What Is Drag on a Fishing Reel?

What Is a Drag on a Fishing Reel?

A drag is crucial for fishing. Basically, it determines whether you’ll have a successful catch or wind up with a broken line.

If you’re a beginner at fishing and you didn’t know this already, do not despair. You’ve come to the right place. In this article, you’ll be able to read all about the drag system, and even learn how to set it up.

Now, let’s get right into it and explain how the drag system works.

What Is the Drag System?

So you’ve set up the whole thing, adjusted the line, and cast it in the water. The fish starts biting the bait and therefore pulling the line. What happens next? It’s not as simple as yanking the rod as hard as you can. When the fish starts swimming away with the hook in its mouth, your reel will start spinning backwards, thus releasing the line. How do you give it resistance? How do you catch the fish?

That’s where the drag comes in.

The drag is the part that most inexperienced fishermen ignore. Even though it’s not as exciting as pulling the rod, it needs to be done. If you don’t adjust the drag properly, everything else will be lacking. And not just that — you run the risk of breaking your line or even your beloved fishing rod.

But let’s get to the point — what is a drag?

The drag, or the drag system, typically involves a pair of small steel plates that are located inside the reel. They are used to put pressure on the spool and stop it from releasing more line. This system enables you to pull heavy fish without breaking the line.

The drag power is the amount of pressure that the plates put on the spool. It’s measured in pounds, and it needs to be adjusted before you cast the line.

What Is the Proper Drag Tension?

The opinions are divided when it comes to this topic. Some say that more is always better and go for a higher drag tension. On the other hand, some say that the optimal drag tension is around 30% of the line’s strength. Their reasoning behind this is that it’s better to go slowly and feel the pull. That way, you can enjoy a little back-and-forth with the fish and eventually reel it in.

Although the ⅓ rule is more widely accepted, it’s a matter of personal preference.

But one thing is certain — you have to test the drag beforehand and see what’s convenient for you. Then, you can adjust it and start fishing.

After some time (and practice), you’ll get used to doing it every time. It will become like an effortless ritual to you, but you won’t be able to do without it.

Different Types of Drag

Fly Reel Drag

The fly reel drag system is the most common, and it’s the one we’ve mentioned earlier. It involves a pair of plates. They vary when it comes to size and design. For example, some reels have sealed plates that are more suitable for catching large fish. Others, however, feature a ’‘click and pawl’ system. This system is more suitable for catching smaller fish. In case you come across a big one, you’ll need to apply additional pressure.

Spinning Reel Drag

Spinning reels are powered by a set of gears, and their drags can be located on the front, or in the back. The front drags are more durable, and thus used for catching bigger fish. The ones on the back are more convenient for beginners, but they’re not as effective.

Spinning Reel Drag Knob
Spinning Reel Drag Knob

Spincast Reel Drag

This type of reel drag is similar to spinning drags, but they are more advanced and have more features. Aside from the regular reversion prevention mechanism, they typically have an anti-friction drag too. They’re very easy to operate, enabling you to catch the fish smoothly and without much effort.

Baitcaster Reel Drag

Baitcaster reels also use a spool and a trigger handle, but unlike the spinning reel, they sit on top of the rod. Also, they’re much heavier and stronger. Most models feature a clicker mechanism that prevents the spool from going crazy. The clicker typically makes a clicking sound when it starts working, which lets you know when the fish has bitten the hook. Many anglers find this useful, and thus opt for the baitcasting reel. Besides that, it’s probably the most adjustable one out of all of them.

Baitcaster Drag
Baitcaster Drag

Centerpin Reel Drag

Although it’s outdated, the centerpin reel is still worth mentioning. Its mechanism couldn’t be any simpler — the angler has to hold the line with his/her hand in order to block it.

How to Set up the Drag

As you can probably guess, setting the drag up is different for every type or model of the reel. For instance, older models require manual handling, whereas newer models have built-in mechanisms that automatically adjust it. This too depends on your personal opinion, but we can safely say that newer mechanisms are undoubtedly easier to handle. But we do agree that vintage models look cooler.

As we’ve previously said, the optimal drag tension is around 30%, or 1/3. In other words, if you want to catch a 10-pounder, then you should set the drag to around 3 pounds. That’s the universal ’‘rule’, and the rest is all relative and dependent on your own style of fishing.

In order to test the strength of your rod, you’ll need to acquire a small measuring device, aka, the spring scale. Don’t worry, you can get it in every angler shop or order it online. It costs less than $10. So when you get the scale, attach it to your rod, which you should be holding at a 45-degree angle. When it reaches the weight you want (around ⅓), then you know you’ve got the right tension. You don’t have to be very precise at this point. However, it’s better to have a looser line than a tight one. You don’t want to take chances and run the risk of breaking it and then losing a very big catch.

How to Set the Drag for Different Types of Reels

  • To set the drag on a fly reel, simply turn the knob clockwise, or counter-clockwise.
  • For spinning or spincast reels, you should manually test the line first. Hold it right above the reel and pull on it. This will give you an idea about where it’s at, pressure-wise. Then you need to find the button that adjusts the tightness on the reel. It’s different for every model, but you’ll surely be able to find it easily. Usually, it looks like a tiny wheel or crank.
  • Adjusting the drag on baitcaster reels is quite similar. The principle is the same, only the mechanism works a bit differently. Most baitcaster reels have the setting on the side, and it’s typically shaped like a star. Turn it to the left or the right in order to tighten or loosen it.

Conclusion — Why Is the Drag System so Important?

We went on and on about the importance of the drag throughout the whole text. So you’ve most likely gotten the gist of it already. Anyway, let’s sum up everything we’ve learned here today.

The drag system is what enables you to catch the fish in the first place. But more importantly, it prevents your line from breaking. Adjusting the drag is a piece of cake if you know how to do it. Every type of drag has its own adjustment mechanism, which you’ll surely be able to figure out easily.

Good luck on your next fishing adventure. We hope the drag will serve you well!


  1. Would that be why something took my rod and reel off the pier. Been fishing for over 50 years, it’s the first time that has happened to me. I always fish saltwater.

    • Hey David,

      That is wildly unfortunate. While you have some years of experience on me, I’ll try my best to help!

      Without knowing your set up it’s hard to say. However, if you’re using a larger reel and some higher pound fishing line a cranked up drag could be to blame.

      I would recommend setting your drag to 20-30% or 1/3 of your fishing lines strength rating. See how you like it and adjust accordingly.

      Hope this helps!


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