Tools of the Trade

Fly fishing tackle is more than beefed-up versions of its smaller freshwater cousins. Give plenty of thought when considering your next purchase.
Tom Mcglinchy

Any experienced carpenter or mechanic will tell you that to do a job right you need the right tools. This holds true for almost all aspects of life, and saltwater fly-fishing is no exception. The techniques and methods saltwater fly-rodders use may vary only slightly from the sport’s stream-born roots, but the tools of our trade are more than merely beefed-up versions of smaller freshwater cousins.

In an environment where the atmosphere is inherently corrosive and the quarry can run at speeds of up to 60 mph in any direction unimpeded, the fly reel becomes a critical piece of high-tech equipment. As fly-fishermen seek larger quarry on finer tippets, the reel becomes more than simply a place to hold line. Understanding this seemingly simple piece of gear can greatly increase your chances of success, but making sense of what’s available can be mind-numbing.



Fly reels come in two basic designs: direct-drive and antireverse. Yet many variations of these two designs are available, and the differences between them can be more significant than you might appreciate. To be sure, there are other designs, such as multiplier reels, but these are by far the most common.

By far, direct-drive reels remain the oldest and most common fly reels around. The straightforward design connects the handle directly to the spool. Put simply, the spool does whatever the handle directs it to do, and vice versa. The obvious disadvantages include the possibility that the tippet, line or rod can break if the angler forces the reel and that whizzing handles can crack knuckles as the fish runs. The major advantage: Many anglers feel the direct contact with a fish provides better control over the fight. Antireverse reels have some form of mechanism between the spool and the handle that disassociates the two and changes how the reel functions.

When a fish takes line from an antireverse reel, only the spool rotates; the handle remains stationary. The power needed to reel in a fish is transferred from the handle to the spool via an adjustable friction coupling – the drag. Besides being easier on the knuckles, the stationary handle allows easy changes to the drag setting, and it gives the fisherman a sort of line insurance if a fish makes an unexpected run. Even if the handle remains engaged, the drag will slip, allowing the fish to take line and avoiding a popped tippet.


Ironically, this slipping also ranks as the antireverse reel’s biggest drawback. Oftentimes during a prolonged fight, because an angler can adjust the drag during the fight with an anti-reverse reel, the drag is increased to land a tired fish. But then if the fish makes a late run, the tightened drag cannot be released in time, and the slip advantage is negated.

What many call combination reels offer the best of both antireverse and direct-drive reels. The most common combination reels in the U.S. have names such as Dual Mode and All Mode; in Europe they’re called Double Action, Change Over or Dyna Brake reels. These feature the advantages of an antireverse reel during a run, along with the advantages of a direct drive when retrieving line. As with the antireverse reel, the handle does not move when line pays out; however, as soon as the angler engages the handle, the spool becomes firmly connected just as it does with a direct-drive reel. If the handle gets released, the reel returns to an antireverse mode. This allows you to basically switch between modes to exert more pressure on the fish when necessary and keep fingers and tippets safe at the same time.

Two design variations of combination reels are available. One referred to as form locking works by manually converting the reel from one mode to the other. Like older 4-wheel-drive trucks, the change cannot be made while the spool is turning. Not only does the grinding pin make an awful sound as it attempts to engage the mechanism, but the parts also wear more quickly when forced. The second variant works on the basis of friction locking. This design has no undefined position between modes, which allows the angler to convert between modes automatically. This type of reel proves most useful on large fish and makes little sense for anything smaller than an 8-weight. Despite few disadvantages aside from cost and weight, combination reels are slowly catching on; the major drawback seems to be a lack of understanding.



Regardless of reel type, the spool does more than just hold the fly line and backing; it forms an integral part of the reel. Most modern spools used for larger fish are machined from a single piece of aluminum. That may seem inconsequential, but the spools of smaller freshwater reels often get pieced together from multiple parts, and that’s the last thing you want for salt water. Also, the runs of larger and faster saltwater fish can pack backing very tightly onto the spool.

Spools made from a single machined piece of material (usually aluminum) better handle the pressures that this tight packing can exert. Spools differ widely in how they can be removed and changed. By changing a spool, the angler can adjust his tackle to the fishing situation as needed; rather than strip off a hundred feet of fly line, you simply change spools. Also, some manufacturers make configurable reels that can adapt to a wide variety of line classes with a simple change of spools. Some reels have a button that releases the spool; others snap into place or have a screw that must be removed first. The mode for removal remains trivial as long as the method is quick, easy and secure, and does not compromise the fit of the spool onto the frame. Though few take much time to compare spool dimensions, the combined width and depth determine the volume of a reel, or how much line and backing the reel can hold.


The typical spool width runs approximately half of the spool’s depth, a ratio that reduces a fly line’s tendency to tangle. With larger widths, line builds up in a small hill on the spool (called caking), causing tangles as the line slips off of the hills. Smaller widths don’t offer enough volume to satisfy most consumers. Arbor diameter determines the depth of the spool, and recently large-arbor reels have become quite popular. As we all learned in school, the larger the diameter of a circle the greater the distance around the circumference or, in this case, the arbor. Therefore large-arbor designs pick up more line with one revolution of the spool than does a spool with a traditional-sized arbor, thus allowing a faster retrieve than with a traditional reel.

The problem with some initial large-arbor designs was that only the size of the arbor increased – the overall circumference and width stayed the same. This seriously decreased the volume of the reel without adding to the speed of pickup.

Unfortunately, no universally accepted calculations exist for helping an angler determine exactly what lines and backing fit onto particular reels. Each manufacturer estimates line capacities differently, but most modern fly reels offer room for enough backing to do the job. And when in doubt, consider using gel-spun lines for backing, which can almost double the capacity of most reels.

One last spool feature that often is overlooked is the cranking diameter. The size of the arc created by turning the reel handle will determine whether you retrieve with your wrist or your arm. Anglers have their own comfortable handle diameter for efficient wrist retrieval. When the handle diameter exceeds this range, typically about 3.5 inches, the angler uses his arm to retrieve the line – a much slower and more tiring retrieve. Tests have shown that a fisherman can pick up line faster with a traditional-arbor reel using a wrist retrieve than with a large-arbor reel using an arm retrieve. To fix this, some manufacturers simply move the handle on larger reels closer to the center of the spool.

Opposite the spool on the reel sits the housing. This holds the axle around which the spool rotates, provides for the connection of the reel foot to the reel and helps guide the line in and out of the reel. Like spools, reel housings are either manufactured from solid stock materials like aluminum or assembled from various parts. With any assembled reel housing, the connections can potentially work themselves loose over time. Solid housings come in two styles – open and closed.

While there are exceptions, generally open designs allow anglers to palm the spool, while the closed designs do not. Most agree that closed designs afford more overall strength and better protection for the spool, but the closed-frame design demands an extremely refined manufacturing process because of the limited tolerances between the housing and the spool. More milling, deburring and polishing goes into a closed design to ensure a correct fit and to smooth surfaces that will come into contact with the line.

Other external components rarely given a second thought include the reel foot and the crank handle itself. The traditional reel foot places the reel directly under the reel seat and behind the casting hand, while one with a slight forward canter actually shifts the reel’s center of gravity to directly below the hand. This small change makes the reel feel lighter than it actually is. Such a progressive foot (some manufacturers call this type of foot an arm) becomes particularly important on heavier reels. However, such a foot can lead to increased tangles when casting.

Most people view the crank handle as little more than a knob, but a poorly shaped handle can contribute to cramps when playing a fish. On antireverse or combination models, a poorly designed crank handle can even catch and foul the line during a cast or retrieve. Whether made from exotic woods, plastics or composites, the handle should be easy to grab and hold on to as well as remain comfortable during long fights. It should resist tangles, and on direct-drive reels should allow the fingers to slip free easily when a fish runs.


Admittedly, most people probably buy fly reels on the basis of looks and reputation, without giving much thought to the external or internal components. As with our cars, we like to know what’s under the hood, but most of us don’t know the first thing about how it works – and some of us don’t want to know.

Does it matter that most modern reel designs use sealed-needle or ball bearings that rotate around a fixed axle? Actually it does.

In many premium reels the one-way bearings allow the reel to brake the line only as line gets taken from the reel. The bearings often get completely enclosed in a housing to make the reel more durable, since foreign particles like sand, salt or even water can quickly compromise their mobility. Some manufacturers adhere to such strict design tolerances that even the smallest particles can’t get through, yet they still encase the bearings to ensure protection. During a run a fast fish can travel up to 60 mph, causing a spool with an arbor of 2 inches to spin at a rate of 6,000 rpm. Add to that the heat a couple of pounds of drag pressure generate, and that’s where the quality of the bearings and housing increase in importance. The saltwater environment plays havoc on moving parts, metal or otherwise, and a sealed system offers extra insurance worth considering.While the bearing system’s purpose is to keep the reel spinning smoothly, a drag system’s sole purpose involves stopping it smoothly.

The simplest type of drag system is the gear and spring clicker, also called click and pawl. In reality, the click and pawl system does little more that prevent overrunning of the spool and cannot be adjusted. This system is most common in freshwater applications and is rarely seen in saltwater designs.

True brake or drag system designs include numerous configurations and materials and can be as sophisticated as the braking system on your car. Common designs include a drawbar system that draws the shaft or spool against the drag material, lever-assisted click and pawl systems, turbine designs and caliper systems. Some designs apply pressure to one side of the spool, while others provide pressure to both sides simultaneously. Regardless, all pressure is transferred through the drag washers.

Most reels incorporate drag washers made from cork. Cork makes an extremely simple, inexpensive and efficient washer, but it can require more maintenance, especially if used in salt water. Overlubricating a cork washer will destroy it, and cork also can break down under pressure over time. Reels with cork washers should never be stored with the drag engaged. Plastics and composites have begun to slowly replace cork in some reels. Teflon against steel, for example, has an extremely low coefficient of friction, and more important, almost no start-up inertia. However, while noncompressible materials work well, some materials continue to have problems with jerking and high start-up inertia. Many manufacturers tout sealed drags, which can help prevent contamination of porous materials like cork and some carbon fibers, and they can certainly contribute to lower maintenance and increased durability. However, sealed drags do not necessarily imply smoothness. The trick to a smooth drag seems to rest simply in a good design, quality washers and subsequent care.


Believe it or not, even the aesthetics of the reel can be very important to its durability. The construction material and the finish can make the difference between a reel that will last a few seasons and one that will last a lifetime. Aluminum currently ranks as the most common material for manufacturing fly reels, but reel makers use everything from titanium in some high-end reels to plastics in many affordable models. Often, most of the internal and external construction components, such as screws, nuts, levers and axles, are stainless steel because of its resistance to corrosion. Because of weight concerns, reels themselves are not commonly manufactured from stainless steel.

A number of affordable fly reels incorporate many of the new plastic materials into their design and work well in freshwater conditions. As composites become more durable, you’ll find more reels that incorporate them. Most fly reels, however, are machined from some type of aluminum – often touted by marketing types as aircraft-grade aluminum to infer a particular high-quality material that has a higher load capacity.

However, true aircraft aluminum is actually an alloy with a high copper and zinc content; it’s not usable for competitive anodizing and is not saltwater-resistant. Only aluminum alloys with shares of magnesium and silicon become usable and durable in salt water. These are the alloys used most commonly in fly reels. A few companies produce reels manufactured from titanium, making them the most corrosion-resistant fly reels around. However, this extremely hard, strong material weighs more than aluminum and is more difficult to mill as well. Subsequently, the cost of the raw material and the increased milling expenses make titanium reels quite expensive.

Most aluminum reels have an anodized finish in black or gold, but the process allows almost any color or combination of colors. The anodization process actually protects the aluminum, but it cannot cover sharp 90-degree angles. There are also different types of anodization, from Type I through Type IV. Most reels are Type III anodized, but several use Type IV finishes. Type III is extremely durable, but with the Type IV process a chemical change in the outer layer of metal and finish creates a durable ceramiclike covering. A number of hard coat finishes also exist. These are five to 10 times thicker than with normal anodizing, so the aluminum becomes much more durable and corrosion resistant.

Regardless of type, drag or finish, determine which drive best meets your needs and don’t be afraid to look at a number of fly reels. Test the drags (by setting the drag lightly, holding the line from the reel and letting the reel sink to the floor) and pull line from the reels and retrieve the line. Make sure the reel will hold the amount of fly line and backing necessary to pursue the fish you want. Only by doing this can you ensure you have the right tool for the job.

–Karl-Heinz Henschel is a world-renowned fly-reel designer and owner of Germany’s Henschel Reels.