You don’t have to understand drag settings to catch fish. You don’t even have to have a drag at all, or even a reel for that matter. Just ask anyone who’s ever landed a chunky bluegill with a whippy cane pole. Similar cane-pole strategy can work for bigger fish too, though the pole and line need to be scaled up.
Back in the days when snook regulations weren’t so strict, there was a technique called “stirring” which involved hanging over a bridge or pier railing, usually at night. Stirring was done with a stout pole that had a short length of heavy line or wire about two feet long affixed to one end. This odd rig was called a Calcutta pole.
An angler who was fishing for snook with a Calcutta pole would lean over the rail and lower the stirring rod until it almost reached the water, then stir a heavy-hooked plug in figure-eights on the surface around the piling. The angler would work down the railing from piling to piling to piling until he got a fish mad enough to hit.
Then it was a matter of brute force, as the fisherman would quickly hand-over-hand the pole up and attempt to bounce the very green snook over the rail and onto the deck before it flopped off or something broke. Most of the battle would then take place out of the water as the fish bounced all around, at night, with flailing treble hooks involved. It was an exciting way to take big snook, but not very sporting by today’s standards.
Even bigger fish can be horsed out of the water without a reel. Remember the commercial tuna fishing scenes from the Elvis Presley movie “Girls! Girls! Girls!”? Hollywood dramatization aside, that type of fishing does actually exist, and strong tuna over 100 pounds can be quickly snatched out of the water and flopped aboard using far stouter poles than any Florida pier rat ever used to stir up a big snook.
But most of us are landing our fish using rods, reels and lines that are not designed to simply yank the fish out of the water. If it’s a big, strong, hard-fighting fish (and aren’t all the fish we plan to catch?), then the way that we tire out the fish is by making it work hard against the reel’s drag.
Picture yourself walking down the sidewalk. You could probably keep walking for a long time without getting too tired. But if we make you hustle, you might wear out faster. And if you had to drag a big bag of rocks behind you while trying to flee in a hurry, the weight of that bag of rocks would wear you down pretty quickly.
Your reel’s drag is the equivalent of making a hooked fish drag that bag of rocks down the sidewalk. But if it’s to do a good job tiring out that fish, the drag must be adjusted correctly.
A drag that’s set too high can result in a broken line, while a drag that’s set too light won’t be difficult for the fish to overcome and the struggling fish will not tire quickly. An old rule of thumb for setting the drag is to shoot for a drag setting that requires about 25 percent of the breaking strength of the line to cause the drag to slip. That means that if you are fishing with 10-pound line, you’d want to set your drag so that it slips at about 2.5 pounds of pull.
Before you leap out of your chair and spill your coffee while sputtering about how crazy that is, here are a few things to think about. First, this is a general rule of thumb and makes absolutely no sense in some fishing situations. For example, if you are trying to crank a nice grouper away from his rocky home or stop a dock snook from lacing your line back through the pilings, then you will want more drag. Probably a lot more drag.
And secondly, you might be setting your drag closer to 25 percent of the breaking strength of the line than you realize anyway. Most anglers drastically overestimate how many pounds of pull they are dialing up on their drags and are surprised when they find out the actual numbers.
If you want to try an enlightening experiment, either get a hand scale and pull the drag off some of your reels while watching the scale, or try picking up objects of known weight to see how much is required to get that drag to slip. My bet is that you’ll be surprised by what you see.
Lastly, most importantly, and never considered by most fishermen, is that reel spool geometry changes dramatically as large amounts of line are removed from the spool. When that fleeing fish dumps most of the line off your reel, the effective diameter of the spool rapidly decreases. This has the effect of increasing the pounds of pull required to make your drag slip.
This is no minor detail. Depending on the relative sizes of the spool rim and the arbor, sometimes this effect can result in three or four times the amount of drag pressure. So setting drag pressure around 25 percent of the breaking strength of the line builds in a margin to help ensure that you don’t break the line towards the end of a sizzling, line-dumping run from that fish of a lifetime.
Getting a headache thinking about it? Go set the drag on your favorite reel and figure out how much straight-line pull is required to make it slip. Then remove all but the last few wraps of line around the arbor and try it again.
If you have never tried this, you will probably be amazed at the difference. This is a fact that’s much better to learn in the garage than when your trophy fish pops your line.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.