Reels for Steelhead Flyfishing
As the world of flyfishing keeps reaching into the new frontiers, it seems that the role of the fly reel goes far beyond that of an attractive line holder. The market place responds to this demand, by adding the latest in high tech., which is only limited by the pocket book. In this field analysis of the role and function of the steelhead fly reel, I realize that is much passion in this particular piece of equipment, and to break down the fly reel purely as a functional tool, simply doesn't do it justice but I will try.
To understand the demands placed on the reel, we have got to examine the quarry. From a trout world, steelhead are large. Mature fish start at 4 to 5 pounds (half pounders and jacks not withstanding). Some strains average 15 pounds in weight. They are fast, with startle speeds and leaping ability that exceed all other freshwater species with the possible exception of his cousin, the Atlantic salmon. And they are powerful. The summer steelhead are particularly explosive, because they enter natal streams when the water temperature is optimal, and as they are sexually immature. These steelhead may not spawn for nearly a year after entering freshwater. That is a lot of stored energy! When you hook this fish, he is going to take this energy out on you!
It is always dangerous to make generalizations but I will make two. Number One: Reels specifically designed for saltwater use in the appropriate sizes are excellent steelhead reels. Their one knock is, with that high tech drag system and heightened line capacity, they tend to be heavy. There are many good ones. Able Tibor, Islander, Pate, Charleton and on and on.
Reels, which have a simple double drag system, do not make good steelhead fly reels. Not the way I fish them. Now that half the Atlantic salmon world is mad, let me explain. My guiding world seems to be divided into two levels of anglers. Clients that have fished with me over the course of the last fifteen years, and those who are new to flyfishing steelhead. Early on, I learned that many steelhead take the fly softly, and that the high rod position misses these fish. The low rod position is much more sensitive, but as the rod is pointed down the line, a strong take by the steelhead has all pressure placed at the fly. The double pawl reel simply does not have enough drag pull to barb the fish, so the angler is left with one option; trap the flyline under the trigger finger to supply the drag pressure. The rod is no shock absorber in this position, and a startled steelhead results in a startled angler. When this fly fisher sees the largest fish of his life, come flying out of water and roar off for parts unknown, the last thing the angler wants to do, is let the fish take line. No, he clamps down on the line hard enough to dent the cork handle and burn his finger to boot. Because the fish of his life is getting away!! Mean while, I am yelling, "Let Him Go!!" Too late, the broken leader and steelhead are gone. So what do you do? A high rod and he misses fish, A low rod and he brakes them off. Enter the disced drag reel.
Now I realize that the more experienced steelhead fly fisher can master this looped line under the finger deal, but the novice does not. Trust me, I have taught hundreds of new anglers. I have now developed a low rod position, coupled with a quality disced drag reel, that works so well, that my students rarely break a fish, anymore. The beauty of this system works so well, that with the line pulling directly from the reel, the fish is hooked and running before the novice even realizes what has happened. He simply lifts into the fish and the rod and reel do their thing. What I tell anglers is, " Reels don't fail me, anglers do. Don't touch the line and don't touch the reel handle while the fish is running".
Now this is asking a lot from a reel. I have seen quite a few reels come out on the river with anglers in the past decade. Some are good, some not so good.( the reels I mean.) I am reminded of an experience I once had with a gentleman from Scotland who grew up catching Atlantic salmon. You should have seen his face when he brought out a brand new Hardy Saint Aiden. We were on Skagit in November. Yep, chum salmon. Meanest kid on the block and the Jackman Creek riffle was full of them. " I am afraid your reel might be a little light for this." I mumbled. "WHAT DO YOU MEAN?!!" He demanded. "I have taken Salmon (Atlantic) to twenty pounds on this reel already this year!" "Ok," I shrugged. To make a long story short, a half-hour later, he had a swollen thumb, a cut index finger and pucky eating grin on his face. These fish had their way with him several times. His poor reel started leaking reel oil right out the side of the arbor. He says "OK Dennis, we might as well kill your equipment, instead of mine."
What do I look for in a steelhead fly reel?
Drag system: The reel must have enough drag pull to barb the fish without the angler touching the line. It must be strong enough, the strongest forearm can't backspin the reel. It should be smooth enough to obtain drag strength without sticking. This is called "start up." Some reels have plastic pressure pads pushing on a metal face (system 2 ) and are prone to "hot spots". Other reels are fine if you can keep them dry but if you get them wet their drag can go to "free Willie." (Lamson)
Line Capacity: I wouldn't consider a reel with less than 150 yards of backing, and for big brawly fish in larger rivers, 200 is better.
Rim control: Once the fish (and angler) are finished going nuts, they get down to the serious tug of war. Here I like the palming feature of a rim control. It gives the angler the added benefit of a second drag system and I think they can anticipate to fishes movement better. This feature is a must on a double pawl system. There are some really tuff fairly inexpensive fly reels that have become be a top notch no frills reels, now that they have added this feature. ( Martin, Pflueger Medalist)
Weight: This is tuff. As I mentioned, It is tuff to have a quality drag system and good line capacity without adding weight. Bothers some anglers others it doesn't.
Good pick up: I like an arbor with an ability to pick up line in a hurry. The loop reels were built for bonefish. They are light, strong, with a great pick up. They are a little spendy, but I have never had one fail on my waters.
Some of the reels I like:
Kudos for best buys go to:
Most all the saltwater models: Charleton, Loops, Able and Tibor......... Some of the Steelhead models: J Ryall, Loomis Syncrotech, Bauer, Orvis Battenkill
The Ross reels have been an enigma: I have seen twenty good ones, and then a real stinker, (drag sticks, then free willy.....). another batch of good reels, then a bad one.
What do I do?
The water test:
your line on the reel. Take it to the water and soak it for 10 seconds,
(don't get sand in it). set your drag fairly full, wrap some flyline around
your hand. Have your buddy hold your reel, and yank down, pulling the
line off your reel as fast as a steelhead would do. Try this for several
settings. If the line comes off smoothly, (without sticking......then
drag feel like it disengages), you have a good steelhead reel.
Some reels that I have had trouble with: Lamson 3.0 and 3.5- drag slippage when wet; SA System two - hot spots, must polish drag plate; all simple double pawl systems, reasons mentioned. Lampson has now come out with two fine reels. The Velocity and the Lite Speed.
I certainly recognize there are many quality reels that I simply couldn't mention, and if your most favorite reel (like my Hardy Zenith) made my hit list, and it works great for you, wonderful, I wish I could say the same.
Dennis Dickson Fly Fishing Steelhead Guide firstname.lastname@example.org
copyright 1998 Dennis Dickson, Fly Fishing