The ability of reel-drag washers to provide stopping power is largely a function of their total surface area. Since the diameter of star-drag washers is limited, drag washers are stacked, typically alternating between stainless-steel plates or washers, to apply more tension to the spool shaft via a pinion gear. This also requires beefing up components to handle the stress of a cranked-down star-drag. In its Offshore line, Fin-Nor "overbuilt the gears, clutch, center shaft and even ball bearings to accommodate the multiple-stack drag," says Ray More, director of avid brands for Zebco (Fin-Nor, Quantum, Van Staal).
Lever-Drags: Whopper Washers
Lever-drag reels offer an inherently stronger drag system because drag washers can be much larger - equal to the diameter of the spool. As a result, fewer washers with less pressure can provide more tension (drag). The washers apply tension directly to the spool, not to the drive shaft. In some reels, that's applied to the left side, in some the right, and Accurate's patented twin-drag system puts the tension equally on both sides of the spool. Large carbon-fiber washers help account for the high drag settings now common in small lever-drag reels. Also with lever-drags, the angler can apply tension instantly to the spool and in a specific/known amount.
Most lever-drag reels put tension on the spool either by a push-bar system (e.g., Shimano Tiagras, Penn Internationals) that pushes on the left side of the reel or a pull-bar system (e.g., the new Cedros and others from Okuma and Shimano TLDs) that pulls the drag system to the right side of the reel. Accurate lever-drags add tension to both sides of the reel.
Spinners: Strategies Vary
Then there are spinning reels. Their drag systems resemble those of lever-drag reels in that tension is applied directly to the spool. Most, especially smaller spinning reels, have long placed drag washers within a cylindrical depression in the arbor of the spool beneath the drag-tension knob. The diameter of this space is much smaller than the spool, so again we have washers placed in a multi-disk stack to get appreciable tension. Accurate, in its Twin-Spin models, utilizes the entire diameter of the spool for its drag washers, putting a full-size carbon washer on top of the spool and another beneath, greatly increasing surface area over which tension may be applied. Other manufacturers put washers below the spool as well.
Quantum offers another unique spinning-reel drag system: Its Boca and Cabo models use three different types of washers - with carbon- composite fiber as the friction washer between stainless-steel and patented ceramic drag-plate washers.
Some spinning reels seal their drag systems completely - purportedly making them submersible with no ill effects. That's certainly the case with Van Staal reels, which, in fact, were born in an effort to provide serious surfcasters a bulletproof and waterproof reel. Ditto the new Penn Torque spinners (perhaps not coincidentally similar in appearance to Van Staal) that are sealed. Most of the drag system, with two friction-generating woven graphite washers, sits beneath the spool, says Penn's Rice, sealed with rubber gaskets and protected within a nylon/steel casing.
Better Drags Beget Stronger Reels
A drag system must operate within the context of the reel itself. Powerful drag systems put a great deal of stress on other components, and manufacturers have generally worked to strengthen reel parts that come under heavy loads from cranked-down drags as well as improve overall construction and tighten tolerances. Cal Sheets, who's been customizing reels for big game for years in his Southern California shop, says bearings, bushings, handles and anti-reverse systems are among the areas likely to see stress failures.
Aluminum remains the most popular material for reel bodies, and with good reason. The light weight of graphite or other synthetics is fine for smaller reels, but such non-metal bodies tend to flex more than aluminum and don't dissipate heat as readily. A fish running for sustained periods against a drag set at more than 20 pounds generates some serious heat. "We've actually melted some reels in our lab," says Zebco's More. "We've burned off some graphite side covers of test reels!"
Your Drag: A Ticking Time Bomb?
Like any working machinery, drag systems require some care. Materials such as carbon fiber, ceramic, stainless steel and titanium are durable and forgiving but will wear over time - and that's particularly true in small, high-quality reels filled with strong braid that can torture drag systems. Most industry insiders suggest cleaning or changing drag washers at least once a season, but two or three times per year may be warranted for reels fished often. Of course, reels need rinsing, but most anglers should know by now to avoid high-pressure hose blasts. Rather, a gentle flow of fresh water is best, and only after you've tightened down the drag. That helps keep water out of drag washers. After rinsing, shake the water out, dry off the reel and loosen the drag. Loosening is particularly important with reels relying on felt or cork washers since they tend to "remember" tension over time and will stay flattened if reels are stored with drags tight.
Often, tough, modern synthetic washers require only washing (in hot soapy water, scrubbing with a small brush) and recoating with grease. If they appear pitted or warped, consider simply replacing them. Failing to look after your drag system "can be a ticking time bomb," says Accurate's Secrest. "It's not worth losing the fish of a lifetime."