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Deciphering fishing tackle code - what is drag?

By Nicky SindenNZ Fishing World
Deciphering fishing tackle code - what is drag?

Understanding drag isn’t a fashion concept referring to men in women’s clothes. Getting deeper into the understanding of rod and reel terminology can help the beginner get the most out of their gear.

Fishing terminology can sometimes be a bit bewildering to the new comer. This article focuses on reel drags and rod ratings to help the beginner get a better grip on their fishing gear and learn to use their tackle to its full potential.

Understanding your drag How much drag do you want? How much drag do you need? How do we quantify the correct equation between drag pressure, rod weight and line ratings? These are all questions that fishos ask themselves.

These days it seems that everybody is beefing up their reels to give more grunt to their kit. To get a full understanding of the drag system, let’s take it back to the old school.

Many moons ago, before the age of drag systems in reels existed, we had an issue where the energy exerted by the fish was applied directly to the fishing line. With nothing to stop fish pulling the line off the spool, except the angler’s fingers, results could often end in either a snapped line or a reel with a bird’s nest.

When fishing over safe structure like sand, it’s not necessary to run the drag at the high end of its range – unless you are in danger of losing all your line on a huge fish. 

In an attempt to give the fishermen the upper hand, a system was developed which used friction to slow the line from leaving the spool; the almighty drag system. This was bad news for fish and great news for anglers.  

Fishing reel drag systems work very similarly to the brakes in a car. And just like cars, there are lots of different brands out there. Every brand and model has a drag system that is unique in its characteristics for producing friction, otherwise known as drag pressure.

Most fishing reels use drag washers made from various materials such as felt, cork, carbon or a cross woven carbon graphite. These are matched up with metal drag plates, which help to apply friction evenly.

I wish I could quantify my drag settings according to species or style of fishing. Unfortunately it is not an exact science with many variables and will always boil down to angler preference.

The fishing environment also has a role to play in how much or how little drag to apply. When structure or foul is not an issue, the brakes on the reel (drag) can be backed off allowing the fish to run and tire. This may mean that the fight is longer but there is more chance of boating the fish and less chance of the hook pulling.

For example, when catching a swordfish using XYZ braid, you may back the drag off to say 8kgs, possibly resulting in a 5-7hour fight. The end result may push the limits for that fish, remembering that too much drag may result in the hooks pulling out.

Different types of drags in reels

On spinning reels, the drag is usually located on top of the spool with some models sporting a bottom (rear) drag. You simply turn the dial in a clockwise motion to engage the mechanism, which increases your stopping power. Inside your reel this looks like a series of disc layers made from composite materials.

On overhead reels, when starting the lever vs star drag conversation with many fishos, it seems that the lines here are fairly blurred among anglers.

Star drag reels operate much like the majority of spinning reels. As you tighten your star dial, cupped washers compress like a spring, which in turn compress your metal drag plate against your drag washers.

While fighting a fish with a star drag reel, it is up to the angler’s instincts and skill to know how to set your drag correctly or adjust it during a fight. Knowing the breaking strain of your line and having the correct “feel” for what a fish is doing is imperative to using a star drag reel to its maximum potential. Quality star drag reels offer smooth reliable drag and are a preference for many experienced fishermen.

Lever drag reels are great for having the ability to pre-set your drag. They also have a very large drag range (minimum setting to maximum setting) making them popular from big game fishermen to everyday snapper fishermen.

The progressive drag control makes them perfect for precise adjustments during a long and complicated fights with big pelagics like marlin and tuna.

The term sunset is used when you push the lever drag to the maximum setting during a fight. Interestingly, this term came from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia because at sunset the sharks would come out after the marlin. In the last minute of a very long fight, just before dark, you would give it everything you’ve got by pushing the drag all the way before the sharks arrived and attacked your fish.

Does size really matter?

When understanding what rod to use for your fishing, there are a few different factors to be considered. A lot of it comes down to how it feels for the angler. A tall person may like to use an extra tall rod while snapper fishing, which helps if you are casting but that’s not to say that his mate doesn’t prefer a shorter rod for its accuracy.

For fishing styles such as jigging, shorter sturdier rods will be used to control the jig and make the jig dance through the water, imitating an injured bait fish.

Kilo ratings for rods are measured by the weight measured off the tip of the rod. Ratings on a jig rod, such as 200-400g, refers to the jig size on a jigging set up.

 Rod power is the amount of energy it can accumulate and give back. Jigging rods are designed to be short for hard stand up fights putting as much pressure on the fish and as little stress on the angler.

Sometimes rods are given a PE rating (poly-ethlyene line) and this usually refers to a diameter measurement of the line. The higher the PE rating (6, 7, 8) the stronger the line and rod will be. Jig rods will usually have a rating from PE3 all the way up to PE8 in NZ.

An easy way to figure out the pound rating for the rod is to multiply the number of the PE rating by 10. For example, a PE5 rated rod matches 50lb braid. This is a good general rule, however some manufacturers specialise in producing low diameter, high strength lines. Say, a line rated at PE4, which actually breaks at 55lbs instead of 40lb.

Rod power is the amount of energy it can accumulate and give back. This is known as either the power value or the rod weight. This is determined when the rod is built and then tested before going to market.

A heavy action rod is designed to fight bigger, stronger fish as it will have less bend and more power. Game fishermen use these rods to catch swords, marlin and some big bottom fish such as hapuku and bass.

Medium to medium-heavy action rods are general all-purpose action rods created for multiple styles of bottom fishing and top water. They have a more consistent bend, indeal for mid-range fishing (8kg-15kg) set ups, which can be used for snapper, kingies or smaller hapuku.

Light action rods have a lot of bend making them desirable for use with light lines. Fishermen will often look for a challenge and try to catch bigger fish on light tackle.

Rule of thumb

A general rule of thumb when it comes to mono is to match the line rating you want to fish, to the rod.  This will allow you to get optimum performance from your set up.  For example, a  7’ 6-10kg boat rod is designed to fish 6, 8 or 10kg line most effectively.

Once you have chosen your line weight you should make sure your reel is designed to fish through the apropriate drag range. The fighting drag for most situations is a third of the line rating. That would mean a rod rated for 10-15kg line would be paired with a reel that has its drag set at 3.5 - 5kg. This means it would start to give line when 3.5–5kg of pressure was applied.

Some rods are designed to fish a range of line strengths, other rods are designed to best fish a single line strength. Rods rated for a range of line strengths are popular because they can have several uses targeting several species or situations - a 2-5kg spin set up is ideal for catching baitfish, straylining for snapper in shallow water or targeting trout in freshwater.

Some fishermen however will prefer to fish a rod that is meant for one line strength or purpose and safely fish it to its full potential. These tend to be situations where anglers are targeting world records with specific line classes or using either very heavy or very light lines.

Untangling the terminology will help you better understand your gear and know how to get the most out of it.

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