Science Behind The Fight: Part 3 – The Reel Drag
By: Phil Foo
Every angler will at one time or another hope to catch that huge, huge, huge fish. And when that trophy fish does take the bait or lure, he or she will need to put in everything learned or experienced in order to subdue the fish. Of course I am only assuming that all anglers hope to catch such a fish. I have yet to meet an angler who says otherwise.
[ My rod was bending like crazy. The drag was at the max. Boatman did not give chase… ]
To catch such a fish, the angler must know how to use his or her fishing tools efficiently. Needless to say, if the rod, line, reel, hook, etc. is not made to do battle with a brute that can exert pressure way more than what the fishing tackle can manage; the battle is over even before it started. Yes, this happens. I believe most anglers will experience such an incident at least once in their fishing life.
A hard fighting fish pulling out lines at very high speeds.
Here’s what happened to me while fishing on a small boat just off Tioman Island, east coast – Peninsular Malaysia. One of the activities offered by the resort that I was vacationing at was a 3 hour fishing trip together with a fishing guide (who was more of a boatman than a guide), for a price. I cannot remember how much I paid back then. This was easily 20 over years ago.
My wife and I hoped onto a small motorboat and we headed off on our short fun fishing trip. The fishing spot was not far from the resort. We could still see the resort from our fishing spot. Anyway, we started fishing with an Apollo rig and we caught a good number of threadfin breams (Nemipterus japonicas), or kerisi, as known in the local Malay language.
Using the drag to tire out the fish. But note that high drag pressure also affects the angler.
The medium rated fishing tackle I had with me was overkill for threadfin bream fishing. After a while I decided to do drift out a live bait using one of the breams that was caught. It did not take long before a fish took the live bream and my rod bent for mercy. I took it off the rod holder and waited for the fish to stop. It did not. Line was going out fast, so I tightened the drag. This did not do anything to stop the fish. As I saw the backing line coming up, I embraced myself for the line to burst. The fish stripped my spool bare.
Should one max out the drag?.
Well, there was nothing I could do. My rod was bending like crazy. The drag was at the max. Boatman did not give chase. He looked surprised and sat there with his cigarette looking at my sorry attempt at stopping the fish. I then asked him what fish he thought it was, he didn’t know but said that it could be a sailfish. There was no way I could have stopped a sailfish if it was indeed a sailfish. My fishing tackle was not made to handle such a fight.
The Reel Drag
This brings me to this article where we talk about the reel drag. How does the drag help us fight the fish? The drag is made up of drag washers. Drag washers are primarily made of felt and carbon. There are reels that use felt washers only. There are reels that use carbon washers only. There are reels that use both felt and carbon drag washers. Other parts of the drag include washers made of steel (usually stainless steel), and also titanium for higher end reels.
A reel drag that uses only felt drag washers, and a drag system that uses a felt drag washer and a carbon drag washer.
A drag knob allows the angler to control the drag pressure by tightening the drag or loosening the drag. The turning of the drag knob presses the washers tighter together against the spool, thus creating more pressure – harder for the spool to spin. Turning the drag knob in the other direction loosens the pressure. This is of course something most anglers know. But here is the question… is maxing out the drag more efficient?
The drag control knob on a spinning reel.
What happens when we max out the drag of a reel? Needless to say, the pressure exerted will be at the highest the reel can dish out. That seems awesome, doesn’t it? Well, there are other things to look at. There are side effects too. That said, let’s take the fishing rod, lines, and terminal tackle out of the equation. We will focus instead on the reel and the human side of the fight.
The Jerky Horrid Feeling
Maxing out the drag of a reel can cause a few issues. One of them is the jerky horrid feeling as the spool spins. The term used in the angling world is sticky. Fish long enough and you will hear anglers say things like “this drag is sticky,” or “this reel is sticky.” Usually a reel is smooth until the drag is locked at the maximum but there are drag that are sticky even at low drag pressures. A sticky drag means that the spool jerks as line is being stripped by the fish. These jerkiness causes a fluctuation in pressure and the sudden high pressure can break lines. Also, such fluctuations in pressure can cause the hook to be dislodged.
The stardrag of a baitcasting reel with the gear ratio printed on it.
Getting In A Jam
Another issue is the jamming of the reel’s drag. As the spool spins, heat is generated due to friction between the spool and the drag washers. The spool and drag system gets really hot especially when the drag is high and the fish is a fast and powerful running fish like the sailfish and marlins. The heat can and has caused reels to jam. I have seen reels get jammed up while in battle and that really sucks.
Bent Main Shafts
This is more of a spinning reel issue although it can happen to baitcasting reels, but extremely rare. Spinning reels come with a main shaft that holds the spool and is controlled by the angler via the reel handle, and some gears. Overpowering the reel with high drag can cause the main shaft to bend especially on reels with a weaker shaft. When pressure is on, the spool is actually pulled away from the middle. This usually happens with reels whose drag system has been modified to provide higher drag pressures.
The mainshaft with bearing and washers on it.
The higher the pressure, the more it is being pulled outwards. If the rotor is stronger that the shaft, the shaft will bend. All it takes is a slight bend to render the reel a “goner.” The other result can also be a damage bail-arm. Hence the reason for reel manufacturers to balance the rigidity of the different parts of the reel. Anyway, always balance out your tackle when fishing.
Yes, you read the subtitle correctly. This happens with cheap reels. At one of the resorts that I used to work, the Financial Controller decided against my recommendation and bought cheap reels instead, for the resort. These were the big spinning reels made of low quality materials. During one of the fishing trips, a guest got a shock when the spool burst while he was fighting a fish. The boatman helped get the fish on board but the guest was not happy. I too would not have been happy.
That was the first time I saw a burst spool. The spool looked like solid metal but it was actually low quality metal that cracked easily under pressure. The second time I saw a burst spool was with one of these reels too – same brand and model. This time I was fishing with it. I was trolling a lure and suddenly the rod bent. I took it out of the rod holder and couldn’t reel in line. Line was not going out either. Just the rod bending. I then looked at the reel and noticed that the spool had burst.
The reel drag without the drag knob.
The Financial Controller learnt his lesson. Within two to three months all the reels bought were damaged beyond repair. We then got them replaced with good quality reels that lasted for years. Here is a tip, if you are fishing on a lower budget, always save up and get a good reel. Unless you are fishing small table size fishes in ponds, don’t waste money on cheap low quality reels.
In short, maximizing or locking your drag is not efficient for fishing. We have only covered issues that may and can happen to the reel. We have not covered the human aspect yet. We will do so in the next issue. But even without touching on the human aspect, one can surely tell that even if any of the above were to happen, it will put a dent in your fishing trip.