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While conventional wisdom with a reel’s drag is to set it and forget it, under certain conditions and scenarios there is a case for adjusting it throughout the battle.
By Roger Rosenthal
Tags: surf
There are two camps when it comes to adjusting a reel's drag mid-fight: those who leave it alone and those who constantly adjust it as needed. But who is right in their approach?

At the beginning of my surfcasting career I spent years learning the conventional wisdom of the sport. One of the lessons learnt was that the reel’s drag should be set at a percentage of the lines breaking strength. The recommendation was for one third the line’s rated breaking strength. So the drag pressure for a 15-pound line should be set at five pounds. The other piece of advice I repeatedly heard was to leave the drag alone once you set it.

It may seem odd to have a line that breaks at 15 pounds and then only set the drag for five pounds. You are losing two thirds of the line’s stopping power. The reason the drag is set at one third of the line’s breaking point is that when the fish is out far and a lot of line is off the reel and in the water the pressure on the line increases. This means that the one third pressure you set when the line was on the spool may now be significantly more. So in theory, to compensate for this added pressure you need to lower the drag setting.

I pretty much followed this advice until I began to wetsuit shallow boulder fields. When encountering big bass in these conditions too loose a drag often spells disaster. Large bass are heavy and powerful swimmers. I found that when I set the hook with the “correct” drag setting the drag slipped. This meant I was getting poor hook penetration on the set. Even if I got an adequate hook set there arose the problem of controlling the fish. A large bass will dive toward the bottom looking for obstructions on which to break the line. If you cannot control the fish to some extent you may well lose it.

What I learnt was to keep a far tighter drag than is normally recommended. I would set my drag as tight as I could, but just short of locking it down so I did not get pulled off an unstable platform by a big fish.

The risk now becomes one of not using the drag at all for its designed purpose. Drag is meant to be set so that you avoid breaking your line with a fish on while simultaneously tiring the fish by making it pull against the drag. With the advent of super lines with much higher breaking points for their diameter it becomes possible to fish a very tight drag without line breakage.

However, as is widely known, super lines are not as abrasion resistant as monofilament lines. So what happens when a very tight super line passes over a sharp rock? It’s like a hot knife through butter. To encounter a truly large fish, have the drag screaming and then to lose the fish is one of the bitterest moments in surfcasting. It is certainly one I want to experience as little as possible.

There are two contradictory solutions to this problem. One solution is to go with an even stronger test line and lock down the drag. The second is to keep using a pound test line that both casts well and allow plenty of pressure on a fish when need be. However, instead of using a very tight drag when a fish brings you into the rocks I find it helpful to make the counter-intuitive move of lessen the drag. When you lessen the drag there is little pressure on the super line. Super line lines tend to be slick. Without pressure there is no friction as line slides along the rocks without fraying. Usually the fish will change course and the line will come free. Then l tighten up the drag again and resume the battle. Both approaches have their benefits and adherents.

Even in the open ocean I like to adjust the drag. On the hook-set I keep a very tight drag in order to get a clean, deep hook penetration. If it is a smallish fish I will just leave the drag well enough alone and bring it in. If, however, I feel the weight and the big rhythmic thumps of a big bass I will let it start its run and then ease off on the drag. For the most part on the open sandy beach there are no obstructions that bass can use to cut the line. After a run or two I might just tighten up the drag just a little to turn the fishes head and get it moving in to shore.

Whether on the open beach or a rock-strewn point I make sure to ease up a bit on the drag as the fish gets close. I remember years ago I had a big bass on a party boat. As I adjusted the drag the captain screamed at me to leave it alone. He was so used to customers tightening the drag and then having the line break that he did not realize that I loosened the drag just a notch as the fish got by the boat. Once the fish is close it is pretty well spent. It’s not going to make any long runs. What it may do, however, is make a short run or head shake. With the fish in close and the line is tight there is an increased chance the hook will tear free. Far better to back up just a bit on the drag and take care during the last few feet of the struggle.

The art of adjusting the drag when a good fish is almost in becomes especially critical on the open beach with a good surf. If you have not got the fish up to dry land with the last wave the fish is going to move with backwash away from you putting tremendous pressure on the line. It is at this moment that a large bass you have hooked and fought can be suddenly lost. I like to ease up the drag if the fish is sliding back in the water with a wave. When the next good wave comes I’ll tighten up the drag and pull, using its power to slide that fish up onto shore. Once done remember to reset the drag.

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