Why Buy an Expensive Fly Reel By Nick Curcione

The smart Alec answer to this question is ‘because I can.’ But there’s more to it than that. I realize the topic may seem a little unusual for a fly- fishing column but it’s a subject worth considering.  Before we get into it, I want to assure you that I’m not selling anything just passing on some thoughts based on 50-years’ experience primarily in saltwater, fly fishing some of the ocean’s strongest adversaries.

The word expensive is relative, maybe costly is a little easier to swallow but it too is a relative term. This makes it difficult to set a dollar amount, so for the sake of discussion let’s just say that reels costing more than $500 fall into this category. Another way of posing this question is to ask if they are worth it. But before you try to give an answer, you should ask yourself what you plan on using it for. 

I have limited experience fly fishing for freshwater species, but I have tangled with some highly respected gamefish in this realm like big Alaskan King salmon and rainbows, large Northern pike, and carp. All these fish can give a good account of themselves when hooked, but in terms of long blistering runs and all out pulling power, they don’t match what you’re up against in saltwater. After landing a King salmon on the Kenai River that topped the 40-pound mark, I remember the guide asking me if that was the strongest fish I ever fought. I didn’t not want to deflate his excitement, but I told him that a 15-pound class yellowfin would take twice the effort to land. I did not intend that as an insult to freshwater fish. I was just setting the record straight.  No doubt a lot of you reading this already know that for many saltwater applications, you’ll need a reel to help subdue fish that are generally larger and stronger than what you find in freshwater. And like it or not what this often means when buying tackle is that you can expect to spend more for a reel intended for use in saltwater.

Back when I started fly fishing in saltwater there were only two manufacturers that offered truly top- quality products, Fin-Nor and Seamaster. I forget exactly what I paid for my Seamaster Tarpon model (it was about $200; I’ve seen them on eBay for over a $1000) but I do remember teaching an extra summer school class for the extra bucks and it was on order for almost a year. I fished this reel for 30-years and never had an issue. It accounted for a lot of my firsts on fly, like yellowfin tuna, sailfish, roosterfish, yellowtail, and wahoo.  The only thing I didn’t like about it was that it was anti-reverse and I prefer direct drive. I gave it to a buddy of mine who will pass it on to one of his sons. I also had a Fin-Nor trout model. I never caught a trout with it, it only saw saltwater and accounted for hundreds of bonito and many bonefish. The only downside was its tiny size. When you had a fish on the reel it took forever to wind line in. When my friend Ted Juracsik started making reels, I used his early Billy Pates and then Tibors. Ted fishes every chance he gets, and he knows what makes for a great fly reel. I agree with his philosophy that the fewer parts involved, the better. Between my friends and I we’ve fished most of the reels in this category and found them all to perform as expected, something I can’t say about other costly items I’ve purchased. Naturally you’ll have your own personal preference, but there are many excellent choices available.

Without question the most important feature of reels in this category are the drag systems and all are top notch. However, I would like to add that even when fishing one of these reels I set the drag relatively light (two to three pounds) and tend to leave it that way throughout the battle. I learned fish fighting techniques from some of the best and this is what they advised. You use your hand to supplement the reel’s drag system. By palming the spool you can instantaneously apply or reduce resistance as needed. No mechanical drag mechanism can respond as quickly as your hand.

 This website has an excellent video on fly reel drag systems that you should watch because it will help you make an informed decision. It reminded me of an incident in Baja awhile back and supports the old adage of you get what you pay for. I was fishing with a buddy who had a brand new Shilton reel, (I believe it was an SR 10). After a day’s fishing it’s standard practice in this region for the guide to run the panga (skiff) up on the beach where the local kids working for a tip run down to the boats to pick up your gear and carry it back to your room. We were about halfway back when my friend saw the kid who had more outfits than he could handle dragging his prized reel through the sand. His heart sank and his first thought was that we were going to have a major cleaning job on our hands. Not so. All we needed was a screwdriver to unscrew the draw bar nut and drag knob, slip out the spindle and remove the spool. Everything was fine. We rinsed the reel in the sink put the spool back on and he fished it the remainder of the trip with no problem. Using a reel like this which is easy to disassemble and clean gives you tremendous peace of mind especially when you’re fishing far from home where parts or service is non-existent.

Particularly if you are putting out considerable money for a special fishing trip, it’s false economy to try and save bucks by buying a reel that may not be up to the conditions you’ll be facing. A good friend learned this the hard way. We made a trip to Belize, he never caught one and had his heart set on a permit. The fishing was tough and on our last day we finally came up on a couple of tailing fish. Small waves were slapping the sides of the skiff, and the guide didn’t want to pole us any closer for fear of spooking them. So, we got out and waded to within range. My friend had a brand -new reel he purchased the week before. I advised against it because I heard that it was having issues, but he liked the reduced price and decided to go with it. I’m not mentioning the name, fortunately it’s discontinued anyway. I told him to strip out more line so he could make the cast but as he did so the reel suddenly jumped into free spool, and he had a monumental tangle on his hands. There’s an old saying that tells us if it’s made by man it can fail. True enough, but the likelihood of something like this malfunctioning on a high- quality reel is practically nil. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a shot at those fish and ended another trip without his much sought after permit.

As with any purchase like this I strongly recommend going into a fly shop and handling different reels to see how they feel. The ergonomics are not the same because there is variation in both weight and handle design. Obviously, you want to choose one that feels best to you. In terms of deciding between right- or left-hand retrieve, the choice is simple; always reel with your dominant hand. Some argue that if you’re a right- handed caster you should reel with your left because the rod is already in your right hand, and you don’t have to switch. I don’t buy the argument.  Particularly with many saltwater species, when playing the fish from the reel it’s important to be able to crank in line as quickly as possible and most right-handed anglers are not as capable with their left hand. Using a left-handed spinning reel is a different matter because the handle has an extension arm and is not affixed directly to the spool like fly reel handles. So, if you are most comfortable reeling with your right hand that’s what you go with.

Granted, today everything seems expensive, and prices keep rising. But if you’re thinking of laying out bucks for a quality fly reel, consider these few justifications in terms of value for your dollar. Unlike an expensive car, with the reel, there are no added expenses. There’s no insurance, no annual registration, no costly maintenance, and you can’t beat the warranties. Not only will it give you a lifetime of service, but you can  pass it on to the next generation. There are few things you can purchase today that give you this measure of enjoyment and long -term utility. Save up for it if need be or make payments. When you start fishing it, you won’t be disappointed.

I was about to send this article to the Bear’s Den but had a mako trip planned with my long-time buddy the mako king, Conway Bowman and another friend, and decided to delay doing so just in case I would have something more to add. I’m glad I did so because it turned out to be an epic trip. In 50-years of chasing makos I never encountered one the size of the brute I tied into. It made four explosive jumps, one too close to the boat and we estimated its size to be in the 400–450-pound range. After what seemed like an eternity Conway was finally able to grab the leader, which made it a legal catch (it was not an IGFA leader) and I told him to break it off, the fish was too dangerous to attempt any further handling. I was using a Thomas & Thomas Bluewater 14/16 weight rod and a Shilton SR 12 reel that I purchased about a month before the trip. I’ve fished practically all the high-end saltwater fly reels and I have to rank this at the top. The mako burned off several hundred yards of backing and the drag remained smooth and consistent. From its relatively light weight to its line gathering efficiency, this reel made it possible to successfully battle one of the ocean’s apex predators. I highly recommend it if you plan on this type of fly fishing. You can find more information on fly fishing makos in my article in the upcoming issue of Tail magazine.