Don’t Be A Drag

No matter your target venue or species, proper drag settings are crucial to your overall angling success. Without a clear understanding of how to set and maintain a reel’s drag, you will never master the fundamentals needed to become a consistently successful angler.


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Drag elements can be accessed for routine maintenance by unscrewing the spool knob. Photo: Shimano

At the most basic level, a reel’s drag applies tension to tire and wear down powerful fish. But it’s a fine line between a trophy catch and another fishy story. Fortunately, drags have evolved over the years and today’s modern spinning and conventional workhorses—big and small—have the ability to trump some serious predators. With a trend toward compact reels capable of winning a gunfight with a knife, manufacturers have certainly stepped up to the plate by providing willing anglers with impeccable products. It’s truly amazing such powerful drag systems can be crammed into such tiny reels. Yet even with this technology, taming giants relies on your ability to properly adjust your drag.

…too loose of a drag setting and you can prolong a fight that could have ended successfully long ago. This is especially important when the beaten adversary is intended for release.

While you can certainly end a fight faster if you hammer down the drag, before doing so you better take into consideration that the higher your drag setting, the more likely tackle failure will enter the equation. Apply too much heat and abraded monofilament fails and hooks pull, sometimes even straightening out all together. On the flip side, too loose of a drag setting and you can prolong a fight that could have ended successfully long ago. This is especially important when the beaten adversary is intended for release.

While novices generally set it and forget it based on nothing but a guess, experienced anglers monitor their drag and constantly make slight adjustments as they have a firm understanding of how a drag system works. If you haven’t yet mastered this skill, you’ll likely pop off a few fish during your learning curve. When you’re finally able to precisely tame your drag system you’ll have more confidence in your abilities and you’ll certainly land more fish.

First, there’s no perfect drag setting for every scenario so don’t let anyone tell you there is. Your drag setting will vary greatly depending on line strength, target species, rod, amount of line remaining on your spool, type of fishing and just how much drag pressure YOU can actually handle. In addition, game fish vary greatly in size, attitude, and preffered habitat. Now figure into the equation that you may be dolphin fishing with a 30 lb. trolling outfit when a 300-pound blue marlin decides to eat your ballyhoo. Don’t chalk up the loss on the first breakneck run; rather adjust your drag accordingly and fight to win.

Setting your drag also takes knowledge of how certain species feed, which in turn influences their striking and fighting attributes. Once connected, educated anglers can accurately predict the fish in question and fight it accordingly. Professionals targeting smoker kingfish are well aware of the fish’s blistering initial runs, and as a result rely on a light drag when set to strike. Those who prefer to target structure-oriented predators near aggressive bottom fish heavy drags to prevent determined adversaries from breaking off.

There have been volumes written about drag settings and the general consensus is that 25% to 35% of the line’s rated breaking strength is a good starting point. If you’re fishing 30 lb. test, this would equate to 7.5- to 10.5-pounds of drag. Unless you fish with IGFA rated lines you should know that many lines actually break above their noted strengths—especially braid—and the amount of drag you can apply varies significantly.

Whether you’re fishing for snook or sailfish, the first thing you should do before your first bait ever hits the water is adjust your drag. With spinning reels there is a knob on top that applies increased pressure as it is turned clockwise. With lever drag reels there are two features to tune that will influence the drag. The first is a preset dial that adjusts overall maximum drag pressure. This should only be adjusted with the reel in freespool and tested after the lever is pushed all the way forward to the maximum drag position. The other drag setting is the actual lever, which is used for fine-tune adjustments including the precise amount of drag applied when a fish strikes.

While seasoned anglers typically adjust the drag by feel, it’s a good idea to get your hands on a spring lever scale so you can get an accurate reading and understand exactly what you’re feeling. If you’ve never done so, you really have no idea how many pounds of pressure you’re applying. Run the line through your guides and tie your mainline to the scale. Hold the rod at a 45-degree angle and have a partner pull the scale down and away to imitate a fleeing fish. At the moment your line slips off the reel have your partner shout out the amount of pressure. Repeat this to make sure you have an accurate reading and adjust the drag accordingly. You can also set the maximum drag with the same technique.

While many lost fish have been attributed to applying too little or too much pressure during the fight, what’s worse is setting your drag and never adjusting it. Experienced anglers precisely control a reel’s drag when playing a fish by making small adjustments. They also use their fingers and palms for minute adjustments, while never losing sight of the risk associatted with adjusting the drag at the wrong time.

Only a few years back light tackle referred to small targets, although with the advancements of braided lines lightweight outfits are subduing truly monster fish. With incredible stopping power and lack of stretch, braided lines offer a huge advantage. However, coupled with powerful drag systems anglers now have a tremendous amount of pressure on their hands—much more so than with monofilament. Regardless of the tackle you choose to use, you need to properly set and adjust your drag for the situation at hand.