Pictured above: Capt. Craig Cantelmo and his son Jackson enjoy good bass action on Cape Cod. Craig balanced a Van Staal VF12HD reel on a 10-weight rod for optimum line control and enhanced cranking performance.
“Man, that fish tore off a hundred yards and nearly spooled me. I couldn’t hold him!” Nope, it wasn’t a fly-fisherman in Islamorada talking about a zippy bonefish; it was a Northeast buddy of mine with feet firmly planted in the sand near Point Judith light. We were fishing side by side on a beautiful sunrise catching pre-dawn schoolie bass and nasty bluefish before he hooked the big one. On the ride back home, the loss of that big fish never left his mind or our conversation, and he was sure he now needed a bigger reel with more line capacity.
How much line a striped bass can yank off a fly reel is the stuff for great stories back at the dock or coffee shop, and fishing writers enthusiastically love to confirm these epic tales, cheerfully adding their own embellishments and additional yardage. “Joe’s reel sang a sweet refrain while the striped bass tore off two hundred yards of backing and heading straight for Portugal,” makes exciting reading in magazines, but the exaggeration doesn’t answer the question, “How much line can a good-sized fish really take?”
Chico Fernandez, the fly-fishing sage of the salty backcountry and Florida flats, in his wonderful book, Fly-Fishing For Bonefish, tells of an experiment in search of the truth that brings imagined fish runs back down to earth. After hearing so many stories from guides, their clients and fellow outdoor writers, he set out to prove to himself how much line a bonefish really takes. He stripped off 100 yards of backing from one of his favorite reels and dyed ten yards of it bright red. He says, “In the next year and a half, I landed several big bones that ran very far, a 20-pound dolphin, a mid-size tarpon and other nice fish with that reel.”
Chico forgot about the red-marked line until he hooked a big shark that he believed took a remarkable amount of line, probably 200 yards, but after another long run, the red mark finally came off the reel and out the rod tip. The truth was out, and what he imagined to be a 200-yard run was really 100 yards for an unusually big fish on light fly tackle. All those bonefish, big dolphin and mid-size tarpon had never gotten to the red mark, and never took 100 yards of line. Chico now speaks with convincing authority and good humor whenever he gets into a discussion about “how far do fish run?”
Striped bass fly-fishermen can try this experiment too, but a lot less backing is needed. Pull off 25, 50, and 100 feet of backing from your favorite bass reel, the one you use the most, and apply different color marks with a permanent ink marker. You’ll be surprised that few bass hit the 25-foot mark, even fewer will expose the 50-foot mark, and it’s a very rare striped bass that will bless you with seeing the 100-foot mark – unless you’re catching lots of big fish in swift currents or fishing with no drag and no rod angle. I marked line on my albie fly reel at 100 and 200 feet, and rarely get a fish to reach the 200-foot mark except in Florida, where the albies are generally bigger than our Northeast fish.
Enormous line capacity is essential for those exotic fishing trips to Costa Rica or Guatemala, where Pacific sails and marlin are the target, or here on the East Coast if you’re seeking bluefin and yellowfin tuna. For most inshore, surf and back-bay fly-fishing for striped bass, bluefish and weakfish, we really don’t need a lot of backing.
Many quality fly reels hold 200 yards of backing, which is more than enough for striped bass, but if capacity is not so important as it may appear at first glance, what is? For daily fly-fishing, the spool’s diameter, reel weight and handling comfort are the essential qualities. The diameter has to be large enough for easy cranking when retrieving line if a fish makes a run toward the fly-angler, and its weight has to balance with the perceived weight of the fly rod in your hand; both are important considerations that make the reel feel comfortable to fish with.
Several years ago, reels with exaggerated large arbors became popular with some flyrodders. Cranking speed is gained, but there are trade-offs. Fly reels with huge arbors feel clunky and have an awkward, wobbly feeling when you’re cranking fast. Most reels of this type usually have a relatively small-diameter drag surface within the spool hub. Simple physics tells us it’s easier for a fish to pull line from a large-diameter reel compared to a small reel. To overcome this, the drag must be cranked down to get sufficient pressure against the small diameter of the drag hub. This may be fine on a high-quality reel, but can lead to drag-system failure on an economy reel.
Nick Yates of Tibor Fly Reels is a big advocate of fly reels with medium-diameter arbors. “A reel with a medium-size arbor is the best of all worlds,” and he questions, “What good is 400 yards of backing? It’s much more than most fly-rodders ever need. Where the reel comes into play is in the drag – it’s got to be smooth with never a hint of jerkiness. In combination with proper rod handling, all the backing you need for most fish, whether it’s a 100-pound tarpon or a 30-pound striped bass, is about 200 yards.”
Two years ago, I was looking for a new reel to do double-duty with tarpon and albies, and I spoke with legendary flats guide, Captain Steve Huff, who was meeting and greeting fellow flyrodders at the Tibor display at the annual fly-tackle trade show. “For fighting fish,” he told me, “a smooth, consistent drag is much more important than line capacity. You need a large amount of line only if you’re not applying maximum rod and drag pressure.” Steve talked me out of a Tibor Signature 11-12 and into a Gulfstream, which turned out to balance perfectly on a G. Loomis Shortstix 10/11 rod, and feels comfortable battling juvie tarpon and high-speed albies.
Captain Craig Cantelmo of Van Staal Fly Reels has plenty of big striped bass under his belt, and he always looks at fly-fishing with a practical approach when choosing the best reel. A reel’s diameter helps with line handling, especially for northeast fly-fishers because spring and fall temperatures can be cool – ditto at night in summer. He says, “A small-diameter arbor stores the line in little coils; when pulled from the reel, the line can tangle like a twisted snake.” Stretching the line before casting can temporarily cure this problem, but in cool weather, those pesky coils seem to creep back into the line and become very annoying.
Craig likes to balance the reel with the rod, so it feels comfortable to fish with, but he doesn’t rigidly match line-weight numbers. He says, “I like to use the largest-arbor reel that is light enough to balance on the rod. I’ll use a Van Staal VF12D on a 9-weight because the reel is light enough to balance with the rod and allows the line to be stored on the reel in large loops. This is important because it eliminates knots coming off the deck or from the stripping basket as a fish makes its first run. The line is much more controllable with a lot fewer knotted tangles.”
Tongue in cheek, would you call this up-reeling? For Craig, “It’s a great way to maintain maximum backing capacity, especially for big fish or fish that are large and fast enough to take a lot of line, or if you’re fishing two-handed rods that require heavier, large-diameter fly lines.” And, the reel’s diameter is just right for comfortable cranking when retrieving line or playing fish off the reel. “The speed is important for fish that turn and run back at you like albies and tuna – the large arbor keeps you tight.”
Since reel backing capacity is not always so important, some salty flyrodders choose to down-reel and use a smaller reel to better balance with a short rod or a very light rod. My Tibor Tail Water CL is meant for 5/6-weight lines, but with 60 yards of 30-pound Dacron backing, there’s still room for Royal Wulff 8-weight Bermuda Shorts. It’s a great combo for sweetwater bass, along with back-country stripers, weakfish, and summer bluefish. Most of these fish are played with hand-stripping, drag is applied by letting line slip through wet fingers, and it’s a rare fish that ever gets the backing wet.
Downsizing the reel size is okay for boat, kayak and canoe flyrodders because all of these crafts move while playing the fish, and it’s easy to follow any fish threatening to take too much line. With kayaks, you often don’t have a choice because the fish tows you around! Reel size is much more important when wading or fishing the surf where you don’t have as much mobility.
Large reel or small, backing capacity can be supercharged by switching to gel-spun braid. This type of line is thinner than 30-pound Dacron, so you can get significantly more of it on any reel. The three most popular gel-spun ratings are 50-, 65- and 80-pound. Some super lines have a rough finish and can hurt or cut your fingers; others are much smoother, like Power Pro Hollow Ace, which is also spliceable.
Even though most inshore and back-bay fish don’t steal a lot of line, another advantage of gel-spun is that spool diameter is maintained for those special times when a big or fast fish does take a lot of backing, or when fishing offshore. As backing is stolen from the reel, the spool’s effective diameter decreases, along with a loss of mechanical advantage (remember your high school physics), and the drag increases.
Craig notes, “With the use of super braids, it’s possible to maximize line retrieve without sacrificing capacity.” With gel-spun, the effective spool diameter doesn’t change that much. The difference is not especially noticeable for small fish and back-country fishing, but if you’re seeking big fish, or fishing light tippets, the drag increase could be a very important factor. With super braid, it’s possible to maximize line capacity, if you need it, while at the same time protecting your drag setting and improving your ability to crank in backing and fly line.