Good fishing can sometimes be a ‘reel’ drag

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One morning in late April last year, I launched my kayak on the Juniata River in hopes of finding some big pre-spawn smallmouths still on the prowl. My first stop was a large pool that has produced its share of lunker bass in the springtime.

I prefer to fish this spot from the shore, so I beached my boat and picked up a baitcasting outfit rigged with a soft-plastic tube jig. The rod was a 6¢-foot Bass Pro Shops Carbonlite medium-light action with a Lew’s Speed Spool LFS Series reel spooled with 10-pound Berkley Fireline braided line and an 8-pound monofilament leader. I put that combo together in the fall of 2016, and it instantly became my preferred outfit for fishing tube jigs for smallmouths.

I love fishing jigs on braided line because of the extreme sensitivity it offers, allowing me not only to feel the lure on the river bottom but also to detect even the subtlest bites. On my first cast, I felt the tube settle on the bottom and a second later the sharp tick of a fishing picking up the lure. I set the hook hard and immediately felt the resistance of a big fish on the line.

My excitement of battling a trophy smallmouth quickly faded as the fish took off like a runaway train, peeling nearly 100 feet of line from the reel in the process. No freshwater fish fights harder for its size than a smallmouth bass, but even a state-record smallmouth wouldn’t have that kind of horsepower. I was attached to a big carp. After a 15-minute tug-of-war, I beached the ugly bottom feeder. It was 32 inches long and weighed just over 17 pounds on my digital scale.

Catching sizeable carp on tube jigs in the springtime while fishing for bass is not uncommon, especially in that exact spot. Several years ago, I landed one there on spinning tackle that measured 36 inches and probably weighed close to 30 pounds.

In 2017, I caught one on that same baitcasting outfit that measured 34 inches and probably weighed 20 to 25 pounds. Landing bruisers like those on light tackle takes a good measure of patience to tire out the fish with steady pressure without getting too heavy handed and breaking it off. The key factor in them was using reels with good drag systems and having the drag set properly.

I’ve fished with plenty of folks who never seem to give any thought to the drag on their reels — until they hook a big fish. That’s probably because the drag is rarely a factor for playing and landing the average-size trout, bass or panfish we usually catch. It’s when a fish with some size and strength comes along that the circus starts.

Usually the drag is screwed down too tight or functions erratically, allowing the fish to tear the hook loose or break the line, maybe even the rod. Sometimes, the drag is way loose, and the fish peels line from the spool while the panicked angler cranks the reel furiously for no gain.

When you set the hook on a big fish, there is no better feeling than knowing the drag on your reel is set correctly and working properly. On my spinning reels, I like to adjust the drag so that the drag might burp just a little at the end of a solid hookset. This allows me to set the hook with authority when necessary but not snap the line in the process. When in doubt, I’ll adjust the drag a tad on the loose side rather than a little too tight and then tweak it as I fish to get it dialed in just right.

The drag adjustment on most spinning reels is on the front of the spool. I have long preferred spinning reels with the drag adjustment knob on the back end of the reel. On rear-drag reels, the drag system is built into the drive train of the reel, which I believe functions better and more reliably than the drag system built into the reel spool.

Adjusting the drag while fighting a big fish is also much more convenient on a rear-drag reel. Unfortunately, good rear-drag reels are getting more difficult to find. For almost 10 years, my favorite spinning reel has been the Shimano Spirex 2500 or 4000 series, but Shimano has recently discontinued the rear-drag model of this great reel.

On most of my baitcasting reels, I tend to set the drag quite a bit on the loose side. My thinking behind that strategy is when setting the hook, I can always clamp my thumb directly on the spool to provide all the power I need. Then if a big fish makes a powerful run immediately, I can simply lift my thumb and let it take line. During the fight, I can also thumb the spool for power once again when I need to apply pressure with the rod. The star drag control on a baitcasting reel is also easy to adjust while playing a fish if necessary. Just remember that turning the star counterclockwise tightens the drag while clockwise loosens it.

Don’t overlook one of the most important features of any quality fishing reel. Make sure you know how to use the drag on your reels and to keep it adjusted properly. I just might save you the fish of the year or even a lifetime.

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