When I first started using spinning tackle, I was annoyed that when a big fish (or turtle — caught plenty of softshells) would pull on my line, the spool would turn and line would go out. I wondered what kind of idiot made the reel this way. I wanted the line to come back in, not go out.
Basically, I thought the reel should be a winch, and I did my best to make it so by cranking down the drag knob with pliers. For years afterward, as soon as I got a new reel, I locked the drag down as tight as I could.
It worked fine — except when I hooked into a big fish, when the line would break. But I found a solution to that problem, too: Bigger reels and heavier line. Since I was pretty much fishing on my own, with no one to suggest a better tactic, I thought I was doing fine.
And then I went to the weigh-in at a redfish tournament. I saw the anglers hauling up chunky 5- to 8-pound reds. I wandered down to where they were docking and noticed they all had teeny-tiny reels with super-light line — looked like panfish gear to me. Where was their real tackle? Then I realized: That was their real tackle.
Long story short, I spent some time talking with more experienced fishermen and discovered that the drag actually had a use. So now I’d like to explain to you how to use your drag effectively, and how that will improve your fishing experience.
What is the drag?
A drag is a brake, designed to slow (but not necessarily stop) your reel’s spool from turning. That’s accomplished by generating friction, turning the kinetic energy of the spool’s movement into heat. So an effective drag must both create lots of friction and dissipate heat well. That’s why most reels now use synthetic material in their drag washers. Some manufacturers have stayed with greased felt, which is a bit smoother but has a shorter lifespan and makes less friction.
A hundred years ago, reels didn’t have drag systems. Instead, you simply applied pressure to the spool with your finger. In big game reels, where the spinning spool could burn off your thumbprints, leather pads were used — you push the pad, the pad pushes the line. It’s important to know that.
At the tackle shop
When you buy a reel, one of the specs usually listed on the box is how many pounds of drag it can generate. These are maximum numbers, and they’re not as useful as you might think. For example: Reel A has 40 pounds of drag but the line doesn’t pay out smoothly. Reel B has only 20 pounds of drag but the spool turns like it’s on buttered silk bearings. If I have a big fish to wear out, I’ll take Reel B every time.
Smoothness matters. Like, a lot. A notchy drag means the amount of pressure you’re putting on everything else — your knots, your hook, the fish — isn’t steady. That’s a great way to break something or wear a bigger hole in the fish’s mouth and have the hook fall out. A notchy drag will cost you fish.
Setting the drag
Most anglers don’t really know how tight their drags are. If you’ve never measured it, it’s a fairly simple process: Tie a loop knot in the end of your line. Slip that loop over the hook of a fish scale, then have someone hold the scale at ground level. Lift your rod at a 45-degree angle and put tension on the line until the spool starts to slip. Then read the scale.
Ideally, you should have your drag set at about 25 percent of your line’s breaking strength. That assumes that you’ve matched your line to your rod and reel correctly. With 20-pound line, you want about 5 pounds of drag. That may not seem like much, but 5 pounds of drag is a lot.
Why only 25 percent? Knots are your weakest link, and depending what knots you use, your knot breaking strength might be way less than your line’s breaking strength (I suggest the uni knot for both line-to-line and line-to-hook knots; if you like to be fancy, the FG knot is excellent for a braid-to-leader connection). Plus, you want some margin for a neat trick we’ll discuss later.
Once your drag is dialed in, treat it like a Ronco rotisserie: Set it and forget it. There’s no need to fiddle with it while fishing. It is a good plan to loosen the drag for storage, so pull on the line a few times to get a feel for how tight it should be. That way you won’t need to break out the scale every time you go fishing.
Using the drag
The key to this whole drag business is understanding what it does for you. Here it is: The drag tires out the fish faster by allowing it to pull out line through heavy exertion, while also keeping all of your tackle intact.
Try it yourself. Have a friend hold the rod while you go running down the street, pulling out line against the drag. Then have him lock the drag down and see what happens. Not only are you likely to break something, but it’s a lot less wearying to just play tug-of-war.
The drag is your number-one weapon in fighting big fish on relatively light tackle. A 300-pound shark can easily break 50-pound line in one quick pull — but not if the drag is set at 12 pounds. Now he has to keep pulling and pulling against that constant 12 pounds of pressure, and it will wear him out.
OK, remember how the old reels had no drags? They used finger pressure on the spool instead. That’s an old trick that still ought to be up every angler’s sleeve, because when you need a little extra drag pressure, that’s the best way to do it.
You might think it’s better to just crank the knob a little farther. Great — until the fish surges again, and you break your hook or knot. It’s far easier and faster to just put your finger down. Feather it. You don’t want to stop the spool (usually); you just need to make it harder for the fish to take line.
Exceptions to the rule
There are still times when I set my drag to full. Bottom fishing on a reef, for example. This is a knock-down, drag-out wrassling match. Don’t give the fish an inch, or you’ll probably get rocked up. Snook fishing under a dock is another. In any case where your drag is maxed, go with heavier tackle. I don’t use my 8-17 and 10-20 gear for snook around heavy structure. I bump up to a 12-25 or 15-30.
Making your drag work for you is one of the most important basics of saltwater fishing. It’s not uncommon to hook a bigger fish than you’d planned. Ask around, and you’ll hear stories about big cobia that took baits meant for trout, or monster bull redfish mixed in with their smaller cousins. Using your drag effectively is your only chance at actually landing these unexpected bigguns, so take a few minutes to learn it.
As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.