Saltwater Fly Reels - How to Choose the Best Fly Reel

To begin with, this discussion is directed at saltwater fly reels. There are many manufacturers of saltwater fly reels today and that is great in the sense of direction. On the other hand it not only can be confusing to someone new to the sport, it opens the window to making a purchase of the wrong reel. When you hookup with a very powerful, trophy saltwater fish and he cooks your new reel, you have purchased the wrong reel. Keep in mind that saltwater fly fishing is the fastest growing segment in fishing. This opens the door for competition -- and that too -- is a good thing. In doing so, it opens the door to price, design, quality and durability concerns. I will rarely make a suggestion as to a brand or product, although I have my favorites. In this case I am going to do so. You need to understand what goes on inside of a saltwater reel when you are on a fish. To do this let’s talk about a few major elements that separate the very best saltwater fly reels from the less than best.

Anti-reverse saltwater fly fishing reel. Tibor Billy Pate Anti-Reverse Fly Reel - Tarpon Model - Left Hand Retrieve

Components of Saltwater Fly Reels

Fly reels can be made from carbon fiber, cast aluminum, forged aluminum and machined aero space bar stock. The latter is what we will go with. Aero space aluminum accommodates the higher demand of purity and strength of the aluminum itself, so stick with that and do yourself a favor. A machined reel is the best but also will cost more. It’s worth it! You may notice that there are many ‘patterns’ in the machined design of the reel. If you look at the most expensive reels, you will see a theme emerge. Less material means less weight and that’s good. Big gaps or slots are not usually good. If you understand the dispersing of applied energy, you will see that some designs allow for larger gaps or slots while maintaining strength. But there are limits. Thinner material combined with less slots or holes is very strong and lightweight. Keep in mind that when a powerful fish is pulling hard there is a great deal of stress on the reel and its drag system. Also, consider the axel design of a reel. Is it hefty and what is it made of? Don’t buy a reel because you like the way it looks. Save that luxury for your flies if anything.

A large arbor reel is a must. A large arbor reel allows for larger drag system and much quicker line pickup, and you are going to need both. You’re not trout stream fishing and you can’t hand retrieve fly line fast enough to keep up with a charging saltwater fish. I like 4 inch diameter large arbor reels for this function and they hold more fly line backing too.

Gulfstream fly fishing reel. Tibor Gulfstream Fly Reel

“It’s a drag when the drag don’t drag no more”. There are several drag designs today and the designers have their reasons for them. The main drag systems are the old spring and pawl, or clicker drag, the cork disc drag and cone drag systems. Which is best? Just because the spring and pawl system is an old design doesn’t make it an out of date design. It is not the strongest however. The cork disc drag system works well but some may think it to be too low tech. The sealed cone drag may catch your attention as it is the high tech system but is it the best?

Fly Reel Drag Systems

Let’s consider a few things. A spring and pawl is not the strongest and springs weaken in time adding to this consideration. The cone drag is a high friction system and uses a variety of man-made materials that disperse heat rapidly but to where? The cone is on the axel so think about that one when a big fish is taking line at 40 MPH or more. How about cork drags? Cork can be replaced very easily. It can also be cleaned and treated with ease and it stands up to heat very well. Water won’t hurt it either. I’ll take a cork disc drag over any other drag system. When a fish first hooks up, he will turn and run. At that point there is such a thing we call startup. Remember that because it is very important. A silky smooth startup will keep the fish from breaking your tippet before you even begin to fight the fish.

Cork has some interesting characteristics that no other material has. Cork actually has some forgiveness to it at startup. The design of the reel drag system also plays a part in smooth startup. Combine great design and great material together and you have a killer drag system. Cork is also very durable and takes heat very well. I have never cooked a cork drag and that says a lot. When you increase the drag by dialing it up, a good system will remain smooth and not cause a jerk which breaks leaders.

Bearings are equally important and speak for themselves. High quality bearings are essential and must be maintained if not sealed. I my bearings factory inspected annually. I have no way of knowing that they are going bad until they go bad. I don’t want that to be on a world record fish that my client just caught. The bearings allow for super smooth operation of the reel in all conditions and the drag system acts much like brakes do on a car.

Keep Reading on How a Drag System Works

Good looks on a reel are nice as it is on a fly rod. The fish won’t know the difference but the maker of a good reel will put forth extra effort to give the reel a nice finish that he is proud of. What reel manufacturer does all of this and more? Tibor Reels, hands down the very best in saltwater fly reels. The only drawback to a Tibor Reel may be the price but not if you think about it. I can purchase a reel that will last me all of my life, my children’s life and my grandchildren’s life’s. That’s quality.

Tibor saltwater fly reel. Tibor Billy Pate Anti-Reverse Fly Reel - Bonefish Model - Right Hand Retrieve

You may not want to spend the money that a Tibor will cost or you may not punish a reel like I do and don’t need it but I will tell you this, there is nothing like a Tibor. Take a look around at fly reels and if you follow this guide you should be able to select a good reel that will do the job for you at the price you are working with. Thank you for allowing me to voice my preference and Tie one on and pick a fight.

We recommend that you read this complete educational article on fly-rods and reels.

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