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Fly Reel Drag Systems for Steelhead

Fall steelhead with fly reel

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 For Fly Fishing Reels

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

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 drag is stronger and smoother than the spring and pawl system.
  • It has large discs, which give it good stopping power.

The disadvantages of the draw-bar drag design

  • Both water and sand can be bad news when they come between the spinning discs.


The advantages of using cork in this design is:

  • Cork is smooth, compresses well and allows for good friction.
  • It has low startup inertia. The cork compresses at first then returns to its full size. (If you have the drag set for ten pounds the fish will first feel five then seven then ten pounds of drag.)
  • It dissipates heat well.

The disadvantages of using cork

  • Cork has to be maintained. You need to add an appropriate lubricant. This keeps it from drying out and cracking.
  • Because cork drag systems must be open for maintenance reasons, they can be adversely affected by water and sand.

Sealed Drum Fly Reel Drag Systems

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:

  • They do not have problems with grit or hydroplaning.
  • No maintenance is required.

The disadvantages of a sealed drum drag system:

  • Some of the sealed drum drag systems lack the stopping power of the draw-bar reels because their pads are smaller.

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

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

  • They have plenty of stopping power for trout.
  • The parts can be stamped out in large quantities, which keeps the price down.

The disadvantages of the gear-wheel drag system

  • They are not as strong as drum or draw-bar drag systems because of their smaller pads.

In Summary

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.

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