What makes a good fly reel? From my perspective, a good fly reel doesn’t fail, wobble, fall apart, or seize. A good fly reel simply gets the job done and looks good while doing it. In the world of fly reels, there are countless designs and design choices to choose from. Finish, material, manufacturing processes, sound (yes, the sound), look, durability, drag, size, backing capacity… all come into play when purchasing your next fly reel.
The fall season is just around the corner and it’s a great time to upgrade your old gear for the changing season. With that in mind, we’ve done our best to separate and simply explain important factors that go into purchasing a fly reel. In the end, the hope is that you will become a more self-sufficient angler or at the very least, have some interesting bar talk.
What Size Arbor To Go For?
When buying a fly reel, you generally have the choice between a standard, mid, or large-sized arbour. This basically means how much space there is between the centre spindle and the spool base.
A large arbour reel will have more space between the spindle and the spool base. For serious fly anglers, the size of the frame is important to consider because it affects your line retrieval rate, and also how much backing your fly reel can hold.
You’ll realize how important this is when you cast out and hook a trout that just runs and runs! A larger arbour means that you have a more substantial frame. giving you the capacity to hold more backing, all while being able to retrieve your line quickly.
Your line will have less coil memory too. Although they are generally light in weight, a fly reel with a large arbor will be bulkier to hold and travel with. In contrast, a standard arbor has a spool base which starts right in the middle of your reel.
A standard sized model will reduce your line retrieval rate, as you’ll have to wrap your line many times round the spool to draw in your line any distance. Products with a standard arbour are mainly designed and used for trout fishing on small rivers, where you fish with less line out.
A good all around fly reel has these things
Cheap reels are fine, as long as they hold up for a while. But if you put in any time on the water, there’s no point in buying something that doesn’t last. Sooner or later you’ll break your fall on some hard rocks with the reel in your hand. The frame bends easily on the cheap stuff. So, durability is a necessity.
Honestly, strength and resilience are the first requirements for all my outdoor gear. Boots, waders, vests, tools — a truck. Fishing isn’t a hobby for me. It’s what I do. There are plenty of dirt cheap options for the hobbyist angler who fishes a few times a year. But that’s not us. So I recommend avoiding things that fall apart.
Don’t get too carried away with this one. Truth is, (almost) every fly reel I pick up these days has a good drag. Sure, some of them are a little stiff on startup and others are super smooth from start to finish. But they all get the job done. The only time I have issues with a reel’s drag, these days, is when something is wrong with it. Water and fine sand can do a bad number on a drag system. Sealed drags are an industry buzzword these days, and for good reason. They’re nice.
A good drag system isn’t complicated. Most of what you’ll find are variations of disc drags. And they all work to stop your trout — yes, even the biggest trout.
In truth, the drag is not necessary. I’ve had four main reels in my lifetime, along with a few others that were mistakes. And my first go to reel was an old Orvis Click and Pawl Clearwater. I learned to palm the spool, because there was no drag system. And I miss that reel. I still spend a lot of time with my drags set light on modern reels, forcing myself to palm the spool on even some of the bigger trout. It’s fun. Truth is, my largest wild fish to date (twenty-six inches) was landed all those years ago with that Orvis Clearwater.
Thinking about my first reels reminds me of another important feature. A good reel needs a counterbalance on the spool, 180 degrees from the handle. Almost all reels have one these days, but that first Clearwater didn’t. And when the twenty-six inch beast took off, the reel rotated fast enough that the whole thing shook in my hands like it was about to explode. Ever driven on tires that are badly out of balance? Same thing.
My first two reels were standard (small) arbor. And I remember when I found myself in the market for another fly reel. My friend, Sawyer, told me to get with the program and buy a large arbor reel. Why? I wondered. What’s the big deal? Sawyer convinced me that line pickup was much greater with every revolution of the spool, but I still figured it didn’t matter much.
I was wrong about that. Large arbors are excellent, not just for fighting fish, but for all the time spent reeling in line throughout the day. It matters. A large arbor is nice. And as we’ll see below, it becomes critical for the long liner.
Our Top Picks
This aluminum fly reel is made to adapt to every aspect of fly fishing. The CNC- machined aluminum and rotary knob system offer a unique resistance to your fishing line. It has a large arbor that helps in maximum retrieval. It has 2+1 ball bearing and 1:1 gear ratio. Finely machined and knurled metal screw caps to loosen the spool and easy to change left to right-hand retrieval conversion.
It has a hard anodized for surface protection, which prevents abrasion and weather fastness. It’s cold forged and tempered for superior strength and rigidity. This reel can come into use for multi-species fishing in lakes, rivers, streams, creeks. Ideal for predatory fish.
This reel is made of aluminum alloy, giving it high durability. It’s lighter than other reels due to its larger CNC hollow design. It has a stainless steel drag system aiding in silent retrieval. It also anodized which helps in the protection of the surface. Its mid arbor design facilitates in reduction of line memory along with extremely fast line pick up.
It is a good looking product. An excellent reel for the price and very well made. It’s well-machined, especially when you’re on a budget. I think the finish has durability, and the drag feels smooth. If you are not angling for fast fish or if you’re a casual fly fisherman, this reel will suit you well enough. The drag is pretty good, adjustable, and the micrometer adjustment is consistent.
The Orvis Clearwater Large Arbor is another great choice to fish for trout. At $89 it also comes in at less than $100. This reel has the same advantage as the Redington. Orvis produces some high end reels and their know how trickles down intro entry level products such as this one.
In the #4-6 version, the Orvis Clearwater is a great all-around trout reel. Featuring an adjustable drag system this reel can handle bigger fish with ease. Just like the Redington Crosswater it is ambidextrous which means it can be fished by right handed and left handed people as the retrieve can easily be changed.
The Orvis Clearwater also features a large arbor design for quick line retrieve. A reel that you will have fun with for years to come. Comes with the well known Orvis guarantee.
The Pflueger Medalist is our favorite classic trout reel in the entry-level section. It has the looks of a classic trout reel but is made from modern machined aluminum making it a sturdy reel.
The Pflueger Medalist comes with a standard arbor meaning your line retrieve will not be as quick as with the Redington or Orvis. The polymer handle has a wooden look and contributes to the classic feel of the Pflueger.
As most classic trout reels, the Pflueger Medalist does not feature an adjustable drag system. This means you have to stop the runs of bigger fish by applying pressure with the palm of your hand directly to the reel. It takes some getting used to. Once you know how to do it it gives extra pleasure as the connection to the fish is more direct.
The Leland Co. Vintage Golden Trout is a beautiful choice if you are looking for a classic setup. This reel has the looks to combine it with a fiberglass or bamboo fly rod.
Just like the Pflueger Medalist it does not feature an adjustable drag system. The Leland Co. Vintage also easily converts from left to right hand or vice versa.
The Leland Co. Vintage comes with a leather reel pouch. This reel also makes for a great gift to any fly fisherman or woman. Beautiful sound when a fish is running. A classic fly reel for the purist.
The new Lamson Guru S fly reel was released in 2020. It replaced the previous well known Guru. Adjustments include increased reel diameter, narrower spools, larger spool ports for better line drying, and some new colors.
The reel models available will suit most fly rods and lines ranging between 2 and 10 weight. The Guru uses a slightly narrower drag system but features the same conical drag technology that all other Lamson reels use.
The Lamson Guru S is also available in a heavy-duty model, dubbed the Guru S HD. This variation features a full cage design offering more stiffness.
However, these are only available in 7+ and 9+ models. The Lamson Guru S is ideal for the intermediate fly angler who’s looking for a no-fuss freshwater fly reel. The combination of the reel’s features and affordable price is bang on target.
The Galvan Torque was introduced way back in 2004. Although it’s been around for quite some time, it still remains relative and competitive with newer reals.
In my opinion, this is due to a combination of the high quality of the product, the features the reel has, and the after-sales service the company provides. The large arbor provides a good line retrieve rate and the reel has the most narrow spool of all the reels on our list.
It is available in Silver, Green, and Black, but can be customized to most colors. The Galvan Torque is an excellent choice for the serious fly angler who spends a considerable amount of time on the water.
The Ross Reels Evolution LTX fly reel is a perfect combination of the previous Evolution LT and R performance capabilities. This reel is evident of the quality workmanship used to manufacture it. Expect maximum performance and reliability.
All its performance capabilities start from the type 2 anodizing aluminum material used. This feature helps generate a balance between rigidity and aesthetics. It further makes the structure durable and corrosion-resistant. The 6061 T6 Aluminum material is also abrasion-resistant.
The Ross Reels Evolution LTX fly reel has a large arbor design to increase line pick up. The large arbor helps to angle and makes it easy to manage large fish.
The drag generated by the reel is powerful. There is a stainless steel disc drag system that produces this power. This whole system has watertight seals to prevent water penetration. A sealed system produces the right amount of power to lift big catches. Also, the stainless steel factor makes it easy to maintain and clean the reel.
There are plenty of #8, #9, and #10 options on the market, but I really think the Nautilus CCFX2 is among the best reels you can buy.
Nautilus’s previous CCF was good–so good, in fact, that the improvements on the newer model make this an almost unbeatable option for anglers chasing steelhead, reds, and anything else in the salt.
The 5-inch spool offers a ton of capacity for strong backing line, and it picks up 12 inches per turn. That’s quick–quick enough that even the biggest fish will find it a challenge to outpace your retrieve. And it’s as strong and light as you can expect, defying its size with a featherweight feel on your rod.
The Maxcatch ECO should be the perfect reel for any angler who is looking for an economically priced fly reel, that offers many of the same features that are characteristic of fly reels at an exceedingly higher price. This fly reel utilizes a substantially sized arbor, a rugged drag system, and is constructed of durable aluminum. The Maxcatch ECO can be purchased at a price that is far less than what many anglers will spend on a tank of gas for their truck.
One feature worthy of mention is the Maxcatch ECO’s robust drag system. It features a series of Teflon drag washers that should be more than capable of adequately metering line dispersal under nearly any load. The Maxcatch ECO’s drag system also provides consistent operation, free of any dead spots or hang-ups.
The Maxcatch ECO features a large arbor, which promotes rapid line retrieval. This is an attribute that is likely to be appreciated by anglers who regularly fish stump-laden creeks and streams. In these situations, it becomes imperative to get trout to the bank before they are able to become tangled in the underbrush, which often results in line damage and lost fish.
How to Care for Your Fly Fishing Reels
Caring for your fly fishing reel will preserve the lifespan of the fly reel and keep it working as good as new. The following are a few tips to help you make sure your fly reel is properly taken care of after fishing.
What Should I Look for in a Fly Reel?
The key is choosing one that can handle and hold the necessary amount of backing and line for the weight of the rod. If you decide to get a 5 weight fly rod, purchase a fly reel that accommodates weights between 4 and 6.
What is the Right Reel Size for Salmon?
Fly reels using a sizing system referred to a the ‘weight’ of the fly reel. Note this not the actual weight of the reel but a relative scale. Generally, the larger the fish the large weight fly reel you will need.
How Should I Use a Fishing Reel?
The primary purpose of a fly reel is to hold the fly fishing line. When ready to fish you simply pull the line off the reel and begin to cast. Once you hook a fish you then turn the handle on the reel to bring the fish in. It is import to properly set the drag on your fly reel such that if the fish pulls too hard it will allow line to release from the reel and prevent the fish from getting off.
What is a Good Beginner Fly Fishing Reel?
There are numerous options. However, whatever choice you make, ensure that it has the following basic features: durable, lightweight and good drag. Start with a smaller and lighter one that you can efficiently operate. Gradually progress to heavy-duty types.