Updated June 2022
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Buying guide for best fly fishing reels

A lot of anglers feel that fly fishing provides the greatest test of skill. Whether you’re new to the sport or have been fishing for a long time, there’s certainly something enthralling about it. Of course, you need a good rod, flies, and other gear, but you also need a quality fly fishing reel. 

Choosing the right fly fishing reel can be a fascinating process, but the numerous technical differences can also make it confusing. Sometimes what seem like small details have a big impact on their suitability for a particular type of fishing.

The BestReviews team has spent many hours in the lab and out on the water to bring you the information you need (it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it). We’ve also put together the following fly fishing reel buying guide in which we take an in-depth look at each of the key elements and some common questions.

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The earliest fishing reels date back to more than 800 years ago in China. The first that were identifiably for fly fishing appeared in England in the mid-17th century.

Key considerations

A fly fishing reel is basically a simple device. It includes the main body, a spool for the line (which fits onto a central spindle), a winder, a clutch for drag, and a bracket to mount it on the fly rod. However, variations in these components make a huge difference. Here, we’ll look at the following characteristics:

  • Die-cast vs. machined

  • Clutch type

  • Arbor design 

  • Spool design

  • Line weight

Die-cast vs. machined

The main body and spool of most fly fishing reels are made of aluminum alloy, typically a type called 6061-T6. It’s light but hard, quite easy to form into complex shapes, and won’t rust. A focus on weight reduction results in the popular skeletal designs that are now common. There are two ways of forming the aluminum: die-cast and machined.

Die-cast: Many fly reels are die-cast by pouring molten metal into a mold. It allows for mass production, so reels can be made more cheaply. The drawback is that any molding flaws (tiny air bubbles, for example) will make the final product fragile. It doesn’t happen often, but a flawed reel can break if dropped.

Machined: High-quality fly fishing reels are made using a computer numerical control (CNC) machine, which cuts the parts from solid blocks of aluminum. These components are extremely durable and usually anodized for even greater corrosion resistance.


The clutch on any fishing reel applies a certain amount of drag. When a fish takes the fly and tears off through the water, it’s like gently putting on the brakes. The amount of drag is set by a dial on the side of the reel, and how sensitive it is varies from one reel to the next. Low-cost fly reels might offer four positions. More expensive models offer greater flexibility.

There are two types of clutch: click-and-pawl and disc.

Click-and-pawl: Also called a spring-and-pawl and click-pawl clutch, this uses a toothed gear wheel and a spring-loaded pawl (a small metal tooth). The spring pressure can be adjusted to increase or decrease drag. As the line is pulled off, you can hear the click, click, click of the pawl engaging, hence the name. There’s nothing really wrong with this system, but it’s not particularly efficient or powerful. Experienced anglers often provide additional drag by holding their palm against the reel.

Disc: This type of clutch is far more popular and follows the same basic principle as the clutch in a car, that is to say, drag is applied by the pressure of discs (in this case, washers) rubbing together. They offer the angler more control and greater friction. Cork is a common material for the washers because it can be compressed with great control, and the washers won’t overheat. Others, particularly saltwater fly fishing reels, use Teflon or other synthetic materials.

Arbor design

Arbor: The arbor is the central hub of the spool, the piece the line winds around. When fly fishing, you typically need less line than, for example, a beachcaster, so the arbor can be quite large compared to the overall diameter.

Having said that, traditional fly fishing reels have quite a small arbor. However, these give problems with “line memory.” Because the fly line is tightly wound, it tends to stay in loops rather than straighten properly. Larger arbors reduce the problem and also give faster line retrieval. That’s great, but in order to accommodate enough line, a large arbor reel needs to have a greater diameter overall.

If you’re fly fishing at sea (where fast retrieval is a definite advantage), that’s not a problem. If you’re fishing for trout in a shallow stream, a larger arbor reel not only looks cumbersome, but it will also throw off the delicate balance between rod and reel. A mid-arbor design, or even traditional model, will be better in these circumstances. As so often with fly fishing, it’s a question of having the right gear for a particular style.

Spool design

Along with varying arbor sizes, you also have different spool widths. Wide fly fishing spools can suffer from “line stacking,” where the line winds unevenly across the reel. It’s easy enough to correct with light finger pressure, but it’s easy to forget to do while you’re fighting a fish. It’s far less likely to happen with narrower spools. Again, it’s mostly a question of the type of fishing you do. Wide spools tend to be found on saltwater fly fishing reels, and narrow spools on their freshwater equivalents. If you’re fishing both, you can make compromises, but most anglers simply have two separate reels or, indeed, two separate sets of gear.

Line weight

Fly fishing reels are designated by the weight of the line they’re designed to carry, and for flexibility’s sake they’ll cover two or three, for example 5/6 weight or 4/5/6 weight.

While you should always buy a reel that’s most closely matched to the fishing you do most of the time, it’s common for fly anglers to target different species. That can mean using different line weights, and it’s usually possible to buy a spare spool.

However, sometimes spool swaps can be awkward on cheap fly reels, to the extent that some anglers say it’s easier to change the entire reel. That might seem extreme, but in fact the spool on a high-end model might cost more than a cheap reel, so it is a consideration. It also means you have a more focused reel for the job. It’s worth checking customer feedback to see whether spool changing is a problem on the model you’re considering. Buying a high-quality fly fishing reel is always the preferred option, but it isn’t in everybody’s budget.


Reel cleaner: Penn Rod and Reel Cleaner
We know many pros use the Penn spray cleaner, which has been formulated to clean components without abrasion and is very inexpensive.

Reel lube: Penn Reel Oil and Lube
This lubricant is synthetic, which offers superior penetration and protection when compared to conventional oil and grease, and it’s also inexpensive.

Fly fishing reel prices

Inexpensive: You can buy a cheap fly fishing reel for as little as $20. They can be okay for occasional use, but durability is likely to be an issue.

Mid-range: If you want to fish regularly, we suggest a budget of at least $35 up to around $60 for a quality reel you can rely on.

Expensive: Keen anglers who want an ultralight, high-performance fly fishing reel can spend as much as $400. More than strictly necessary, perhaps, but you do get superbly engineered equipment.


Looking after your reel isn’t difficult, and a few simple steps will keep it in top condition.

  • Rinse the reel with fresh water after each use. Unless it’s gotten particularly dirty, a rinse is usually all it needs. This is particularly important for saltwater reels. Even though they’re designed to put up with a harsher environment, any residual salt will start to attack surfaces and seals if it isn’t cleaned off.

  • Let your reel dry naturally. Don’t be tempted to apply any kind of heat. When dry, store the reel in a suitable case. If you’re leaving it for some time, a sachet of silica gel in the case will absorb any excess moisture.

  • Have the reel serviced regularly. Periodically, the reel will need to be taken apart and thoroughly serviced. The maker should provide instructions for this, and many recommend a specific cleaner and lubricant. It’s not a complicated job, but if you’re not confident, a tackle shop can probably do it for you.

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Some fly fishing reels come with backing, fly line, and leader. That’s fine to get you started, but expect to replace them fairly soon as you develop your own preferences.


Q. Is there any difference between a fly fishing reel and a centerpin reel?A. There is, although at first glance it can be difficult to tell. The most noticeable difference is that a centerpin reel usually has two handles while a fly reel has one. There are more important things, though. A centerpin reel is used for float fishing and does not usually have a clutch. A fly fishing reel has a larger arbor because it doesn’t need to carry as much line. Despite some visual similarities, it’s important to choose the right type because they aren’t really interchangeable.

Q. What is fly line backing?
A. It is a cheaper line that you put on the reel first. Whether it’s saltwater or freshwater fly fishing, you’ll rarely cast far, so your main fly line can be quite short, usually too short to fill the reel properly. You don’t want to be buying loads of the expensive stuff, so backing does the job.  You then tie your main fly line to the backing. It’s more cost-effective, and in the event you do hook a big one, there’s little danger you’ll run out.

Q. Are fly fishing reels right- or left-handed?
A. Because most people are right-handed, and that’s the control hand for your rod, fly fishing reels have the winder on the left side. However, it’s usually a straightforward swap, and instructions are provided by the manufacturer. You’ll find helpful videos online, too. There’s no need to look for a separate right- or left-handed fly reel.

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