Why Does Fly Reel Size Matter?
Updated: Nov 3, 2020
When shopping for a new fly reel, do the dimensions of it factor into your decision to purchase?
Particular sizing of a reel might seem relatively insignificant, but if a reel doesn't "measure up" so to speak, I won't buy it. Reel width and diameter do indeed influence performance and functionality to some degree, so those attributes should definitely be something that's considered. Let's explore some of the basics of reel size...
Reel and Arbor Diameter- The size of a reel's arbor and, more importantly, its overall diameter have a big effect on retrieval rate. Here is some cut and paste from a previous article I wrote explaining why that is:
The arbor of a reel is the center of the spool. Some may even refer to it as the bottom of the spool or its core. On a standard-arbor reel, this core is very narrow, while on a large-arbor reel it's much wider in diameter. Think of it like a toilet paper roll (standard arbor) vs. a coffee can (large arbor). There's also mid-arbor, which is in between the two. A bigger arbor can help the reel pull in more line per turn of the handle, but only increasing the arbor size isn't the right solution.
With the increased arbor diameter, a large arbor reel's overall diameter should be increased as well.
If only a reel's arbor is made bigger but not the overall reel diameter, two problems arise. First, think of a standard and large arbor reel that are both the exact same sizes overall. Once the reels are packed full of line and backing, the line circumferences and thus the retrieval rates of these reels would still be the same. Second, backing capacity would suffer greatly on the large-arbor reel since the arbor is taking up all that useful space at the center of the spool where the backing could be. The large-arbor reel will run out of backing before any retrieval advantage can be seen between the two reels.
To compensate, a large-arbor reel should have a bigger overall diameter. The larger arbor and larger overall size offers the best of both worlds: a bigger circumference for a faster retrieve speed regardless of how much line is on the spool, along with good backing capacity. That's why if you compared a standard and large-arbor reel that were both perfect for, say, a 5-weight line, the large-arbor reel should be the bigger of the two. You can read more on large arbor reels here.
Spool Width- When cranking line, it's best to use a finger to guide the line back onto the spool evenly. The narrower a reel is, the easier it is to distribute the line evenly because your finger doesn't have to travel back and forth so far across the spool. For me, this helps maintain a fast retrieve speed without having to readjust or concentrate quite as hard on what my finger is doing. Keep in mind, though, that a narrower large-arbor spool will lose some backing capacity compared to a wider spool, but giving that reel a wider spool (and frame!) would add weight.
Retrieve Speed Benefits- A reel with a rapid retrieve makes it easier to keep up with fast-running fish and lets you reel in your line quicker when it's time to try another spot. Also relating to that second point, if you're able to crank in and move from spot to spot just a little faster each time, over the course of a day all those saved seconds can add up to give you some extra time for at least an extra cast or two.
The Ideal Size- I like a reel to have a large arbor, healthy diameter, and relatively narrow spool. Functionality aside, I find a reel like this to be well-proportioned and just more sleek and attractive to look at. A reel that's wide and/or has a too-small or overly-generous diameter can look a bit funky when mounted on a particular rod.
I'm a big fan of the SDF and SDS reels from Abel and really like the proportions of them. Abel simply does a great job designing reels that strike a balance between efficient function and looks. Of course there is some wiggle room there, but I consider these reels to be my personal "baseline." What I mean by that is, if I'm shopping another brand, I'll often refer to the spec page of an equivalent Abel reel to see how the competitor's dimensions compare.
Find your next fly reel at