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Fly Fishing with Doug Macnair: The Fly Reel - Fact & Fantasy: Part 2©

Fly Fishing with Doug Macnair: The Fly Reel - Fact & Fantasy: Part 2© Fly Fishing with Doug Macnair: The Fly Reel - Fact & Fantasy: Part 2©
From his manuscript, Fly Fishing for the Rest of Us

If you become emotionally involved in the gentle art of fly fishing, the day will come when you will put aside the old Medalist 1494 and move up to something "new." Most likely it will not be because anything went wrong with the Medalist (unless you failed to keep the screws tight or did not provide a little lubrication from time to time). Should you have to justify the expenditure, allow me to share with you my favorite repeatedly used on my wife: "Honey, just think of the increased flexibility I will have on the water; besides, if something goes wrong, I have the old reel to back me up."

I’ve used this excuse for years, and it usually works -- however, I admit there is a slight possibility she just lets me think it works. I remember a time many years ago when I justified moving from a Studebaker 4-door to a Silver Hawk. I argued that we would gain space … So much for the games we play. (I miss the old Hawk to this day.)

The point? The day will come when you decide to change or add reels to the all important inventory men call "Stuff" or "Play Toys," and women call "Junk." As you might guess, women like to call their junk "collectibles." It all depends on your frame of reference. When the time comes, here are a few comments to help you decide what it is you want to buy, or strongly suggest as an appropriate birthday or Christmas present ... Keep these thoughts in mind: Almost anyone's fly reel works pretty well -- it has to, or the firm cannot stay in business. However, it is also true that some fly reels work a little better than others. As an analogy, think about this: almost any automobile will get you from point A to point B, but the one that does it best is apt to be a product of your tastes -- the sum of the variables you consider valuable. A few that come to mind include: image, expense, value, comfort, speed, reliability, and overall performance.

Frankly, the same things apply to fly reels. Any time you spend more than sixty bucks for a fly reel, you should expect to find increasingly refined attributes as the price goes up. Look for them. One other point to keep in mind -- I call it reasonableness. Reasonableness should be a cognitive factor in your consideration(s) when embarked on the adventure of buying a new fly reel. Reasonableness first comes into play when you accept the fact that the XYZ fly shop is likely to carry only about 5 of the more than 30 lines of fly reels. Care to wager on which of the 30 they will recommend?

The Drag Mechanism.

Just like the classic Pflueger Medalist, all fly reels have a frame, a reel foot, a spool, and an internal drag of some sort. The simplest of all is the "clicker" drag. It is either on or off, and cannot be adjusted. As you might guess, reels with a clicker drag tend to fall in the least expensive category of the larger fly reel family. Depending on your needs, give it consideration. After all, if you are fishing a 2 or 3-weight outfit, it’s doubtful much more than a clicker drag is required. For my taste, the difference in dollars between the clicker and the "spring & pawl" drag is insignificant. I would opt for the latter.

There are two reliable ways to determine the type of drag a fly reel has -- either read the manufacturer’s literature or take the reel apart. To find out how the insides of the reel are laid out, remove the reel spool from the frame by releasing the quick release button or lever most have. Unfortunately, some reels require a more expansive disassembly. While not difficult to do at a store counter, consider what it might be like afield in bad weather. I always fear taking my Abel’s into an alien environment without spare parts. Removing the spool requires removing a little screw on the exterior drag knob. Lose that screw and you can forget that day’s fishing, if not the trip. By the way, this marks the first year when a fly fisher can change an Abel from right to left-hand retrieve, or vis-à-vis, left to right. Older Abels require the factory to make the change. Abels are as, you know or will soon learn, are not exactly what one could call "inexpensive."

Once the spool is removed from the frame, examining the drag is easy. Beyond the clicker, previously discussed, the drag is going to be one of three (3) types.

  • The "Spring- and-Pawl." This drag functions by increasing or decreasing tension against a spring applying pressure through a triangular shaped pawl against the reel’s spool. If adjustments to the tension are possible, they can be either internal or external using a knob or lever. Single spring-and-pawl drags are usually associated with the least expensive reels, such as the Cortland RimFly and the Orvis Clearwater. Either is certainly a notch above the plain old clicker. The Clearwater is a nice reel for light trout, panfish, and small bass in confined waters.
  • The Double "Spring-and-Pawl." If one is good, two is better -- and with that statement, some manufacturers have doubled the spring-and-pawl concept. Sure enough, peer into the frame of the Orvis Battenkill 3/4 or 5/6, and you will see two springs and two triangular pawls. Cheap? To the contrary, the Battenkill is beloved by many for its longevity and reliability. It’s important that the spring & pawl system does not mean "cheap." Exceptions abound. For example, the Abel TR/series uses the spring-and-pawl concept; other examples include reels emulating the classics of yesterday such a Peerless or a Vintage Winston. These, and others, represent the highest quality and standards of machined precision and are not inexpensive. Among my prized "stuff" is a Vintage Winston w/ 2-spools. If I have guts enough to use it on larger waters, it has the guts to stay the fish.
  • The Disc Drag. A product of evolution, the disc drag is the norm for most higher quality fly reels. Entry level is usually around one hundred dollars. As an aside, the well-known Orvis Battenkill 3/4 and 5/6, previously mentioned, are both available with disc-drags for only about a ten dollar increase in price. That’s not very much money, is it? For the minimal increase, I think it is a wise choice.
As an editorial aside, I recommend obtaining the Orvis catalog. The photography is excellent, the products well known and respected, and, importantly, the views of the drag systems superb. I know of no other catalog that does a better job.

Except for a "collectible," I submit that purchasing a fly reel equipped with a disc-drag is an example of reasonableness. By this I mean it is more versatile and reliable over the long haul and, therefore, a better value for the dollar invested. But know this: all disc-drags are not created equal. Far from it! Disc-drags vary widely in such things as the size of the disc and the materials used in its fabrication and engineering characteristics. I do not pretend to be an expert in how a drag should be designed; however, I can say that "broadly speaking" two types exist: the caliper disc-drag and the "true" disc-drag. While the caliper disc-drag is usually considered inferior, my experience suggests both work well. Lamson’s LP series is a good example of a caliper disc-drag. I’ve yet to have one of these reels fail. Lamson, along with other good manufacturers, back their product with a lifetime warranty. Several years ago I was talking to Joe Harder, then a VP, about the Lamson warranty. I will never forget his comment, "Doug, you really need to visit. I’ve set up a shelf displaying the ‘road kill’ we’ve backed with our warranty." Ever seen an LP-2 that’s the ‘hit & run’ victim of a big rig? I hadn’t! Lamson is now owned by The Waterworks; changes have already been made in the drag mechanism making a good reel even better.

How smoothly the drag releases line can be a critical factor to your success in landing a long-running, powerful fish. This it was happens: as the spool spins against the friction imposed by the drag, the heat generated quickly builds. You can feel it, the reel gets hot! The better the drag and its design, the better the heat will dissipate, and the longer the reel will continue to function. Whether you accept it or not, there are plenty of examples in which a reel literally burned-up under the stress of battle with one of our finny friends. For a long-running fish known to be tough characters, I think it best to consider no other drag.

Functionally, the fly reel’s disc-drag is similar to the drag a quality open-face spinning reel. Tightening the drag compresses the disc(s), increasing the pressure applied to the broad surface of the reel’s spool. Increasing the pressure increasingly denies line release. The disc(s) can be fabricated of cork or space age materials such as Teflon or any combination thereof. Now, for the hooker in your search for a reel -- there are two types of drag resistance in the fly fishing reel that many fly fishers do not understand. The first resistance is against the initial pressure it takes to get the spool moving from a dead stop. The second is the sustained pressure it takes to maintain the spool’s momentum. The first is far more important: overcoming inertia to start the spool moving always requires more pressure than it takes to keep it moving. Usually, the less the difference between the two, the better the reel. For those interested in a detailed discussion of overcoming inertia, I recommend you consult either MIT or NASA. To learn even more about inertia, consult any member of the Congress. Recognized experts on the subject, none seems to know anything about overcoming it.

Considering the foregoing, I think this is one of the reasons Abel reels have endeared themselves to many great fly fishers. Infinitely adjustable and smooth, barely a change occurs in the drag pressure. The Abel’s reputation for quality places it among the elite -- so does its price. It is not inexpensive! Beautifully machined and reliable, Abel’s tend to run a bit on the heavy side. Depicted here are two Abels: a Model 3N, designating a "narrow" spool, and a Model 1. The littlest Abel, a Model 0, weighs about 4_ ounces against a Lamson LP-3, at 3_ ounces. While the Lamson can carry a 7-weight and 150 yards of traditional 20-pound backing, the Model 0 is limited handling a 4-weight line and 80 yards of the same backing. That’s a meaningful difference. If you are willing to gamble on something like Cortland’s Micronite super thin backing, the situation changes. The little Model 0 will easily carry a 5-weight line and about 150 yards of backing. Put a Model 0 equipped with a very good WF-6-F backed by microthin 20-pound backing on a suitable 8_ foot fast-tip rod, and my lady is prepared for the saltwater flats. For a male, try matching a Model 1 with a 7-weight outfit.

Next up: The discussion of "Real Reels: Fact and Fantasy" continues in Part 3. God Bless.

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