How to Choose the Best Fly Reel for Steelhead
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Steelhead season is here. Well, almost. It's definitely time to start thinking about long, fishless days and fooling the fish of a thousand casts. Bright chrome, screaming runs, acrobatic jumps. It's all within reach. Steelhead are difficult to catch and require persistence, dedication, and skill, however. They're not for the faint of heart. When you finally hook one, the right gear will improve your chances of landing it.
If you're wondering about which fly rod is best for Steelhead, we've covered the topic here. That post talks about single-handed rods, Switch rods, and Spey rods, all of which are great options for targeting Steelhead on the fly. Because many rod styles can be used to catch Steelhead, there are also many different reels that are capable of efficiently fighting hooked fish.
This post will be structured a little differently than posts in the past; instead of talking about drag, retrieval rates, design, etc. separately, we'll group them together in sections separated by rod style. Choosing a single-handed reel for Steelhead is, after all, much different than choosing a Spey reel. Whether you prefer Switch rods, single-hand rods, or Spey rods, we've got you covered. And if you don't know which style rod you prefer? We've got you covered there, too, with our Castability Guarantee.
For single-handed rods, it's necessary to match the size of the reel to the size of the rod you're using. This may seem intuitive but it's worth mentioning: if you're fishing a 7wt fly rod (and a 10' 7wt is the most popular single-handed rod choice for Steelhead), choose a 6/7 or a 7/8 sized fly reel. Obvious, right? Well, that changes with two-handed rods... more about that later.
Another difference between choosing a reel for a single-handed rod and a double-handed Spey rod is the preferred arbor size. If you're looking for a fly reel that accommodates a single-handed line for Steelhead, purchase a large arbor reel. A large arbor design increases retrieval rates and helps you pick up line more quickly to efficiently battle a Steelhead. For single-handed lines, an angler doesn't need the increased line capacity of a mid-arbor reel so upgrading to a large arbor reel makes the most sense. You'll be happy you did when that dime bright Steelhead decides to swim straight at you.
And, of course, you want a reel with a solid drag system. This almost goes without saying. Many Steelhead rivers are characterized by fast currents and long, wide runs. If a Steelhead turns in a fast current you're going to need a strong drag to bring it to hand. Similarly, they're strong fish that are known for their acrobatic behavior so drag can really make a big difference in slowing them down and turning them around. Reels with a strong max drag are great, reels with low start-up inertia are great. If you're wondering which reels fit into those categories, read our 2018 8-Weight Fly Reel Shootout.
Switch rods provide the Steelhead angler a middle ground between single-handed fishing and traditional Spey casting. Nymphing, indicator fishing, and swinging with a traditional two-handed cast are all possible with a Switch rod. Because of their versatility, these rods are popular in the Steelhead fishing sphere. Similar to two-handed rods, Switch rods require the angler to choose a reel that's two sizes larger than the rod's line weight to properly balance the rod. More about that in the next section.
For Switch rods, reel choice really should be a marriage between lightweight design and strong, practical features. For longer Spey rods, heavy reels work well to balance the rod. Switch rods are generally shorter than Spey rods so they don't need a particularly heavy reel to be well-balanced. Of course, whenever you're fishing for Steelhead, it helps to have a strong drag system and solid retrieval rates so prioritize those features. But also prioritize lightweight reel design, especially if you intend to use the rod primarily for nymphing. A heavy reel can be fatiguing to hold over the water all day.
A quick note about fly lines:
If you're fishing a Switch rod, chances are a Skagit line or a Switch line will be the best option. If you're doing mostly swinging with some close-quarters nymphing involved, choose a Skagit head. If you're planning on doing both equally, a Switch line is really the best line for the job. One of our favorite lines for Switch rods is the Rio InTouch Switch Chucker... this line is versatile and efficient at both swinging flies and throwing nymph rigs.
Remember when I said matching the size of the reel to the size of the rod doesn't necessarily apply for two-handers? It's true, Spey reels are a little different. Because Spey rods are longer (anywhere from 10' through 15'+) so it takes a larger fly reel to balance them. For Spey rods, choose a reel that's at least two line sizes heavier than the rod. So partner a 7wt Spey rod with a 9wt fly reel (or 8/9/10).
Spey lines also run thicker than regular single-handed lines. Why does that matter? Thicker lines take up more room on the reel (simply put) and require a fly reel that has more line capacity than the 'large arbor' reels mentioned in the single-handed rod section. Therefore, if you're choosing a Spey reel for Steelhead, get a mid-arbor reel to accommodate thicker Spey lines.
Traditional Spey reels are a great option for Steelhead. These reels provide the angler with plenty of room for running line and a thicker fly line while maintaining functionality and style. Most of these reels are click-and-pawl reels so they don't have powerful disc drag systems like modern reels. This makes fighting fish a true adventure and requires palming the reel and controlling the fish manually. That being said, these reels have a phenomenal outgoing and incoming sound and are a ton of fun to fish with. If you're a two-handed Steelhead angler looking for a challenge, try using a traditional fly reel like the Hardy Perfect.
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