A Basic Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing in Southwest Florida

C 1996, Don Phillips

Chapter 4 - Fly Reels

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In The Compleat Angler (1653) by Izaak Walton, Cotton writes that"....he that cannot kill a trout of 20 inches long with a 2-hair (2 horse hairs) leader deserves not the name of an angler." In proper perspective this says a lot about the skills of anglers in that century. They used 15-18 foot rods, line/leader assemblies of the same length and no reels! Imagine the skill involved with that 20-inch trout. Even Walton suggests throwing the rod into the stream after hooking a really large trout, and somehow retrieving it when the trout has tired.

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Although early sketches show that the Chinese were using crude reels for fishing in the 13th century, they don't show up in English literature until the early 18th century (Ustonson in 1726)and these devices were more like baitcasting reels than today's fly reels. The first US-made fly reels were made in the early 1800s, but the true forerunners of today's modern fly reels were made in England by Hardy (1880's) and in the US by Orvis (1874). The late 19th century was a significant period in reel technology, with the development of the first saltwater-resistant reel and handle counterbalancing by Vom Hofe. I'm appreciative of of A Treasury of Fly Reels by Jim Brown (1990) for the material in these first two paragraphs.

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Much of current trout fly fishing literature refers to the fly reel as simply a place to store line. This is certainly an understatement for our fly reels used on the Southwest Florida coast. First, the reel must be capable of withstanding saltwater corrosion at our high ambient temperatures. Don't forget that corrosive chemical reactions are usually accelerated at increasing temperatures. Second, our reels must have a good drag mechanism to put pressure on the hooked fish and bring him to hand in a reasonably short period of time. Third, these reels must generally be larger than their freshwater cousins, to store heavier line weights and to store more backing line for larger and more robust fish species.

Most fly reels cost between $30.and $500, but you generally must spend around $100. and up to have good saltwater resistance, a good drag system and sufficient line capacity. For good saltwater corrosion resistance, all reel parts must be manufactured from stainless steel, titanium, anodized aluminum, fiber/resin composite, plated steel, brass or bronze components. Furthermore, the coating or plating on aluminum and steel parts must be of high integrity to prevent passivation or corrosion on areas subject to wear or nicking. The best way for the layman to evaluate the quality of reel materials is to ask fly fishermen who have used their reels for two or more seasons. After two years of use, most corrosion problems will begin to show up.

For most saltwater applications, the reel's drag system is the most important feature. The click-and-pawl drag systems are effective in preventing line snarling from reel overrun, but they provide little in the way of resistance to tire a large fish. Some anglers like the "singing" of a click-and-pawl reel when a fish is running while others think it's an unnecessary and noisy feature. A truly experienced fly fisher can live with a click-and-pawl drag if the reel spool has an exposed rim that he or she can "palm" to control drag manually. Most of our Southwest Florida fly fishers however use reels with adjustable disk-type drag mechanisms to control the amount of pressure that can be applied to a running fish. The requirements of a good drag system are that it should start up from stationary with a minimum of sticking, operate smoothly at all rates of line withdrawal, and can be set high enough to tire the fish. All three of these requirements must be met without the drag exceeding the strength of the leader's weakest point.

The fly reel must have enough capacity to hold the fly line being used, plus up to 15 feet of leader and 100-300 yards of backing. Most reels come with instructions that will tell you how much backing you can use with various fly lines. Please keep in mind that different fly line designs will take up different amounts of reel space (more on this in the next chapter). The reel's capacity is of course determined by three variables; the outside diameter(OD), the inside diameter(ID) and the width of the reel spool. The reel (sorry, I couldn't resist that) challenge though is to get a reel whose spool OD, ID and width are properly matched to your intended fishing application. For snook, redfish, seatrout, mangrove snapper, mackerel, ladyfish and jack crevalle 100-150 yards of backing is usually more than enough, because even the largest of these species are not known for running great distances before tiring. However, large tarpon (as well as bonefish and permit on Florida's eastern flats) can take out a lot of line before they're ready to give some back and you'll want to have as much line capacity as practical. Therefore, when selecting a reel for tarpon fly fishing you must consider line capacity plus the following:

  1. A large spool OD has high line capacity and also permits retrieval of lots of line for each revolution of the reel handle (about 11 inches of line retrieval for a 3-1/2 inch diameter spool, when starting with a full spool). This can be quite important when a running tarpon suddenly changes direction and starts coming right at you. It's important under these circumstances to reel up the slack to minimize chances of the hook working loose.

  2. A relatively large spool ID will reduce line capacity, but will maintain a high line retrieval rate if the fish takes you down to where you have little backing line left. A relatively small spool ID not only reduces your ability to rapidly retrieve lots of line; it also increases the initial drag setting as the fish takes out more line. For example, suppose that you are tarpon fishing with a 20-pound tippet and you set your drag to slip at a line pull of 5 pounds with a full reel spool. The drag setting is actually establishing the torque (line pull times the distance from the spool centerline to the point where the line is coming off the spool) at which the drag will slip. And so, if you set the drag for a full-spool line pull of 5 pounds with a 3-1/2 inch OD spool, the constant torque setting is (3.5/2)x5 or 8.75 inch- pounds. If this same reel has a spool ID of 1-inch and the fish has nearly pulled out all of the line and backing, the line pull required to cause the drag to slip is (8.75/0.5) or 17.5 pounds! Considering the additional drag caused by the friction of the line in the water and the usual weakening due to knots or nicks, this is a situation inviting a lost fish.

  3. The obvious way to eliminate the above problem is to increase the width of the reel spool, permitting you to get the same line capacity with a larger spool ID. Unfortunately, both of these steps involve larger and heavier reels and probably more cost. Before going too far down this path I would recommend that you reduce your initial drag setting and use "palming" to add drag to the spool rim during the earlier stages of your fight with the "silver king". Of course, don't keep palming while you're being spooled out of line. This would add to your effective drag and probably bring you beyond the strength of your terminal tackle. I've lost a couple of good bonefish by forgetting that admonition.

Well, enough about drag and reel size; let's talk about several additional features available on many saltwater fly reels. First, there's counterweighting. To start with, a reel spool is pretty well balanced. When the reel handle is assembled however, the spool is decidedly out of balance and a fast run by a strong fish can make your rod and hand vibrate in a most disconcerting fashion. To counteract this, most good reels either add another handle, or a weighted button of equivalent inertia, at 180 degrees opposite the handle to rebalance the spool. This is a desirable reel feature which doesn't add much to its cost.

Another feature which I consider to be almost essential is to make sure that the reel spool can be removed and replaced "on the water", with no required tools or loose parts. This feature permits you to carry several spools, each containing different lines for different fishing situations without having to buy another entire reel.

Another important reel feature is the addition of gearing to cause the reel spool to rotate morereel5.gif - 10.6 K than one revolution, for each revolution of the reel handle. This is a feature which some fly fishers prefer since it facilitates recovering slack line quickly. Unfortunately, such multiplier reels also give the fish a mechanical advantage under those conditions where you are reeling him in without pumping the rod to create periodic slack. I personally don't own any multipliers, but if you're willing to pay a few extra bucks for the fast retrieve features, I certainly wouldn't try to talk you out of that choice.

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Anti-reversing is another feature which some anglers choose, which permits the fish to take out line under drag while the reel handle is stationary. What this does in practice is to prevent the fish from breaking off when you've forgotten to let go of the reel handle. Also, it prevents your knuckles from getting beat up if you let your free hand drift where it doesn't belong during the run of a fish. Again, I choose not to use anti-reversing reels, to keep things simple and reduce costs. If you keep your wits about you (admittedly not the easiest thing when a trophy-sized fish is jerking you around), broken tippets and bruised knuckles can be avoided.

Regularly, beginning saltwater fly fishermen ask me if they should consider using automatic fly reels. My immediate and loud answer to this question is , "based on current technology, No! " Current automatic fly reels, which use a wound spring to retrieve line when you move a lever, are heavy, have very little line/backing capacity, and are loaded with components which are hard to get at and subject to salt water corrosion. I'm confident however that within 10 years or so, someone will develop an automatic fly reel with microelectronic controls and a miniature electric motor to retrieve slack line. And I see no reason why that product wouldn't serve a useful niche in our fly fishing bag of tricks. Of course, there will be people who will claim that this level of technology is unsporting and gives the fisherman an unfair advantage over the fish.

The debate goes on and on as to whether the fly fisherman should operate the reel handle with the right or left hand. Let me try to put this issue in perspective. Right-handed fly fishermen who reel with their left hand (that's me) do so because that way their strong arm and hand always holds the rod, whether they're casting, fighting or landing a fish. Even though I started fishing with bait casting rods with the reel on top and the handle on the right-hand side, most of my earliest fishing was with spinning rods/reels where the norm was a left-hand winding handle. And so I feel very comfortable and coordinated reeling with my left hand, even with very high-speed retrieves. In comparison, the right-hander who reels with the right hand says that he doesn't mind switching hands to fight a fish, since he feels much more coordinated reeling with his right hand, especially at high rates of retrieve. Two of my closest fishing friends are Doug Swisher and Carl Richards, who have been revolutionizing fishing flies and tactics for over 25 years. They are close to the same age, are both right-handed, and both are excellent casters and fly fishermen. And yet Doug reels with the left hand and Carl reels with the right hand. And I'm surely not going to try to convince either to change their ways. Thus my recommendation is for you to make sure you buy a reel that can be reversed to accommodate either left- or right-handed winding and to try both ways until you find your personal preference. Also, if you ever wish to sell the reel in the future, the reversible feature will mean more potential customers.

As in other equipment, reels can sometimes malfunction. Often, this is simply due to a screw coming loose. Be sure to have a few appropriate tools with you when you're fishing. Twice in the past year a small screwdriver saved me, and another time a friend, from cutting a fishing trip short.

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Next Article - Fly Lines and Leaders

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