Last update: 15 January, 2017. Improved overall readability, modified headings for better navigation in table of contents, added resource section.
Learn more about fishing gear here.
- 1 Outdoor Empire Recommendations
- 2 Important Considerations
- 3 Significant External Factors
- 4 Leading Brands
- 5 You Decide
Many anglers consider a reel to be the least important component of their fly fishing gear. They’ll sing the praises of a high-quality rod or argue endlessly about the best fly for a given day in June, while simultaneously arguing that “any old fly reel” will do.
Every reel at a given price point offers a unique combination of pros and cons, just as every angler and every fishing situation do. Take your time and be sure you understand the differences for each so that you can make an informed decision.
Often, there is no “right” or “wrong” fly reel for a given situation. But there are “better” and “worse” reels for every time, place, and target species.
|Product|| || || || ||
|Reel Weight||8.35 oz||4.7 oz||4.8 oz||5.5 oz||5.59 oz|
|Construction||Aluminum||Aluminum Alloy||Anodized aluminum||Aluminum||Anodized aluminum|
|Finish||Grey||Black, gold, gunmetal||Black, gold||Black, silver, amber||Black, silver|
Outdoor Empire Recommendations
You’ll only learn which reel is perfect for you by trying out a bunch of different models and experimenting. But budgets are never big enough, so sometimes it makes more sense to just start with a reel that you know will work reasonably well for your preferred fly fishing application.
You may end up discovering that you’d prefer a reel with a slightly larger arbor, or one with a better drag system. But you’ll be able to catch fish while you are learning these things. You may even find that you scored the perfect reel right off the bat.
Best for Saltwater Fishing
Hardy Fortuna X1
Saltwater fly fishing requires large reels with enough size to carry a truckload of line, say 150 yards or so minimally.
But because you may be fishing all day on the water, you want that reel to be as light as possible to help keep fatigue to a minimum.
Additionally, saltwater fly reels must have a top-notch drag system so that you can stop a big fish without snapping your tippet.
The Hardy Fortuna X1 meets all of these criteria. Featuring one of the best drag systems on the market, the Fortuna X1 works like a well-oiled, precision-crafted tool.
You won’t be worried about that tarpon or bonefish crossing the Atlantic after you set the hook; with this high-quality drag system, you can be sure that you’ll slow down that fish smoothly while maintaining constant control.
Plus, the Hardy Fortuna X1 is a big reel with a large arbor so it collects line quickly during the retrieve and stores enough line to meet your salt-water-fishing needs.
Best Low Cost Option
Piscifun Sword – Full Review
Whether you are just starting to learn how to fly fish or consider it a part-time pursuit, many fly fishers are keen to spend relatively little on their fly fishing reel.
Piscifun Sword features machined construction and a sealed design like most high-end reels do.
And because the metal used in the reel construction is anodized, you don’t have to worry about saltwater corroding your new reel.
The drag on the Piscifun is not as smooth as the drag on many premium reels, but this is to be expected from a unit that costs only a fraction of what high-end reels do. Nevertheless, the Piscifun Sword utilizes a disc-drag system, which should prove more than adequate for catching bass, bluegill, river trout, and similar species.
A few other economy models that are worth a look include the L.L. Bean Mid-Arbor, Cabela’s Prestige Premier, and the Ross Fly Rise.
Best for Trout Fishing
Orvis Mirage III Fly Reel – Full Review
When fly fishing for trout, you must be sure that you are using a reel that is capable of casting a very small fly and collecting line quickly in case your hooked trophy starts swimming straight towards you.
Things like a smooth drag system and a light-weight design are also important criteria to consider, but only after ensuring that the reel satisfies the two primary considerations.
Given these needs and criteria, the Orvis Mirage III Fly Reel is one of the finest choices for trout anglers. It features almost no startup inertia, meaning that it is quite easy to get the reel to start spinning while you are casting.
Additionally, the reel retrieves about 7 3/4 inches of line per rotation. Because the reel features a completely sealed design, sand and silt are less likely to work their way inside where they can cause damage.
The primary drawback to this Orvis reel is its high price. So this is not an ideal choice for a novice looking to try the sport. However, dedicated trout anglers are likely to appreciate the reel’s quality and feel good about making the purchase.
Best for Bass Fishing
Redington Rise 7/8
Fly fishing for bass is a much different activity than pursuing them with traditional, spinning gear.
Whereas your reel is crucial when using conventional equipment, fly fishers rarely even engage their reels when pursuing largemouth lunkers.
Typically, the fishing occurs at close range and the line is usually drawn in by hand while fighting the fish.
In this case, most fly-fishing bass anglers concentrate on purchasing a functional, lightweight, and durable reel while spending their remaining money on high-quality rods, lures, and line.
The Redington Rise 7/8 is an excellent choice as it is affordable and lightweight, yet still made with high-quality components and craftsmanship.
One potential drawback to the Redington Rise is its relatively weak drag system. But as most bass anglers palm the reel rather than relying on the drag, this is a minor concern in most cases.
Best for the Money
Lamson Guru 3.5 Fly Reel
When you are looking for the best reel for the money, you are looking for something that works as well as a high-end model without the high-end price tag.
This often means forgoing the bells and whistles present on some premium models to keep the price low.
One reel that embodies these characteristics is the Lamson Guru 3.5 Fly Reel. It features machined construction, a sealed design, and very good drag for a reel in this price range.
Distinguishing the differences between various fly reels is rather easy. After all, they only feature a relatively limited number of component systems. There may be quite a few screws, pins, and other parts in the drag system of a reel but these all work in concert to adjust the drag.
Most of the big differences among various reels relate to the following aspects of their design.
While fly reels also serve to store unused line, their primary job is to collect line when retrieving a fish. Most fly reels accomplish this in one of three ways called single action, multiplying action, or automatic action.
Single action reels are like those for conventional fishing. One full crank of the handle turns the spool one time.
Multiplying reels, by contrast, employ an elaborate network of gears to create two or more revolutions in the spool for every full turn of the handle.
The third style of reel, automatic retrieval reels, works in an entirely different manner. These reels store tension as the line is fed out. When it is time to retrieve the line, a trigger releases the safety catch allowing the spool to spin back rapidly; pulling in the line that is out in the water.
For basic fly fishing, a single-action reel is more than adequate. In fact, because novices are better served by concentrating on improving their casting and lure-selecting skills than learning how to use a fancy reel, most beginners should only consider single-action models.
However, those targeting species likely to make long runs may want to consider multiplier reels; and those trying to catch fish in very deep water may prefer automatic retrieval systems.
The size of a reel’s arbor, the large “wheel” that holds the line, alters the performance of the rod in some ways. Generally speaking, small arbors are both lighter and less expensive than large arbors are. Accordingly, it makes sense to opt for a small arbor unless necessary.
After all, it is easier to wield a light rod than it is to swing a heavy rod all day. So a smaller and lighter arbor will help you stay sharp and fresh during extended fishing sessions.
If you are targeting a fish famous for making long runs, you’ll need a reel that can hold a lot of line. When all other things are equal, a larger arbor will collect line more quickly than an identical-but-smaller arbor will, making it even more valuable when targeting a lake trout, bonefish and other species that can strip line fast enough to make your reel cry out in anguish.
Line Weight and Spool Size
Similarly, you’ll need to consider the line weight you intend to use when selecting an arbor size. Anglers using heavy lines will need larger arbors than those using thinner, light-weight lines, and backing.
Another important but often forgotten consideration is that the effective spool size does not change very much when you use a large-arbor reel, as it does when you use a small arbor reel.
Spool size consistency helps the drag system operate more smoothly, which makes it less likely that the fish will snap the line.
Here is a great demonstration of the size difference between large and small arbor reel:
The drag system works to slow down, and eventually stop, the reel’s spinning when a fish takes off with your lure. A smooth drag system is one of the most important considerations in reel selection as it can make all the difference between the fish of a lifetime breaking off your tippet, and disappearing into the depths and hauling in a trophy.
Smooth drag systems protect your gear by slowly and smoothly applying tension to the line. Jerky, poorly designed drag mechanisms may not slow the fish’s progress enough or they may lock tight, allowing the fish to break the line.
Click-and-pawl vs Disc-brake
Most modern fly reels employ one of two different drag systems. Some, particularly older models, use a geared mechanism in combination with a spring to impart drag on the reel. Reels with this type of drag system are called click-and-pawl reels.
Others rely on pressed discs to create friction and therefore tighten the tension on the line, much like the disc brakes on a car do to slow its wheels.
In practice, both styles work well. Although disc-brake systems offer a nearly infinite number of drag settings, while click-and-pawl reels only offer a number of discrete drag values.
Nevertheless, novice fly fishermen are unlikely to notice much difference between the two different styles. The overall quality of the reel is more important than the type of drag system employed.
When all other things are equal, most fly fishing enthusiasts prefer their reel to be as light as possible. This generally makes it easier to handle and cast the rod, and reduces the amount of fatigue you’ll feel during a long day of fishing.
However, it is important to match the weight of the reel to the rod. You don’t want to use an ultra light reel on a heavier rod, nor do you want to do the opposite. This can make it more difficult to cast accurately which is one of the most important aspects of fly fishing.
Simply put, you want to ensure that your entire rig is properly matched. If you are going to use a 5-weight line, you’ll need to use a rod and reel in the 4 to 6-weight range for optimum performance.
- 1-weight to 3-weight set ups are best for catching small trout in tiny streams;
- 4-weight to 6-weight rods are better suited for small bass, large trout, and similar freshwater quarry.
- 7- to 9-weight setups are great for larger bass, bonefish, and salmon; while larger weight rigs are necessary for catching tarpon and wahoo.
Fly reels are constructed in one of three primary ways, all of which relate to the processing of the metal elements.
Most economy reels are made through a process called metal stamping. These reels are typically heavier, yet less durable than those made via other processes. Metal stamping works by using an automated press to bend and cut the metal material in a pre-determined manner.
Better reels often rely on die-cast manufacturing processes, in which molten metal is poured into a pre-formed mold. This process can be used quite effectively to make mid-tier reels and it behooves those shopping on a budget to look for die-cast products instead of inferior reels made from stamped metal.
While die-cast reels can be quite effective and well-built, the highest quality reels are almost invariably made from machined metal.
This process starts with a large block of metal. Computers then direct a machine designed to cut or grind metal to remove a precise amount of material, thereby leaving perfectly formed components which can then be assembled by other machines or human workers.
It bears mentioning that die-cast reels cannot be anodized the way machined reels can, which makes them more likely to corrode than machined reels are.
One final reel characteristic that you should think about is the finish or color of the reel. While natural chrome or black matte finishes are probably the most common available styles, some manufacturers produce reels in other colors. In fact, modern fly fishers can obtain reels in almost every color of the rainbow.
Some anglers believe that shiny finishes may reflect light onto the water potentially spooking the fish. This is a relatively unlikely occurrence, but it bears consideration. If you are worried about this phenomenon, just select a model with a matte finish. If not, get color inspiration from here.
Significant External Factors
Most of the previously discussed factors relate to the act of casting to or reeling in fish. However, you don’t fish in a vacuum. You fish in the real world, targeting real fish and facing real obstacles in the process. Accordingly, you will need to consider a variety of additional factors when selecting your reel.
You must consider the biology, behavior, and tendencies of the fish you intend to target to select the best reel for your needs. For example, some fish (lake trout, for instance) are often caught in deeper water and they may engage in long runs once hooked.
Accordingly, you’ll need a premium reel that can hold a large quantity of line, has a smooth-yet-strong drag system, and collects line quickly when retrieved. By contrast, these types of things are not necessary when targeting brook trout in 6 inches of water or bluegill in a small pond.
It is always important to use the proper equipment depending on where you’re going fishing.
Fishing along the coast of Oregon is much different that fishing a lazy Texas oxbow, and neither are anything like fishing a cold Appalachian stream. Not surprisingly, different equipment – including fly reels – works better in some locations than in others.
If you spend a lot of time fishing in the ocean, you want to be sure to you use not only saltwater-specific gear, but also a high-quality, sealed reel to help protect the reel’s delicate interior components from the corrosive saltwater surrounding you.
Similarly, if you fish in places with highly silted water, a sealed reel will last longer than the alternative. It is also important to consider the cold-tolerance of your reel if you fish in icy conditions, as some inferior-quality reels will lock up in very cold conditions.
Although many anglers overlook it, water access is an important consideration when selecting a reel. If you can just walk or drive right up to your fishing location, the size and weight of your reel won’t have much of an effect.
However, the weight and bulk of a large-arbor reel will make it more difficult to get through the brush flanking a mountain stream, so a small-arbor model would be preferable in these circumstances.
It is more important to opt for a sealed reel in these hard-to-reach locations. This will help keep more dirt and grime out of the reel while you are bumping and tripping through a forest while trying to get to your fishing hole.
Fishing must be fun for it to turn into an enjoyable hobby, and you aren’t likely to have much fun if you spend all your time futzing with your reel instead of fishing.
Therefore, it is generally wise for beginning fly anglers to stick with simple reels which lack some of the bells and whistles common on more complicated models. It’s also important to be familiar with the basics such as understanding how fly leaders can help you with fishing and tying fly knots among others.
By contrast, advanced anglers are well-served by spending a little bit more money to obtain a higher-quality reel.
As with most other commercially manufactured products, fly reels often exhibit brand-specific tendencies and characteristics. To some extent, this is deliberate on the part of the manufacturer.
It demonstrates their relative commitment to craftsmanship, their preferred design practices, and the materials they rely on when constructing their reels. But it can also indicate problems inherent to the manufacturer’s design or their marketing approach.
One of the finest manufacturers of fly fishing reels, Abel is a company that primarily focuses on reels that appeal to discriminating anglers.
To give you an idea, Abel brand nippers are more expensive than the reels made by other manufacturers.
Their lowest priced reels typically bear price tags between $150 and $200, but these should not be considered nor compared to the entry-level reels produced by other manufacturers. Even their least expensive reels are suitable for anglers with some experience and skill.
Most anglers that use Abel reels speak glowingly of them. They love the durability of the reels, as well as their interchangeable nature. Many Abel frames and arbors can be swapped around to provide you with exactly the type of reel you require.
However, the most widely praised characteristic of Abel reels is undoubtedly their silky-smooth drag systems. While they produced (and still hails the virtues of) cork drag systems, they recently began utilizing a proprietary stacked disc system which is sealed to keep out the elements and remain completely maintenance free.
Some users note that Abel reels are a little bit on the heavy side, although this is a minor complaint that most are willing to overlook.
Ross is a storied company that has been making fly fishing reels since 1973. They claim to have been the recipient of more “Awards in Excellence” than any other manufacturer of fly fishing tackle.
Ross reels are often heralded as the best reels available at the mid-market level, perfect for seasoned anglers who will appreciate the materials, design, and craftsmanship without having the budget or desire to purchase a $500 reel.
They manufacture quality reels at all price levels, including some fine entry-level reels at a $40 to $50 price point.
Many users complain that the drag system on Ross reels tend to be weaker than those produced by other manufacturers. This is more likely to be a problem for anglers chasing bonefish and tarpons than those targeting trout. So Ross reels are more popular among those seeking smaller quarry.
Some users find the weight of the reels problematic, and this extra weight causes the rod to be butt-heavy. However, other anglers find that the reel’s good qualities more than makeup for a little extra weight.
Note that Abel reels and Ross reels are both made by subsidiaries of the same parent company: Mayfly Outdoors.
Orvis is one of the primary players in the fly fishing industry. They produce everything from lines and tippets, to rods and reels.
They usually offer a variety of product lines within each category.
This ensures that you’ll see Orvis equipment in the hands of a variety of different anglers, from seasoned experts to beginners heading out for their first fly fishing session.
Orvis makes a variety of reels, each with a different price point. While they manufacture premium models with price tags that exceed $500, they also offer entry level reels which are typically priced at about $100 or slightly less.
However, expect these entry-level reels to lack some of the features common to fancier models. For example, their Battenkill line only features a 4-position drag system; while this does limit the versatility of these low-cost reels.
Many anglers are comfortable palming the reel to impart drag. In such cases, trading drag flexibility for a lower price is a smart decision.
Most Orvis reels are noteworthy for being made with very good craftsmanship for the price as well as being very light. Many of their designs have repeatedly been tweaked in an effort to shave off as much weight as possible without compromising the function or durability of the reel.
Lamson is an interesting company that began as a bicycle component manufacturer. They helped bring clipless bicycle racing pedals to the market back in the 1980s.
Since then, they’ve created some other innovative bicycle designs to make a cyclist’s life easier.
In the early 1990s, Lamson – who’s fishing division is called Waterworks – began applying this same spirit of innovation to their reels.
One of the most important things they did was to re-engineer the drag system for some of their high-end reels, moving from a disc-based system to one that relies on matched cones to impart resistance.
Some of their lower-priced reels still feature a click-pawl drag system. This cone-based drag system relies on a simpler design than most disc-based reels, thereby reducing the failure rate. These are typically very durable reels.
Lamson produces a few high-end reels priced at more than $500. While these are great choices for experienced anglers, beginners will find a few Lamson reels in the $100 price range. While most of their entry-level reels are excellent for freshwater fly anglers, the larger models are an excellent choice for those pursuing smaller saltwater species.
Hatch is a maker of premium-quality reels, suitable for everything from the smallest native trout to giant tarpons.
Unlike some other manufacturers that produce low-price and entry-level models, they concentrate on the intermediate to high-end market.
These aren’t reels for beginners. They are reels for intermediate to advanced anglers who will appreciate everything that these reels have to offer.
Hatch reels were originally designed to replace the number of high-dollar, yet low-quality reels dominating the market in the early 2000s.
The company founders decided that drag, durability, and design were their most important criteria when designing their reels. It appears to have worked, as Hatch users overwhelmingly praise the craftsmanship put into the reels.
They aren’t just well-made, these premium reels are built to take a beating. They are durable enough to withstand the wear and tear that most anglers unleash on their reels, but they lack the “tank-like” feel common to many other super-durable reels. Instead, they feel like precision instruments assembled by people who know what they are doing.
Hatch reels also draw praise for their great drag systems which are sealed and maintenance-free. Its aesthetics are highly celebrated among fly fishing enthusiasts who want a reel that looks as well as it functions.
We already helped you narrow down your choices. All you have to do now is to ponder on the factors above based on your needs, and take a closer look at our recommended products.
What is the fly reel that suits you best?
Other resources worth checking:
Fly Fishing Research – About fly fishing, scientifically.
Flyfishing Subreddit – Good community for getting advice or showing off catches.