When fighting a fish, constant tension is a must. Too little tension and the fish may spit out the hook, too much and your line can break. When fishing, your first defense is the flex of your rod, which will absorb most of the force of the fish. But knowing how to set the drag on a fishing reel is the key to keeping your line from breaking. 

Illustration of where the drag on is located on fishing reels

The drag is simply a pair of friction plates inside of fishing reels. If the fish pulls on the line hard enough, the friction is overcome, and the reel rotates backwards, letting line out, preventing the line from breaking. This is perfectly normal, and is should produce a buzzing sound from your reel. 

You want to set the drag on a fishing reel before your first cast of the day. Adjusting it while fighting a fish can be difficult. Also fishing reels are not designed to be adjusted while fishing, so do so could cause damage.  

Tip: All conventional fishing reels have a drag. Most spinning reels have the drag on the top of the spool. On baitcaster reels, it’s located on the side. 

Know the Weight of Your Fishing Line 

When you set the drag on a fishing reel, you don’t set it by the size of the fish, rather set it by the breaking strength of your fishing line. Light-tackle spinning rods for freshwater fishing are often only spooled with eight- or 12-pound test fishing line. Thus you might want to set the drag on a spinning reel for as little as two or three pounds of pressure. Heavier weight line means you can set your drag higher, and tackle bigger fish. You never want to exceed 50 percent of the line strength if you can help it. Every knot you tie in a fishing line weakens it, as do tiny abrasions from use over time. A big fish will test every connection and find every weak point. And with a big catch on, that’s not the time to find out you’ve over-tightened your drag.


Steps to Set the Drag on a Spinning Reel 

The easiest way to set the drag on a spinning reel is to first test it by pulling on your line directly above the reel. 

If the line pulls out too easily, tighten the drag a few clicks to the right. If it’s too hard, loosen it one or two to the left. If you don’t feel you can judge the force accurately, a small spring scale can help, such as the ones used in Boca Grips or other fish handling devices used in catch and release. It’s better to have your drag too loose, and have to fight a fish a little longer than to have it too tight, and break off a big one. 

Tip: If you are fishing with braided fishing line rather than monofilament, you’ll want to take a few wraps of line around the handle of your fishing pliers or a pencil instead of using your bare hands to test the drag. Braid will slice right into your fingers if you pull with too much force. 

Once you’ve learned how to set the drag on a fishing reel, you’re ready to start casting. Visit here to learn more about how to cast.