How To Set the Drag on a Fishing Reel

New fishing reels come equipped with simple settings that when used properly give you the best overall fishing experience that can be successful as long as they are dialed incorrectly and the user is prepared with a little bit of knowledge of a reel’s built-in Drag system that has become one of the most important settings in fishing equipment to understand. How do you set the drag on a Fishing Reel?


  • Locate Drag adjustment
  • Spin cast-behind handle
  • Spinning Reel-on top of spool
  • Baitcaster’s combined braking system & star-shaped drag adjustment behind the handle
  • Find Line Breakage
  • Reel Drag is set to 20-30% of the breaking strength of the line
  • Pull line out-measure manually or use a Drag Scale
  • Set Drag

Drag systems in fishing reels have advanced unique mechanical designs that will keep line breakage at a minimum and fish from escaping but like all the best fishing equipment in the world, it won’t matter if you don’t know how to use it properly.


Fishing Reel Drag Explained


The fishing Reel Drag system is a control function of the fishing reel.  On a fishing rod, there is a pair of friction plates that are sandwiched together where the line runs through located inside every fishing reel. If the fish pulls on the line hard enough, the friction of the plates is overcome, and the fishing reel rotates backward, letting the line out. This keeps the stress off the line keeping it from breaking.

  • The Spincast’s drag adjustment is usually next to the reel handle. It looks somewhat like a star-shaped knob and may click as you play with the drag. This allows you to hear just how much you’re adjusting.
  • The Spinning reel’s drag adjustment is a circular knob facing out at the front of your line spool.
  • The Baitcaster’s drag adjustment looks like a star and is located next to the reel handle. Turning it clockwise will tighten it and counter-clockwise loosens the drag.

You want to set the drag on a fishing reel before your first cast of the day. The tighter the Drag’s adjustment on the reel the more friction is added and the harder it is for a fish to pull line from the reel. Normally in freshwater fishing, the drag is adjusted before a fish is hooked on the line with some minor adjustments made in between catches.

Experienced Saltwater fishermen can loosen and tighten drag while bringing in larger fish. Learning the proper way to adjust the drag on a fishing reel is key to the success of fishing.  A simple basic formula to figure drag is simply to divide your breaking strength by 4. The result is equal to what your drag should be set at.


How to Set the Drag on a Spinning Reel


setting up spinning reel off 62% - Setting your Drag is an important function of your fishing reel if there is no give on a sudden hit from a fish, then he’ll most likely snap the line and you’ll lose the fish. In another scenario, some fish have thinly covered mouths like Striped Bass or Snook that can be easily ripped out if the Drag is set too tight and again you’ll lose fish.

On the opposite side of that situation, a Bluefish or Shark and any heavy-hitter fish can spool your reel easily if the drag on your reel is set too light. It can also affect your hookset if you’re working a  softer light hitting fish that is nibbling and not slamming your bait. especially in deeper water.

You can use your hand and manually estimate using tension on the mainline about how much pressure is applied before the Drag engages in the reel.  You can use a Drag Scale that measures the pressure described below. If the Drag is too light you’ll be able to pull the line from the spool too easily.  If it’s too tight and you won’t be able to pull any line from the spool. You need to find a happy medium and it’s easy to do on a Spinning Reel. The fishing line is easy to access and it’s pretty easy to gauge the pressure manually for the kind and size of fishing you are doing.


Drag Scale

A Drag Scale can give you a better estimate of where to set your Drag and is very inexpensive. You can pick one up at Walmart for under 10 bucks. Just hook the scale to the mainline and pull. This will show you exactly at what pressure in lb. weight your Drag will engage. What you want it to read is between 20-30% 

So with a 10-pound test line, you need around 2-3 pounds of force before the Drag system on the reel engages. You can add or detract from the formula with any variables you see fit but you can lighten or tighten the drag so that you get exactly what you desire with the Drag Scale. You can use a digital readout scale or a spring scale (such as the sort used to weigh fish). Both have a hook at the end to which you attach your line.


How to Set the Drag on a Baitcaster


Baitcaster Reels are a little more complicated than the Conventional Spinning Reel to dial in and have some extra controls that help manage the overall operation of a Baitcaster  Spool.

Most of these controls help with keeping Backlash from happening which is a fancy term for Birdnesting and controlling the Baitcaster’s Drag. Normally the baitcaster’s drag adjustment looks like a star and is located next to the reel handle.

Besides Drag systems, Baitcaster Reels use Braking Systems and other control combinations that keep tension on the spool during casting and fishing. They work in tangent with the Drag adjustment to create proper drag for each individual reel.

Braking Systems use Pins that can be set inside the reel other have Cetrifical Brake adjustment knobs that are set behind the reel handle.  This knob will prevent the line from running off the reel. Turn clockwise to tighten or counterclockwise to loosen. These Brakes will have a sweet spot that you will find and all you’ll need to do is make small incremental changes with these adjustments will all you need to zero in.

Start by:

  • Turning off the Centrifugal Brake clockwise to shut off
  • Open the Bail
  • Start to loosen the Centrifugal Knob counterclockwise until the line comes off the spool
  • Let the bait end of the line hit the floor or surface you are standing on without the reel Backlashing
  • Then set Drag so that it holds enough tension on the spool but you can still pull the line off
  • Set the Magnetic Brake -best midway between minimum to maximum 
  • Make slight adjustments after you become acquainted with the Baitcaster Reel


The more braking you use the less distance you’ll get on the cast but the more control you’ll have on the reel. The Magnetic Brake will be opposite the Centrifical Brake Knob on the Baitcaster Reel. It normally has numeric settings on a dial-like feature. It applies Braking at the end of the cast and works with the wind and weight of your lure.


How do you Re-Spool a Spinning Reel?

  • Open Bail
  • Tie string onto a spool with an Arbor knot
  • Run the Line through the first Guide
  • Stand over top of the new line
  • Apply resistance as you wind the line
  • Wind at least 100 + yds-1/8 to 3/16″ from the lip of the spool.
  • For Braided line-Use 1 layer of monofilament line
  • Use Uni Knot to tie both together ..…………………………………………………………………………. Read more


Max Drag vs Line Strength


What A Drag: Reel Time Maintenance - The Fisherman

Your drag should be set at a number that is 1/4 to 1/3 of your line’s breaking strength. So if you’re using a 40 lb braid, your drag setting will be between 10 and 13 lbs at strike.

With Mono proper drag setting for:

  • Nylon-mono lines up to a 20-pound test are 20 percent of the breaking strength of the line.
  • For 30- through 50-pound mono, it’s 25 percent of the breaking strength,
  • For 80- through 130-pound mono, it’s 30 percent.

These are basic guidelines. The right drag setting varies according to the fishing variables. A light drag is a right call when fishing light lines in open water, but a considerably heavier drag is required to keep large heavier fish like striped bass, snook, or grouper from breaking off on bottom structures when fishing near piers, bridge pilings, rocks, or over a wreck.

Drag specifications are calculated using a monofilament fishing line. The monofilament line can stretch more than 25% in certain conditions. This stretch hinders hook settings and can hide subtle bites, especially fishing in deeper water.

With braided lines:

  • Up to 20-pound test set the drag at 15 percent of the line’s breaking strength.
  • With 30- through 65-pound braid, set it at 20 percent.
  • With a braided line that tests at more than 65 pounds, go with 25 percent.

Some Braided Lines are stronger than their specs advertise. Fishing in deep ocean saltwater you can back off the drag if fishing from a boat to compensate for increasing pressure on the line. Then as the fish settles down you can increase the drag to where you started. For bigger, heavier fish the more experience the angler has the more they can utilize the drag on the reel to work for them.



What is Gear Ratio on Fishing Reels?

The gear ratio on fishing reels is broken down into 3 classes:
Slow (5:1 or lower) for Spinning reels heavy lures-live bait-crankbait & swimbait
Medium-(6:1 & higher) most common for topwater & uses most baits
Fast (7:1 & higher) for Baitcasters-pitching bass in close quarters, with rapid line recovery .……………………………………………………. Read more


JimGalloway Author/Editor 


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