Fly reel design

When you think about it the design of our fly reels is very simple. A spool revolves around a central spindle and is enclosed in a close fitting cage, the whole being provided with a foot for fixing it the the rod. Why then do we need modern reels which cost the same as two weeks holiday for a family of four?

I have said many times before that we anglers must be the softest of touches for the advertising industry. Tell us some piece of kit can catch you more fish by being faster/lighter/brighter/sharper and we flock to hand over our hard earned cash. We are suckered in like children if it wobbles like a real minnow, floats for hours without sinking or attracts fish from the furthest reaches of the lake because it vibrates, rattles or flashes. I suspect the general public has no idea just how gullible we are.

Reels though are the big beasts in the jungle of fishing tackle. I won’t even begin to discuss fixed spools or multipliers, there is thesis for some budding marketing PhD on those subjects. But let’s take a look at fly reels for now. At the outset I have to declare my own position on the subject. I own a lot of fly reels, everything from expensive Hardy’s to dirt cheap BFR’s. Here is the thing though, I have not bought a new fly reel for more than fifteen years.

Fly reels evolved in lock-step with the advances in materials and processes. These in turn advances because other high volume industries pushed the boundaries and the tackle trade rode on their coat tails. It is my contention that CNC machining has a lot to answer for. Good old Computer Numerical Control arrived and gave engineers and designers the ability to reduce tolerances, improve quality and repeatability and work with new materials while increasing throughput. In the place of time served metal bashers we now see highly automated factories churning out thousands of high quality identical pieces. That can only be good surely?

For me the problem is that we went down a rabbit hole chasing the holy grail of ultra light weight fly reels. Suddenly designers could massively reduce the weight of reels because they could machine much more accurately and use lighter materials. Older reels saved weight by drilling round holes in the spool, now spools are thin spokes and skinny rims. Full metal backs on reels were consigned to history, saving a huge amount of weight. Futuristic designs, flashy new logos incorporated into spools and a marketing budget the size of the GDP of a small African country drew in the anglers like moths to a flame. ‘Look how light it is’ we were told and we bought it. In my opinion the manufacturers had the capacity to make reels lighter so their advertisers got busy selling us the idea we really, really, really needed featherweight fly reels and like a trout swallowing hatching mayflies we were easily hooked.

I am willing to concede there is room for very light reels such as for pairing up with tiny brook rods where every gram is important. I have never fished one but I imagine fishing from the manicured lawns of an English chalk stream is made even more pleasurable with an ultra light weight reel too.

So what is my beef with these ‘advances’? Once we get to what I consider ‘normal’ fishing I value reliability over lightness every time. Each season I see other anglers damaging their expensive new light weight reels with a monotony which I find quite wearing. Fishing here in Ireland can be a tough business and knocks are just part and parcel of the game. A lot of equipment has to be decanted from car to boat, stowed somewhere during the day, tossed around in rough weather and generally handled roughly by anglers and ghillie. All of this is before we go anywhere near what I shall euphemistically call ‘mishaps’ such being dropped, lying in sand while threading the rings, being sat on in the boat and the myriad of other tortures we inflict on our tackle. I guess that over a typical season I see half-a-dozen high end fly reels damaged beyond repair for various reasons.

Out of all the fly reels I have owned there is one I regard as the best all rounder for my type of fishing to the old the ‘system 2’ made by BFR. Solid, dependable and with a very good drag, I have used these reels for many, many years and they have not let me down so far. Most of us grew up with early BFR reels such as the ‘Rimfly’, basic and inexpensive reels that did the job. The System 2’s were more robustly built than their stablemates and were popular back in the day with sea trout and salmon anglers. These days you can still find good examples of them for sale on the secondhand market. The only drawback with them is they were made in a bewildering range of sizes over their production run so purchasing spare spools is a a bit of a lottery frankly.

How much lighter the engineers and designers can make fly reels is not clear. I suspect new materials will be the way forward but it is for sure and certain a return to heavier, more resilient reels in not on the cards. I own more than enough fly reels to see me out and can’t see me buying any more. I don’t care how light a new reel is or how strong the fancy drag is. So the next time you are tempted by the salesman’s patter just think about the abuse your reels will have to endure and how well any new purchase will be able to cope.


4 thoughts on “Fly reel design

  1. I’m mainly a river angler and do like light reels, but in traditional designs. As you point out some of these modern reels border on delicate. A simple click drag Rimfly/Marquis style reel is all I really want. Another silly trend is the ability to hold huge quantities of backing. Why would you need 100m, or more, of backing on a wt3 reel?

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  2. Exactly! I used to fish for salmon on big rivers a lot and was never once confronted with a fish that ran out over 100 yards of backing so how on earth would a trout on a 3wt do that? Don’t get me wrong, I love my fly reels and enjoy simply owning them but they have to be functional.

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  3. Great article that describes my general feeling about all fishing tackle. I have far, far too many fly reels but nothing stupidly expensive and nearly all second hand. I am a big fan of some of the rimfly reels – 95, 75, 55 and have several of each with numerous spools. They are so simple, robust and reliable! I recently picked up a gearfly in perfect order for less than the price of a pint. Great reel also in my opinion. Ditto all the Young’s Shakespeare models of which I have a fair few. Daiwa vintage fly reels can be good reels. I have a few hardy clones and a couple of old Viscounts – bit noisy but fine imo.
    A fellow angler was only telling me yesterday about a day when he dropped the spool of his one fly reel and it was bashed on a rock and buckled and he was unable to put the spool back on the reel. He fished the rest of the day with the line coiled in his jacket pocket! I agree that copious amounts of backing is for most anglers a gimmick and spending funny money on a fly reel is ridiculous to me and generally don’t find modern reels aesthetically appealing. I also prefer fibre glass rods. If my arm gets sore I have a break and a cup of tea. The weight issue is totally overplayed imo.


  4. Aye Duncan, the trade love to sell us anglers as much new gear as possible and the hype around light weight, huge capacity and drags that could stop a tank seems to work when you see all the new models that come out each year. I guess it is the same in so many sectors, household electrics, cars, mobile phones, they could all be built more robustly but how do companies make money if we only change them every twenty years? Like you, I have Rimfly’s that are ancient but still run just fine, System 2’s that are like new despite years of abuse and other reels of similar age that are a joy to fish with. Don’t start me on fibreglass rods – we will be here all night!


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