(Why the last "Big One" got away)

Range of Drag

This information is entirely new and the first time it has been seen in its entirety by fishermen.  This is the study most reel manufacturers wish you hadn't seen. 

I know you will find this of special interest and the information will be state of the art, all work done on the Reel Drag Testing Beast TM, effectionately known here as Dragenstein TM.  

Skip at DragensteinTM, the Reel Drag Testing BeastTM




        What assumptions did you make when you last purchased a new fishing reel?  Did you assume that the more you paid the better reel you might get?  Did you believe you should be able to turn the crank and test the drag with your fingers to determine if it was a good reel and a good drag?  Did you assume that the manufacturer had developed the drag system with space-age science and materials, and thoroughly tested it to make sure it would perform the way you hoped?

We all make assumptions like these, but just how much do we really know about fishing reels?  In most cases, all we have to rely on is advertising hype and our basic assumptions, which may not be giving the full picture.  The DragensteinTM Project began as an effort to put popular concepts (and mis-conceptions) about fishing reel drags to the test.  What could good science say about reel drag performance?

        Well, good science was ruthless.  While there were a very few reels with drag systems that performed well, most did not.  Many were difficult or impossible to accurately adjust, did not run smoothly, or would not perform even minimum testing demands.  In addition, many reel drag performance characteristics were discovered that have never been described to date.  But, I am ahead of myself here, let’s start at the beginning.

        At the outset, the key piece of equipment that was needed was a precision reel drag testing machine.  The ICAST Show in Vegas was attende4d and it was a surprise to discover that such machines were virtually non-existent in the fishing reel manufacturing industry.  What was needed then was not a machine that would spin a reel on “go fast” with the drag knob cranked down.  Instead, this project called for a sensitive instrument that would pick up the nuances; every burp and grind of a reel drag adjusted to very exacting standards.  So with a selection of cast-off NASA aerospace parts, and after a few months of work at the mill and lathe, the “thang” sprang to life, so someone said, “like a Frankenstein monster.”  With affection, a name was chosen for this new machine; DragensteinTM, the Reel Drag Testing Beast (pronounced Dragen-steen).  The DragensteinTM Project had sprung to life. 

        What is DragensteinTM?   DragensteinTM technology is still proprietary, but it was built to produce a recording, as accurately as possible, of changes in forces acting on a fishing line as it was removed from a spinning reel spool against friction; the reel drag.  Practically innumerable variables are in effect in an actual fishing situation.  The DragensteinTM testing protocol was designed to eliminate these variables, thus depicting the actual mechanical performance characteristics of just a reel’s drag mechanism without the outside variables. 

        The first victims were chosen, some 35 to 40 reels in the new offerings for 2003 (this is when the tests were first performed, but sadly little has changed in 10 years).  They included spinning, baitcasting, and fly reels in all price ranges and all sizes.  Most of the spinning reels were in the 12 to 20 pound class with a couple of larger models.  Baitcasting reels were of the size that most bass or light saltwater anglers might choose.  It was expected that this selection of reels would yield a good sampling of the good, the bad, and the . . . well, you know.  

Dragenstein's First Victims

        As soon as line began to flow from reels, establishing standards, protocols, and procedures, data began to literally pour onto the charts.  A few weeks later, after the squeaks, squeals, whines, bumps, and smoke had quieted a box-chock-full of charted results set by the desk.  What was found was more of the bad, and the  . . . you know, than the good.  But what was found, and reported here for the first time, has forever changed our views of reel drag performance, and reel performance in general.


        The drag mechanism in your favorite fishing reel is actually a friction device and is therefore subject to all of the laws that control friction.  The study of friction is a very complicated science called TRIBOLOGYFortunately for the fisherman, it isn’t necessary to know these immutable laws to enjoy a day on the water, but a basic understanding of how they are at work in a fishing reel can help make it a successful day. 

        The friction device, or drag, in your reel is composed of some basic parts that help you control the run of a fish, much the same as brakes control the motion of your car.  In your reel, braking is achieved by applying pressure against the contact surfaces of rotating washers that are attached by some mechanism to the spinning spool.  As line is removed from the reel, it is the controlled pressure acting against the contact surfaces of these washers that produces the phenomenon that fishermen call “drag” . . . it slows the removal of line from your reel by a running fish.   


        That controlled pressure is applied by tightening the drag knob or star-wheel of your reel.  The tightening of the drag knob (actually like tightening the nut on a screw) typically does not act directly against the washers, but instead, the pressure is transmitted through the attenuating effects of a drag adjustment spring.  If the drag adjustment spring is a soft spring, then the pressure is applied gradually as you tighten the drag knob.  If the drag adjustment spring is stiff, then the pressure is applied more aggressively.  The idea for the fisherman of course, is to apply just the right amount of pressure to the drag washer surfaces to create the ideal drag for his fishing situation.

        There are many, many types of washer systems and drag adjustment springs used in fishing reels.  While some reels use stacks of alternating drag washers with multiple friction producing surfaces, others utilize a single set of drag washers and single friction producing surface.  Some reel drag washer assemblies are made to function dry, that is without oil or grease, and others are flooded with oil and grease of varying viscosities.  Likewise, there is a great variation in the stiffness of drag adjustment springs and rate at which drag adjustment knobs compress these springs due to the thread count on the screw. 

        The upshot of all of this is that every brand and model of reel has a drag system that is unique in its friction producing characteristics.  In fact, sometimes identical reels of the same brand and model will have drag systems that function differently due to variations in a number of small variables that inevitably appear. 

        As you might expect, the friction created in your reel drag follows a very exacting set of laws.  It is not some willy-nilly function that can only be guessed at, but a very exacting system that can be precisely measured. 


        This is going to be split into two sections for two different types of fishermen.  If you want to know just the very basic stuff about fishing reels and fishing reel drags, this first section is designed for you.  It will tell you what you need to know with as few technical details as possible to help you competently select a fishing reel, or understand the reels you currently own.

        The second advanced section is for the more technically minded fishermen who wants to thoroughly understand what is happening with fishing reels and fishing reel drags today.  It is going to give the full scope of the DragensteinTM Project and how to go about selecting the right reel for your adventures. 

        Regardless of what you choose to read, this is all new information, never seen by fishermen before.  A part of this work was published in Outdoor Life Magazine by Jerry Gibbs, but the discoveries were not very flattering for reel manufacturers so a good deal of it was omitted, presumably because of the harmful affects on the advertising base.  The entire findings are going to be made available here.


        This section does not list just findings that were discovered on DragensteinTM.  It is also going to include things that were discovered in just getting the reels ready for testing.  That included such things as spooling with line, learning how to access the drag knobs, how well did the reels fit on rods, and other important physical characteristics.

1.  Drag Knob Accessibility
        A.  I can't stress strongly enough the importance of examining the drag knob on a reel before purchasing it.  Turn it and consider how you will use the reel on the water.  Regardless of the drag performance, if the drag knob is not going to allow you to adjust the drag in the heat of fighting a fish, then the reel will be worthless.

        Of course, most spinning reel drags were adjustable by a knob on the front of the spool; a few had adjustments on the back of the reel as well.  Regardless, Spinning reel drag knobs were typically non-indexed.  What that meant was that there was no way to know where "you were located" in the adjustment once the knob had been rotated.  There were no numbers or indexing marks and most had only a thumb-and-finger tab that you grasped when rotating.  Some have a detent (click), but it was still not indexed.  Some were difficult to grasp and turn in the controlled lab environment and would have been very problematic on the water. 

        That presented a very difficult situation when testing since there was no way back to the beginning for the drag adjustment on most reels since rotating backwards simply resulted in removal of the knob and spool.  Also, there were a couple of complicating issues in that the screw threads had considerable "backlash" which meant, for instance, that a 180 degree turn forward (tightening) could not be reversed with a 180 degree turn backward (loosening).  Also, many reel drags changed after their initial run on DragensteinTM so that there would have been no way to know where the original setting was located. 

Not a single spinning reel was found in the DragensteinTM Project that would permit sound, indexed adjustment, regardless of drag performance. 

        B.  Baitcasting reels were another problem altogether.  They were typically very, very difficult to adjust.  The problem was that baitcasting reels had so called "star drag wheels" which were beneath the reel crank and would rotate with the crank.  That meant that adjustment was achieved by the relative position of the typically 5-star pointed wheel to the two identical crank handles; no indexing of any kind and very complicated to know where the drag adjustment was located at any point in time. 

        If you are a big bass fisherman you can just take the easy way out and crank the drag wheel down until it is tight, use 20# test line, and simply winch 'em in; no drag needed.  That is not the same if you are using the reel for redfish, stripers, or other larger species.  These fish require drags that actually function and can be adjusted. 

We didn't find a single baitcasting reel of those tested that would adjust adequately, regardless of drag performance.  Only one reel was found that even had a functional and reproducible drag, the Shimano Calcutta 50.  And even that reel was difficult to adjust. 

2.  Spool Stability
        Baitcasting reels tend to be far superior to spinning reels in terms of spool stability since the spool generally has bearings on each end of the spool and will spin freely at the flip of the thumb.  Spinning reels on the other hand are far from flawless.

         Most spinning reel have very poor spool stability, this is, they wobble when wiggled back and forth with fingers.  That is primarily because they are spindled on a shaft and stability relies on pressure from the drag to stabilize the spool.  So that means that the tighter the drag setting, the more stable the spool becomes.  But there is a problem with this.

        If you purchase a reel in the 12 pound class (spooled with 12 pound test line) for instance and you wish to follow conventional wisdom of setting the drag to no more than 25 to 30% of the breaking strength of the line, then that is approximately 3 pounds.  Since DragensteinTM determined that the drag pressure for a running reel is about double the drag pressure when you test it by pulling off line with your fingers, that means a "finger/spring gauge" setting of about 1.5 pounds.  If the spool is not stable at that setting, then the reel and drag are going to perform poorly unless you "over-drag" the reel to achieve stability. 

        Unfortunately, that problem is not a "cheap" reel problem and appears across the board in expensive reels as well.  These wobbly spool reels will typically pulse when line is being pulled from the reel against the drag as the line courses up and down the spool and the spool wobbles back and forth.  We called that phenomenon line roller effect

3.  Drag System Inspection
        When deciding to purchase a spinning reel, always open the spool and examine the drag whenever possible.  That was a very important first step when preparing reels for DragensteinTM.  We found that 3 of the initial 21 spinning reels we first tested were missing critical parts in the drag systems that would have seriously impacted their performance.  One quality reel had a drag washer that was made from a piece of rusty scrap metal and one reel was running metal-against-metal since it was missing a drag washer.  Keep in mind that most reels were never inspected after assembly (generally in China) before they reached your hands!

        You will not likely be able to access most baitcasting reel drags easily since they are embedded in the frame of the reel which is attached with screws.  I will state that we tested about a dozen popular and some very expensive brands in our initial study.  Of those, only one reel had a drag that performed adequately as an open-water (running fish) reel, the Shimano Calcutta 50.  All the rest were best tightened down with a pair of pliers and used as winches for bass fishing.  The best advice I can give is to study the manufacturers literature, but be aware that it may be misleading.  Read the next point below (4.) and it may offer some guidance. 

I need to interject some technical stuff here to make the next points clear.

        All drag systems (spinning, spincast, and baitcasting) operate by tightening a knob against a single or stack of drag washers.  The mechanism has to have a spring of some type (drag adjustment spring) against which the drag knob tightens and applies the pressure to the drag washers.  If there were no spring, then the drag knob would be tightening directly against the washers and the only adjustment would be a very small turn before the drag knob was tight, or locked down.  The style and nature of that spring is very important; that is, is it soft or firm and is it an actual spring or just a piece of spring steel like a cup or wave washer.  That will determine, along with the nature of the drag washers, for what kind of fishing the drag was intended and how well it will perform.  I will break that down further to explain that some reels were intended for open-water fishing where a fish might be expected to run line from the reel (stripers, redfish, bonefish, etc.) and heavy cover or close-in fishing where the fish were small and not expected to run line, or fish like bass that these days and times are simply winched in with no drag available at all. 

        I want to explain further that several strange and previously undescribed phenomenon occurred while we were testing.  Spinning reel drag would sometimes have what we called "line roller effect", which was a pulsing drag (disastrous), most likely due to an interaction between the line roller and the spool of line as the line coursed up and down the spool when the drag was in operation.  It does not happen in all reels and seems to be unpredictable in occurrence.  This same effect came to be called "level wind effect" in baitcasting reels and occurred similarly as line moved back and forth on the spool in relationship to the position of the level wind when the drag was operating.  Furthermore, it is complicated in baitcasing reels since some are called disengaging and some non-disengaging, referring to whether the level wind stayed fixed in position when the thumb bar had been pressed.  Most baitcasing reels are non-disengaging. 

This brings to light the importance of how line is spooled on a reel.  If the line is piled to one end or the middle, then the oscillation gears or spool position on its spindle are not correct.  Avoid that reel like a plague!

One further point to make is that a spinning reel should "point" to the first guide on your rod.  If it doesn't, then there is already "drag" on your line as it has to make a bend going into the guides.  That also plays havoc with casting well. 

4.  Drag Adjustment Index
        You have to decide if the drag system is one that is likely to perform for the way you fish.  In other words, how many turns are there in the drag knob from the first detectable drag to the point that the drag knob tightens down tightly, called "lock-down".  (For an example, let's select about 5 full turns which was about the average for most spinning reels tested.) Next you have to estimate just how many pounds of drag the reel will create.  That number is not possible to know without testing, but for example, no spinning reel drag that we tested had more than 6 pounds of drag before the drag adjustment spring locked down.  (At that point the drag pressure become logarithmic or approaches infinite.)  That means that on the average (and it doesn't always work that perfectly), you could expect approximately 1.2 pounds of drag per 360 degree turn of the drag adjustment knob.  That is called the drag adjustment index for that particular reel. 

        What we determined was that reels with a drag adjustment index equal to or greater than about 2.0 were best for heavy cover fishing.  Fine adjustment was not very likely in such a reel and trying to adjust in with a fish on could be disastrous.  Drags that approached a drag adjustment index of about 1.0 or less were better suited for open-water fishing where the fish would be expected to run line.  That kind of drag could be adjusted in a fish fight without fear of over-tightening and breaking off.  This is not the only criteria to consider about a reels drag, but potentially a very important one.   

        No baitcasting reel tested had a drag adjustment index less than 2.98.  That is not to say that some of the reels might not have worked for open-water fishing, but they would have been difficult to adjust and re-adjust.  The only reel tested that would have perhaps been appropriate for open-water fishing was the Calcutta 50.  That is based on other drag qualities, but it had a drag adjustment index of 5.0 and was not easy to adjust.  

5.  Making Drag Adjustments  
        When learning about any given reel and learning to make drag adjustments, it is best to work with some quantitative device like a strain gauge or spring scale to get some idea of what drag settings might be accomplished.  Understand however that this is going to only give you approximate and not always adequate information.  The only way a drag can be evaluated accurately is under the controlled conditions that were used with DragensteinTM.  It is safe to assume that adjusting a drag by pulling line from the reel by hand (we called this static drag" testing) is going to result in drag pressures that represent only about 50% of the actual drag pressures measured in a running drag with a fish on.  In other words, if you are using 12 pound test line and wish to set the drag for about 3 pounds (remember the 25 to 30% rule), then set the drag at about 1.5 pounds on a spring scale or strain gauge and see how it works when you have a fish on.  If needed it can be re-adjusted "on the fly" while a fish is running. 

6.  Type of Drag System 
        This is unfortunately a topic that could require pages of information to describe what was discovered in the DragensteinTM Project.  I will attempt to generalize and narrow it down to a few salient points. 

        A.  Is the system a dry washer system or is grease incorporated?  If the system is a stack of grease-impregnated felt washers running against metal, consider that the performance is going to change as the reel and drag system change temperature, grease is extruded, and as the felt washers age.  In fact, these popular systems will never run the same way twice until the felt is totally disintegrated.  Drag performance will change depending on the temperature.  If they are on the deck of a boat in tropical sun or in a snow storm in Alaska, they will never perform the same way twice.  These are not going to be good reels for fast running, open-water fish.  They may work for trout or bream fishing where the drag will receive little use. 

        B.  The same advice applies generally for grease-impregnated cork or cork composite.  As the grease is extruded and the cork flattens and wears out, the drag system will continue to change.  They are only slightly more stable than grease-impregnated felt and subject to the same problems as felt.  These types of washers will permanently compress if the drag is not fully loosened when the reel is stored and in general loose their performance over time. 

        C.  If the heart of the reel drag system is dry carbon or a dry carbon fiber, it will probably follow the trend we saw in testing.  It will start running with plenty of drag, perhaps with minimal start-up forces (typical initial spike in drag forces as the line begins running), but will immediately go into a period of fade where drag forces taper off.  That is then typically followed by a period of drag pressure increase as the spool empties line (spool spinning speed is increasing).  That increase can be many times the original drag pressure setting.

        Obviously this can be a big problem if the angler is not anticipating it.  It is necessary to adjust the drag repeatedly as the fish is played and with continued removal of line. 

        D.  Teflon (PTFE) drag washers are frequently found in spinning reel drag and can be very problematic.  Teflon is known for being very slippery stuff and may give the impression that it will make a good adjustable friction surface.  That only sounds good in theory.  Teflon is very soft, permanently compresses very easily as it gets hot, and is too slick to make a usable drag.  Even when it is impregnated with glass or some other substance (and it also goes by a lot of different names so you have to be careful to check it out), it still compresses and will loose its adjustability.  The exception to what I am telling you here is my next discussion. 

        E.  The best performing drags tested on DragensteinTM were consistently drag systems with drag washers made of Rulon.  Rulon comes in a number of different types, each with their own friction characteristics, and if properly designed in the reel will provide a fisherman with his best choice for an open-water drag system.  RulonR is basically a teflon based material, but it has been altered in composition (proprietary composition) so that many of the undesirable traits of teflon are avoided.  This material will reproduce consistent results during testing if everything is done correctly.  (I currently hold a patent for a drag system for a spinning reel, US Patent 7,789,335, made with Rulon LR and Rulon J.)

        So just what is the correct way to design a reel drag to get consistent performance?  There may be no simple answer to that question, but perhaps it would help to have a little better understanding of that science of Tribology that I mentioned earlier as it applies to the type of friction device found in fishing reels. 

     You will discover that many of the best held beliefs about drags and how they work are simply not true.  What reel manufacturers are telling you is not how drags work, but what you want to hear, regardless that it may not be good science. 
(click here!)
        A basic understanding of how fishing reel drags follow the laws of friction will help you make a sound decision when you next purchase a new favorite reel. 


  1. I have shimano super aero titanium spinning reel without a drag system on the spool that is made for distant surf casting competition.
    Is there anyway I could modify this spool, change, or customize to have drag system on this reel?
    I will pay whatever it costs to get this reel have a drag system.
    Please e-mail me at

    1. Thanks for your comments on my blog I have just found your question about the drag for a Shimano Aero spinning reel. I am send you a link;, which discusses this. Perhaps you have already found it. Apparently it is very difficult to accomplish. I am a machinist and could perhaps do it, but it would probably not be cost effective. I will consider doing it if you want.

      I wish I could advise you better, but spinning reel drags are pretty dismal at best. Perhaps the best I can recommend is a US Reel 240SX, early model, with both Rulon LR and Rulon J drag washers. I designed and patented this and it works pretty well if you use it correctly. Good luck with your search and your fishing. Please never hesitate to contact me.

      Skip Halterman

  2. Thank you so much for this information, I have searched the internet far and wide for quality information on differing drag system information. Thank you for providing it. Very informative.

  3. Greetings Skip, I'm an undergraduate researcher at Virginia Tech. I'm working on a project where we are trying to set the tension force over ~400yds. of mono-filament fishing line. For our experiment it is essential that the tension remain constant over the duration of the test. Would you be able to recommend the most accurate fishing reel for setting a 5-10lbs line tension? Would you be able to provide the drag data set from that reel? Thank you!

  4. Daniel:

    Sorry to be this long getting back to you. I need to know a little more. Are you wanting to run this reel over
    400 yds with a constant drag pressure? If so, there is no reel that
    will do that and for a number of reasons. Please let me hear more of
    what you are trying to do.


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