Admittedly, most people probably buy fly reels on the basis of looks and reputation, without giving much thought to the external or internal components. As with our cars, we like to know what's under the hood, but most of us don't know the first thing about how it works - and some of us don't want to know.
Does it matter that most modern reel designs use sealed-needle or ball bearings that rotate around a fixed axle? Actually it does.
In many premium reels the one-way bearings allow the reel to brake the line only as line gets taken from the reel. The bearings often get completely enclosed in a housing to make the reel more durable, since foreign particles like sand, salt or even water can quickly compromise their mobility. Some manufacturers adhere to such strict design tolerances that even the smallest particles can't get through, yet they still encase the bearings to ensure protection. During a run a fast fish can travel up to 60 mph, causing a spool with an arbor of 2 inches to spin at a rate of 6,000 rpm. Add to that the heat a couple of pounds of drag pressure generate, and that's where the quality of the bearings and housing increase in importance. The saltwater environment plays havoc on moving parts, metal or otherwise, and a sealed system offers extra insurance worth considering.While the bearing system's purpose is to keep the reel spinning smoothly, a drag system's sole purpose involves stopping it smoothly.
The simplest type of drag system is the gear and spring clicker, also called click and pawl. In reality, the click and pawl system does little more that prevent overrunning of the spool and cannot be adjusted. This system is most common in freshwater applications and is rarely seen in saltwater designs.
True brake or drag system designs include numerous configurations and materials and can be as sophisticated as the braking system on your car. Common designs include a drawbar system that draws the shaft or spool against the drag material, lever-assisted click and pawl systems, turbine designs and caliper systems. Some designs apply pressure to one side of the spool, while others provide pressure to both sides simultaneously. Regardless, all pressure is transferred through the drag washers.
Most reels incorporate drag washers made from cork. Cork makes an extremely simple, inexpensive and efficient washer, but it can require more maintenance, especially if used in salt water. Overlubricating a cork washer will destroy it, and cork also can break down under pressure over time. Reels with cork washers should never be stored with the drag engaged. Plastics and composites have begun to slowly replace cork in some reels. Teflon against steel, for example, has an extremely low coefficient of friction, and more important, almost no start-up inertia. However, while noncompressible materials work well, some materials continue to have problems with jerking and high start-up inertia. Many manufacturers tout sealed drags, which can help prevent contamination of porous materials like cork and some carbon fibers, and they can certainly contribute to lower maintenance and increased durability. However, sealed drags do not necessarily imply smoothness. The trick to a smooth drag seems to rest simply in a good design, quality washers and subsequent care.
DOWN TO THE FINISH
Believe it or not, even the aesthetics of the reel can be very important to its durability. The construction material and the finish can make the difference between a reel that will last a few seasons and one that will last a lifetime. Aluminum currently ranks as the most common material for manufacturing fly reels, but reel makers use everything from titanium in some high-end reels to plastics in many affordable models. Often, most of the internal and external construction components, such as screws, nuts, levers and axles, are stainless steel because of its resistance to corrosion. Because of weight concerns, reels themselves are not commonly manufactured from stainless steel.
A number of affordable fly reels incorporate many of the new plastic materials into their design and work well in freshwater conditions. As composites become more durable, you'll find more reels that incorporate them. Most fly reels, however, are machined from some type of aluminum - often touted by marketing types as aircraft-grade aluminum to infer a particular high-quality material that has a higher load capacity.
However, true aircraft aluminum is actually an alloy with a high copper and zinc content; it's not usable for competitive anodizing and is not saltwater-resistant. Only aluminum alloys with shares of magnesium and silicon become usable and durable in salt water. These are the alloys used most commonly in fly reels. A few companies produce reels manufactured from titanium, making them the most corrosion-resistant fly reels around. However, this extremely hard, strong material weighs more than aluminum and is more difficult to mill as well. Subsequently, the cost of the raw material and the increased milling expenses make titanium reels quite expensive.
Most aluminum reels have an anodized finish in black or gold, but the process allows almost any color or combination of colors. The anodization process actually protects the aluminum, but it cannot cover sharp 90-degree angles. There are also different types of anodization, from Type I through Type IV. Most reels are Type III anodized, but several use Type IV finishes. Type III is extremely durable, but with the Type IV process a chemical change in the outer layer of metal and finish creates a durable ceramiclike covering. A number of hard coat finishes also exist. These are five to 10 times thicker than with normal anodizing, so the aluminum becomes much more durable and corrosion resistant.
Regardless of type, drag or finish, determine which drive best meets your needs and don't be afraid to look at a number of fly reels. Test the drags (by setting the drag lightly, holding the line from the reel and letting the reel sink to the floor) and pull line from the reels and retrieve the line. Make sure the reel will hold the amount of fly line and backing necessary to pursue the fish you want. Only by doing this can you ensure you have the right tool for the job.
--Karl-Heinz Henschel is a world-renowned fly-reel designer and owner of Germany's Henschel Reels.