If a fly rod is just an extension of your arm, shouldn’t you get a fly reel that acts in the same way?
Many people think that it is okay when purchasing their fishing gear to go all out in spending money on a great fly rod, but then pinch pennies on other gear. While getting a great fly rod is extremely important (seriously, we wrote a whole article on it here), purchasing the right fly reel to match the strength and flexibility of your fly rod is equally as pivotal in securing great catches.
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Top 4 Best Fly Fishing Reels (Summary)
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For more detailed and complete product reviews on benefits and features, keep reading.
How to Choose the Best Fly Reel
When looking to purchase a fly reel, it is important to first keep two factors in mind:
- Fly reels should objectively function well (aka don’t buy a cheap-o reel because you found it for $10 at a thrift store).
- Fly reels should subjectively function well with your personal fly rod.
So how do you make sure that a fly reel is paired well with a fly rod?
First, you want to make sure that the weights of both the rod and the reel match together. For example, you wouldn’t want to pair a 4-wt trout fishing rod with a 7 or 8-wt reel that is meant to handle tackling larger trout and bass.
Second, you want to make sure the fly reel is paired with your fly rod in the correct position. If you cast right-handed you’ll most likely want to purchase a left-facing reel, as right-handed casters usually retrieve line with their left hand.
For these reasons, many fly rods are sold in bundles that include the fly rod, the fly reel, and the fly line altogether. Purchasing one of these bundles is a great idea for beginners and those who may not know how to pair rods and reels together, as everything already comes prepared to work together.
However, for those looking to customize their fishing setup and ultimately keep improving their fishing style long into the life of the rod and reel, we recommend purchasing fly rods and fly reels separately.
When deciding upon which fly reel works best for you, there are a few things to consider. Start up inertia, reel weight, and the drag system are all pivotal features which to measure a fly reel by.
Start up inertia is the resistance to movement that occurs the moment when a fish starts to take the line. Because things that are at rest tend to stay at rest, the reel does not perfectly start rotating at top speed once the line is taken. Start up inertia measures the drag that occurs until the reel is spinning smoothly at top speed – in terms of a car, start up inertia basically measures the time it takes from the line to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour. Reels with a low start up inertia will also have less stopping power, so it is important to get a reel that is balanced in these two categories.
The movement toward purchasing the lightest fly rods is in full swing. While it is a huge trend that may seem meaningless, it is backed by physics. Each cast you make, your arms will have to lift each ounce of the rod. The heavier your rod, the more work your arms will be doing by the end of the day. In order to save strength for more casting, rods have gotten lighter and lighter. In cohesion with this principle, reels need to become lighter to match the rods. It is important to first check the weight of your fly rod and see if the reel you are looking at balances it in weight.
The drag system is the resistance put upon the spool to prevent the line from being stripped away when a fish takes the line. Light drag systems put little drag on the reel spool, and when a fish begins to take the line, the line will put no pressure on the fish, making it difficult to reel in. Alternatively, high drag systems will put too much pressure on the spool, potentially snapping the leader or tippet.
5 Best Fly Fishing Reels 2020 – Reviews and Guide
1. Hardy Duchess – Best Classic Reel
Hardy has a long reputation for high-quality angling equipment had have earned a place on the rods of many professional fishermen for longer than most companies have been making reels. Their materials are high quality and the machining process leave a clean, smooth finish that makes their reels a pleasure to use with a styling that harkens back to the classic period of Angling.
This specific reel is a very exciting example of what makes fly fishing such an amazing and fun sport. Everything about it harkens back to the days of simple reels that were made to last. Rather than a standard mass-produced reel, these are all still hand made. Sure, that makes them more expensive but the quality is unparalleled.
The Duchess is made from high-quality aluminum that is machined for great strength and durability. The arbor is a great size being right in the middle of too small and too large. The reel handle is a solid wood that has a very comfortable feel and adds just a little touch of class. Everything is reversable for either right or left-handed use.
If you want a classically styled reel that will last a lifetime, this heritage edition of one of Hardy’s classic designs is a knockout. The reel is outstanding, high quality, and will last multiple lifetimes. This reel is a top pick for a reason, I would use it for any fishing short of the largest lakes and salt water.
- Classic look
- Highly respected name
- Lifetime durability
- Low weight
- Quite expensive
- Smaller line capacity
2. Douglas Argus Rex – Best Bang for your Buck
Rounding out the big names in fishing, we have to get one in from Douglas. If you are the type of person who loves high quality without spending a fortune, it’s time to check out Douglas and their wide range of angling equipment. The Argus Rex is their basic fly-reel which is anything but basic.
While this reel falls short of the weight of the Lamson reel, it still weighs in at only 8 ounces but makes up for the difference by adding durability. This reel was bred for the eastern Salmon runs and was designed to take some abuse. This is a solid reel and will last a lifetime or more.
The click check drag is a more traditional system that has been tried and true for decades. It may not hold up as long as some of the more modern methods but it’s far stronger and more reliable. The Arbor is large enough to handle a lot of line for big water and the reel handle is the same over-molded rubber that performs well on most all modern reel.
If you are looking for pure value, the Douglas is a strong contender. There are numerous pros that use their gear in tournaments and will testify to their hard use quality. The attention to detail on this reel is astounding, buy this reel in confidence that you have something that will last!
- Quite durable
- Good line capacity
- Not an attractive reel
- Somewhat heavy
3. Orvis Mirage – Best Saltwater Specific Reel
If you like the modern look, you will love this new Orvis reel. Orvis is no newcomer on the fly-fishing market has consistently produced some of the best reels on the market. But they aren’t all looks, there is plenty of quality to back up those vibrant hues. If you are on a budget, these reels are sure to delight.
This reel is a technological marvel with full aluminum spool and frame, titanium shaft, and sealed carbon and steel drag that will laugh at even the largest fish out there. It is even mil-spec hard coat anodized! Under any normal conditions, you couldn’t manage to damage this reel even if you tried. Truly an amazing reel!
Really, this reel has a lot of revolutionary features. The drag is a fine example where they opted for the latest technology that is durable while having a lot of holding power. The reel is reversible with a very comfortable over molded handle and comes with a spool that is very nicely sized for longer running saltwater fish.
If you are the adventurous type who likes to try new things and have a little modern flash, there are few reels that will equal the Mirage in price and quality. As always, Orvis has done an outstanding job in a market that has so many tried and true brands.
- Modern flashy look
- Great warranty
- Large line capacity
- Somewhat heavy
- Colors are a personal preference
4. 3-Tand VIKN – Most Attractive Reel
Of course, if you treat the reel for just what it is, a place to store line, you can drop a lot of considerations out the window and opt for something that goes beyond just a fishing reel into a real work of art. That is exactly what this reel offers. It is absolutely stunning!
But it’s not all looks, this is a solid reel in its own right. Stepping away from the usual budget die-cast setup, this reel is fully machined out of aircraft aluminum to stand up to most any environment. How they are producing this reel at this price is beyond me.
You also get an incredible drag setup that is one of the strongest on the market. The handle is a turned piece Delrin that may be a little slick but is definitely sturdy. The arbor is on the larger side making this suitable for larger water if that’s what you fish. If there is a negative, it’s very hard to find.
This is a seriously nice reel. It may not be my first choice but having a classic wood rod with this reel is a stunning setup that is sure to satisfy any angler. Fly fishing is a different sort of sport and fine craftsmanship and appearance is a consideration. This reel seems to have both.
- Beautiful look
- Great quality for the price
- Strong drag system
- May be less durable
- Very flashy
5. Redington Rise – Best on a Budget
When it comes to getting great quality on a tight budget, Redington is leading the pack. They aren’t as old as some of the other brands but have been around long enough to have it all figured out. Their Rise reel is one of the slickest new reels on the market and has earned the respect of a lot of veteran anglers.
This is a reel that does it all well without being overly costly or heavy. It may not be as light as some of the other reels but at just over 5oz. it is well below the weight of most and for a price that is a fraction of the other reels. Its sturdy and quite durable with just enough features to make it a solid value.
The reel frame is machined aluminum but the spool is die-cast which saves on weight and cost but makes the spool somewhat weaker. Combine that with a skeletal frame and you are going to need to be a little gentler with this reel. Just don’t toss it around and it should be fine. A fish surely won’t manage to break it.
As far as other features, the reel is no slouch. The drag system is an advanced carbon fiber that has plenty of torque to stop even the biggest fish and the dual handles are reversible and feature over-molded rubber grips that gives you a solid purchase and smooth retrieve.
If you can live with the lower durability, and most people can with Redington’s lifetime warranty, this is a great reel at a weight that is so hard to imagine. If you are a hike and fish person or just love the lightest gear you can get your hands on, no one is going to beat this reel any time soon.
- Light weight
- Lifetime warranty
- Large arbor
- Less than durable
- Drag is prone to wear
Frequently Asked Questions
How important is quality in a fly-reel?
While it is true that a fly-reel is just a platform to hold the line and has no effect on the cast and very little on the retrieve, some aspects of quality will still make a huge difference. The nature of a fly-reel does mean that a cheaper reel will fish much more like an expensive fly-reel than would be the case with other reel types but may lack the durability and smooth drag that are so important.
What are the most important considerations in a fly-reel?
The first aspect of a fly reel that I take into consideration is durability. When you buy a good reel, you are buying a reel for life. Weight is also an important consideration, especially with a setup that you may be carrying into the backcountry. You should also factor in capacity. Considering the previous point, there is some value to a smaller capacity reel and its lighter weight but it should be tailored to the type of fishing you intend to do.
What size reel do I need?
Most fly reels will be sold with a notation like 5/6. This is the size line the reel is intended to hold. You should do your best to match the reel, rod, and line of the same weights to get the best performance out of your setup.
How do you fight fish with that small handle?
If you haven’t fly fished before, seeing the way the reels work is a little different. Though you can use them to fight a fish in, most people will choose to fight the fish in by hand rather than reeling it. This takes a little practice and getting used to but it’s a lot of fun!
What are the different drag systems?
The oldest system is the click and pawl system that has been in use for well over a hundred years. The mechanics of how it works is not important for the user but the durability is. The system lasts forever. Modern systems are a plate system much like those used in spinning gear. They may be made in the older style with steel and cork or with modern plastics. Any of these later systems fish the same.
Why do so many fly reels come with extra spools when they only hold one line weight?
If you are new to fly fishing, understanding the different types of line can be confusing. A rod and reel setup may only be made to handle one weight of line but you may need to switch between floating line or sinking line or change out from a weight forward to a level line. Having several additional spools vastly simplifies this process.
What is the difference between a salt and freshwater fly reel?
The answer is very little. Though some companies make specific reels for each environment, any reel that has corrosion resistant parts like brass and aluminum will work in either. Avoid steel in salt water. The only other difference is that most salt-water reels use a larger arbor and more line.
No matter which reel you purchase, it’s important to match your rod, reel, and line weight together for the best fishing experience. The technology behind fly reels has only gotten better and better, and any of these fly reels would make a great choice for amateur and seasoned anglers alike.