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May 30, 2014

Tips for Drag Control

How an expert stays on top of reel drag settings to win big fish battles.

Ambient temperature, heat generated during a hard run, spool diameter as line leaves a reel — all these variables can affect a reel’s drag. Each might change your drag only slightly, but their combined effects can quickly compound.

For example, set a drag on a warm afternoon and leave it overnight. If you hook a big fish the next morning and it happens to be chilly out, your drag’s now tighter. If a big fish zips out 150 or 200 yards of line, your drag’s now tighter. If you fail to realize and allow for that — snap! It’s a sad story and one oft repeated, but avoidable. When that 50- or 60-pound kingfish, striped bass or mahi piles on, understanding how drags change and applying that knowledge during the fight might make the difference between getting that trophy to the boat or ending up with just another fish story. Here are seven suggestions to help you understand why drag tension changes and how to deal with it.

1. Know When to Back Off the Drag: “I’ve seen star-drag reels get hotter than a firecracker,” says Gary Jarvis, captain of the charter boat Back Down 2 in Destin, Florida. That sudden heat tightens drags — actually changing friction between drag surfaces. If they get too hot, drags might stick, requiring even more pressure to start the spool rolling each time the fish takes line. “In lever-drag reels, the drags are almost the same diameter as the spool. Star-drag reels have a smaller drag surface area,” Jarvis explains. He also brings up another critical difference — lever-drag reels apply pressure directly to the spool; each turn of the spool is one rotation against drag surfaces. Star-drag systems work through the gears, so a reel with a 6-to-1 gear ratio takes six turns of the spool to turn drag washers once. This puts extra pressure on smaller drag surfaces and generates heat quickly. To combat that heat on any reel, but particularly on those with star drags, Jarvis says to back star drags off a bit on prolonged hard runs, and even use the washdown hose to cool reels.

2. Adjust for Shrinking Spool Diameter:
“Spool diameter” is a function of how much line remains on the spool. Each yard of line the fish pulls shrinks the effective spool diameter, and as it gets smaller, the spool has to turn more times to release a given length of line, putting more pressure on the fishing line. Tall, narrow spools shrink in diameter faster than short, wide ones for a given length of line removed. “People see that spool getting smaller, and they tend to tighten the drag, but that’s the last thing you want to do,” Jarvis says. Instead, loosen the drag as line comes off the reel and usable spool diameter shrinks. Make the mistake of tightening the drag or failing to loosen it and, Jarvis says, “nine times out of 10, you’ll break that fish off before you get spooled.”

3. Watch the Rod to Gauge Drag Stress: “Look at your rod tip. When you see that rod bend increase, that’s when you need to back off your drag,” Jarvis says. He uses fast-action rods that show increased strain well. When chasing a fish, a boat captain can read the rod bend to help him gauge strain on the line.

4. Know Your Foe: The extent and nature of strain on a drag varies widely by the type of fight. “If an angler’s fighting a wahoo or big king, you can almost drive up on it, but you know that fish is going to run again,” Jarvis says. As these known sprinters swim slowly between blistering runs, Jarvis uses the boat to regain line while also buying time for the drag to cool, especially on a smaller reel. On the other hand, Jarvis has to let anglers slug it out with slow, powerful fish like amberjacks, but these heat the drags less. Particularly when anglers are fighting any species known for both speed and endurance, they will need to adjust drag pressure during the battle, even as the captain maneuvers to keep after the fish.