Ten expert surfcasters from up and down the Striper Coast discuss their drag setting preferences.
A lot of attention is paid to what rod, reel, and line to use in the surf. However, once you have an adequate setup for your particular needs, you need to know how to use it correctly. One often misunderstood factor is drag tension. I have seen a staggering amount of both good and bad advice given in articles, online, and in seminars about what the “right” drag setting is. While it is a bit subjective, all anglers agree that the drag setting is very, very important. Yet, it can also be confusing for the angler starting out, or those looking to increase the number of trophy-sized fish they catch. I know personally I spent a couple seasons with a drag that was too tight, because I heard anglers saying you had to lock your drag with big fish. This information was based on older anglers using monofilament line, slower rods, and weaker reels. Since I only spent a couple of seasons with mono and then went to four-strand braid and a Van Staal reel (zero stretch and extreme drag pressure), I know for certain I lost fish because my drag was simply too tight and I was ripping hooks out. It took me two full seasons to discover this error—hopefully you catch on quicker!
As we move into a new season in the surf I have queried a group of diverse surf anglers, spanning almost the entire striper coast, to give you some powerful insights and advice about setting your drag. I asked these anglers four simple questions: 1) How do you determine your drag setting? 2) Are there situations in which you alter your drag setting, and what are the most important scenarios when considering your drag tension? 3) Do you ever adjust your drag during the fight? 4) Any other important tips or insight?
When setting my drag in the surf there are two primary factors that I consider. The first is, “What kind of location am I fishing?” or What is the structure that is present which might mean trouble when fighting a big fish?”
On an open sandy beach, I may be inclined to loosen up my drag a bit to allow a big fish to run. This is simply because I am not particularly worried about being broken off on hard structure like boulders or reefs. If I am fishing along the rocky crags of Cape Ann, which are strewn with ledges and lobster traps, my drag is significantly tighter. I set it tight enough that I don’t typically hear drag moving until I’m hooked up to a 40-inch-class fish or larger.
The second factor I consider when setting my drag is, “What type of lure or bait am I throwing?” If I’m fishing eels it’s just about completely locked. Big bass have very tough jaws and I want all the penetration with that hook point that I can get. Similarly, if I’m fishing a soft plastic with a single hook, I keep my drag just as tight. However, I do like to back my drag off a bit when I’m fishing larger plugs with treble hooks. When a big fish rolls or runs, I want my drag to be the one to give, not the hooks or split rings.
As far as adjusting my drag mid-fight, I never, ever mess with it.
My drag setting is totally unscientific, it’s 100% based on feel. While I keep my drag very tight, it’s not outrageously, ridiculously tight. I recognize that that the drag is there for a reason. I set the drag so that I can let fish in the 20-to-25-pound range take drag by lowering the tip, and then stopping them by leaning back against the rod. Any fish smaller will just get fought with the rod, without drag involvement. Anything larger, and I aim to control how much line they take with the power of my rod. One major indicator of drag tension is the hook set: if your drag slips when you set the hook, not only is it too loose, but you’re costing yourself fish because of an inferior hook set.
I (nearly) lock my drag in situations where there are major obstacles to contend with. When I fish my drag super-tight like that, I choose lures that can handle the tension, where everything stops, and your line is howling in the breeze, and you can hear your rod creaking and crackling. Historically, that has been live or rigged eels, but more recently it’s a large metal lip with a single 5/0 treble or a soft plastic with an oversized hook. If you try to lock up on a fish with lighter hooks, or anything with two trebles, you’re setting yourself up for failure on big fish. Those hooks will bend, break, or pull out.
I definitely adjust my drag mid-fight. I’m all about control when I’m hooked up to a big fish. I’ve learned the hard way that if you lose control you will typically lose the fish. The changes I make are usually incremental, unless I suddenly find that I’ve grossly misjudged. I’m also not adverse to moving or turning a fish by cupping the spool. While this is often a do-or-die situation, if you’re using a single, strong hook, you can usually implement it successfully. Every fish is different so it’s silly to think a drag setting is 100% universal. I’ve caught 30-pounders that I would have sworn were 50, and 40-pounders that barely fought.
When setting my drag, I generally go by feel by manually pulling out some line. I back off tension on drag at the end of each fishing session to “un-compress” the drag washers. Thus, I essentially start each new outing by resetting my drag by hand-pulling it. I have been doing this for over 40 years, and as such have developed an “educated feel” for the correct setting. As I fish I adjust this initial setting if needed. When I do not have enough drag, my spool will spin when I set on a strike. If this happens, I tighten it a tad until I have the proper setting.
The type of structure, presence of current, and/or obstructions (e.g. lobster pots, buoys, etc.) all help determine my drag. I fish a variety of structure, and each spot presents various factors that often require drag adjustments. Sand allows me to ease a drag setting down on really large fish because I know I can let them run (as long as I have enough line capacity, of course.) If I lose a big fish in a sand environment, it is generally because of a mistake I made; not my drag setting. Other structure—boulders, rocky ledge, harbors—may require adjustments, either an easing or tightening of tension, simply dependent on what happens during and after the hook up. Potential high-risk cutoffs or man-made structure, such as mooring/lobster buoys, bridge abutments, and large boulders, usually require adding tension to help steer a fish.
As far as adjusting my drag during the fight, I pretty much do it all the time. A drag setting that may be good for a hook-up, or the fight, may ultimately need to be adjusted to get the fish landed. For example, when trying to land a large fish on a steep, sloped beach in a big surf I may have to increase pressure to drag it up, or back off so the hooks do not pull.
My thoughts related to drag tension are different than a lot of what I heard starting out: I had been told I should set it and then leave it alone. Now, I constantly adjust my drag throughout the fight based on what plug I’m using and the size of the fish hooked (particularly with large fish.) I think it’s one of the few tools that we have available to help control a fish, and so I try to take full advantage. I set my drag by feel, and it’s always tight to the point where it takes a really good fish to pull out any line. I think this helps with the initial hook set, and it can also bury the hook when they make the first run.
After the first few seconds of the fight, I try to get a feel for what I’m dealing with in terms of the size. If it’s a big fish, I might back off on the drag; particularly if I’m fishing a plug with treble hooks and in an area where I can let the fish take a couple runs. Sometimes letting them run isn’t an option, and then I leave it locked down and try to horse them in. A lot of different variables go into the decision, and it’s hard to summarize when to do what. However, even when I back off, my drag is still fairly tight to the point where most fish only take a couple of short runs. One thing I always do is to back way off on the drag when a good fish is close to being landed, and more or less spent. I think it helps avoid any pulled hooks when the fish attempts a last ditch attempt at freedom.
I set my drag tension by attaching my hook to a loop on my truck and then walking backward with my rod, tightening the drag as I see fit for the particularly session. I try setting the hook normally, and also try setting from both low and high angles. Then, I reel in the slack and do it again from a closer distance. I’m gunning for the tightest possible drag that my knots can stand. If there’s big fish potential, I may break my knot once or twice while testing the drag because I’m honing in on the maximum fighting capability.
I fish a lot of fly and light tackle, so my main concerns when setting my drag are the strength of my line and the thickness of my hook. A skinny hook will puncture a lip easily, but it will also bend out, and as such I can use a lighter drag. A thicker hook will not bend but requires a greater force to puncture a lip, so my drag gets tightened up. Another important consideration is age and wear of my line and hook. I always assess, is my braid looking a little frayed? Are my hooks rusty? Also, very important, do you trust your reel? I don’t, after the first soak. I use a slightly looser drag on those outings to deal with any potential increase in the drag’s static friction. Essentially, turn your drag down a bit if you don’t trust any part of your tackle.
I rarely adjust my drag tension in the salt once it’s set. I start out as high as I can go without breaking my knots. That being said, after a powerful hookset, I’m fine with turning it down for the fight, particularly if I think my gear isn’t trustworthy. In the surf, ultimately if you give a big striped bass an inch, she’ll take a mile. Therefore, I use a strong drag and an even stronger fighting effort. If I’m fishing in the rocks, the drag stays put, stays very tight, and I just have to trust it.
When setting my drag, I implement a pretty simple method. I turn the spool with my hand, and adjust by feel using my experience to determine the setting. Typically, the drag is too tight to pull out the line with my hand. I know it’s the right tension when there’s a good risk of braided line cutting into my hand or fingers.
Simply put, I fish a very tight drag, and back off if needed. Striped bass aren’t particularly fast, and therefore there’s time to adjust early if needed. The largest bass in particular are slow out of the box; slow to get take off on their first run. This is completely unlike albie fishing, where you have to be ready the instant the fish takes the lure. Therefore, I almost always mess with the drag with a fish on as well. There’s room for adjustments in the moment. Why should the drag tension be the same when I’m trying to heave a fish out of the rocks early in the fight, versus when I’m approaching the end of the fight and the fish is tired? When I’ve pulled the fish to safer water and just need to get it to where I’m standing without breaking or pulling something, the drag tension is going to get backed down substantially.
My drag setting is determined by whatever location I’m fishing. For example, on open sand beaches I use less drag, while rocky areas with heavy structure which a bass can use to saw me off requires a tight drag. Frankly, it’s almost locked in those situations. While many say not to adjust your drag mid-fight, I disagree. Fish hooked on a tight drag typically have a deeply buried hook, so you don’t have to worry about the hook coming out and can loosen up. If I’m fishing a beach with wave action I’ll back down the drag once the fish is close and tired. Under those conditions a close-to-shore rip current will suck a fish out and a locked drag can result in break off. Overall, drag setting is such crucial aspect of surf fishing. I have learned what settings work for my spots and memorized them. However, the key is to learn what works best for the waters you fish.
After many years of fishing, my drag setting is essentially second nature. I go totally by feel, and the setting I use is based on experience. Most of my surf setups have either 30- or 50-pound braided line. With no stretch in braid, those lines can actually break a surf rod when the reel is completely locked down. Therefore, I want enough tension to get proper hook penetration but still allow a decent fish to pull out line. Due to the lack of elasticity with braided lines, I believe having too much tension can cause the hook to enlarge its hole, and as a result, you will lose fish.
I tailor drag tension based on the fishing location. For example, I can get away with less drag on open sand beaches, or in areas with little or moderate amounts of current, versus rocky shorelines, in strong rips, or tidal rivers. When fishing heavy current or a sticky bottom, I fish a slightly tighter drag, with a heavier rod, which helps to turn the fish out of current and away from obstructions. If I hook into a larger fish that tries to take control of the situation, I vary my fighting angle with the rod from side to side. It’s a “fake out” maneuver that help can turn a large fish and give you a far better chance at landing it.
The most important factors in setting my drag are the size of fish I’m targeting and the surf conditions. If I’m trophy hunting, I tend to back off on the drag, but go harder on schoolies and smaller fish to fight them in quickly. Big waves, large tides, and/or ripping currents also mean less drag, not more. Too tight of a drag setting and all that extra force will equate to pulled hooks and lost fish.
In southern New Jersey, we don’t have a lot of hard structure, and as such bait fishing tends to yield better results than plugging. When bait fishing an open beach, I prefer a fairly tight drag to ensure the hook is driven home on the initial pick up. However, if I’m eeling an inlet jetty, I back off on the drag quite a bit since a striper generally first stuns and then picks up the eel. Patience then is key, and I can always lightly palm the spool to stick the hook if needed. Then when the fish takes off, I have a fairly loose drag so the fish can run and wear itself out before landing.
Generally, I don’t like altering my drag setting after hooking a fish. However, there are exceptions where I back off a bit after the fish is hooked; chunking sand beaches, for example. I never like tightening mid-fight, and have only done so on fish that are exhausted and I just need to pull them a final few feet through a heavy surf.
I don’t think anglers give enough thought to the drag system in the different reels they use. Stock washers in most of my conventional reels used for chunking are inferior, but there are high quality washers available, and I’ve upgraded many of my reels. However, in my opinion, the high end spinning reels I generally use, like Van Staal, don’t need an upgrade.
I have always set my drag in an unscientific way, where it simply takes a pretty hard pull to get any line out. Overall, my goal is to get a good hookset on a fish; thus, I want to eliminate drag slippage when setting the hook. In addition, I also want to allow the fish to run a bit because I have found that many fish are lost when they thrash on the surface just after being hooked. A good drag setting will allow you to set the hook and allow the fish to run without having to adjust the pressure with your rod tip. When I do get a fish in close I will sometimes back off the drag by about a quarter of a turn, because as the line length gets shorter, line tension increases. Dropping the pressure will reduce the chance a pulled hook or broken rod. When Jerry asked me to write this, I was curious to see exactly how much drag tension I use, so I attached my Boga Grip to the line, and it turns out to be about eight pounds. I don’t think any more drag pressure is required for striped bass. Increased drag pressure, combined with faster action rods and non-stretch braided lines are much less forgiving on your hardware. When surf fishing with heavy gear, the hook and the split ring are often your weakest link. Keep the drag pressure even during the fight to prevent your hardware from failing.