How to Measure and Set Up Fishing Reel Drag

Fishing is a lot of fun. There’s nothing better than reeling in a big fish for pictures or even a nice fish dinner. On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than hooking a big fish, starting to bring it in, then losing it to a broken line. When you watch experienced anglers, you never see them lose a fish to a broken line. What’s their secret?  It’s something called reel drag.

What is reel drag, and how can I measure it?  Drag is a feature of fishing reels that lets fish pull line from the spool without breaking. The drag works like a brake that lets your reel play out a line at a slow rate. If you have the drag set correctly, big fish can fight and pull, but won’t break your line.

To set your drag correctly, you need to know what type of line is on your reel now. The strength and type of your line will determine how you set the drag. You also need to determine what kind of reel you are using to find the location of the drag adjustment.

Fishing Line Strength

All types of fishing line are rated by the manufacturer with the breaking strength. The breaking strength is listed in pounds. Technically the breaking strength of line should be referred to as X-pound test line. Fishermen usually leave off the “test” phrase and just talk about ten- (or fifteen- or thirty- or whatever) pound line. The test strength of your line is important to know to set the drag.

Monofilament Line

The most common kind of fishing line is nylon monofilament. If you don’t know what kind of line you have, it’s probably monofilament. This line, also called mono, is a single strand of nylon. Mono line is stretchy and will extend when the fish pulls on it. This stretch boosts your drag and helps protect the line. The drag for mono line is usually set at 20 to 25% of the rated breaking strength.  However, the drag can be set differently for different strengths of line. 

  • The drag should be set at 20% of the breaking strength for line up to the 20-pound test. 
  • For line with the rated breaking strength of 30 to 50 pounds, set the drag at 25% of the breaking strength. 
  • For mono with a breaking strength of 80 pounds or more, you can set the drag as high as 30%.

Braided Line

The other common kind of line is a braided line. Braided line doesn’t stretch much at all. Some fishermen really like this kind of line because it’s much easier to feel bites. The disadvantage of this is that the line is stiffer and much less forgiving. For braided line, the drag should be set lower than for monofilament line.

If you’re using braided line, you should check the manufacturer’s website for the actual breaking strength. Braided line is often sold with a poundage rating that reflects its thickness instead of the actual strength. 

For example, braided line listed as 20-pound line has the same thickness as a 20-pound test monofilament, even though the breaking strength of the braided line is higher than 20 pounds. If you set your drag based on the 20-pound thickness, it will be too low and you’ll have trouble landing fish. Confirm the breaking strength before you play with the drag.

  • Braided line with the breaking strength of 20 pounds or less should have the drag set at 15% of the breaking strength. 
  • Braided line 30 to 65-pound range should have the drag set at 20% of the breaking strength.
  • A line with the breaking strength of 65 pounds or more should have the drag set to 25%.

Measuring the Drag

The first step in setting the drag is measuring the current drag. This will be easiest if you have a buddy to help you. In addition to your rod and reel, you need a hanging scale with a hook. Thread the line through the line guides on your rod and tie a loop in the end. Catch the hook of the scale in the loop at the end of the line. 

Once you are set up, have your friend hold the scale while you pull up on the rod like you are fighting a fish. You should wind up with the rod handle at a 45° angle, and the rod bent. This mimics the stress your drag will be under when you catch a big fish.

It’s important to make this test simulate catching a real fish. The flexibility of the rod and the stretch of the line will play into the right drag setting, so keep things as real as you can. Don’t just tug some line straight out of the reel and call that a good measurement. 

Keep pulling until the drag kicks in. At some point, you should hear the reel grind and feel some line pull off the reel. This means the drag is working. The person holding the scale should note the scale reading when the drag kicked in. If the drag initiated at the right weight, you are done. If not, note the weight and adjust the drag on your reel.

Setting the Drag When You Don’t Have a Scale

If you don’t have a scale, you can still successfully set your drag. Look around your house for canned food, milk, or water jugs (milk weighs 8.4 pounds per gallon; water is 8.3 pounds), or other items with known weights. Collect enough items to match your desired weight and put them all in a bag. Tie your line to the bag’s handles and pull away. This will let you set your drag to the right weight.

Also, if you are serious about fishing, you should get a spring scale or a digital scale with a hook. You can weigh fish quickly and easily to keep track of the size of the fish you have caught. (Your stories are also more believable if you can point to a scale to show the size of the fish you caught. Whether you report the weights accurately is entirely up to you….)

Adjusting the Drag

Now it’s time to adjust the drag. The drag adjustment is some type of dial located on your reel. The exact location and setting mechanism depend on the type of reel you have. Here are some identification tips and instructions for each kind of reel.

Spincast Reels

Spincast reels are the most common type, especially in less-expensive price ranges. Spincast reels have a closed face, meaning you can’t see the line spool. These reels have a button on the back that you hold with your thumb to prepare to cast, then release when you want to send the line out. The spool is free while you are casting, then it is set in place with a little crank of the handle. 

To adjust the drag on a spincast reel, look for a dial on top of the reel. It should be just in front of the line release button. This dial is your drag adjustment. Turn it right to increase the drag and left to decrease the drag.

Spinning Reels

Spinning reels hold the line on a spool that you can see under the rod. The axis of the spool is parallel to the rod, and the spool doesn’t move. You cast these rods by moving a wire bail out of the way, holding the line against the rod with your forefinger, then releasing the line as you sling your lure out into the water. You must close the bail to stop the line from playing out further.

Drag adjustment on a spinning reel is a knob or dial on the front of the line spool. On most spinning reels, the knob has a little bar or handle across the front. When you are facing the reel, turn the knob clockwise to increase the drag. Turn it counterclockwise to decrease drag. 

Baitcasting Reels

Baitcasting reels also have an exposed spool for the line, but the spool itself turns. The axis of this spool is perpendicular to the length of the rod. Baitcast reels are cast by using your thumb as a brake on the line spool. 

The drag adjustment for this kind of reel is a star-shaped dial located just inside of the crank handle. As with the spinning reel, turn the dial clockwise to increase drag and counterclockwise to decrease drag.

Lever-Drag Reels

Lever-drag reels are high-end baitcasters that have a lever instead of a star for the drag adjustment. These reels are used for deepwater fishing to catch large fish like tuna, marlin, and barracuda. The lever can be pre-set for maximum drag using a small dial on the side of the reel. Like with other drags, turn the dial clockwise for more drag and counterclockwise for less. This will be the maximum drag the reel will be able to hold.

Unlike other reels, lever-drag reels let you adjust the drag on the fly. The lever has three settings: freespool, strike, and maximum drag. The freespool setting lets the reel spin freely for good casting. The strike setting lets fish pull some line from the reel, while the maximum drag setting lets you put the drag as high as you can safely go. 

Making the Adjustment

Whatever kind of reel you have, the drag should hold briefly and then start to slip when the load on the line hits the desired weight. Play with the adjustment until you get the drag set in the right place. It may feel like you’re setting the drag too low but trust the measurements. Fish will break your line if the drag is set too heavy. It will take longer to land fish if the drag is too low, but you will land them.

Using the Drag to Catch Big Fish

Most of the time, the fish you hook won’t challenge your drag. To land small fish, remember the following steps:

  • Keep the line tight. A slack line can let the fish spit the hook out. Always keep tension on the line to keep the fish hooked.
  • Keep your rod angled up. The curve in the rod helps keep tension on the line. It also serves as a spring that buffers the pulling of the fish and helps protect the line.
  • Reel when you have slack. If the fish heads toward you or does something else that reduces tension, reel like crazy. It keeps the line tight, and it gets you that much closer to landing your prize.
  • Pull when you can. If the fish stops for a moment, lower your rod while you reel in line. Once the rod is nearly flat, pull it up to bring the fish closer. Repeat this when you can, but don’t try to stop the fish if it’s swimming away.

What to Do with a Big One

The steps above work for fish that don’t engage the drag. Those fish can be pulled in by pumping the rod and reeling. That technique won’t work for really big fish. If you hook a fish big enough to fight your drag, you will have to tire it out before you are able to reel it in. For the real trophies, you let the rod and the drag fight for you.

  • Keep the rod up and the line tight. That rule holds for every fish, no matter the size.
  • Reel when you can. If the fish gives you slack, reel in to keep the line tight and bring the fish closer.
  • Don’t fight the drag. If the fish is pulling line off the reel, don’t try to reel it in or pump the rod. Just let the drag work and the fish fight.
  • Know when to break the rules. If the fish is about to get into heavy cover that will break the line, it’s time to use more muscle. You can manually tighten the drag, or just grab the line and pole with your hand. Grasping the line to the pole will increase friction and slow the fish down. If there is a chance the fish will break the line anyway, there’s no use in protecting the line, so pull as much as you want.
  • Get your net or gaff ready. Whatever tool you use to land the fish should be handy so that you can get it under control as soon as it’s close.

When Drag Is Your Enemy

There are situations when the drag works against you. Most of those situations involve a lure that is snagged on something other than a fish. When your hook is caught on something heavy, the only options are pulling the line hard or cutting it. Properly set drag works against really hard pulls by protecting the line from breaking.

When your options are yanking or cutting, pulling hard enough to break the line isn’t so bad. There’s always a chance you can free your lure. If you can’t, at least you tried. You are no worse off than if you had cut your line. 

If you do decide to muscle a lure free of a snag, don’t try to adjust your drag. There is a good chance you won’t get it reset correctly without a scale, so just leave it alone. To free a stuck lure, try these tips instead:

  • Grasp the line against the rod to keep it from pulling off the reel. This will keep the drag from engaging and let you pull harder.
  • Pump the rod up and down rapidly. It’s like fighting a fish, but faster. 
  • Pump the rod side to side as well. Sometimes pulling from a different angle makes a difference and helps the lure slip free.
  • Put the rod down and pull directly on the line. This is the best way to get lots of pressure on the line. Wrap the line around a thick stick, a pair of pliers, or something else hard to keep from slicing your hand on the line. Pulling directly on the line will either dislodge the hook or break the line.

Be careful when you yank a stuck lure. Monofilament line is stretchy, and yanking on it loads the line. If the hook does come free, it will often come flying back at you. It’s best to pull with the rod at a 45° angle (2 or 10 o’clock, instead of noon) so that the lure flies past your face instead of at your face. Flying treble hooks can hook anglers as well as fish. Watch out when you yank on the line.

Don’t Ignore the Drag

Setting your drag isn’t a difficult task, but it’s often overlooked. It’s easy to do, and you only need to set it once. It is one of those things that you can do when you get a new reel (or replace the line on an existing reel) then forget about. Just make sure you leave the adjustment alone after you get it set correctly.

Once your drag is set, try not to mess with it. Too little drag can let fish strip line off the reel and get into heavy cover that breaks the line off. Too much drag means the really big fish will break your line and escape. “The one that got away” is a staple of fishing stories, but a correctly set drag turns that story into “look at this beauty I caught.”

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