During the process of outfitting a customer new to the sport of angling, there was nothing more gratifying than seeing the looks on their faces when I would show them the properties of their new drag system. I would stand behind the counter holding their rig and instruct them to grab the end of the line which usually had the lure attached having shown them how to accomplish that with the improved clinch or Palomar knot. As they were instructed to walk away from me I would incrementally tighten the drag in order to prove a point. When they would look back at me in amazement the lesson was over.

This amazement they displayed was all the more gratifying when it was achieved with their new ultra-light rig loaded with four pound test line. Six pound on a medium-light rig could be even more dramatic due to the pull that drag put to their hand as they attempted to be the ‘fish’ and get away. When they would factor in that a fish has no feet to dig into the bottom of a lake and the brain capacity of a frozen pea, the epiphany was a liberation of sorts. Heavier line does not make for bigger fish.
That’s right; heavier line does NOT make for bigger fish.

If you become an IGFA member, you can browse about their website and you will quickly see what I am referring to concerning this opinion. The number of catches, world class catches, that utilized line lighter than the record fish are innumerable. How was this accomplished? With two things: a properly set and well-maintained drag system and patience. Both of these are quite easy to accomplish once you know a little more information concerning the matter we discuss here.

First and foremost, let us consider the drag system itself. A drag mechanism is usually comprised of several wafers of varying materials, usually plastic, steel, paper-thin fibrous material and/or felt that are stacked like pancakes underneath the ‘knob’, or cap on a spinning reel, between the handle and spool on a bait-cast reel, or a combination of possibilities on a spin cast. Since spinning reels comprise the vast quantity of the working reels out there, catching fish as we speak, this is where we will focus our attention. These ‘wafers’ can be of varying numbers and also vary in quality of the materials engineered to fall within a certain price point. The number of ‘clicks’ one can get in one full revolution of the drag knob before reaching the breaking point of the line of choice can also be a contributing factor to the overall cost.

Right out of the box these drags are ready to hit the water but, over time they will require a bit of attention from you to continually perform as advertised. The number one mistake that anglers make is in the storage. I never ‘store’ my reels with the drag engaged. I learned this lesson the hard way. I don’t enjoy anecdotes very much but please, allow me this one instance. I had a surf casting reel that I dug out and went cat fishing after moving here to Iowa from the East Coast. The drag had previously been set to the breaking point and I had failed to take note of this until a massive flathead took the bait and proceeded to attempt to give me a swimming lesson. No matter how hard I tried to get the drag to back off, those wafers had ‘fused’ and could not accomplish their intended purpose. Fortunately, with my daughter’s grip on my belt and me standing sunken nearly knee deep on a Wapsipinicon River sand bar near Troy Mills, I was able to bring that monster around to my way of thinking and why he was unable to break off remains a mystery to me.

But it woke me up to the first fact mentioned earlier. Never use the drag to break off and then, worst of all, forget that this was done. Due to the lack of proper maintenance this can become a tragic occurrence when attempting to play a fish of respectable size. I wish that I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone say, “The line keeps breaking, I need heavier line.” I could buy a really nice spool of super braid with the proceeds. So, once more, never set the drag to the breaking point and then snap the pole back in order to ‘break’ off. At the least, you will cause issues as mentioned above. At the worst, you quite possibly could break your pole! The weakest link in the chain should be your knot, not your pole. The knot always has less strength than the overall line. Watch the veterans as they break off. They drop their rod tips towards the snag, reel in as much as they can and then, pull as if they’re in a tug of war. I must admit that I’m still guilty of attempting to free a snag by snapping my rod tip in whipping motions that must appear quite comical, but never, ever do I set my drag to the breaking point. The mechanics of the whipping motion belies the drag setting and usually fails the knot at some point, or rescues the lure…infrequently. But still, I do it and look quite silly in the process; of this I am sure.

So, proper maintenance begins with the end of your first season. I will remove the knob over the spool and take a couple drops of light machine oil, or better yet, reel oil and apply them to the top wafer of the drag system that are usually held in place by a paperclip-looking piece of wire. Then, replace the knob and crank it down only in that it engages a few threads of the shaft of the reel so that it doesn’t find a dark corner of the basement to live out the rest of its days. In the spring, tighten the drag down to its proper setting and you’re ready to go. So, what is the proper ‘setting’?

Most pros will tell you, they never set the drag more than 25% of the tensile strength of their chosen line. I personally prefer 50% but then, I don’t make a living at this. Sea Charters, no matter the line strength, will set all their drags on the boat at around ten pounds. Do I need to repeat that? Think that is too light? Here’s a test for you; take an unopened can of soda and hold it straight out from your body. Time your effort and get back to me. I heard a story once of a captain who took a pro football offensive line out for a day of fishing off the coast of Florida. The captain was heard to say that one of these men had ended up in the corner of the boat in the fetal position after battling a tuna for fifteen minutes with a drag that had been set above that ten pound limit. I personally have had battles on my light gear where my arms ached for days afterwards. How are you holding up with that can of soda?

You need to re-think the way you approach this art. The drag is a sandbag, nothing more than that, to the fish. You are placing the ‘weight’ of that drag on the back of the fish. Here’s a test for you: strap on a backpack weighing say, half your body weight and then attempt to run the hundred yard dash. All he knows is that he bit down on something and now, due to the lack of pain receptors in his mouth, he can’t go where he wants to go. Fish do not outwit the angler. They merely turned about and determined to go…this way. They did not suddenly determine they would turn about and swim towards the angler and spit the lure. Don’t give the mental capacity of a fish more credit than it deserves. The task is tough enough without that malarkey. The pulling power of a fish is dependent upon the species but, my drag setting is always dependent upon the line strength. If I set my drag at two, or three pounds on that four-pound line and a forty pounder decides to swim away with my lure, that is weight he did not previously have to contend with and he will wear down with constant pressure. He does not have red muscle tissue or fat reserves to assist his efforts. And, no matter how hard he pulls, each pull becomes weaker than the last, he never pulls hard enough to break that line. I will win the battle just so long as I do not attempt to horse him. If this is your way, I will not dissuade you. But know this; my forty pounder on four pound test was a heck of a lot more gratifying to me than yours was on your eighty pound super braid. This is not rocket science, folks! In the ensuing battles you will get excited. Better a drag set to loose than a drag set to tight. Once the battle begins and the drag is compressed those wafers will not loosen until the pressure is completely gone. Then, and only then, can you loosen it again. You can tighten the drag a couple of clicks and quite possibly get away with it, but too tight? “Gee, I wish I would have had heavier line.” No, I wish that you had set your drag properly.

With a properly set drag, a full spool of good line and a technically advanced rod and the greatest machine in the universe between your ears, you can do this. It isn’t even fair. How do I ‘check’ my drag? With the lure dangling from the end of my pole, I grasp the line at the take-up point of the bale and pull straight away from the reel. If the line snaps off in your hand, it’s a pretty good bet that you need to back off that drag before you make a cast. If it’s too loose, give that knob a click, or two and pull again. You want the drag set according to your line strength and with enough pressure to ensure proper hook-set. Anything over that and you can kiss that fish goodbye. Over time you will experiment with these hard and fast rules and learn your own lessons on proper drag maintenance and settings. I can only hope that the lessons are productive and lead you to bigger and more gratifying fish stories that you can share; especially ones that do not end, “…and then, he got away.” All right; let’s mow the lawn.