The Drag Race

David Anderson investigates the modern disc drag

Most reviews around new fly reels (including my own) remind me more of car reviews. We write about size, economy and looks when we should be paying more attention to the brakes, because once hooked, that fish of a lifetime might not hang around to admire the paint. While this isn’t a comparison review, I did have a look at the drags of 18 currently available 5/9-weight reels in our market — costing between $200 and nearly $1,200 dollars — to get a feel for what’s currently slowing them down. I bypassed click drag reels this time around because, while there are some great modern interpretations out there (Sage Click, Abel TR and Orvis Battenkill for example) and some very desirable retro reissues (Hardy Bouglé being a personal favourite), there’s not a lot to be said about this simple system to stop a reel from free-spooling, other than having stood the test of time for many trout anglers. As comforting as the clickety click of a clicker is on a trout stream, under the weight and speed of a powerful saltwater fish, or even a big trout or carp with room to run, it’s like having Corolla brakes on your Porsche. Yes, you will probably stop eventually, but it just might be ugly and nowhere near where you first stood on the pedal. HOW A DISC DRAG WORKS In its most basic form, pressure between the spool and frame — from very little to almost a complete stop — is applied via the drag knob over a single or stacked arrangement of discs made of various materials including cork, carbon fibre, stainless steel and synthetics like Teflon, Rulon and Delrin. If this diverse range of reels has one thing in common, it’s that they have very little in common in how all that is engineered — the difference is in how the discs and materials are applied. Cork, though probably not the first choice of material imagined for a disc drag, is nonetheless right at home in the top-shelf drag systems of the Abel Super Series and Nautilus CCF X2. Its natural compressibility makes for smooth transitions from light to heavy settings while maintaining low start-up inertia. Besides the obvious strength and light weight, the main advantage of carbon fibre is a rapid dissipation of heat that all but eliminates a potential failure of ‘the brakes’ during extended hard work. Sage’s Spectrum LT, Spectrum C and Trout, with their Sealed Carbon System (SCS), all use carbon discs. Paul Schmierer, Sage senior R&D design engineer says “the drag system for these three reels is based around the same fundamental design, but small differences add stability or reduce weight in the higher end reels.” He explains that the SCS system “is designed and configured to provide smooth and consistent drag in the most demanding conditions. Each of our reels is configured with a drag system for specific line weights and fishing applications, so they can provide the appropriate amount of drag in the lightest possible package.” Synthetics like Teflon, Rulon and Delrin are used for their low friction, high compressive strength and excellent abrasion and corrosion resistance. When combined in a stack with stainless discs, this creates a very strong drag with low friction. The size, diameter and quantity of these drag discs all vary across the different reel models. The Nautilus X-series SCF-X drag for example, uses a sealed Teflon and carbon fibre disc system, while FlyLab reels use a stacked Teflon and stainless setup. The Waterworks Lamson Speedster S and Ross Animas both apply a combination of Teflon and Delrin. The Australian made Harfin LR series reels use a sealed Rulon and stainless system. Whatever the material or finish, the surface area of the discs is another major factor in the overall stopping power of a disc drag. Waterworks Lamson, in their latest Speedster system, use conical discs to achieve a large surface area that fits into a small space — if flattened, it would be five times the circumference. The benefit is it can be centred closer to the spindle, improving stability and making the drag small and light, yet with the performance of a much larger drag. The surface itself is another consideration, and Shawn Combs, the head of design at Orvis, points out that for the Mirage and Mirage LT, they use a proprietary surface finish on the stainless discs “to improve the consistency in the amount of friction that exists between the carbon and stainless discs.” He highlights that “this, in combination with our patented 360 degree adjustable ball and ramp mechanism, results in best-in-class zero start up inertia and drag smoothness throughout the operation.” START-UP INERTIA As important as all that is, and after allowing for your own skill in the fight, the one thing all this design and engineering needs to achieve so you don’t risk busting your fish off, is how efficiently the drag goes from zero to hero. That’s where start-up inertia — sometimes referred to as start-up torque — becomes the main game in tippet and leader protection. To describe the importance of start-up inertia, I’ll go back to stopping cars, but this time it will be with the Porsche brakes on the Corolla. Start-up inertia is what happens between when you stomp on the pedal — unleashing the full force of all that engineering excellence to stop the wheels turning — and when you actually stop. A great performance is a smooth, controlled ramp-up to the brakes full power (or torque) as you come to a timely stop, whereas a poor performance is an all-or-nothing lock-up and quick trip through the windscreen as the Corolla front-flips on its roof. A critical factor in start-up inertia in fly reels is spool weight, as it takes less energy to get a lighter spool to spin smoothly up to your set resistance. That said, the overall weight of a fly reel, if too heavy or too light, can easily unbalance a fly rod’s swing weight — the thing that most affects the overall feel — so balance is key. With that in mind Orvis have shaved 30% off the latest Mirage LT with a new spool design using lighter materials like titanium in the shaft. Loop have also done some ‘dieting’ and new models like the Opti Dry are far lighter than previous models, at only 135 grams. Waterworks Lamson say they already have the lightest spool weights in the market with their Cobalt and Speedster models. Ross, when updating the Evolution LT model with the newer LTX, also left the already low weight alone, but claim they have achieved over 4 times the drag strength in similar packaging. MAINTENANCE FREE Modern frame design, materials and some very clever engineering have all but eliminated the previous problems of weight, heat build-up and corrosion in the earliest examples of disc drag reels. Most now feature internals that are sealed from the elements and don’t require any ongoing lubrication. Two outliers here are the Abel Super Series and the Redington Behemoth. The Abel Super Series has a large open cork composite disc that needs a very occasional — perhaps yearly — touch of Neatsfoot oil for the cork to remain at its supple best, while the Redington Behemoth’s drag is not sealed, and would benefit from a rinse after saltwater use. With longevity under the extreme pressure of their powerful drag systems, Kristen Mustad, the owner of Nautilus reels, tells me they use hybrid ceramic bearings because “the ceramic balls essentially crush any impurities that could get into the bearing. Carbon fibre dust for example could wear out stainless bearings over time, and ceramic balls resolve this from potentially being an issue.” The Waterworks Lamson Cobalt also uses ceramic bearings and takes sealing to the next level, with what they describe as “custom formulated, self-lubricating, O-rings protecting every point of ingress. A fixed spindle format ensures complete sealing.” Rene Vaz, from Waterworks Lamson distributor Manic Tackle Project, also claims the Cobalt is the only IPX8 certified waterproof drag on the market, certified waterproof to 100 feet. The Abel Vaya has two pawls — similar in some ways to a click drag pawl — referred to as ‘double dogs’, that are a replacement of the more common one-way bearing. These are the systems being used in conventional tackle big game reels such as the Shimano Talica, tipping the Vaya from a sweet trout reel into a serious saltwater reel. SETTING THE DRAG Though the total amount of stopping power on these reels varies markedly, short of extreme species size or tackle class records, the maximum amount of drag offered by any of them would likely be completely adequate for their intended use. Setting the right amount of drag is another matter. This is where the best engineers in fly fishing won’t save you from yourself if you pump the Corolla brakes too hard or not hard enough. Sorry, there’s not enough room in an entire issue of this magazine to even guess at the right amount of drag pressure for every readers’ situation. What I can say is that my own, mostly trouty, take on this is to be familiar enough with adjusting different drag knobs to make quick and sightless changes from the ‘just above free-spool’ required for line management, to enough pressure to slow a good fish on the typically 4 to 6 lb tippet I use on bigger running water like the Mitta Mitta, any lake, or anywhere in New Zealand. Most of the time, for trout, not enough drag is better than too much. In salt water, I’ve always relied on advice from the more experienced anglers around me and would say —usually after learning the hard way — that having too little drag set is an equal or even greater problem to having too much. Another take on setting a drag — and I have no idea if this is truth or urban myth — is that multi-species guru Lefty Kreh used to determine the correct outgoing drag setting by pulling line off the reel with only his lips. When he got to the point the line would slip through his lips before coming off the spool, he considered the drag properly set. WHAT YOU PAY FOR Despite the enormous range in price through these reels, I did find that they all have a smooth and easy take-up and adjustment of the drag. At $200 the FlyLab Glide shows a high level of machining quality at a die-cast price, while the Redington Behemoth has a very solid though die-cast build and has big enough ‘brakes’ to handle tough saltwater work. For a little more, at $250, the Loop Q offers a massive arbor and enough brakes to deal with any big-water trout. All are more than enough reel to hit the water confident that your gear is up to the job. At the other end of the price range, reels like the Abel Super, Nautilus CCF X2 and Waterworks Lamson Cobalt are not only superb examples of what’s possible in manufacture and engineering with limited regard to cost, but also come with bullet proof reputations built on many years in an extremely competitive business. In the middle is a treasure trove of possibilities. All, in their respective sizes, are as totally at home in salt water as they are in fresh.

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