What Is Drag On A Fishing Reel & How To Set It Correctly

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Losing fish is heartbreaking, especially if it is a trophy fish that comes around once in a lifetime. 

As anglers, losing a fish is something we do our utmost to avoid, and if you have fished for years, you will have lost a few and felt the frustration and pain. There are many ways to lose a fish, and one major reason is not setting and using your drag on your fishing reel correctly. 

For novice anglers, understanding drag and setting it to the right amount is hard to get right, but by the end of this article, you will know exactly what it is and how to set it. 

Key Takeaways

  • Learn about the drag mechanism for controlling the tension of your line.
  • How to adjust and set the drag correctly for different reels.
  • Understand why drag is critical for fighting large fish.

What Is Drag? 

Drag is an adjustable mechanical mechanism in your reel from high to low. The mechanism applies pressure through friction plates to your reel’s spool to make pulling some line from the reel easier or harder. 

Essentially, the mechanism creates drag on the spool, hence the name. When your drag is set to zero (very low), the line will run off the reel with barely any resistance. If your drag is set high, getting the line off the reel will take a lot of pulling pressure. 

What Is The Purpose Of Drag? 

To use drag properly and set it right, you must understand why you need it. The whole point of drag is to slow a hooked fish down so that you can control it in the fight, to a point. 

You only have a limited amount of line on your spool, and without drag, some species may run away with all that line, like marlin. Also, when fishing in areas with lots of snags, drag lets you control the fish and keep it away from the snags, which is essential when carp and bass fishing, for example. 

So, drag is there to help you slow the fish down, but how do you set it? 

How To Set Your Drag 

Now that we know what drag is and why it is useful, let’s consider how to set it correctly. There are quite a few steps when it comes to setting your drag, from finding the drag knob to setting the right amount of pressure. We will start at the beginning! 

Locating Your Drag Knob

Every reel with drag will have a knob or lever that allows you to adjust the drag pressure on your reel. This will be in different locations depending on the type of reel you are using. 

Here is where the drag knob is on different reels: 

  • Spincast Reels – a rollable notch on the side of the reel 
  • Spinning Reels – on top of the spool or the bottom of the reel 
  • Fly Reels – on the side of the reel 
  • Baitcaster reels – a star drag wheel next to the reel handle 
  • Offshore reels – a lever on the side of the reel 

How To Set Drag On A Centerpin Reel

Setting the drag on a centrepin reel can be somewhat different from other fishing reels because traditional centrepins do not have a mechanical drag system. Instead, they rely on the angler’s thumb or fingers to apply pressure to the spool’s rim to create resistance, often called “palming” the reel.

Centrepin reels with an adjustable drag system are typically simple and not designed to play against a fish. The drag, if present, usually prevents the spool from overrunning. To adjust this type of drag, you would turn the drag adjustment knob or lever to the desired tension, similar to other reel types, but keep in mind that it’s more for controlling spool speed than fighting fish

Adjusting Your Drag 

Once you have located the drag knob on your reel, it is time to set it. Turning or moving your drag in one direction will increase it, and moving it in the opposite direction will lessen it. 

On lever drags, pushing the lever up increases it.

On spinning reels, rotating the knob clockwise increases it and counter-clockwise to loosen it. On fly reels, twisting the knob away from you increases it. 

To set the drag on a baitcasting reel, find the drag adjustment mechanism, which is typically a six-pronged star next to the handle. By turning this star drag adjustment clockwise, you will tighten the drag, and by turning it counter-clockwise, you will loosen it.

Test your reel to work out which direction increases or lessens the drag on your reel. 

Setting Your Drag To The Right Pressure 

Drag is measured in pounds (lbs) of drag, and this equates to how many pounds of pressure it takes to pull the line off the reel when the rod is at a 45-degree angle. 

Setting your drag to the appropriate amount of pounds is totally dependent on the breaking strain of the line you are using. If you set the drag too high, your line will snap or too low, and the fish will be in control instead of you.

Generally speaking, the drag pressure should be set to ⅕ or ⅓ of the line’s breaking strain. So, when using a 10 lb line, you don’t want more than 2 to 3 lbs of drag to ensure the line does not snap, but it depends on the weight and type of line – more on that later. 

Once you have set your drag enough times, you can feel whether you have set it right by pulling the line off the reel with your hands. If you are unsure whether your drag is too loose or too tight, there is a way you can test it. 

How To Test And Confirm Your Drag Setting

For those of you who want to know what 5 lbs of drag feels like or want to get technical with drag, there is a way of checking how many lbs of drag you have set. 

You will want to set up your rod and reel and have someone holding your rod. Then, set your drag and attach a small spring-weighing scale with pounds to the end of the line. 

Pull the line with the scale with the rod sitting at 45 degrees until some line pulls off the reel. 

The number of pounds marked on the spring scale when the line comes off the reel is the number of pounds your drag is set to. You can then adjust it up or down to match the breaking strain of your line. 

Different Drag Settings For Different Line Types 

Generally speaking, you will load up your reel with one of two types of line, braid or mono. Mono is stretchy while braid is not, making braid easier to snap under sudden takes. 

Therefore, you must set your drag differently for braid and mono to compensate for their different breaking strains. 


  • Up to 20 lb, use ⅕ as the drag pressure 
  • 30 to 50 lb, use ¼ as the drag pressure 
  • 80 to 130 lb, use ⅓ as the drag pressure 


  • Up to 20 lb, use ⅙ as the drag pressure 
  • 30 to 50 lb, use ⅕ as the drag pressure 
  • 65 lb plus, use ¼ as the drag pressure

You should be aware that these are simply guidelines, but they will, without question, ensure your line never breaks while you are fighting a fish. However, there will be times when you need to increase or loosen your drag during a fight. 

When To Increase Or Decrease Your Drag 

Once your drag is set correctly and you have hooked a fish, you may be tempted to adjust the drag during the fight. Usually, this is a big no-no, as it risks losing the fish, but there are rare occasions when it might be necessary. 

If the fish you have hooked takes a lot of line from your spool, the additional drag of the line in the water makes a difference. In this case, backing the drag off is important to adjust for the extra drag created by the line in the water. 

However, this primarily happens in offshore fishing when big pelagics like tuna or marlin take a lot of line. 

Typically, the only time you should increase the drag is when you feel you will lose the fish if you don’t. For example, if a fish is running for a snag and you can’t stop it, increase the drag to take control and move it away from the snag. Once you have done this, return the drag to its original position. 

Dragging Out

Remember, it’s important to set the drag properly to ensure that it is not too loose, which could allow a fish to take too much line and potentially escape, or too tight, which could result in the line snapping under the strain of a fighting fish.

Always consider the size and type of fish you’re targeting, as this influences how much drag is necessary. Finally, test the drag before you start fishing to ensure it’s set at the optimal level.

You can read more about the technical aspect of understanding gear ratio on fishing reels, and how they are an important factor in presenting your bait naturally, and line retrieval rates.

Steve Fitzjohn