There aren’t a lot of complicated gear ratios to consider when buying a fly reel, but don’t misjudge the importance of selecting a fly reel.
The concept that fly reels just hold line until you let it out or take it up is a mistaken belief. With all of the advances in design and materials, a whole new array of opportunities is before the consumer. The big question is which one is right for you.
Over the past 20 years, innovative reel designers have made wholesale changes to what was once an often heavy, clunky device that truly was just a place to keep your line from getting tangled. Both the design and materials used for bodies and drags have changed, as well as the size, weight and configuration of reels that are now positioned for specific purposes.
What makes one reel sell for $400 while another with the same features is priced around $200? Materials and the manufacturing process drive price, but brand image is always a factor. Expensive advertising that creates the image of exclusivity and prestige is always added into the price of every consumer item. If you can't afford exclusivity, then consider the key elements and make your decision on the facts without the fluff.
If you're a beginner looking for an entry-level reel, or a veteran who fishes small streams populated by small trout, you're not going to need a lot of line capacity or a sophisticated drag. Cork is an excellent drag material, and a reel with a cork drag will be more than adequate. If cared for properly, a cork drag will last for years of happy angling. The key to caring for a cork drag is not cranking it down to maximum drag and leaving it there.
Anglers targeting larger fish, or anglers who fish with extremely light tippets, will want a more sophisticated drag. The majority of fly reel drags use discs. Pressure is applied either by tightening a knurled knob that increases pressure on the face of a disc or a caliper that works in the same manner as a vehicle's disc breaks, applying pressure to both sides evenly. Moving up the scale of drag disc material, Rulon® is the next step. The advantage of Rulon is smoothness, especially from an inert start. This material can be machined to a fine surface that eliminates the jerking typical of a drag with even minor surface flaws.
The next rung of the drag material improvement ladder is carbon fiber. It dissipates heat best and is a more rugged surface for really big fish. The relative cost of these various drag materials is proportionate to the cost of the raw materials and the expense of the manufacturing process. If money isn't an issue, buy a reel with a carbon-fiber drag and you'll never have to worry about that occasional lunker that takes you up to the edge of your gear's capabilities. On the economical side, if you're not fishing waters that have trophy potential, you can avoid the additional cost of a top-of-the-line feature that you'll probably never need.
Another hallmark of quality is a sealed drag that will keep debris and dirt from gumming up its smooth operation. One other thing to consider is your own tendencies when it comes to using a piece of gear and maintaining it as well. All reels should receive regular maintenance, but reels with a sealed drag are more forgiving, for anglers who occasionally neglect their gear.
Reels with cork drags and cast bodies are the most reasonably priced, but they're also the most basic in terms of performance. Cast bodies are machined for tolerance of moving parts, but the best option is a reel that has been machined from a solid block of metal, because it's more rigid.
Improved techniques in reel design and manufacture have lightened reels considerably and increased their potential as well. Machining the frame with strategically placed holes reduces a lot of weight, but a skeleton frame is the ultimate in both weight reduction and aesthetic appeal. By using strategically placed geometric arcs of metal, the frame retains its strength but loses the weight. Sophisticated metal alloys, developed in part by the space industry, have made skeleton frames possible. These reels are engineering beauties, and very durable when used properly; however, they're not going to take as much abuse, like dropping them on rocks. It's comparable to the difference between a Valiant and a Lamborghini. Would you take a Lamborghini on an off-road trip? I think not!
Large-arbor and super-large arbors have solved several problems with fly reels. Their main advantage is the ability to retrieve line much more quickly because of the increased circumference of the arbor, but the increased size also reduces the negative effect of winding line in a tight circle, which can result in memory coils. Making the internal arbor larger is accomplished by moving the base outward, but this also reduces the amount of capacity for line, so large-arbor spools are made wider to maintain maximum line and backing capacity. This gives these reels a wider, somewhat taller profile. The larger arbor also increases your cranking efficiency.
You'll also find increased flexibility as you move up the scale in fly reels, with features like reversible left- and right-hand operation and the ability to change spools for various presentations as the day progresses. With a second or third spool you'll be able to change from a floating to sink-tip line in a matter of minutes, and that means less lost fishing time.
When you think about all of the features of a reel, probably the last thing on your mind is the handle, yet that's the one thing you'll spend most of the day holding on to. For smaller fish, it probably isn't as important, but when tackling large fish I prefer a larger handle. Large, paddle-style handles are easier to grasp and hold on to, and they're easier to locate when a sudden strike catches you off guard.
Each fly reel has specific features that meet the needs of various presentations, angling preferences and the often-dominant fishing budget. You can match your angling style with the perfect reel, or you can do as I have over the years - upgrade gradually to have several options at your disposal. Having options to fall back on is an angling advantage, especially when you cover a lot of diverse water. Taking on 10" rainbows with a large-arbor reel and 6-lb. tippet isn't exactly a sporting proposition.