A fly reel is normally operated by stripping line off the reel and wrapping it around the fingers with one hand, while casting the rod with the other hand. You would normally hold the fly rod in your dominant hand and manipulate the line with the other close to the reel, pulling line out in small increments as the energy in the line, generated from backward and forward motions, increases.
Early fly reels often had no drag (a brake to keep the fish from swimming away). To slow a fish, you had to apply hand pressure to the rim of the revolving spool (known as "palming the rim"). But today, fly reels typically have more sophisticated disc-type drag systems with increased adjustment range and resistance to high temperatures created during braking.
Automatic fly reels use a coiled spring mechanism that pulls the line into the reel with the flick of a lever. Automatic reels tend to be heavy for their size, and have limited line capacity. Automatic fly reels peaked in popularity during the 1960s, and since that time have been outsold many times over by manual fly reels.
Consult the fly reel instructions to see if your fly reel model is reversible. Most fly reels, because of tradition, come set up to retrieve with the right hand. The fly reel's line guard and the drag system will be set accordingly. If conversion is possible, the manufacturer will supply conversion instructions. A small screwdriver is usually the only tool you will need for the conversion.
Decide which hand you will use to reel in the fly line. Fly fishing tradition has usually dictated cranking the reel with the hand used to do the fly casting. However, this requires switching the fly rod from the left hand to the right or from the right hand to the left. Using one hand to fly cast and fight a fish and the other hand to operate the fly reel has more advantages than the traditional switching-hands method. I believe it is almost always better to crank the fly reel with your free hand (the left hand for right-handed casters and the right hand for left-handed casters).
When the fly reel is set up for the hand you choose, attach the reel to the reel seat on the fly rod's butt section. Make sure the fly reel is hanging below the rod, and the reel handle is on the correct side for the hand you have decided to use to crank the reel. The fly reel's line guard should face upward.
Original article written by Dave Whitlock (adapted for this use). Courtesy of Fly Fisherman Magazine
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