Don't Touch That Dial
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Click-pawl fly reels are the ultimate in simplicity. These ultra-basic drag systems typically offer very little to no adjustment capabilities, thus putting much of the fight literally in the hands of the angler to apply more drag pressure manually on the spool rim.
Most fly reels, however, feature a drag system that offers a range of adjustments. Click-pawl reels are loads of fun and all, but it sure is nice being able to tweak the drag based on different situations. Then, the question may arise as to where you should set your drag at the beginning of the day? Of course, there is no single setting that can be used across all types of tippet sizes, tackle, and targeted species. Your drag is going to be set a heck of a lot tighter for tarpon than it will for trout! No matter how perfectly the drag is set at the beginning of the day, though, sometimes more torque may be needed at certain times during battle.
Adjusting the reel's drag knob for more power is the most obvious solution, but I personally don't really like to mess with it much during the fight. My initial drag setting is usually right where I want it to keep me out of trouble while still providing useful stopping power, and I hate to stray from that. With that said, in my experience simply adjusting the drag is the best way to apply extra pressure in the smoothest possible way (provided your reel's drag is smooth to begin with!), but in a pinch I really prefer to just use my hands to apply my own additional braking force when practical. This goes for even some pretty large fish. Despite the downside of being less smooth/consistent than just letting the drag do its thing, when using my hands I can manually apply the necessary force quickly and vary it as needed.
Here are two different ways that I like to apply my own added "drag" pressure...
Fingers- My most preferred method is using one or more fingers to contact the outer spool rim. I am most comfortable with this method because it keeps more of my hand away from the spinning reel handle and I can brace my unused fingers on the spool's frame or even wrap them around the end of the reel seat. The finger(s) providing the spool pressure may contact the spool rim either at a perpendicular angle or more inline. Use whatever feels best and works for you. A very nice amount of extra pressure can be applied with just one or two fingers!
Palm- The method of palming the rim is really popular and the term is widely used. The vast majority of reel spools feature a "palming rim" which basically just means it's exposed with no frame of any kind around its lip. How to palm a fly reel? For this one, the main palm contacts the spool rim rather than just the fingers. This can provide a larger point of contact. I have seen folks use the lower, middle, and upper parts of their palm and keep their hand flat or even cup it to follow the shape of the spool.
I tend to palm my reels the most when I need a heavier amount of pressure. Sometimes when a fish has slowed to a crawl and I really need to get him turned, I'll even grab the whole spool tightly in my palm to lock it down when I want no more line to flow off the spool. Just be really careful of a wildly spinning handle whether palming or really anytime your hand gets close!
Let me give a memorable example of why I'd rather not tighten my initial drag setting too much or even at all...
One time I was fighting about a 12-pound false albacore on a 9 weight rod. If you've ever caught one of these fish you know exactly what power they possess...they are STRONG!
As I was gaining a good amount of fly line back onto my reel, the fish suddenly bolted wayyy under the boat. Unprepared for such a quick burst, my rod was instantly pulled to the side and pinned to the starboard outboard engine cover. With the rod hard against it and now bent in a precarious fashion, I momentarily struggled to work the rod up and over both engines and to the other side where I was free and clear.
I have no doubt my rod would've either snapped like a twig or been ripped out of my hands had I tightened the drag substantially or used a higher setting during the fight rather than just applying extra hand pressure the whole time. My original drag setting (which was likely a little lighter than what most folks would use) allowed barely enough "give" for the fish to take some line as the rod was pinned hard against that motor, thus preventing breakage...but it was still a very close call.
When manually applying pressure to the reel, make sure not to be too aggressive. Too much pressure—especially when applied too fast—can cause a jolt which can quickly snap a tippet or even a fly rod. Be smooth, precise, and pay close attention to what the fish is doing. Anticipate surges and fast runs so that you can quickly let go or change the amount of pressure applied to the spool rim.
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