close-up view of a fly reel with a field and mountains in the background

How to Choose a Fly Reel

Reading Time: 3 minutes
With all the options and all the details, choosing the right fly reel can be overwhelming. But don’t worry, Jans fly fishing expert, Larry Culley comes to the rescue. Larry, who has fished on ESPN’s Destination Outdoors and has judged ESPN’s Great Outdoor Games, helps anglers who come into Jans with this process all the time. Read on for his overview of how to choose a fly reel including the basics of fly reel balance, construction, drag, arbor size, and left/right hand retrieve.

Fly Rod and Reel Balance
It’s important to balance a fly reel to the fly rod and line weight. Fly shop experts like those at Jans can help eyeball this, and you can also try out a fly reel to see how feels on your fly rod. If the reel is too large for the rod, then the butt of the fly fishing rod will tend to dip; if the reel is too light, then the tip of the rod tends to dip. You want to find a centered balance to prevent your hand and arm muscles from getting tired from trying to hold your fly rod steady.

Fly Reel Construction and Material
High end fly reels are made of fully machined aluminum, resulting in a strong and lightweight product.

Entry level fly reels are cast aluminum with a range of machining from none to some. As a result, these fly reels tend to be lightweight but not very strong.

Resin fly reels are available for even lower prices, however, they are not as lightweight, don’t balance as well, and are not very strong. Keep in mind that resin fly reels may break if they’re dropped on rocks.

Fly Reel Drag
On a fly reel, the drag refers to the braking mechanism. Top of the line disc drag systems or conical disc drag systems result exceptionally smooth fly reels, with what is called “zero start up inertia.” Lesser drag systems may give more resistance to start the reel spinning, resulting in a greater likelihood of breaking off a light tippet with a big fish, while a better drag can help you land the fish of a lifetime.

Fly Reel Arbor Size
The arbor is the hub in center of a fly reel. Arbor sizes include standard, mid, large, and ultra-large. Traditional arbors are skinny and take a lot of backing. Larger arbors take less backing, and every time you turn the handle they pick up line faster, so you get a faster retrieve. In the case of arbor size, bigger is pretty much better, unless you want to go with a smaller arbor because you like the traditional look and feel.

Left or Right Hand Retrieve Fly Reels
Most fly reels come from the manufacturer set up for right hand cast and left hand retrieve. Many are left/right convertible, but not all, so consider which hand you want to crank your reel with and check that the fly reel you buy works accordingly. Most trout anglers crank with their non-dominant hand, while saltwater anglers usually cast and crank with their dominant hand. But these aren’t set rules; it’s a matter of preference. Fly shop experts can help you easily switch the set up on your fly reel if you’d like.

Overall, when choosing a fly reel, you can start to narrow down your search by determining what will balance well with your fly rod and what kind of compromise you want to make between price and performance. Then you’ll also want to consider the material and construction, reel drag, arbor size, and left or right hand retrieve.

Larry’s advice on how to choose a fly reel is to come chat with him, and try out some of the fly reels we have in stock with your fly rod. Come into the store to get the benefit of Larry’s countless years of fly fishing expertise, or browse our offering of fly reels online.

Kendall Fischer, Content Writer