Why Do Fly Reels Click? Click and Pawl vs. Disc Drags Explained

If you have ever watched a fly fishing video, especially a vintage one, there is a noticeable clicking sound. Why do fly reels make that click in the first place?

Fly reels click when a spring-loaded triangular piece of metal, called a pawl, bounces against the teeth of the fly reel’s gear. However, only reels with click-and-pawl drags will make the signature click sound. On the other hand, reels sporting a disc drag do not sound when the line gets stripped.

Understanding fly reel types and how drag works is foundational when it comes to fly fishing. If you aren’t able to get hands-on experience with both types, at least having general knowledge of their similarities and differences can go a long way. Knowing how the systems operate and what to expect becomes more critical as you advance your technique.

Fly reel on boat while man poses with redfish.

Which Way Should Fly Reels Click?

The way fly reels should click is away from the reel. In other words, click-and-pawl drags click as the line gets stripped. So as the line gets pulled away from the reel, the reel makes the clicking sound. As you palm the line, the clicking sound should reduce since you apply pressure to the line.

Fly Reel Drags

Before going any further, it’s vital to explain what drag is first. After all, it is not the fly reel that makes the click but the drag mechanism itself. So, what is a drag mechanism, and why is it important?

The “drag” is the braking system of a fly reel, which slows the spool’s rotation. In turn, the reduction of rotation applies pressure to the fish on the line. Drags also prevent tangling by keeping the spool from overrunning when the line strips. 

However, all drag mechanisms work a little differently.

Disc Drags vs. Click-and-Pawl Drags

There are two main categories of drag you will become familiar with while fly-fishing. 

There are disc drag mechanisms, which use washers to create tension. Click-and-pawl drags, on the other hand, require your hand to create tension. If you compared the two, the click-and-pawl is manual control, and disc drag is more automatic.

Disc Drags

The disc drag mechanism is a relatively recent development compared to the click-and-pawl. Disc drags use washers to create friction on the spool, resulting in tension on the line. 

For example, suppose you hook a fish. When the fish runs and pulls off the line, the drag’s washers provide resistance on the spool to oppose the fish. 

Furthermore, there are two types of disc drag mechanisms: drawbar and sealed drum. Let’s take a closer look at them.

  • Drawbar disc drags utilize cork washers. Cork washers are flexible and dissipate heat well, but they also need lubrication to work well, which means they must be accessible. Therefore, the cork washers are only partially in the reel frame, making them vulnerable to obstruction or damage.
Man catches redfish using sealed drum disc drag fly reel
  • Sealed drum disc drags work similarly to drawbar models. However, they sport synthetic washers, such as Nylon, Teflon, and other plastics. As a result, critics may not care as much for the lack of stopping capacity compared to drawbar disc drags. However, sealed drum disc drags have a high level of durability, which is due to complete protection by either permanent or re-sealable housing.

Disc drag mechanisms are more popular among today’s fly fishers, as there are a few reasons for their popularity. A disc drag has more power to fight against a fish than a click-and-pawl, and it is easier on your reel and tippet due to a smoother startup. 

Additionally, a disc drag is much more malleable to adjustments than the click-and-pawl. This flexibility provides versatility for handling various fishing circumstances.

One of my favorite reels with a sealed drag is the Lamson Liquid. I rated it as the best reel for the money.

Check out my full review: The Best Fly Reel For The Money: Lamson Liquid Gets Battle Tested

Click-and-Pawl Drags

Click-and-pawl drag mechanisms are the forebearer to modern drags. Also known as “spring-and-pawl,” these are the most basic drag mechanisms. Plus, these are the drags that create the famous clicking noise. So, how do they work?

Click and pawl fly reel used to catch fish.

There are a few parts to a click-and-pawl drag. 

  • The spool of the line lies on a toothed gear
  • A spring-loaded metal piece, called the pawl, lies against the said gear. 
  • The pawl and spring are kept in place by a retainer pin, which is either stationary or adjustable, depending on the model. 

Here are some diagrams from SSprayRods: Click-pawl reels for reference:

Diagram of click and pawl reel
Diagram of click and pawl reel.
Diagram of click and pawl reel.
Fly reels click and pawl reel

These tools work in tandem to create friction against the line, which then makes a clicking sound. However, I will address this more in the next section.

If disc drags are more popular, does that make click-and-pawls obsolete? While they are a technically outdated model, some fly fishers still prefer click-and-pawls. Dedicated hobbyists especially love the signature click and vintage look of this drag mechanism. 

The Cause of the Click

The click and pawl’s parts result in a clicking sound. So, how does it all work? 

Think about the diagrams you just looked at. When the line strips, either from the fish pulling it or as a result of you pulling it, the spool spins and the pawl lying against the gear bounces. This bounce applies pressure to the line, which regulates it and prevents overrunning.  

fly reel click and pawl

So, when you hear clicking sounds from a click-and-pawl reel, you hear that same bounce.

All About Palming

A click-and-pawl reel’s drag is not as powerful as that of a disc drag mechanism. 

Pawl bouncing creates some tension on the line. In turn, the work of a click-and-pawl can hold up well on its own against a small quarry. But the pawl alone is not enough to fight more vital, weightier fish. 

So, how can you fight more valuable fish with a click-and-pawl drag?

Some click-and-pawl drags have an adjustable retainer pin. Unfortunately, even adjustable click-and-pawl drags are pretty limited. Therefore, it is up to the person fly-fishing to provide the necessary resistance to fight their catch. 

What is Palming in Fly Fishing?

Palming is when fly fishers apply pressure to the spool of their reel with the palm of their hand, which creates friction against the pool, resulting in tension on the line. Any fishing reel with an open frame, including a click-and-pawl reel, can get palmed. 

Unlike setting the drag on a disc mechanism, palming takes time and practice to master. Here are some tips for getting started.

First and foremost, a soft touch is vital.  

Harshly gripping your reel will lead to problems like breaking the tippet. So, I recommend lightly pressing the palm of your hand on the rim of the spool. Then, you can increase or decrease the pressure as you see fit.

Secondly, you need to listen to the information you receive from your rod. That sounds a little cooky, but the sentiment is practical. 

When a fish moves, the vibration quickly carries from the line to the tip of the rod, which travels to your rod hand. Feeling for movement changes with your rod hand is a fantastic way to figure out when to change pressure and how much. 

As you can see, palming is all about intuition. Once you hear your pawl start to click and feel vibrations in your rod, you’ll know it’s time to provide some fight. 

Final Thoughts

In short, while popular media suggests that all fly reels click, clicking reels are not as common today. Therefore, you will only get the signature click sound when using a click-and-pawl drag mechanism. 

Furthermore, you should only hear the click when your line strips away from you. If you plan to use a click-and-pawl drag, make sure you practice palming. Otherwise, you will have to deal with tedious line tangles and overrunning.