Q: What are the major differences between cork and carbon-fiber disc drags. Which are best suited for saltwater fly-fishing?
A: Cork disc drags have served fly-fishermen for decades, and thousands of fish – including huge billfish – have been landed on them. Carbon-fiber disc drags appeared more recently, and thousands of fish have been caught using these drags.
Both reels have advantages and disadvantages. With proper care, however, you can’t go wrong with either. Cork is soft, and if the reel is left for an extended period with the adjustment knob screwed down, the compression can ruin the cork and it must be replaced. For top performance, the cork drag also should be lubricated (which is best done by the manufacturer).
The advantages of cork drags are that they usually have lighter starting drags than carbon-fiber models. This is more beneficial and critical when adjustments to drag pressure need to be made while fighting a big fish.
There are different carbon-fiber drags. Not all are manufactured the same way, but if the drag adjustment is screwed down too tightly for an extended period of time, it does not damage the material. Most carbon-fiber drags have a higher starting drag than cork, but that can be reduced somewhat by lubricating the carbon-fiber drag surface with a thin film of grease.
I believe almost all carbon-fiber drags currently manufactured perform better if they receive an occasional thin coating of grease. The product I use (and I buy it) is called Cal 2 Speed. It is the best all-around drag grease I have used on my plug-, spinning- and fly-reel drag washers, and it can be located easily on the Internet. A small tub costs only a few dollars.