There’s no law that says fly reels can’t be ‘designer’. If there was no market out there for aesthetics, indeed, Abel might have long ago transitioned to lawnmowers.
If you’re choosing a fly reel at the other extreme, though, compelled by budget or personal preference towards cheap reels that do all they need to and no more, then don’t be fooled by the old cliche that “it’s just a line-holder”. Yes, it is but even cheap fly reels must tick the following boxes…
1. The reel will be the first thing to hit the ground whenever you drop your rod. It needs to be sturdy enough to handle the kind of fishing you do.
2. While you want it tough, you don’t want it so heavy that it unbalances the rod, so you feel like you’re fighting the reel every time you cast. Instead, you want the reel as light as possible for the job required without being fragile. If you can maintain the rod’s centre of gravity or balance point – normally found about a third of the way along the rod, starting from the front edge of the handle – it will add impetus to your forward cast.
3. Make sure the reel can be easily disassembled and put back together so that you can clean it thoroughly, especially if you’re a shore angler likely to encounter sand and grit.
4. You must be certain that the spool is deep enough to house both your fly line and the backing line to which it will be attached. How much of the latter you need depends on the type of fishing you’re doing – 75 yards for small lakes and rivers, 100 yards for large lakes and reservoirs. Don’t make a false economy here and settle for a reel whose depth is only made possible by a narrow ‘base’ (ie the central barrel around which backing and line will be wound). You need a broad base (aka a mid- or large-arbour spool) which not only retrieves more line with fewer turns but also stops your fly line from looking like a coiled spring when it’s off the reel, as it will when it’s been wrapped around a base the width of a pencil.
5. In the split-second before you register that a fish is hooked (a bit longer if you drop your fly line in the excitement) you’ll be glad that your reel has some sort of braking system to stop the fish taking too much line too quickly (resulting in either a bird’s nest on your reel or the fish spitting the hook when the line slackens). Reels usually have a ratchet system at least (okay for smaller fish) but do check if the ratchet is adjustable and also the sound it makes at speed. The ratchet on my first, highly inexpensive reel made it sound as if I was molesting Donald Duck in the reeds. I grew to dread winding in.
6. One notch up from the ratchet is an adjustable drag system (memorise your reel’s drag button location from the outset). While the extra reassurance is nice, don’t set the drag so harshly that your leader goes ‘ping’ the moment a hooked fish digs its heels in. In his book Trout From Small Stillwaters, Peter Cockwill advises that if you can’t strip fly line off your reel when holding the line between your lips, then the drag is too tight.
7 If you do go for a drag system, make sure it is either fully sealed from the outside world or alternatively, that you can reach it easily for maintenance. Like a stone in your shoe, grit in your drag mechanism brings a level of torment out of all proportion to its size.
8. Fly fishing reels that come complete with several detachable spools mean that you can fish a range of lines with just the one reel. At some point, though, carrying a second reel will be highly advisable, lest the first one breaks while you’re fishing. ‘Enforced tenkara’ sounds like something from The Bridge on the River Kwai and is probably only marginally more pleasant.