Cutthroat Chronicles: Knowing Your Fly Reel

Buying a fly reel is nearly as overwhelming as buying a new fly rod. You have nearly limitless choices, and cutting through the marketing BS isn’t easy.

That’s what I’m here for. Today we’ll look at some important facts about fly reels to help you become more informed on one of fly fishing’s lesser-discussed pieces of gear.


This trips up more anglers than anything else about reels except the drag system (which we’ll address in a second).

Fly reels fall into one of three classifications – small, mid, or large arbor.

Arbor describes the diameter of the spindle upon which your reel’s spool spins. This is actually more important than the size of your reel’s spool.

Fly reel

The larger your reel’s arbor is, the more area it covers per revolution. That means your line-rate retrieval speed increases because you have to turn the spool fewer times to bring line back to your reel.

Small arbor reels were used for so long because of their light weight and ability to balance trout-friendly rods. With the surge into big game fishing, though, the need for reels with larger arbors became readily apparent.

Saltwater fishing gave us the large arbor reel, which can retrieve line at a rate of nearly three times the average small arbor.

Large arbor reels are also bigger, and not nearly as balance friendly for common trout rods (weights 3 – 6). An unbalanced rod doesn’t cast correctly, a problem in both fresh and saltwater.

The discrepancy between a small and large arbor gave birth to the mid arbor. This is fast becoming the most popular size for trout reels. A mid arbor has faster line pickup, still maintains a lower profile, and doesn’t weigh too much to unbalance a rod. It combines the best of a large and small arbor reel, making it a perfect choice for rods weighted up to a six.


Now we get to the real determining factor of a reel’s value to you personally. I’m a bit of an old-school angler; I fish slow-action rods and primarily fish dry flies. As such, I prefer a click/pawl reel over a disc drag. The way I connect with a fish, play the trout, and manage its runs through a click/pawl is just more fun for me than a disc drag.

Now you’re likely completely different, and that’s the beauty of fly fishing – we all get to practice it according to our own perceptions.

It is important, however, to know and thoroughly understand the differences between the two drag systems so you know which type of reel will best suit your personal fishing style.

  • Click/pawl: A click/pawl reel uses a series of gears and tensions bands to allow line to leave the spool at a uniform, steady, and most importantly, smooth, rate. The line is retrieved similarly. The biggest downfall to a click/pawl reel is the relative lack of adjustment available. The only reel I own that really adjusts when I turn the knob is my Hardy Duchess. These reels also make that classic whirring sound when a trout takes off on a long run – something you just can’t replicate with a disc drag.

Fly reel

  • Disc drag: A disc drag reel works a lot like the brakes on your car. When you turn the knob on a disc drag reel, you increase the pressure against your line as it leaves the spool. Back when disc drag reels first came out, they were noticeably jerky and led to far more broken leaders than a click/pawl. Today, though, the pickup is buttery smooth and these reels allow you to place more pressure on a fish with less fear of broken leader.

Fly reel

So which is best?

Consider your most common fly fishing situation. For most of us, it’s trout fishing on medium-sized rivers, to fish that are comfortably 10-22” long. In that case, a mid arbor reel is your best bet.

Drag system is entirely dependent on your fishing style. If you like to palm a reel and feel the fight of the fish, I’d recommend a click/pawl. If you like to crank down the drag and haul a fish in quickly, then a disc drag is your reel.

Like everything else in fly fishing, reel choice boils down to preference. Come in to our shop in Sandy to get a hands-on look at reels so you can decide which is best for you.

Spencer is an outdoors columnist, fly fishing writer, sports writer, and novelist from Utah. He’s also the managing editor of The Modern Trout Bum. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.