What’s The Proper Drag Tension For A Fishing Reel?

Published by Lucas Simonds under ,
Last updated on: February 6, 2017

setting drag on a fishing reel

One of the most overlooked factors in fishing that can make or break the day is the drag setting of a reel.

I can personally attest to this factor being overlooked by many anglers because I’ve fished for over 30 years and have never once actually tested the true tension of my drag…t has all been based on feel that has been carved into my memory after trial and error.

It has all been based on feel that has been carved into my memory after trial and error.

Worst of all, an improperly set drag can be the core reason that a fish of a lifetime got away with your favorite lure, and that is exactly what I experienced on multiple occasions as I was developing my “feel” for the proper tension.

So what exactly is the proper drag tension for a fishing reel?

And how can someone consistently achieve the proper setting without the trial and error of losing big fish?

This short article and associated video will answer both of these questions for you so that you don’t have to learn the drag setting lesson that hard way like I did.

What Is The Proper Tension For A Reel’s Drag?

After researching the interweb reading many articles and watching videos on this very subject, the recommendations seems to all stay within a narrow range…

The consensus is that a reel’s drag should be set at 20% to 30% of the lines strength rating.

At first glance, this seems to be low since that leaves a lot of strength on the table (especially for those of us who took the time to test out different knots to see which ones are truly the strongest… see yellow section below for knot test results).

But when considering the amount of drag that the water pulls on the line when a fighting fish is swimming at max speed, the low rating make more sense.

Yesterday, I actually tested the drag setting on my inshore reel that was 100% based on trial and error over 25+ years with a scale because I was very curious to see how it actually compared to the 20% to 30% range from the online educators.

Since the line I use for inshore fishing is 10 lbs, the recommended range is 2 to 3 lbs.

So I was pleased to see that my time-tested drag setting is 2.3 lbs, which is in the middle of the recommended range.

Note: If wondering how to handle big fish near heavy structure, then click here to see a trick that has helped me land big snook, redfish, grouper, etc. on light line when fishing around structure.

How To Check The True Tension Of Your Drag

The reason I never checked my reel’s drag is because I always assumed that some fancy equipment was needed so I never bothered doing it.

But that was far from the truth because it actually all can be done with just one piece of equipment that costs less than $10.

Fishing Scale

And it only takes a few minutes.

Once the reel’s drag setting is at the proper tension, then I recommend pulling it out with your hand several times to develop some muscle memory to how the tension feels so that you can accurately set it via hand going forward.

Watch the short video below to see how it’s done:

Conclusion

It is extremely important to properly set your reel’s drag before your first cast because you never know when a fish of a lifetime will bite.

And there’s nothing worse than losing a fish of a lifetime due to something basic like this that we have 100% control over.

Because although this factor seems minimal in the vast amount of factors that have to come together to land a great fish, the drag becomes one of the most important once that fish is hooked.

So if you have not already done so, make sure to truly test your drag to make sure it falls in the 20% to 30%

P.S. – If you think your angler friends would like this, please Tag them or Share this with them… Fish On!

Related Post: How To Get A Hooked Fish Out Of Structure Without Breaking Off

 

Don’t let the biggest fish of the day get off with your lure/hook!

Check out these other popular knot contests to make sure you’re using the Strongest knot for each connection:

  1. Braid to Fluoro Leader Knot (top braid to fluoro connection)
  2. “Loop” Leader to Lure Knot (provides best action to baits)
  3. Monofilament Line to Leader Knot (top mono to mono connection)
  4. Braided Line to Swivel Knot (for using baits like spoons that twist line)

CLICK HERE to get an email sent to you with links to all of our Best Fishing Knot Contests so you can easily store them for future reference… we’ll also send you the results of future contests as they go live!

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6 Comments on "What’s The Proper Drag Tension For A Fishing Reel?"

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Chris
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Chris

This is really helpful, but I have a couple questions about the drag tension on the reel.

Does this mean that once your drag is set before your first cast, you shouldn’t tighten it down or loosen it while fighting the fish?

My other question is, does this drag setting change depending on the what strength your leader is? If you have 20 lb line spooled on your reel, but are using a 15 lb leader, should your drag tension should be set based on the weaker leader?

Thanks!

Jim Meskan
Member

Yes, the drag is tested according to the leader line test. If you run 100# braid main line and 60# topshot floro, then it is the 60# that you do the 20-30% setting to on the drag. Run the line thru the guides and tie off to the scale, with the rod bent as fighting a fish measure the drag setting by pulling up on the rod. The line going thru the guides will add a pound or better of friction to the overall drag final setting. Long range guys may stay right around 28 to 33% max drag strength. It is important to practice your knots and braid to floro connections to have absolute confidence in them and test them at home. The last thing you want to worry about when dealing with a strong heavy fish is your connections failing. Practice makes perfect. As the line is depleted off the spool the drag pressure is going to increase as the spool of line gets smaller and smaller so you may have to back off the drag. Not a place you want to be in. Time on the water and gear selection will prevent this situation. In some situations, in a wide open bite the heavier leaders will work just fine with corresponding heavy drags, then after the first hour the fish can get more line shy and finicky and you won’t get bit unless you go to lighter gear. Always think outside the box.

Chris Edmonson
Member

I’ve never thought about lessening the drag as the spool of line gets smaller. Thanks Jim!

James Scarborough
Member

Good article, Luke, and Jim’s comments are right on as well. I’d make a distinction between light tackle inshore fishing with 20lb test line and below, and offshore fishing – generally with 30lb line or heavier.

With inshore light tackle spinning gear, I generally set and forget the drag. If I need more initial drag to pull fish out of structure, I apply extra force by palming the spool until I get the fish into open water. The only time I may adjust the drag during the fight is when I have a really large fish such as tarpon making long runs. Once my spool is down to less than 1/2 full and the fish is still making strong runs, I may back off on the drag a little and try to use an elevated rod tip and pumping action to apply as much pressure as possible, taking up line as I lower the tip. If the fish is beginning to tire, you can usually begin to regain line using this technique but if the fish begins to run again and strip line, just hold on and let him run. When he stops running, resume the pump and reel technique and begin recovering as much line as possible.

The only time you might tighten drag is if you are in real danger of getting spooled. Even then, it’s better to palm the spool and pump the rod to take up line if the fish will let you. I frequently find that unless the fish is actively running and stripping line, I can turn him and begin recovering line by applying gentle pressure to turn his head, pump the rod with steady moderate pressure, and as I lower the tip, reel in to recover line. Never attempt to take up line on a spinning reel when the fish is stripping line against the drag. All you do is create line twist, not recover line.

Offshore fishing is a bit different. You have your choice between spinning and conventional tackle. In either case, light tackle offshore fishing usually means 20 to 30 lb line. As a rule of thumb, I like to have a minimum of 400 to 500 yards of line on my offshore reels and up to 700 yards if possible. Trolling with light tackle, a smooth drag and large spool capacity are the keys. Most species you’ll be targeting, such as kings, tuna, wahoo and large bull or cow dolphin will make long, smoking initial runs. Sails may also make long runs but more often they make somewhat shorter runs, mixed with aerial acrobatics, as may big dolphin. You need enough line to allow the fish to make long runs against a properly set drag without stripping more than about half to two thirds of the spool. During the runs, just keep the rod tip up and let him go. Don’t get tempted to tighten the drag or try to take up line during the run. I use a light strike setting, about 15% to 20% of line test. Once hooked up, I increase the drag to the proper setting and let the fish run until he begins to tire and slow down.

If the fish is taking too much line, you may need to back down on him or chase him with the boat in order to take up line if getting low on line. Conventional lever drag reels are perfect for this sort of trolling because it’s easy to adjust the drag during the fight as needed. They have a preset drag stop on them. The drag should be set at 20 to 30% with the lever at the preset stop. When the lines are out and I begin trolling, I back the drag off to about 1/2 of the preset. This is the “strike” drag setting. I do this to increase the hook-up percentage without pulling to hook out of the fish’s mouth by too much drag resistance. As soon as I have a hook up, I advance the lever drag to the preset stop. On a really heavy fish, once he begins to tire and allow you to pick up line, you may override the preset by pushing in on the preset stop and pushing the lever forward until you can begin to take up line. Be ready on an instant to back off on the drag if he starts another run. You can make the same drag adjustments on star drag or spinning reels but it takes a lot more skill and practice.

For bottom fishing, particularly for grouper, I usually lock the drag down all the way so I can pull them away from the rocks or other structure, then once I have them in open water well away from the structure and the bottom, I back off on the drag for large fish. For smaller fish, it doesn’t really matter and you can leave the drag locked down to get them up faster. With a little practice, you get a pretty good feel for how much drag you can apply without risking break offs.

Wreck fishing and big game fishing have different challenges and require entirely different techniques, usually with heavier tackle as well, but I seldom do this sort of fishing anymore and won’t go into the techniques.

One other tip with regard to drags, after you return from fishing, tighten your drag before washing off your reels to prevent salt intrustion. Once your reels are clean and dry, back off the drag before storing them. Each time you fish, always loosen the drag until it turns freely and smoothly, then reset it to the correct pressure. Drags have a tendency to stick if you don’t do this.

The last thing I’ll mention is that I’m much more of an offshore fisherman than an inshore fisherman. I use 30 lb braid exclusively on my offshore reels which allows me to get much more line on today’s smaller, high quality reels with good drags and strong frames (such as size 20 or 25 Penn Squalls and Fathoms, Shimano TLD’s, Fin Nor Lethals and Sportfishers, Diawa Saltists, etc.) Any of these reels will handle even the biggest fish I’m likely to encounter in the Gulf of Mexico. For price and performance, my favorites are the Penn Squalls and Fin Nor Sportfishers and those are the reels I use. For offshore spinning reels, my favorites for price and performance are the Fin Not Lethals and Okuma Azores. I don’t like any of the other Okuma reels I’ve used but the Azores line is great.

I generally use a 20 to 30 yard topshot of 30 or 40 lb mono or flouro line, usually finished with a bimini twist and a ball bearing snap swivel, attached with an offshore swivel knot, which is an extremely strong connection. This allows me to change rigs rapidly and helps avoid line twist. The exception to this is snapper fishing because they are much more line shy and don’t require heavy line. For snapper fishing, I use only a mono or flouro topshot of 20 to 30 lb line, with no leader or swivel, and tie my terminal rigs directly to the topshot. There are a lot of advantages to using a topshot and plenty of online articles that explain the benefits, so I won’t go into them here except to say that if you fish on party boats, most ban the use of braided lines unless you use a topshot.

I hope my tips are helpful. Tight lines, all.

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