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Setting reel drag has many options

July 10, 2010

To a beginner, the drag on fishing reels can be a highly misunderstood tool.

Often I hear the question, "How tight should I set this drag?" or what's the right way to set a drag?

Good question. After many years on the water I set the drag by feel. When casting lures with spinning reels for tarpon, snook or reds, I like a tightened drag to set the hook, then I immediately lighten it. At that point I now have a light mechanical drag to compensate for any sudden bursts of speed. I then use my fingers to lightly cup the spool applying finger pressure to add more drag as needed, then take fingers off, for a sudden burst of energy. This is but one of many techniques used and over the years you will develop your own.

Article Photos

Capt. George Tunison

Saltwater pioneer Lefty Kreh adjusts fly reel drags with his lips: "For tarpon fishing if I can pull the line from the reel with my lips, not my teeth, just my lips, I know it's about right."

If I had a dollar for every time I've seen a novice perform a Roland Martin Super Power Hook Set on a fish of a lifetime, using no-stretch braided lines only to instantly pop the hook or break the leader, I could at least buy a nice family dinner. I quickly grab the angler's fishing rod and inspect the drag. I set the drags carefully on all of my rods before they are used and tell the anglers to not adjust them. Nine times out of 10 the angler has screwed the drag down to the point it's almost locked. Fish off!

Another way to set or adjust drags is to use a simple hand scale. Many offshore anglers use this technique borrowed from Tarpon Bay Tales. Set the strike drag with the rod in a holder, and tie the line to a scale to be precise. The scale should read between 25 and 33 percent of the line strength when the drag starts to slip. Thirty-pound test line should have a strike drag setting of between 7.5 and 10 pounds.

If you set the drag on a light-tackle outfit with the rod tip pointed at the scale, the reading should be about 15 percent of the unknotted line strength. When the rod is in the fighting position friction will increase the drag.

Another question new tarpon anglers always ask is how to rig the rod. Many books have been written on that subject and if you asked 10 different captains you would get at least 10 different answers concerning lines, knots, rods, hooks, leaders, etc. One thing everyone agrees on is the need for a good mono/fluorocarbon leader.

The last tarpon I caught I was fishing for snook with 17-pound test mono simply tied to a hook with no leader and hooked a tarpon very close to 100 pounds. After fighting it for what seemed like a week my arms were shaking. I landed it and the hook simply fell out of its lip and the line was hardly chaffed. This is definitely not normal.

We use 60- to 120-pound test fluorocarbon for all tarpon fishing. Open, clearer water conditions call for the lighter lines. The heavy line is used around structures, such as when bridge fishing. In these tough times fluorocarbon is very pricey, but worth it. Fluorocarbon is close to invisible to fish, has low stretch properties, and excellent abrasion resistance.

When fishing under the bushes for snook or reds this abrasion resistance pays off when you try to budge a big snook out of the trees or around an oyster bar as well as preventing sharp gill plates from parting the line.

Fluoro shines when fishing for tarpon preventing leader failure from rubbing on a tarpon's armor-like suit of scales.

Capt. George Tunison is a Cape Coral resident fishing guide. Contact him at, or Flying Fins Sportfishing.



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