The importance of a correct drag setting

[Originally published in the March 2022 issue of Ski-Boat magazine]
By Paul Nixon

A PROPERLY set drag is one of the key things that stands between your fish, and a break-off. Nevertheless, few people set their drags properly, or even understand the nuances of how the drag’s setting affects your level of success. In fact, most of us simply push the leverdrag, turn the star drag, grab the line and give it a yank, and if the line pulls out at our desired tension then we feel the drag tension is A for away.
One of the most frequent mistakes people make when they think about how a reel’s drag works, is believing they’ve set it at a particular level and so it will stay there. Not so. As the line runs off a reel, the spool becomes smaller. As its diameter shrinks, the effective drag setting constantly increases. Think of it like mechanical gearing — reducing the spool’s diameter means it takes more force to make it turn.
The second misconception people have is that when they grab the line just above the reel and pull, that’s the amount of tension it will take for a fish to strip line. Not even close. They’ve forgotten to account for friction.
As the line runs through the guides of a rod bent under tension, there’s a significant amount of friction at play, and that also increases how much force needs to be applied to get the spool turning. Then there’s the line drag underwater and at pace with a fish on one end and boat moving in the opposite direction on the other. As a test, try grabbing the line beyond your rod tip, pull down so there’s an arc in the rod, and you’ll see for yourself just how much harder it is to get the spool moving than it is when you grab the line right in front of the reel.
To properly set a drag, you need to hold the rod in a fish-fighting position and pull from a distance — with a scale, not with your hand. This is best done outside and with someone else holding the scale. Alternatively you can secure it to a fence post or a tree, loop your line around the scale’s hook, walk out about five metres and then put the setup under load and to the poundage you want to set your drag at.
Note: do not try this indoors, as parting off could result in a broken rod tip and the poor family dog running — believe me, I’ve tried.
Putting tension on the drag in this way will give you an accurate idea of just how many pounds of pressure it takes for a fish to peel line.

This is a standard trolling pattern for billfishing but the same will apply while fishing for most gamefish. Reel drag settings must take into account a fast strike that in many instances is not a direct pull from the reel. This results in increased pressure on the reel drag that is over and above the tested rating when pulled directly aft of the transom. As can be seen in the diagram above, the fish often changes direction after the strike. First the rigger has to ‘pop’, then slack line will be taken up, and only then does the strike drag comes into effect. Additionally, the rod itself bends at a different angle which can increase the pressure on line and drag.

According to traditional theory, drags should be set to between one quarter and one third of the line’s rated breaking strength. Why such a small fraction of the pound-test? To account for changing spool diameter, all that friction we talked about, and weak links like knots and terminal tackle. And yes, traditional theory is correct in this case.
If you feel your line is in great condition and your knots are perfect, lean towards a third. If you’re fishing in an area or with a style where heavy structure and getting reefed is a possible issue, maybe lean towards one quarter.
Testing drag smoothness is also of the utmost importance, especially on the lighter line classes.
During competitive fishing, in the 6kg line class tournaments, a common practice was to use a clip swivel to couple one’s line to a loop of line attached to a two litre Coke bottle filled with water — thus a 2kg weight. Then, after adopting a fishing stance, with a bent rod attempt to lift the bottle against the drag.
Once perfected, one could then accurately set one’s drag at 2kg. Through this process you could also feel and observe a lifted weight’s subsidence against the drag and gauge just how smooth the drag was. Any sticking or stuttering of the reel’s drag meant it was up for service and definitely not destined to go fishing for big, fast gamefish.
There’s one more factor to consider in this debate — the fact that most lines are not accurately rated. Manufacturers will often stamp “20 pound test” on line that really breaks at 25 pounds, which makes us consumers think it is really strong line and buy it again. With this in mind, if you want to have a properly set drag, you’ll first need to test the actual breaking strength of the line you’ve spooled up with.
At this point many people are thinking: “Well, I have always set my drags by hand and it’s never been an issue.” That may be true, and perhaps you’ve never broken off during a knock-down, drag-out fight. Break-offs happen to anyone who hooks large fish on a regular basis, but having a perfectly set drag really makes a huge difference in minimising the chances of you telling stories of “the one that got away”.
For you light-tackle guys, whether you’re targeting snoek on ultralight spinning tackle or yellowfin on heavy stand up tackle, having that drag set just so is all the more important.
Of course this method of setting the drag with a bent rod ignores the fact that when a fish strikes, the reel is generally set up in a rod holder in a variation of positions — vertical, horizontal or somewhere in between.
In theory, each of these positions needs a different drag setting on the reel, because on impact the first action is taken up by the rod’s flexibility. Then, after the rod’s bend has been taken up, the drag setting takes effect.
Another factor pertaining to rods in rod holders is that, after setting one’s drag on a straight-off-the-transom pull, you have to remember that most fish hit hard and commence their run at an oblique angle. That loads the rod heavily before the line is ripped off the reel and the drag setting comes into play.
During heavy tackle billfishing the strike setting is even more important, as is having the drag setting markers noted on the reel face.

Making markings on the reel housing is a simple way of reinforcing the drag pressure when action and excitement is at its highest during a fight with a big fish.

Let’s imagine that a big blue marlin hits a lure and starts peeling off line at a furious rate. The allocated angler then has to remove the rod from the rod holder, either to move it to the fighting chair and settle himself into the seat harness, or else couple himself into the standup harness. Neither function is easy if you’re complying with IGFA rules which stipulate that no crew may assist.
Whether you’re using 80- or 130 lb tackle, this exercise requires one to reduce the strike setting to relieve the tension on the rod which makes this transfer possible. Having the drag settings clearly marked helps a great deal when you’re in this period of intense excitement, because you’re easily able to see how much to reduce the drag by and, once harnessed up, to push the drag back up to the marked fight setting.
Some anglers, especially amongst the heavy tackle brigade, believe that one should warm up the reel by vigorously pulling line against a strong drag setting before you set the drag. They also advocate setting the drag using a scale while the rod is in the set rod holder, with a crew member pulling the end of the line a good 10 metres from the rod tip.
Fair comment, but I argue that the warmed-reel drag setting will differ from that of a cold reel which is what it will be after trolling out at sea for a couple of hours.
My recommendation is that one set the drag when the reel is at ambient temperature, and mark the reel face with “Strike” and “Sunset”. I also like to have an indication marker just above free spool and one between Strike and Sunset, thus giving the angler the ability to adjust the drag setting during the fight without thinking too hard.
I know all the skippers, especially the charter skippers, will tell the anglers: “Don’t touch the drag setting until I tell you!” However, most experienced anglers tend to vary drag settings based on the many differing conditions one encounters during a prolonged fight, so it’s best for them to have a clear indication of what the marks are.
Spend a bit of time practising getting this right and it will make the world of difference to your success rate.

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button