How to Set Drag on Spinning Reel – With and Without Scales

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The standard setting for drag on a spinning reel is around 20 to 30 percent of the breaking strain of the fishing line. That’s according to many experts, anyway.

This isn’t an immutable law, and you can use more or less drag, but the 20/30% guide is pretty safe.

This setting ensures you’re unlikely to snap off when a fish races off with the bait, yet there’s still enough resistance to tire a fish.

But how do you set the drag? How do we know if we’re at 20 or 30% of breaking strain if there isn’t a gauge to tell us?

Let’s take a look at setting drag on a spinning reel. Firstly, what is drag?

What is a Drag on a Fishing Reel and Why is it Important

Drag is a variable friction mechanism on fishing reels. Its purpose is to prevent the fishing line from snapping when fish take your bait and throughout the fight.

Its other primary purpose is to tire the fish during a fight, so the angler can play and land the fish. It’s much easier to control, turn, and land a fish when it’s tired.

A drag mechanism is constructed of washers, traditionally oiled felt, nowadays usually carbon fiber, and sometimes ceramic.

A knob on the front of the spool or rear housing of a spin reel allows you to control the level of drag. Tighten the knob to compress the washers for more drag, and loosen for less drag.

The vast majority of reel types have drag systems. Some reels, such as centrepin reels, don’t have drag systems.

In these cases, the angler uses their hand to control the pressure on the spool for line release.

Drag allows us to catch fish whose weight far exceeds our fishing line’s strain. For example, we can catch fish that weigh 100 pounds, with a line class of only 50 pounds or even less.

It’s important to note that a fish will exert far more pressure than its weight during a fight. For example, a 3-pound fish might seem easy enough to land with 6-pound line.

However, the 3-pound fish is putting up 15 pounds of fight, which far exceeds the breaking strain of your line.

If you hooked the 3-pound fish with no drag at all, it’s likely your 6-pound line would snap – and very quickly. With your drag set, the fish can run with the bait, taking line from your spool.

We engage a fish using drag pressure to reduce the impact of the strain the fish imposes. When tired, a fish will reduce the violent head shaking and determined runs it’s been using to escape.

But a drag system is variable, with variable settings; how do we know the appropriate drag settings? And when do we set it?

Setting the Drag on Spinning Reels With and Without Scales

close-up of setting up a spinning reel drag

You should always set your drag before your first cast. I have forgotten quite a few times, and the result is nearly always a lost fish.

You can use scales to set your drag or do it by feel. Most experienced anglers will use feel as repetition has taught them what 20 or 30% of breaking strain feels like.

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Connect the line to a set of scales and add pressure moving the scales in the direction of the guides. Check the reading on the scales, and add more or less pressure to reach the desired reading.

For example, I’m using 10-pound line, and I’d like 30 % drag pressure. In this case, my drag is correct when the scales read 3 pounds.

We’ll usually set or adjust drag by hand or feel when out on the water. Loop the line around your hand and pull away from the reel.

There should be enough pressure for the line to create an indent on your skin – You feel pressure, but it doesn’t require significant effort to engage the spool.

You likely have too much if there’s a very heavy indent on your skin. If the line peels away with little effort or indentation, it’s likely you don’t have enough.

The team at Salt Strong has an easy how-to video that will give you the basics for using both scales and feel.

If you have too much drag pressure, you increase the likelihood of snapping off on hook-up.

There’s also a good chance you can lose a fish anywhere in the fight, as your line weakens via the heat from excessive friction.

Should you set your reel with insufficient drag, there’s a much higher chance that you’ll not set the hooks, as there is insufficient resistance to allow hooks to penetrate.

I take all pressure off my drag when storing reels. This preserves the washers. Sometimes I’ve forgotten to set my drag and hooked up when there’s been no tension at all.

The result can be overrun and a bird’s nest – yes, even on a spin reel. I’ve also lost the drag knob. It was so loose that the vibrations from the violently spinning spool dislodged the knob completely.

Too much or too little drag invites problems. Just remember that you can, and should, adjust the drag during a fight should it be required.

If during a fight you’re seeing the signs of too much friction in the form of heat from the reel or on the guides, it might be best to back off the drag a little and let the fish run with more freedom.

Conversely, if the fish has taken a huge amount of line already and you’re in danger of being spooled, more tension is required to tire the fish faster.

A drag that is too loose can also lead to moments of little or no tension between the angler and the fish.

This is to be avoided as slack line gives the fish a good chance to throw the hooks with head shakes.

By and large, the optimum drag setting for a spinning reel comes from understanding a combination of variables.

This includes the habits of the target fish, your rod action, line type, and fishing location – do you need to pull fish from cover quickly?

All of this comes from experience on the water. Until you’ve got this experience under your belt, my recommendation is to set drags between 25 and 50%. These settings are a pretty sure bet.

How to Set Drag on Conventional Reels

The principles for setting drag on conventional reels are identical to spinning reels. The difference is that the drag mechanism is adjusted via a star knob or lever on the side of the reel.

How to Set Drag on Baitcaster Reels

The principles for setting drag on baitcaster reels are the same as conventional reels.

The difference is that the drag mechanism is just a star knob on the side of the reel, between the handle and frame.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is a Good Max Drag on A Reel?

Drag power is relative to the size of the reel. But reels of the same size will have different max drags depending on the model.

The trend in modern reels is stronger max drags. There are 1000-size spin reels with as much as 12 pounds of max drag.

Even medium-size reels can have a max drag of 30 pounds and more. The big game-style spin reels can have over 50 pounds of max drag.

In my experience, there is no modern reel with bad or underpowered drag. Even the cheapest reels offer excellent drag strengths for their size and applications.

By and large, modern max drag settings are overkill. Except for game fish targets, you’re unlikely to need the max drag setting of your reel.

Should Drag Be Loose or Tight?

Your drag should be neither too loose nor too tight. Both invite problems. Use the settings as advised above for good results.

Too loose is never a good idea. But at some stages throughout a fight, you should tighten your drag well above the 50% initial setting.

When fishing in heavy cover, I will use extra heavy mono with the drag set to max from the outset. Yes, you will lose fish from time to time. But if the fish has the slightest chance of getting back in its cover, there’s zero chance of landing it.

How Tight Should Drag Be on A Spinning Reel?

25 to 50% is an appropriate default setting for most fishing applications. Through experience, we can learn to refine this to optimum levels.

Does Drag Affect Casting?

Your drag setting should have no impact on normal casting. However, ultra-low settings may cause your spool to spin during casting, inviting tangles.

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