Any experienced carpenter or mechanic will tell you that to do a job right you need the right tools. This holds true for almost all aspects of life, and saltwater fly-fishing is no exception. The techniques and methods saltwater fly-rodders use may vary only slightly from the sport's stream-born roots, but the tools of our trade are more than merely beefed-up versions of smaller freshwater cousins.
In an environment where the atmosphere is inherently corrosive and the quarry can run at speeds of up to 60 mph in any direction unimpeded, the fly reel becomes a critical piece of high-tech equipment. As fly-fishermen seek larger quarry on finer tippets, the reel becomes more than simply a place to hold line. Understanding this seemingly simple piece of gear can greatly increase your chances of success, but making sense of what's available can be mind-numbing.
Fly reels come in two basic designs: direct-drive and antireverse. Yet many variations of these two designs are available, and the differences between them can be more significant than you might appreciate. To be sure, there are other designs, such as multiplier reels, but these are by far the most common.
By far, direct-drive reels remain the oldest and most common fly reels around. The straightforward design connects the handle directly to the spool. Put simply, the spool does whatever the handle directs it to do, and vice versa. The obvious disadvantages include the possibility that the tippet, line or rod can break if the angler forces the reel and that whizzing handles can crack knuckles as the fish runs. The major advantage: Many anglers feel the direct contact with a fish provides better control over the fight. Antireverse reels have some form of mechanism between the spool and the handle that disassociates the two and changes how the reel functions.
When a fish takes line from an antireverse reel, only the spool rotates; the handle remains stationary. The power needed to reel in a fish is transferred from the handle to the spool via an adjustable friction coupling - the drag. Besides being easier on the knuckles, the stationary handle allows easy changes to the drag setting, and it gives the fisherman a sort of line insurance if a fish makes an unexpected run. Even if the handle remains engaged, the drag will slip, allowing the fish to take line and avoiding a popped tippet.
Ironically, this slipping also ranks as the antireverse reel's biggest drawback. Oftentimes during a prolonged fight, because an angler can adjust the drag during the fight with an anti-reverse reel, the drag is increased to land a tired fish. But then if the fish makes a late run, the tightened drag cannot be released in time, and the slip advantage is negated.
What many call combination reels offer the best of both antireverse and direct-drive reels. The most common combination reels in the U.S. have names such as Dual Mode and All Mode; in Europe they're called Double Action, Change Over or Dyna Brake reels. These feature the advantages of an antireverse reel during a run, along with the advantages of a direct drive when retrieving line. As with the antireverse reel, the handle does not move when line pays out; however, as soon as the angler engages the handle, the spool becomes firmly connected just as it does with a direct-drive reel. If the handle gets released, the reel returns to an antireverse mode. This allows you to basically switch between modes to exert more pressure on the fish when necessary and keep fingers and tippets safe at the same time.
Two design variations of combination reels are available. One referred to as form locking works by manually converting the reel from one mode to the other. Like older 4-wheel-drive trucks, the change cannot be made while the spool is turning. Not only does the grinding pin make an awful sound as it attempts to engage the mechanism, but the parts also wear more quickly when forced. The second variant works on the basis of friction locking. This design has no undefined position between modes, which allows the angler to convert between modes automatically. This type of reel proves most useful on large fish and makes little sense for anything smaller than an 8-weight. Despite few disadvantages aside from cost and weight, combination reels are slowly catching on; the major drawback seems to be a lack of understanding.