How to set fishing reel drag correctly

How to set the drag on a fishing reel

When reviewing the features of different fishing reels, you will often see specification details for MAX DRAG LB. It will normally be expressed as a number in pounds (as well in kgs) and advises the maximum drag capacity for the reel. You can see two examples of this below for a spinning and bait casting reel.


How do I set the drag on my reel


How to set drag on baitcaster


So, what is drag and what do the numbers mean?

First of all, a fishing reel's drag is simply a pair of friction plates inside the reel. When a fish pulls on the line hard enough, the friction is overcome, and the reel rotates backwards. This lets the fishing line out back out, preventing it from snapping. The number provided in the specifications is the maximum amount of force in pounds that can be applied to the reel before the drag gives out.

The main thing is that the drag mechanism on your reel is designed so you can adjust how much pressure a fish feels when it pulls on the line. The tighter you set the drag, the more pressure the fish will feel.

The aim is to set the drag on your fishing reel tight enough so that is exerts constant pressure on the fish to tire it out but can still be bought in without breaking the line or the tackle you are using, such as hooks, swivels and lures.

It is always best to set the drag on a fishing reel before casting for your first fish of the day. Fishing reels are not designed to be adjusted while fishing and trying to do this could result in damaging your reel. Also, adjusting it while fighting a fish and trying to land it can be quite tricky and best to avoid it altogether.

Steps to set the drag on a spinning and bait casting reel

Before you test and set the desired drag for your fishing reel, you will need to know what is the maximum drag amount required. Ideally the drag on should be set at a percentage of the breaking strength of the line you are going to be fishing with. The line's pound test is the breaking strength, which will be on the product label.

The below tables provide a basic guide on the percentage to use for both mono and braided fishing line at different line tests.

Mono Fishing Line

Breaking Strength Recommended Drag
Up to 20lbs 20%
30lbs - 50lbs 25%
80lbs - 130lbs 30%

Braided Fishing Line

Breaking Strength Recommended Drag
Up to 20lbs 15%
30lbs - 65lbs 20%
Over 65lbs 25%

There is a difference in the percentages used for the various breaking strengths due to mono fishing lines being inherently more flexible then braided lines.

To set the drag on a spinning or bait casting reel, the easiest way to test it is by first pulling on the fishing line directly above the reel.

Note: Don't use your bare hands if you are using braided fishing line as pulling it with too much force will cut into your fingers. Instead, wrap the line around the handle of a pair of fishing pliers first.

If the line comes out too easily, tighten the drag a few clicks. If it is really hard to pull out, loosen it a couple of clicks in the other direction.

Most drags tighten by turning to the right, and loosen by turning to the left, though its always best to check the manufacturer's instructions for your specific reel if you are unsure.

This will give you an estimate of your drag tension, however, unless you have many years of fishing experience, this is not the best way to accurately achieve your desired drag setting.

How to set reel drag using a fishing scale

If you are still a beginner and don’t feel that you can judge the force you are applying to the reel accurately, using a small spring scale instead can make it easier.

To use a spring scale, tie a loop in the end of your line and place the loop on the hook of the scale. Secure the handle of the scale to a door or something similar. You can then test how much pull is required before the drag releases and adjust as needed.

There are many different fishing scales available that are suitable to help you set your drag. A popular scale is the electronic Dr Meter fishing scale, which is shown below, and can also be used to easily weigh your fish.

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The video below by Fish Rev gives a quick and simple demonstration on how to test and set your reel drag using the spring scale method.


Once you have set the drag for your reel, you shouldn't have to change it very often, though you can always tighten and loosen it a bit as needed depending on the size of the fish you are catching.

Remember, if you are unsure, it is always better to have the drag a little loose and have to fight a fish a little longer. If you have it too tight you might end up loosing the fish and have another story about the one that got away!

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