The Feel Factor

From battles with scrappy yellowtail snapper to determined yellowfin tuna, few facets influence the outcome as much as the proper drag setting.

Capt. Mike Genoun October 7, 2013

Florida is the undisputed fishing capital of the world, and with this bold statement comes a variety of venues and species to target. With such variances in size and strength of targeted species, there are really only a few universal aspects of our sport that relate to every single application. A proper drag setting is one such fundamental.

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Photo: doughertyphotos.com

Correctly setting and adjusting your drag is a widespread component that affects every angler in every body of water. Yet a surprising number of fishermen are still unsure of how to accomplish this relatively easy task. With that being said, we’ve all set a drag too tight and experienced a fast-swimming predator end a fight before it even started. An extra pound or two of drag resistance isn’t such a big deal if you’re catching two pound fish on 20 lb. test line, but even a hair too much drag pressure can be devastating when battling a 50-pounder on the same gear.

From light tackle spinners to big game lever drag conventional reels, leading manufacturers invest millions of dollars and countless hours engineering, developing and perfecting adjustable drag systems…

On the flip side, too light of a drag setting and you’ll be hard pressed to drive the hook home and may find it extremely challenging to ultimately achieve success in a reasonable amount of time. If you’re focused on catch and release, too light of a drag setting can be detrimental to the fish’s overall chances of survival by exhausting your quarry to the point of no return.

From light tackle spinners to big game conventional reels, leading manufacturers invest millions of dollars and countless hours engineering, developing and perfecting adjustable drag systems in an attempt to provide anglers with the very best tools possible. I must stress the word adjustable, because when it comes to drag systems set it and forget it is not always the best policy.

When initially setting the pounds of drag applied, the general rule is to go with 25- to 33-percent of the line’s rated breaking strength. That means for a reel loaded with fresh 30 lb. test monofilament, 7 1/2 to 10 lb. of drag is sufficient and usually enough to set the hook and wear down even the most determined adversary. However, you must take this with a grain of salt because there’s no perfect answer to the drag equation. The tension you apply will be a direct correlation to the species, presentation, application, line strength and angler’s experience.

To determine how many pounds of drag you are applying, hold the rod in a typical 45 degree fighting position and tie the end of the line to a simple spring-style hand scale or high-end digital force gauge. While simulating a typical pumping motion, a buddy can provide the reading as you rear back and line begins to slip off the spool. Adjustments can be made until you reach the desired setting.

The truth is, most of us use nothing more than our hand and best intuition to adjust the drag by simply pulling line off the reel. While a guideline is nice, you must consider the characteristics of the fish you are targeting, whether or not unforgiving structure is nearby and exactly what type of terminal gear you are employing. A hand scale isn’t always available so you have to know your enemy and learn to trust your instincts. If you’re questioning your judgment, lean on the side of caution and set your drag a little loose rather than too tight. You can always get dialed in and apply more heat or apply tension to the spool with your hand. Too much initial drag and you may never get that chance.

Do enough research on the subject of proper drag settings and you’ll see that some seasoned veterans will try and convince you that regardless if you are fishing a spinning or conventional reel, once the drag has been initially set it shouldn’t be adjusted during a fight. This is inaccurate for many reasons. If a fast swimming pelagic has peeled most of the line off the reel on its initial run, you must back off on the drag setting as the decreased diameter of the spool requires more tension to turn the spool. This increase in tension, plus the extra strain created by an enormous bow of line in the water, makes it necessary to back off on the drag setting to prevent the line from parting.

There are also methods you can employ to apply more drag pressure without adjusting the reel’s drag system. If you have to apply increased pressure during a fight with a spinning outfit, rather than turning the knob on the top of the spool you can cup the side of a spool with your palm. You can also pinch the line between the fingers on your right hand. With a conventional reel, you can apply increased pressure by thumbing the spool. You can also use your left thumb to apply more pressure to the line by holding it down against the foregrip. With either approach you can apply increased pressure only when you need it, like when tuna are near the end and circling beneath the boat. It’s critical during these last moments you turn the fish’s head.

In either case, if the fish takes off again you can quickly remove your hand or appendages and let the reel take over. Really, it is a balancing act that can only be mastered with years of experience. Eventually, you should be able to feel when the line is approaching its breaking point and be able to increase or decrease pressure as needed while anticipating the fish’s every move.

Of course, it is important to remember that in addition to the application and approach, proper drag settings vary greatly depending on rod length and action. A long rod with a soft, fast tip acts as a shock absorber and is more forgiving than a short, stout rod. Temperature and humidity can also influence drag performance. And of course, choice of line also plays a big role. Monofilament has a tremendous amount of stretch, nearly 30 percent when compared to today’s modern super braids, which offer nearly zero stretch with very little forgiveness. This is why it is extremely important when fishing with monofilament that you reel all of the slack out of the line before attempting to set the hook on a fish.

We all know a large percentage of fish that are lost come unglued during the final moments of the fight when there is the least amount of line between the reel and the fish. This is exactly when a last ditch effort from a determined predator often results in a pulled hook or parted leader because there is simply nothing to absorb the sudden shock. As a fight with a big fish comes to a close and your prize catch is about to be introduced to the gaff or leadered by the mate for a healthy release, you may want to make one last adjustment. If you are fishing with a stronger wind-on leader, once it’s on the spool you can apply additional tension to make certain the fish doesn’t take off again. Of course, this is highly dependent on the scenario because at times you’ll want to loosen the drag and play the fish to avoid breaking it off boatside.

The bottom line is that powerful fish are notorious for exploiting the weakest link between the reel and hook, and if your drag setting is not initially set properly or adjusted on the fly as needed, a premature end to a rewarding experience is almost always inevitable. Only with long days on the water and after battling many different sizes and species of fish on various forms of tackle will you achieve the necessary feel to be a consistently successful angler. When you acquire a high level of angling confidence you’ll be amazed at how well you can use your tackle to the fullest advantage. You’ll realize that adjusting the drag in small increments is essential, as are fluid motions when fighting a fish. By doing everything the correct way from the very beginning you will be able to push your tackle to its limits while watching your landing ratio soar.

Understanding Lever Drags

Setting the drag on a lever drag reel is an important skill. If done improperly you risk losing a fish and expensive terminal tackle, or even worse you could damage the reel. A lever drag system has two parts—a preset dial and a drag control lever. The dial allows you to set a predetermined maximum amount of drag that cannot be exceeded. The lever allows you to go from Freespool to Strike to Full drag in small increments, or in one swift motion. Most big game reels require the user to push an additional button in order to go from Strike to Full drag, primarily to prevent novices from accidentally applying too much pressure on a powerful fish too early in the fight.

To set the drag on a lever drag reel, move the lever back to Freespool, the point where the spool revolves freely with no drag pressure. Now turn the dial on the right side of the reel clockwise a couple of turns. Push the lever all the way forward to the Full position and measure the amount of drag with a hand scale as earlier instructed. One third of the line’s breaking strength in the Full position is typically the goal. If you’re not there, turn the dial forward in small increments until you reach the desired number, just remember to move the lever all the way back to Freespool prior to making each adjustment.

Once you’ve reached your goal in Full, test the drag in Strike, where you will most likely be fighting the fish. In Strike, you’re looking for a measurement of around 25 percent of the line’s breaking strength. As the fight ensues, you can carefully apply increased pressure by pushing the lever forward in an effort to beat stubborn fish.

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