Guest Author: Ryan McCullough
There is a lot of mystique surrounding the now classic and ubiquitous “click-and-pawl” reel. Most people who fly fish today are not steeped in the traditions of the sport, but the reel type can carry with it a stigma that it is “fuddy-duddy” or elitist. Maybe you don’t see the value of restoring and trading 50-70 year-old English reels that are now worth 10 times or more what they sold for in the first place. If you are the kind of person who drinks scotch that costs more than your fly reel or smokes cigars that cost more than the fly line on said reel, then this article may not be written for you. This article isn’t about touting tradition or aesthetics: Forget everything you think you know about this type of reel: These babies are grossly misunderstood.
Kind Of Drag
For those who do not know what a Click-and-Pawl reel is: It is simply named after its action. Click-and-Pawl denotes the mechanism on the inside of the reel that we may call the reel’s “drag”. We’ll learn more about that later and why “drag” is kind of a misnomer. It’s really better to refer to it as an “action”. I thought of calling this article “Kind of a drag,” but changed my mind. That song would have got stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
A simple explanation of the click-and-pawl” action is this: a spring, usually made of a thin, tempered piece of high quality steel, provides tension against a pawl that catches the teeth of a gear mounted on the axle of the spool. The spring may or may not be
adjustable to increase or decrease tension. The reel may or may not be reversible (able to accommodate right or left-hand winds). Most, however, have some capacity of adjustment; whether internal or external, and most are, in fact, reversible.
If I’ve bored you already with this brief description, then perhaps the idea of a click-and-pawl reel sounds boring too. This inherent and unfortunate simplicity may just be the reason why these reels are so overlooked by the modern angler. Feeling a trout’s every move through your hand while it is ripping line off to the music of a screaming pawl?-now, I can assure you that is anything but boring.
Don’t Believe The Hype
There is the age-old controversy of what reel type is best, or whether a trout reel of any kind is even necessary other than we need a place to “hold line”. One says the reel is not very important, because trout don’t provide enough fight to necessitate a strong drag. Another fisherman says the drag is absolutely essential to slow down and landing a fish that needs to be released as safely as possible. Still, another has no opinion other than to hold to tradition, or “use what works”.
To avoid that unnecessary controversy and bring this toward a more fruitful discussion, I will submit the statement that C&P reels are not just for those who subscribe to the school of “less is more,” traditionalist, elitist, or minimalist thought. “Those guys just think tradition is more important than progress,” some may say. The other camp says that fly reel drags have improved so much that the need for a Click-and-Pawl is obsolete. If the object is landing trout efficiently and having fun doing it, then I will have to agree partly with both camps, but mount the C&P reel on my rods most of the time. Why? You may ask… Are they better? My simple answer to that question would be: no, but they allow you to become a better angler.
Think About It Logically
We can’t really finish this conversation intelligently without some discussion of physics coming into play. Lots of kinetic energy is at work during our little battle of opposing forces, but there are essentially only two sources of this energy. The first is the fish with his ally: the river current. The second is the angler’s arm with the benefit of his tackle. That is it. If the end of this short-lived relationship between angler and fish is to come to a result that is agreeable (for the angler, not the fish), then the ultimate energy expended by the angler and his gear must be greater or equal to the energy expended by the fish.
Simply stated, a reel’s drag is a machine that works against the fish’s efforts, with the intention of giving a mechanical advantage to the fisherman. The energy the fish exerts pulling away is dampened by the reel so the angler spends minimal effort bringing the fish to hand. A drag, however, does not ever, under any circumstances, help the angler “reel in” the fish. The drag imparts nothing to the angler, it simply robs from the fish.
Why We Need Help Fighting a Fish
What seems very simple in theory is filled with all kinds of variables. Our stories of large fish lost attest to that. The number one variable that comes to mind is tippet strength. This, after all, is a gentleman’s sport where we pretend to be giving the fish some sporting advantage in this contest of wit and will. In reality, we are simply making excuses and must concede to her superior senses more often than not. We cannot eliminate this variable, or others that work to the fish’s advantage. The angler may be fifty times stronger but can end up being outmatched by a creature capable of exceeding the tensile strength of the line by a factor of two or three. Beautiful odds, if you ask me. This, folks, is why we play the game.
If it were possible, through the aid of a machine, for us to acquire better luck, then we would apply ourselves to the sport of horse racing. Fly Fishing, however, is a game of skill. Reel actions help us accomplish that job of landing a fish, but they do not impart skill to us. Its easier to believe that our favorite reel brings us luck, but the odds of that are only eight-to-one. Skill comes when we know when to let a fish run and when to reel. So what does a drag do for us and why do we spend money on them?
The notion that a drag needs to be powerful so that it will stop a fish only applies to fish that are capable of consistently ripping a reel handle out of our hands. We don’t see that often on the stream. It’s only happened to me once, and that was with frozen, wet hands against a 16 lb. steelhead that had a real attitude. What we do see often are fishermen everywhere, stripping line in three feet at a time. I, personally have done this when no one is watching but, decry that habit when fishing with friends. It looks much better to be reeling in a fish than to admit to everyone watching that your fish is incapable of breaking your leader.
Since any trout reel is essentially capable of bringing in any size trout, then the drag is only there for three reasons: Tiring the fish, Protecting the tippet, and keeping the spool free from tangles and backlash. Let’s talk about those reasons and explain how a click and pawl action provides specific advantages in all three of its functions.
Number One: Tiring The Fish
A click and pawl reel is usually never adjusted during a run. It is certainly not designed to be. The main complaint I hear against the C&P action is that it is not enough to stop a “hot fish”. This is very true. But C&P reels should not be looked at as a fish stopper. That sweet singing of a fish ripping line off of a click and pawl reel is, for some, the only allure. Agreed, that sound is great, but it is also an indicator to tell you how much pressure you should be applying with your palm on the reel. While it’s your prerogative to let it burn, the high-pitched squeal of a reel turning at full-tilt is really the fish laughing at you as it increases its chances of getting away. You probably like listening to Mariah Carey belt out the high notes too. Its, fun, I admit, but you’ll probably want to keep your click-and-pawl reel singing in a lower key with a few occasional runs. Go buy an Adele or Mahalia Jackson record for ear training.
The pressure of a palm on the reel is better than any drag. It will stop a fish faster and is easier and quicker to apply. A click-and-pawl reel encourages us to apply palm pressure more than any other action. It also “tells” us when to apply more pressure and when to let off. Some of my most beloved reels are cork disc drags. They can really put the brakes on a fish trying to run downstream. They do have a distinct disadvantage though. They are hard to disengage quickly. We are tempted when a fish is getting the better of us, to crank down the drag. Isn’t that what it’s there for? The problem comes when the fish tires, stops, and either begins his next run or shakes his head before we loosen the drag again. I’ve never heard a tippet snap underwater, but I have been hit in the head with my own recoiling fly line, which does make a distinct slapping sound.
Number Two: Protecting the Tippet
A disc drag, or any other action than Click-and-pawl, for that matter, allows us to increase resistance as much as we dare without our line breaking. This is a nice advantage when there is the possibility of a fish ripping our fly quickly through pocket water or under a boat or log. But in those instances, and in turbulent water we often do not need fine tippets to fool the fish. A situation with a hopper thrown on 3x from a boat, or a 5lb. sea-run cutthroat in a swift seam may benefit from having a reel with some muscle behind it. For those who like to fish dries, you’ll learn sooner or later that tippet diameter and leader length increase your chances of getting a good, stealthy drift almost exponentially.
When fishing a 6x or 7x tippet, you need to protect the tippet at several critical points after the fish takes the fly. First, is the possibility of a “surprise attack”-that moment when a fish takes quickly and violently. If you use a click-and-pawl just once when a cutthroat breaks the surface like a rock being thrown from the bank, you’ll see the value instantly. Only a “Zzpp….” alerts you that you are not the quickest gun at high noon. But there is a good chance that the reel just saved your tippet.
The reason these reels can save your fine tippet from stresses of a fish take, run, or headshake is because of the low startup inertia, inherent with the design of the click-and-pawl. Other actions must overcome much more friction, either because the parts are resting tightly against each other, or because it takes inertia to get it going, much like a starter gear on a flywheel or a clutch to a gearbox, It takes a bit to get it moving. That little bit of friction, hesitation, jerk-whatever you want to call it is often all it takes to break your tippet. Because the tension on the spring is constant, slight, and repeats itself with every notch of the gear slipping past the point of the pawl, startup inertia remains extremely low. How low? I can only speak from experience… I’ve never broken a tippet because of a click and pawl reel’s action. I’ve fished with 6x and 7x almost exclusively for the past four years and used to break 5x routinely with a different action.
Number Three: Keeping the Spool Free From Tangles and Backlash
If we could guarantee that our tippet would never break and our line would never tangle, we would need no action for a reel; a simple axle would suffice. Irregular line travel and undulation, mixed with a few pounds of chaos and gravity will turn a line into a bird’s nest without the reel action to smooth things out. While this seems like a childhood problem that we have willed to the gear guys on the lake, tangles still happen. They are even more prone to happen when our drag is too tight.
When we reel sloppily and excitedly as the fish runs at us, we can end up with a loosely wound spool. A drag that is too tight will cut through the spool of line, wedging itself or tangling in a slip knot when the fish turns fast and darts away-taking our fly and tippet with it. It happens. But it happens less often on a click-and-pawl reel.
A final facet of the spool itself that I have not heard discussed, but would assert here is that a small spool does not equate to small stopping power. Spool size addresses differences in space needed to accommodate lighter line sizes and the need for a lighter reel to balance a lighter or shorter rod. Much has been said about “large arbor” these days and how a large arbor helps us retrieve line faster. Let me tell you a little secret: larger arbor reels take more metal and are heavier. Second, the backing is essentially a “large arbor” for any reel. I don’t fully understand why people are so hung up on it.
That peeve aside, we make the assumption that smaller is always weaker. The springs on a smaller diameter reel are lighter, but they also need to be to compensate for the smaller space and tighter tension. you’ll notice that as the diameter decreases, the effort you need to move that reel one turn increases… and you get less line per turn. These things all factor into the design. Don’t ever be afraid to use a click and pawl reel because it is small and you want to go after “big fish”.
So there you have it- some thoughts on the click and pawl reel that will hopefully inform you in your decision and strategy on the water. All other things being equal, there is just a joy and satisfaction that comes from using a good click and pawl reel. Fish one and you’ll know. They are lively and will become part of the entire fishing experience like few other reels can. After all-you are using a reel nearly the entire time that you are fishing in one way or another. You might as well enjoy it and land more fish in the process.
A few tips:
-Look for a C&P reel that is smooth; not wobbly in any way
-Use a lightweight C&P to impart more action to a light rod.
-Look for a C&P reel with a reel that is easy to palm
-Don’t buy a C&P reel that you can’t figure out and can’t service yourself
-Make sure you like the sound. You’ll learn to love it, but you have to like it too.
Ryan is currently living out one of his fly fishing dreams in England. You can follow his ubiquitous thoughts on Twitter @dryfliesforever
You can also read his excellent thoughts of the rise forms of feeding trout here.