Why I'm Still a Cork Dork
Updated: Aug 7
Modern technology is great, but do you miss something from the past that is no longer made anymore? Or, maybe you still love using a product that many people have moved past in favor of the "latest and greatest"?
Many fly reels nowadays that are not of the click-pawl variety offer a drag system that's fully sealed. With this setup, the drag material sits inside of a (supposedly) watertight housing which means it's isolated from outside elements and requires no maintenance. Sounds great, right? These reels have indeed become extremely popular and for good reason, but I have a hard time totally giving up on the classic (some may say ancient) old-school exposed cork drag system.
A fully-sealed drag system can be wonderful. I've experienced some high-quality ones that were absolutely butter smooth, powerful, and were absent of any noticeable startup inertia. The only sealed fly reel I currently own—a 3-TAND TF70—is one good example. Although the size and power of the drag is not its strong suit, the performance remains silky and reliable after about four years of usage. On top of that, the reel is very affordably priced.
On the other hand, I've also tested/fished with a few sealed reels that didn't feel as refined. This was usually due to the drag feeling bumpy or even "sticky" as line was pulled off. I've even heard about some folks experiencing issues with their "sealed" drags becoming contaminated and having to be sent back for repair. It sure seems like that could ruin a day or an entire trip!
I really like open cork-drag reels for their simplicity and reliability. Having fished them for over 20 years (Abel Super Series), I have yet to have one fail. Rather than stacked drag washers typically found in sealed reels, these Abels use just an exposed cork ring that presses up against the inside of the spool to provide friction. It's a basic, straightforward setup and each reel I've ever tried with this drag system had similar performance right out of the box. When put up against comparable sealed reels, those with open drags are also typically a little cheaper and may even be lighter in weight since they are simpler and have no added drag housing—but the weight savings also depends on porting and a reel's dimensions.
Of course, some downsides do exist. The cork ring can dry out and get squeaky, but that can be cured or prevented with some occasional light oil lubrication to keep it moist. In my experience this is extremely infrequent, but it likely also matters how often the reel is used and how it's treated. Also, the ring is generally protected pretty well by being pressed up against the spool when under tension from the drag knob, but grit can get onto the surface one way or another. Of course, since the drag surface isn't sealed it can be cleaned off quickly and the angler can get right back to fishing.
As a side note, I try not to dunk my reels—that goes for whether I'm fishing an open or sealed drag. Of course it has happened here and there with no adverse effects, but I definitely don't make a habit of it. I want my reels to be perfect for as long as possible, and keeping them above the water's surface and away from any concentrations of grit or salt sure seems like a perfect way to really ensure their longevity. Despite any manufacturer claims, I like being overly cautious and always recommend others to do the same.
This post is not telling anyone one style of drag is best or another should be ignored. I have no problem owning either a sealed or open configuration, as both offer advantages as well as their own unique feel. I just tend to lean towards the exposed cork drags because of their classic nature and the fact they have been so consistent, strong, and reliable as long as the manufacturer's recommended maintenance is kept up. It's really a very minor thing. My opinion is that despite all of the advancements in fly reel designs and drag systems, the classic open drags that have caught so many fish for so many folks over the years should not be forgotten. They may be very few in numbers these days, but I hope they are produced forever!
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