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Choosing the right drag depends on the fish, tackle, fishing situation and angler skill. Making the right choices will help you land more fish. Let’s take a look at what works best.
By Pete Barrett

"Lock it up!" was good drag-setting advice from a buddy when fishing live bunker near a favorite bridge for big stripers. If we didn’t turn a 30-pounder away from the pilings in the first two seconds, we’d be looking at a frayed line and no fish. At the other extreme, a heavy drag setting on light spinning gear while chumming little tunny will deliver repeated bust-offs as these zippy fish easily snap the line.

Choosing the “right” drag depends on the fish, tackle, fishing situation and angler skill. Making the right choices will help you land more fish. Let’s take a look at what works best.

Many fishermen think of drag as a brake, much like on a car. Apply the brakes, stop the car; apply the brakes, stop the fish. This analogy, however, is incorrect. The application of resistance against the spool is a better description of drag. The drag is not meant to “stop” a fish; it’s supposed to tire the fish so it stops of its own decision.

Drag systems apply spool resistance by rubbing alternating metal and composite washers against one another. Simple drag systems consist of only two washers; the metal drag plate and the composite friction washer. More complex systems depend upon a series, or stack, of alternating metal and composite washers. Conventional reels with a small profile and spinning reel spools usually rely on the stack system of washers, while large profile reels, such as big-game and the best fly reels, use only a pair of large washers.

Heat builds up as the drag washers rub. When targeting long-running, fast fish the heat build-up can be so extreme the washers burn, deform and lose their ability to slip smoothly. Tackle manufacturers go to great lengths to dissipate heat build-up by increasing the size or number of washers, and by their choice of composite washer materials. Sophisticated drag systems also utilize special heat-dissipating fins to pull the heat away from the metal drag washers.

So much thought, testing and research goes into selecting drag materials that most manufacturers will not describe their composite washers it’s a secret they guard carefully. Most drag materials, however, are constructed of a woven graphite-like fabric, or a composite substance. That simple description, however, is like comparing a kid’s string and a tin-can telephone to a high-speed DSL line. Today’s composite drags are smooth, slippery, heat and water resistant, and are capable of delivering superb performance and reliability.

The right drag setting solves several problems. Open water and long-running fish require a different drag than fish targeted close to structure. Large, powerful fish require a different approach than small fish. Light tackle and heavy tackle require other considerations.

Choosing the “right” drag depends on the fish, tackle, fishing situation and angler skill.

For open water, a drag setting of 25 to 30 percent of the line’s breaking strength is appropriate for fish like little tunny in a chum slick, light tackle bluefish, school stripers on the flats or when jigging fall bass and blues in deep water. In each scenario, there’s no structure for fish to wrap a line around, or chafe against. If momentary additional drag is needed, slight finger pressure on the spool will add just enough to help gain line or control a fish as it nears the net or gaff. If the fish surges, remove your hand and instantly return to the original drag setting.

Ultra-light anglers favor a 15- to 20-percent setting. The slightly lighter drag compensates for fish that make extended runs, which decreases the spool diameter and water drag on the line. As in the open-water scenario, additional drag can be applied with finger tips, thumb pressure or the palm of the hand.

With fish that don’t run far, and when fishing close structure such as wrecks, bridges, dock pilings, jetties, rocky areas, channel markers and lobster pot markers. A drag setting of 30 to 40 percent of the line’s breaking strength is appropriate. In each of these examples, the fish are not running far, sometimes only a few feet and it’s essential that they be turned away from the structure before the line gets cut.

In some extreme cases, such as when fishing for giant bluefin in a fleet, or bigeye tuna around pot markers, striped bass around a jetty or bridge, or big tautog on a jagged wreck, drag settings of 50 percent of the line strength may be necessary. Anything less will allow a fish to dive into its hidey hole and pop the line.

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