Lever Drag Systems

Saltwater Fishing - Helping you catch that fish of a lifetime

Lever Drag Systems

by Capt. Terry Rand

How does a lever drag reel work?

What is a fishing reel drag system? Well, the drag function on any fishing reel works on the concept of allowing the fish to pull line from the reel when the line become too tight to support the strength and the weight of the fish. Imagine being hooked into a very large fish. The rod is bent over, the line is very tight and you are holding on for dear life. At this point, something has to give. Either the line will reach its breaking strength and snap or the rod, which is bent to its maximum capacity, will finally break into pieces. This is where the drag comes into play. It allows the fish to pull line from the reel while under tension, alleviating the extreme pressures on the line, the rod and the angler.

The secondary purpose of the drag system is to allow the fish to wear itself out. Every time that a fish pulls line against the drag it is exhausting its energy. You will notice that each successive run against the drag that a fish takes becomes shorter and shorter until the fish is finally boat side.

Conventional reels traditionally use what is called a star drag system but many conventional reels are now made with a lever drag system. This system uses a sliding lever mounting on the top side of the reel to make drag adjustments. The positioning of the drag adjustment lever is often preferred by anglers over the star drag design for it easy accessibility. It is also a favorite for big game anglers as the design of the drag system creates less heat which preserves the system for a much longer duration.

This drag lever is engaged to about the halfway point, applying only about 50% of the drag settings capacity
Photo by: Author

Internally, the lever drag system works by applying a drag plate directly against the side of the line spool. The drag plate usually has one large fabric washer covering its surface. The size of the drag plate and drag washer is nearly the size of the side of the spool which distributes the pressure across a larger surface. This pressure against the spool creates friction which applies drag to the spool. When a fish pulls against the drag hard enough, the spool slips and pays out line. By pushing the drag lever forward, the drag plate is moved up against the side of the spool. The further the lever is pushed forward, the more pressure is applied to the spool with the drag plate. By pulling the drag lever back the tension is relieved. When the lever is pulled all of the way back, the reel will go into complete free spool.

The drag washers in lever drag reel are very large and often encased inside the spool, like this one, helping to prevent corrosion.
Photo by: Author

The lever drag also has a drag adjustment wheel for selecting a drag range that the lever drag will work within. This allows the user to preset the drag in a range from free spool up to a completely locked drag setting where no line can be payed out. This feature gives the angler the ability to set the drag properly for nearly any species.

To properly set the drag on your lever drag reel you have to take a few things into consideration. You should take into account the breaking strength of the line that you are using and you should also consider the strength of the fish that you are pursuing. Larger fish will most likely run hard enough after being hooked that they will take out some drag during the battle so it is wise to have your drag set somewhat tight for big fish. Smaller fish, especially less than two pounds, will usually not pull that hard so you can loosen the drag just enough to get a good hook set.

This drag lever is fully engaged for this drag range. Note the Drag Adjustement Wheel in the center of the photo.
Photo by: Author

Setting the drag ahead of time, before you hook a fish, can be accomplished two ways. The first way is technical and requires a spring scale. This method is usually only practiced by big game fishermen in blue water tournaments. They will attach the spring scale to the line and pull against it. When the drag is pulling the scale at 1/3 the breaking strength of the line, the drag is set. This provides good hook sets and prevent fish from breaking the lures off the line.

The second method is practiced by most anglers, and that is setting the drag by hand. Tighten the lever drag adjustment wheel a bit, engage the lever drag and the pull line from the spool. You want it set so that you have to put some pressure on the line to make the drag engage but not so much that it feels like the line might break in your hand while pulling on it. When you think it is set properly, loosen it just a hair. You'll get a better feel for this the more you do it.

This drag lever is currently set to Freespool.
Photo by: Author

One last consideration in setting your drag concerns the type of line that you are using. In general, when we discuss or mention 'fishing line', we are referring to monofilament fishing line which is the standard line used today. But, a lot of folks are fishing with braided fishing line these days and there is a significant difference in the two lines that should be considered when setting your drag system. That difference is line stretch.

Monofilament line has about three feet of stretch for every hundred feet of line. Braided line has no stretch. This is something that should be considered as the stretch qualities of monofilament line actually act as a shock absorber, cushioning violent head shakes and savage strikes and even helping to prevent the fish from working the hooks out of its mouth. You can picture it as if your fishing line is a rubber band, softening every pull and shake of the fish. Braided line does not offer these cushioning qualities but that can be compensated for by setting your drag a little lighter when spooled with braid.

This should give you a better understanding of the need for a drag system and how it works on a conventional reel that uses a lever drag system. Properly setting your drag shouldn't be a difficult task and you'll grow more confident about it every time you go fishing if you follow these guidelines.

We want your input: