Using the Reel In Fly Fishing: Tips On When It Makes Sense

reel when fly fishing

For most stream fishermen, a reel is just a pretty piece of aluminum that holds your line. The classic image of catching trout in remote mountainous areas rarely requires putting a fish on the reel. If we step back in time and look at the vintage fly-fishing reels, they were basic and not well thought out. As the sport has evolved into the chase of larger fish along with the introduction into saltwater fly-fishing, the reel has gained more significance. My clients often ask me, “I have hooked the fish, now what? Do I need to get him on the reel?”

In fly fishing, when catching small fish or if the fish is unable to make far runs, using the reel is not necessary to fight and land the fish. If fishing for large species such as saltwater gamefish, transitioning the fight from your hand to the reel, termed “clearing the line”, will be required. 

Knowing when and how to put a fish onto the reel is a learned skill. I have witnessed and personally lost many fish over the years when making the transition from the line in my hand to the reel. Below we will cover some techniques of transitioning the fish to the reel and some common pitfalls. Additionally, I will share some of my favorite reels and debate the importance of an expensive reel vs an expensive rod. 

When to let the fish take the reel

The size of your fly-fishing outfit should be a good indication of whether or not you plan to use the reel when fighting a fish. If I am using a 4wt set up in a stream, it is unlikely that I will need to use my reel to pull in the fish. However, if using an 11wt set up to catch 100lb tarpon, I can guarantee that the reel will be used. This will typically be the fish’s decision and not mine. 

When fishing for species that take long, fast runs, letting the line slip through your fingers onto the reel is the proper way to fight the fish. A good example of this is fishing for bonefish. While bonefish are not very large species, they are lightning fast and will take all of your line out in seconds. Getting fish like these onto the reel helps mitigate human error. The steady pressure of the reel is more effective than trying to hand strip the fish in. 

Large species such as Tarpon, Jacks, Sharks, and Salmon should be taken to the reel. The fish will often have so much momentum and pull that the line will be taken to the reel naturally. Fighting large fish on the reel will not only take some of the work off your hands, but is also safer. When a fly-line is ripped out by a fish, the line can burn your hands or even worse get hung up around your fingers causing you to get injured. 

When not to put the fish on the reel

In certain situations letting the fish take you to the reel does not make sense or is not necessary. Small fish can be hand lined by applying steady pressure to the line in your hands allowing the fish to run when he wants and stripping when the fish allows you to. Hand lining small fish will keep you from losing the fish while trying to get the line to the reel. This is because a small fish that is not pulling very hard may gain slack when making the transition to the reel. Slack is a fish’s best friend. The moment a fish gets slack, they are able to manipulate their bodies to shake the hook loose. Constant pressure needs to be applied to a fish at all times. 

Exceptions to the rule

Occasionally, even bigger fish do not need to be put on the reel. A scenario that comes to mind is red fishing in my home waters of St. Augustine, Florida. The redfish will feed in shallow ponds that do not allow them to run very far. Oftentimes these fish will only run about 30 feet and then flop around until they are pulled in. Trying to put them on the reel opens the window for errors to occur causing you to lose the fish. 

Lastly, if you notice a knot in your line after hooking a large fish, do your best to hand line the fish in. Fly-line loves to be tangled and even when the best fly-line management tactics are employed, knots occur. Trying to allow a knot to go through your rod guides will often lead to the fish breaking the line or even worse, breaking your rod. Sometimes you have no choice in this situation and the knot will go ripping through the guides. If the knot is small enough, it will go through, however 9 out of 10 times the fish is lost. If the knot is noticed in time, cranking up the motor and chasing the fish until the knot can be untied will better your chances of keeping the fish on. This has worked quite a few times for me in the past. 

How to put the fish on the reel

Putting the fish on the reel is also referred to as clearing the line. The process of clearing the line is allowing the fly-line to slip through your fingers until all of the slack line has been run out and is now tight against the reel. The line is controlled with your stripping hand when clearing to make sure that no slack is created. Many big fish are lost when taking a fish to the reel. If not done properly, the fish can shake the hook, or break the line.

Ideally, the decision to put the fish onto the reel should be made by the fish. Allowing the fish to run out all of the excess lin to e will make for the smoothest transition to the reel. If the fish is not running hard, manage the line by hand and strip to maintain a constant pressure and bend in the rod. 

When clearing your line, hold the fly-line between your index finger and thumb with your stripping hand. Use a pinching motion to create constant tension while letting the line slide through your fingers. The idea is not to hold the line too tight, but you also cannot let the line go slack. If your hand loses tension while clearing the line, the fish can pull the line through the rod too quickly creating big wads of slack line. If you hold the line too tight, the fish can break off. Clearing the line is a balance between give and take.

Best practices for clearing the line

clear the line

The best way to clear your line is to hold the fly-line in your stripping hand about a foot away from the reel. Holding the line away from the reel will keep the line from wrapping around the reel as it is being taken out. This gives more room for knots to be straightened out. Additionally, the line should always remain loosely between your index finger and the cork of the rod using your casting hand. Keeping the line between your index finger and the cork allows you to stop the line and begin stripping if needed. This happens when fish suddenly change directions or stop running. I cannot stress enough that control over your line needs to be maintained at all times.

As the last of the line is pulled out, use your stripping hand to follow the line up to the reel to ensure a smooth transition. At this point, the drag of the reel has taken over. Make sure the rod has a slight bend in it to relieve the change in tension as the line begins to pull against the drag of the reel. 

Setting your drag properly

Your transition to the reel can be perfect, but if the drag on your reel is not set properly, the fish can be lost. 

Issues when drag is too loose

If the drag is set too loose, the force of the line switching onto the reel will allow the fish to pull line too quickly. This creates slack. As mentioned above, slack is a fish’s best friend. There will be a natural jerk of the line as the tension changes from your hand to the reel. The idea is to mitigate the jerk and make the transition smooth by having the drag set to a similar resistance as the pressure your hand was applying.  

Downfall of drag being too tight

Having the drag set too tight will create too much tension during the transition. This will cause the fly to pop out of the fish’s mouth or the leader to break. Checking your drag before you cast will ensure that the proper tension is applied. There is nothing more heartbreaking than losing a good fish to avoidable mistakes.

With today’s modern reels, the drag knobs have various settings of pressure measured in pounds. They are indicated on the drag knob by line markings, colored dots, or clicking sounds when turning the knob. I personally take the time to learn the pound measurement of each setting. This allows me to quickly set the drag knob based on the fish species I am targeting.  

Best reel for bigger fish

There are many quality reels on the market today. I have been fortunate to test most of them on the water. When selecting a reel, the layout should fit your reeling style. Things like the winding knob should be comfortable in your hand. Also, make sure you can reach and adjust the drag knob easily. Ensure that the drag feel smooth when pulling the line out with your hand. Consider whether the reel can be switched between right and left hand retrieve. Lastly, if you are fishing saltwater, make sure the drag is sealed. Reels are an expensive investment and corrosion in salt will cost you in the end. 

Two of my all-time favorite reels are the Hardy Fortuna XDS and the Mako Model 9550 Inshore Reel. Both of these have extraordinary drag capabilities. They are also extremely durable, and are sealed for saltwater use. These reels are designed to last you a lifetime! They perform exceptionally well under the harshest conditions. If something does go wrong, their warranties are the best in the business. You cannot go wrong with an investment in either one of these high quality reels.

Be sure to visit my Recommended Products for some reviews of my favorite gear! 

Should I buy a nicer reel?

The debate between spending your money on a nice reel vs a nice rod is never-ending. Personally, I will always opt for spending more money on my rod. Especially since there is a great low-cost reel option that I highly recommend. Obviously, if given the choice, I would buy the nicest of each. However, if I need to make a decision, the rod wins hands down. 

If the rod does not perform well, then what good is the reel? I can only use my reel after I have casted and hooked the fish. Therefore a rod that has better action and casts smoother is a necessity. 

Oftentimes anglers get hung up in the aesthetics of their equipment. I agree, a pretty reel does look good on the rod. Let’s not forget that we are out here to catch fish not, and not to impress fellow anglers. Pretty things catch anglers – not fish!

Selecting a good rod outweighs the need for a better reel in all practical situations. 


Depending on the species you target and the environment, will dictate whether the reel will be used. Knowing when to use the reel is equally as important as the reel itself. Taking the time to practice the mechanics of transitioning the fish to the reel will result in less malfunctions. Being familiar with how your reel operates along with making sure it is suitable for the type of fishing you do will help you land more fish.