After I posted a while ago about a very simple reel-drag test you can do at home, some readers asked about how to set a drag in the first place. Here are a few tips that will help. The general rule for freshwater reels spooled with nylon mono is to set your drag tension at one-third to one-half of your line’s breaking strength. That’s fine in theory but difficult in practice because it requires at least a spring scale to measure the force required to pull line from the reel as you fiddle with the drag-adjustment knob. Most people won’t take the trouble. Instead, they’ll just pull line from the reel and adjust the drag until it “feels right.” That’s what I do most of the time, too.
But how do you know what “feels right” should be? Do this simple test. Rig up your midweight spinning or baitcasting rod and reel, then go in the kitchen and find a 5-pound bag of sugar. Put the bag of sugar in a plastic grocery bag (so it doesn’t break open), and tie your line to the grocery bag. Then lift that 5-pound weight off the floor. First, it will feel like a lot more than 5 pounds, and second your rod will be seriously bent over. Now adjust your drag so it slips slightly at that weight.
Most people are amazed at how heavy 5 pounds really feels. If using ultralight spinning gear and 4-pound mono, say, use a lighter, appropriate weight such as a 1-pound box of margarine. The point is that you now have some idea of the right “feel” with which to set your drag. From that point, use more or less drag in fishing as need be. Most midsize spinners and baitcasters have a maximum drag of 10 to 12 pounds, which you’ll almost certainly never need. Some even advertise drags strong enough to stop a train, which is, of course, ridiculous. Unless you’re actually fishing for trains….