How to Set the Right Drag on Fishing Reels

How to set the right drag on fishing reels is a crucial skill that every angler should master. The drag system allows you to control how much resistance a fish feels when it pulls on the line. If it’s too loose, you risk the fish taking too much line and escaping. Too tight, and you could snap your line during a fight. Here’s how to adjust the drag on different types of fishing reels to enhance your fishing success and possibly learn something new even if you’ve been fishing for years.

  • Baitcasting Reels: Adjust the drag by turning the star-shaped wheel next to the handle. Tighten by turning clockwise and loosen by turning counter-clockwise.
  • Spinning Reels: Find the drag knob at the front of the spool. Set the initial tension by opening the bail and pulling on the line, adjusting the knob to achieve moderate resistance.
  • Spincast Reels: Locate the drag control, typically a dial on the side or a wheel in the handle. Adjust it while pulling on the line to test the tension, setting it suitable for smaller fish.
  • Fly Fishing Reels: Start with minimal drag to avoid line breakage. Incrementally increase the tension using the adjustment knob, testing by hand until the desired resistance is achieved.

Understanding Pound Test

The term “pound test” refers to the strength of fishing line, but it’s crucial to realize that a fish weighing 25 lbs doesn’t necessarily exert 25 lbs of force directly. Growing up I never really understood how one could catch a 25 lb fish on 10 lb test. The reality is that a fish that size is not in a tug of war battle with you exerting force equal to its bodyweight. The drag system is designed to help manage and dissipate the force exerted by a fish, allowing you to fight and control it without breaking your line. Ideally, the drag should be set to slip at about one-third to one-half of the line’s breaking strength. This setting helps to tire out the fish gradually while minimizing the risk of line breakage.

How to Fight a Fish Using the Drag

Fighting a fish effectively involves more than just reeling it in; adjusting the drag during the battle is key. When a fish strikes and starts to make a strong run, a properly set drag will allow the line to feed out smoothly, preventing snapping from sudden, forceful pulls. As the battle continues, you might need to adjust the drag based on the fish’s behavior and fatigue level. Increase the drag slightly as the fish tires but be ready to loosen it if the fish makes another strong run. Using the drag correctly is the reason why 100 lb fish can be landed on 20 lb test if you are an experienced angler and utilize drag correctly.

Adjusting Your Drag Based on the Species or Location

Different fishing scenarios require different drag settings. When targeting larger, more powerful species, a tighter drag might be necessary to adequately manage and control the fish. In contrast, lighter settings are better for smaller or more delicate species to prevent overpowering and snapping the line. The environment also plays a role. For example, in fast-moving waters, a tighter drag can help maintain better control of the line and the fish. Conversely, in open and deep waters, you might opt for a lighter drag to allow the fish more room to run, thereby using the space and the drag system to tire the fish gradually.

Drag Adjustment examples

I use a variety of reels and fish species all along the size spectrum. Landing them efficiently and effectively is going to be based a lot on the drag system that I am using. Let’s explore specific examples that illustrate why different fish require different approaches.


Known for hiding around structures like logs and lily pads, bass often require a tighter drag setting. This ensures you have enough control to quickly pull them away from potential snags where they could wrap the line and break free. It’s crucial to have a responsive setup that allows you to adjust quickly as the situation changes, minimizing the risk of losing a fish due to entanglement.

Goliath Groupers

These massive fish often reside near bridges or jetties, places filled with sharp edges and strong currents. When targeting goliath groupers, it’s imperative to use a very tight drag setting right from the start. This power helps to pull the fish away from structures immediately after the hook set, preventing them from diving back into the rocks or pylons where the line might get cut or the fish could break off.


Known for their spirited fight and incredible stamina, tarpon require a different strategy. Initially, a moderate drag setting is ideal to avoid breaking the line with their first explosive jumps and runs. As the battle progresses and the tarpon starts to tire, gradually tightening the drag can help in wearing them down effectively. This careful management ensures that the fish is fought long enough to exhaust it, making it easier to handle by the boat.

Setting the Drag on a Baitcasting Reel

How to set the the right drag on fishing reels: Baitcaster
  1. Identify the Star Wheel: This is the primary drag adjustment component on a baitcasting reel. It’s located right next to the reel handle.
  2. Adjusting the Drag: To increase the resistance, turn the star wheel clockwise. To decrease it, turn it counter-clockwise.
  3. Testing the Setting: Before attaching the reel to the rod, pull the line directly from the reel to feel the resistance level. Adjust as necessary until it feels right for the fishing conditions and target species.

Adjusting the Drag on a Spinning Reel

How to set the right drag on fishing reels: Spinning reel
  1. Locate the Drag Knob: On most spinning reels, the drag adjustment knob is located on the top of the spool.
  2. Making Adjustments: Turn the knob clockwise to tighten the drag, adding more resistance. Turn it counter-clockwise to loosen it.
  3. Check Your Work: Open the bail, and pull on the line after each adjustment to ensure the drag gives way under the right amount of pressure.

Alter the Drag on a Spincast Reel

How to set the right drag on fishing reels: Spincast reel
  1. Finding the Drag Control: Look for a dial or a wheel, usually found on the side of the reel or incorporated into the handle.
  2. Adjusting the Drag: Rotate the dial or wheel to set the desired tension. This might require trial and error to find the perfect setting.
  3. Test and Retest: Pull on the line from the front of the reel to test the drag. Adjust until achieving a balance between too loose and too tight.

Tweak the Drag on a Fly Fishing Reel

How to set the right drag on fishing reels: Fly reel
  1. Identify the Adjustment Knob: This knob is usually located at the center of the reel. Its size and shape can vary, but it’s typically easy to access.
  2. Make the Adjustment: Rotate the knob to increase or decrease the drag. Start with a lower setting to prevent line breakage.
  3. Continuous Testing: Unlike other reels, fly fishing requires frequent adjustments based on the fish’s actions, so practice adjusting quickly and efficiently.

Bonus Tip: Using Side Angles with Drag

When fighting a fish, the position of your rod plays a crucial role in exerting control and pressure. While many anglers might instinctively pull the rod straight up, especially when a fish dives or fights hard, holding your rod out to the side can often be more effective. This video does a great job demonstrating the advantage of using side angle pressure.

Using Rod Angles to Fight Fish More Effectively

Why Angle the Rod? Angling your rod to the side, often referred to as the “side pressure” technique, leverages the rod’s flexibility and strength to apply more consistent and distributed pressure on the fish. This method not only helps in managing the fish’s movements and runs but also maximizes the efficiency of your drag setting.

How to Apply Side Pressure:

  1. Adjust the Drag: Before you hook a fish, ensure your drag is set properly. It should allow the line to give under too much pressure, preventing breakage.
  2. Hold the Rod Horizontally: Once you hook the fish, instead of lifting your rod straight up, keep it at a horizontal angle to the water. This position puts additional side pressure on the fish and can tire it out more quickly while minimizing the risk of snapping your line.
  3. Use the Entire Rod: By holding the rod horizontally, you use the length and bend of the rod to absorb the forces exerted by the fish. This tactic spreads the stress along the entire length of the rod rather than concentrating it at the tip.

Conclusion: Why Correct Drag Adjustment Matters

Setting the drag correctly is not just about keeping the fish on the line but also about ensuring the longevity of your reel and the line itself. Proper drag setting can be the difference between a trophy catch and a broken line. Always remember to re-check and adjust your drag as necessary, especially after catching a big fish, as the tension can change.

Understanding how to correctly set the drag on your fishing reel can transform your fishing experience, making it less frustrating and more productive. Practice regularly, and don’t be afraid to make adjustments based on the type of fish you’re targeting and the conditions of the water. Remember, the right drag setting could be what stands between you and the catch of a lifetime. Happy fishing!

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