Why Do Fly Reels Clack?


When you imagine fly fishing, you probably think of a person wading into shallow water, casting a line way out, waiting, and then finally that sweet clicking sound as they bring in a fish. But what is that clicking sound and why is it so ubiquitous to fly fishing?

The “click” on a fly reel comes from the original fly reel known as “click-and-pawl” reels. The mechanics of these reels resulted in a natural click noise as the gear turned against the pawl. Modern fly reels are made differently, but they often include a clicking mechanism for nostalgic purposes.

Click-and-pawl reels are still around and they definitely have their place in a modern fly fisher’s arsenal. But the contemporary “disc drag” reels are far more popular, and any clicking sound they produce isn’t a natural piece of the design.

fly fishing reel up close

What Is a “Click-and-Pawl” Fly Fishing Reel?

The “click-and-pawl,” also sometimes called the “spring and pawl,” is considered the traditional fly reel. This system originated years ago and makes use of an incredibly simple mechanical system that happens to produce a natural “clicking” noise as it works. Let’s break down the pieces of the “click-and-pawl” and where the clicking sounds comes from.

There is a toothed gear attached to the spool of your reel. Above the toothed gear is a small triangular piece of metal called the pawl. This triangle is spring loaded and rests just between the teeth of the gear. The spool spins from the pull of a fish, thus spinning the gear and flicking the pawl, which results in the click sound.

You can imagine the construction very similarly to a large spinning game wheel, like the on wheel of fortune. The pawl is like the arrow at the top of the wheel and the gear flicks the arrow as it passes thus slowing down the spinning.

The drag created by the pawl flicking against the gears is the primary “fish-stopping” power of a click-and-pawl reel. But it isn’t super adjustable.

Click-and-pawl reels aren’t as common as they once were. You can still find them and some people really appreciate the nostalgic charm and simplicity of these reels. The popular disc drag reel has long since taken over as the most popular choice among fly fishers.

Let’s look at the disc drag reel and why some of them click and some of them don’t.

What Is a “Disc Drag” Fly Fishing Reel?

The disc drag system is by far the most popular and common system for fly fishing reels. They offer considerably more control over the drag on the line and can be infinitely more reliable against larger fish. Let’s break down how a disc drag system works and what makes it different from the click-and-pawl described above.

The disc drag gets its name from the pieces of the system. A series of washers, or discs, create friction against the spool as it spins, thus creating drag and “fish-stopping power.”

When a fish gets on the hook and starts to pull, the discs engage and immediately create resistance. This elegant little system is easier to manage and adjust than the click-and-pawl.

There are two different types of disc drag reels out there. They are draw-bar disc drags and sealed drum disc drags. The primary difference between these two reels has to do with whether or not the reel is in a fully sealed housing or not. Draw bar disc drags are typically not sealed and allow you to access the discs so you can lubricate them as needed.

The open nature of draw bar disc drags also makes them susceptible to salt, sand, mud, and debris, so you need to take care with these pieces and clean them regularly. The sealed drum reel is what it sounds like. The reel is fully enclosed/sealed and thus better protected from debris.

Now neither of these designs naturally produce a clicking sound, so where does that come from?

Well manufacturers have chosen to include a clicking component for effectively nothing more than effect. The click is associated with most people’s imagination of fly fishing because it used to be an essential part of it. But with new technology, the click became a piece of the past.

Since there are plenty of fishers out there that appreciate and enjoy the click, but would also like to use the newer technology, many manufacturers have included a sort of artificial clicking mechanism, effectively for aesthetic purposes. The click on a disc drag reel serves no real purpose other than nostalgia and enjoyment.

Should I Buy a Click-and-Pawl Fly Reel?

You can think of the click-and-pawl system the way you might think of a manual transmission car. It is definitely not necessary in our current day and age, but there are some people who really appreciate the mechanics and timelessness of it all.

If you are a serious fly fisher, then it is a great idea to have an assortment of reels at your disposal. The majority are probably disc drags, but you could add a few timeless high quality click-and-pawls to your collection. Maybe they won’t see a lot of use, but they are fun conversation pieces or to show to other fishing buddies.

Now, the click-and-pawl system is a simple machine with very few parts and requires little maintenance. This may appeal strongly to certain fishers out there.

I don’t recommend using click-and-pawl systems for larger fishing trips, but for trout and other small fish they can easily still get the job done.

The pervasiveness of disc drag reels is just hard to avoid. It is the industry standard now and you’ll have to do some digging to find the click-and-pawl that speaks to you. Let’s take a look at some place to find both high quality click-and-pawl and disc drag reels.

Where Can I Buy Fly Fishing Reels?

If you live in a community where fly fishing is common, then it is likely there is a local shop that could set you up with the best equipment around.

If a local shop isn’t an option, there are plenty of online retailers to visit for a great buy.

  • Cabelas: Cabelas is well known and respected for their selection of top notch outdoors gear. They have a great selection of fly fishing reels to match your budget and skill level.
  • Amazon: There is a lot of low quality stuff to be found on Amazon, but if you look specifically at the Orvis brand fly fishing products, you can find a great product at a great price.
  • Trouts Fly Fishing: This Denver based shop specializes in all your fly fishing needs and they have an excellent online store. They carry a wide assortment of brands so you should find something right for you.
  • The River’s Edge: This Montana based retailer sells many of the Orvis reels you’ll find on Amazon, as well as plenty of other great gear.

I recommend avoiding huge box stores like Wal-Mart or Costco. They may offer cheap equipment, but you do get what you pay for after all. It is worthwhile investing a bit more for something you can rely on.

Does the Click on a Fly Reel Matter?

Ultimately, the clicking noise is a piece of the past that has managed to persist. There is something oh so satisfying about the quick clicking as a fish bites onto the line and starts to pull. However, other folks hate the clicking noise and feel like it might alert other fishers to come into their space.

If you like the clicking noise and appreciate the nostalgic idea of what fly fishing once was, then the good news is you have a lot of options to keep that up. If you’d rather have a quiet experience, free of noisy clicking every time you get a fish, then you can also take that in.

Just be sure to check if your disc drag reel contains a clicker or not, and whether it can be disengaged.


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Outdoor Shane

I've been in love with the great outdoors since I was a toddler. Grew up in many parts of rural America, spent my youth camping and in Scouts, and years adventuring in Alaska. I know, love, breathe, and live the great outdoors.

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