, 14, 16
6, 8, 10
4, 6, 8
2, 4, 6
1/0, 2, 4
5/0, 4/0,3/0, 2/0
5/0, 4/0,3/0, 2/0
5/0, 4/0,3/0, 2/0

Since the above graph features typical trout hook sizes, let's take a closer look. The below picture accurately describes the hook's features, but how do we determine the size of a hook?  Hooks come ins all sizes and shapes.  The largest hooks range from a monstrous 18/0 to 1/0, and the smallest hooks range from 1 to the eye squinting, barely visible 32. 

The size of the hook is simply determined by the width of the gape (the measurement between the shank and the point). 

Initially, the system may seem confusing, but always remember to start at zero.  As you progress up in the numerical numbers (1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14,16,18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 32) the gape becomes smaller, thus the hooks become smaller.  As you decrease from zero (1/0, 2/0, 3/0, 4/0, 5/0, 6/0, 7/0, 8/0, 9/0,10/0,11/0,12/0,13/0,14/0,15/0,16/0,17/0,18/0) the hook gape becomes wider, thus the hooks become larger (not necessarily longer). 

By now, in the above chart, you'll see how smaller or larger hooks match up with smaller or larger diameter leaders and tippets.  For example, you would never match a size 2 hook with an 8X leader. Why?  the diameter of the 8X tippet will not be strong enough to cast or turn-over the larger fly. Thus your casting and presentation will suffer, if not be impossible; and the likelihood of your tippet breaking increases significantly. Try it on the'll understand immediately!

The 'X' Factor: Strength and Length

Your at the fly shop and you see hooks labeled Size 2, 2X/2XL or Size 4, 2X/ you are really confused.  To keep things simple, all this means is the hook is stronger and has a longer shank (when compared to standard hooks noted in the above graph).  To be a bit more precise, 2X simply means the hook has a thicker-stronger diameter; and the 2XL simply means the length of the shank is two times the length of a standard hook.  Applications for stronger and longer hooks usually means you fishing deep for bigger fish (large streamer flies).

Converting from the world of lurers, worm and bobbers, and 8 lb test line, will take some time.  But once you master it, you'll soon realize how simple and effective it is.