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How a Drag System Works

Drag systems can make the difference between a trophy and losing what might have been a trophy. Learn how the work.

You can't see your drag system. You can only feel it. This article will attempt to let you see beneath the engine to understand how drag systems function.


A drag system is basically a brake pad, designed to keep your line from snapping. The pad is positioned so it presses against a series of washers and pads, which then press on the spool. Different manufacturers might use different materials, more pads, thicker or thinner pads, or position the brake pad slightly differently, but all drags work in the same basic way. Each of the three reel types has its own type of drag system, but they all work on the same principle.

If you tighten drag all the way, the spool doesn't give at all, sort of like tying your line to the dock. Loosen it all the way and line will pour freely off the spool, or in some cases, the spool actually comes off. This is how many spinning systems work; the screw that holds the spool on is the same knob used to tighten the drag down.

Drag system.

Tightening the screw or handles ...presses down on a "brake" plate... ...which tightens a series of washers, increasing the pressure in tiny increments. This tension slows the rate at which line comes off of the spool when a big fish is pulling line off the reel. The sound of line sizzling off the spool is a good thing.

When you get home, loosen all the drag knobs on your freshly cleaned (with fresh water) reels. Releasing the pressure keeps the systems working longer. It's better to tighten them only when needed, like before your first cast. If you get into this habit, you have to remember to re-tighten the drag before that big snook comes along, swallows your sardine or tasty jig, and heads for parts south.

An Exercise in Drag


To better understand how drag systems work, you should experiment with them before you need to use them to stop a record fish; this will give you a feel for just what happens when that big cobia takes off for deep water. Start with a simple exercise that will give you a solid feel for how the drag works on your particular reel. You need a partner, who plays the role of the fish, and a lot of room.

  1. Tie your line securely to something that your partner can easily hold, like a towel. Don't use a coffee cup or anything sharp, hard, or heavy; if your "fish" lets go, it could smack you hard in the head. If you're using spinning tackle or casting gear, you don't need a leader, because leaders are heavier than the line itself; the line will break before the leader. If you're trying this with a fly rod, you should put on the type of leader you're going to use, since the leader is of a much lower breaking strength than the fly line.
  2. Locate the drag knob on your reel, then turn it counterclockwise until you can fairly easily pull line off the reel. Spinning reels normally have the drag knob on top, holding the spool down on the reel. Level-wind reels normally have a large, star-shaped drag knob.
  3. Tell your "fish" to pull the line off your rod jerking, tugging, running, jumping, and trying as hard as possible to break the line. Even if you tell them that you're going to let them go, an old snook or young tarpon won't cooperate and swim over to your boat. At first, the fish should be able to easily swim away from you, tugging line off at will.
  4. Holding your rod tip up, tighten the drag a little bit. Your rod tip will begin to bow more towards the fish, and the fish will have a slightly harder time pulling off line.
  5. Tighten the drag some more. Notice the increase in pressure being applied to the rod, the reel, and your arms and shoulders. It will get much harder for the fish to pull. At this point, he will either give up (stop fighting), or pull very hard in an attempt to break the line.
  6. Tighten the drag more until your "fish" snaps off. You now know about drag systems.

Getting a Feel for Drag

As soon as we hook a fish, we attempt to judge its size. If you're fishing for 10-lb. redfish with 20-lb. test line, you can tighten down the drag until the reel winces. The fish hits, you set the hook, and reel it in. You're stronger than it is, the line is stronger than it is, and your chances of being broken off are slim. If you're catching those same fish with 6-lb. test, though, the proper use of drag becomes critical. One of those things we can't really teach you in a book is what your drag settings should be under different circumstances; you'll have to develop a sense for it based on personal experience.

When we're trying to catch big Redfish under docks in the winter (for example), we tend to keep our drags set very tightly at first. The Redfish knows the dock very well, it lives there, after all. Under the dock, the fish is going to turn around one of those pilings as soon as it feels the pressure of your line. If we are able to hook one, the first thing we have to do is get it out of its house and into more open water where we have a better chance.

The tight drag we use to "turn" it, or get it into open water, will mean a quick break-off if we don't adjust to the fish's size once we do have it away from its familiar dock structure. If a fish proves too heavy for a very tight drag, you can always loosen it once the fish is in open water. In wide-open water targeting the same fish, we tend to keep our drags much lighter; this lets the fish run as much as it needs to before it tires down and we can release (or ice) it. You can still set a hook with light drag if you keep your hand covering the reel as you make the set.

The Online Fisherman

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