Spinning Reel Drag Systems

Saltwater Fishing - Helping you catch that fish of a lifetime

Spinning Reel Drag Systems

by Capt. Terry Rand

How does the drag work on a spinning reel?

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.

The drag washers on a spinning reel are housed under the drag adjustment knob on the top of the spool.
Photo by: Author

Spinning reel drag systems are built into the spool of the spinning reel and consists of a series of metal and fabric washers that all have a hole in the center. The washers are stacked on top of one another, alternating between the metal and fabric washers as they are stacked inside the center of the spool. As with most drag washers, the washers are lightly lubricated to slide against one another smoothly and without hesitation. They are held in place by a retaining ring that is then capped with a drag adjustment knob. The adjustment knob allows the user to pre-set the drag tension by simply tightening or loosening the adjustment knob. The drag can be adjusted again while fighting a fish if it is decided that the drag is too tight or too loose for the fish at hand.

The way that the spinning reel drag works mechanically is quite simple. The spool is mounted onto the main shaft of the reel and the shaft slides right through the stack of drag washers. The drag adjustment knob is then mounted and it actually screws directly onto the end of the reels main shaft, keeping everything securely in place. As the knob is tightened, more and more pressure is being applied to the drag washers and the spool underneath the adjustment knob. When a fish pulls hard enough against the line, the lubricated drag washers slip against one another allowing line to be payed off of the reels spool.

To properly set the drag on your spinning 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.

The drag washers can be easily removed for cleaning and lubrication.
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 drag adjustment knob a bit 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.

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 spinning reel. 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.

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