Imagine engineers who design Mini Coopers or Smart Cars being asked to put a Corvette Z-1 640 hp engine under a hood just large enough to accommodate a 118 hp four-cylinder power plant.
That's not unlike what reel manufacturers have been trying to do in recent years as they work continually to scale down and beef up reels. For them, the question is not how to get a huge engine in a tiny car, but how to incorporate powerful drag systems and reinforced components that permit extraordinarily high drag settings in surprisingly small reels.
This reel revolution has its basis primarily in the ever-expanding popularity of braided (gel-spun polyethylene) lines, so lever-drag reels the size of levelwind baitcasters traditionally using 10- to 15-pound mono for bass, walleye, salmon, weakfish and the like are now being spooled with just as many yards of 50-pound braid.
While the incredible-shrinking-reel syndrome has not similarly affected spinning gear, spinners have also been called on to do much more for their size than ever before. Many anglers demand that larger, high-quality spinners handle line strengths and drag settings approaching those historically associated just with big trolling reels.
Tiny two-speed conventionals may have been initially looked upon as "cute," says David Nilsen of Accurate Reels, a pioneer in building ever-smaller, ever-stronger reels for big fish. "But now that anglers have seen how these work, they're hooked on them for life."
Perhaps the biggest challenge for those who design small reels is satisfying the greatest demand of those who use them: a drag system commensurate with heavy lines and large, powerful fish. Just how have reel manufacturers done this? Understanding how modern reel drags have changed in recent years and what goes into them has never been more important when it comes to choosing gear that's right for the task you'll be giving it.
Max Drag: How Much Is Too Much?
First, let's talk numbers. How much drag do you want? How much do you really need? There's no way to quantify drag settings according to species or type of fishing, of course. That will vary by line strength, angler preference, type of fishing and so on.
Still, many manufacturers cite a growing gap between how much drag anglers want and how much they really need.
"The big trend now in California" (and yes, spreading east), "is for small reels that will sustain 100 pounds of drag or whatever," says Okuma's director of product development, John Bretza. Most experts agree that anything even close to 100 pounds would be more than enough to yank an angler right over the gunwales.
"I've seen guys who'll say, 'I like to fish 40 pounds of drag.' Yeah, for a minute or two," Bretza says, "but keep that up for five or 10 minutes, and their hands start shaking!" Also, Bretza wisely points out, the higher the drag setting, the greater the odds for other problems such as pulled or straightened hooks.
"Even when we fish North Carolina bluefin, we use 18 to 22 pounds of drag for the strike and, most of the time, as our full-drag setting as well. That's still a lot of drag for most guys."
That seems to be a consensus among industry experts. Says Mike Rice, Penn's senior product manager: 20 pounds is a lot of drag, and 25 to 28 pounds really pushes the upper limits for most anglers. Few anglers can sustain anything approaching 40 pounds, he adds, and in fact such a drag setting could be dangerous - a hazard foreign to small levelwind and spinning reels before the implementation of current technology.
Along those lines, Daiwa's vice president for promotions, Bill Liston, says he can handle about 25 pounds of max drag "without breaking my back." And Ben Secrest, vice president of sales and marketing for Accurate Reels, says for sustained combat, think 20 to 24 pounds of drag. Jeremy Sweet, product manager for reels at Shimano, chimes in by pointing out that many factors should be figured in when considering how much drag to use, including rod harness versus just a belt versus none of the above and type/action of rod.
Setting a reel for too much drag could be a concern mostly with heavier braids - such as 50- to 80-pound. Benchmark percentage settings vary, but often strike drags are set at one-fourth to one-third of a line's breaking strength (or that of the leader, if lighter), and max drag might be up to half the line's strength. For 50- to 80-pound braids (which may well break at 100 pounds or more), that would mean setting a reel at about 15 to 25 pounds or so at strike and 25 to 40 at full.
That said, without question, some situations/fisheries demand drag settings much higher - as close to the breaking point as reasonably possible, particularly when targeting big fish near structure such as wrecks, reefs, oil rigs, bridges and the like, in obvious stop-'em-or-lose-'em situations.
When structure is not an issue, max drag becomes less critical. For example, I watched an angler fight a 365-pound swordfish using heavy braid, but the skipper insisted on keeping the reel's drag at 8 pounds. The upshot: a long, seven-hour fight. But ultimately, the fish was boated, and that's the bottom line.
In situations where near-locked-down drag is needed, however, two critical components come into play: how much drag is a reel capable of, but also, how smoothly does the spool turn under great tension? Logically, the more drag you apply to a reel, the greater the chances for the spool to catch or bind slightly when spinning or when overcoming start-up inertia. And, of course, higher drag settings make your line, under so much tension, all the more likely to snap unless the drag is silky smooth.
The Carbon Revolution
All reels, no matter what type, rely on the compression of drag washers to apply tension to the spool via friction and nonfriction washers. It's the material, size and location of those washers that vary.
Understanding materials may seem formidable, given some of the various trade names, but most modern drags boil down to a few materials - see chart. This lists friction-generating drag-washer materials. These washers are placed against or sandwiched between metal drag plates that apply even pressure to the washers. These plates are almost always stainless steel. (One major exception: titanium. Though it costs five to 10 times that of stainless steel, Accurate uses it exclusively in its drags, against carbon-fiber washers.)
To the extent any material has revolutionized reel drags, and made possible more drag from a smaller area, it's carbon fiber. Most high-end spinning and small conventional reels use carbon-fiber drag washers between or against drag plates, though there are exceptions. Also, the term "carbon fiber" is a bit simplistic since the actual composition and quality of carbon fiber can vary. Many manufacturers use the term "woven carbon fiber." Some list drag washers of "carbon composite" materials (e.g., Quantum's Boca and Cabo lines), which is not woven but a mix of carbon, Teflon and other materials.
Older materials such as felt and cork still perform admirably in the right applications, but carbon and graphite generally offer more durability, particularly with heavy-drag usage.
In addition to choosing the right materials, manufacturers try to ensure their reels' drags meet the twin criteria of power and smoothness through drag design.
Star Drags: Stack 'Em Up
Understanding reel-drag design in modern reels means recognizing two basic systems: (1) star-drag reels that apply pressure to the spool via the drive gears and (2) lever-drag and spinning reels that both apply pressure directly to the side (or sides) of the spool (much like a car's brakes).
In star-drag reels, with spool and shaft a single piece that turn together, drag washers are mounted on the drive shaft. Tension is transferred to the spool via the pinion gear. This means reduced space for drag washers since they're limited by the size of your main gear and gear box. Offshore star-drag reels have for many years offered larger, drop-down gear boxes to accommodate more drag. Certainly, such a large gear box is one "tell" of a good star-drag system.