Star Drag Systems

Saltwater Fishing - Helping you catch that fish of a lifetime

Star Drag Systems

by Capt. Terry Rand

How do you operate a star drag 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.

Both conventional reels and baitcasting reels traditionally use star drag systems. Note the star shaped drag adjustment wheel mounted behind the reel handle.
Photo by: Author

Conventional reels and baitcasting reels traditionally use what is called a star drag system. It is aptly named for the star shaped drag adjustment wheel that is used to tighten and loosen the drag system. The drag adjustment wheel is located directly under the reel handle for quick and easy adjustments while fighting a fish. The wheel can be rotated to the right to tighten the drag and to the left to loosen it. - (photo of a few star drag reels, show a baitcaster and a conventional) (photo of side of reel showing the star drag wheel)

Star drag systems are mainly contained within the housing of the reel and requires removing the handle and side plate of the reel to gain access for any maintenance of the drag washers. The drag washers consist 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 on top of the drive gear of the reel. The drive gear and the drag washers are then mounted over the main drive shaft. As with most drag washers, the washers are lightly lubricated to slide against one another smoothly and without hesitation. The side plate, drag adjustment wheel and handle are then replaced to hold everything securely in place. The drag adjustment wheel can then be used 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 drag washers in a star drag reel are mounted internally on top of the main drive gear and drive shaft.
Photo by: Author

The way that the star drag works mechanically is quite simple. The drive gear and drag washers are mounted onto the main shaft of the reel and the shaft slides right through both the gear and the stack of drag washers. The drive gear meshes with a small gear mounted on the end of the spool shaft so when the reel handle is cranked, it drives the main drive gear which then rotates the spool.  When the star drag adjustment wheel is tightened, it applies pressure against the stack of drag washers. That pressure is transferred from the washers and drive gear to the smaller gear that controls the spool. This pressure is what allows the spool to slip and give up line when the drag is in use. 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 baitcasting or conventional 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 photo shows both the star drag adjustment wheel along with the tension brake adjustment knob on the sideplate of the reel.
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 star drag adjustment wheel 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 conventional reels and baitcating reels that use star drag systems. 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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