If you are fly fishing for steelhead, the fly reel drag systems available can make your head spin. How do you know which drag system is best? The standard spring and pawl drag system used for trout is just not going to cut it.
If you are even thinking about steelhead trout you are moving beyond fly fishing basics. Click here to learn about fly reel drag systems for trout.
First let's look at what a drag system does and then the different designs available. The drag is just a controlled way to apply pressure to a running fish. It is the brake. When you use a brake you do not want to stop too suddenly (at least not most of the time). With fly fishing, a sudden stop would cause the line to break, especially with a steelhead.
Fly reel designers are always trying to balance the startup inertia (the starting tension) with the final stopping power of the reel. With fly reel drag systems this is important because you don’t want too much starting tension, but you need enough final stopping power for a steelhead.
Disc drag systems are the most common of fly reel drag systems. They use two discs that are adjusted against each other, usually one on the spool and one on the frame. This system has some problems, which explains why there are so many different disc-drag designs on the market today.
Disc drag systems include the draw-bar, the sealed drum and the gear-wheel designs.
The draw-bar drag system has two flat discs. Both discs are visible when you remove the spool from the frame. These two discs are adjusted against each other, causing the needed friction. The discs are made of either cork or synthetics such as carbon. Usually at least one of the discs is cork.
The advantages of the draw-bar drag design
The disadvantages of the draw-bar drag design
The advantages of using cork in this design is:
The disadvantages of using cork
These have their brake pads protected in a sealed case on the frame of the reel. These pads are protected with rubber O-rings. Because they do not use cork they are maintenance-free.
They have the same design as the draw-bar drag systems but most people call them “sealed disc” or “drum drags.”
The advantages of a sealed drum drag system:
The disadvantages of a sealed drum drag system:
The Charlton reels use a sealed carbon disc drag system. The reel is very popular in the steelhead community with some claiming it can stop a train. Since they are not made anymore you may need to sell your car to afford one (pictured on the right).
Gear-wheel drag systems have a smaller set of brake pads than the drum systems. These disc pads are hidden behind the adjusting knob and will be near the outside of the frame. The off-center adjusting knob makes it easy to identify them.
The advantages of the gear-wheel drag system
The disadvantages of the gear-wheel drag system
As you move from fly fishing basics to fly fishing for steelhead there is one question you need to ask yourself: Do I want the fly reel drag system to be maintenance-free? If this is the case you need to think hard about going with a sealed drum.
If you can, spend the extra money. One good reel can outlast three cheap ones.
Hey, it's only money!
OK, I said it is “ONLY” money. I know it is a hard decision to make. Steelhead reels can run from one hundred dollars to over eight hundred. Hopefully this page has helped you in your decision.