All About Drags (Part 1)
  |  First Published: March 2003

THIS is the first part of a series of articles on drags. The practical and theoretical principles apply to all types of reels that are equipped with a slipping clutch.

There is really no difference between the drags of conventional game reels and baitcasters, both lever and star, threadlines, both front and rear drag, side casts, lever or star, fly or even closed face reels. Line breaking strain is also immaterial, be that 2kg or 60kg line, the principles are the same.


You must have heard the sob story hundreds of times but how often do you hear “…and then I broke him off!”? Very seldom I suggest, but if the truth were known, the latter scenario is more common than the former. The reason is usually incorrect drag settings and a lack of practical knowledge as to what happens to drag components during a prolonged fight.


During the mid to late half of the 19th Century there were hundreds of patents granted for brakes and clicking devices for retarding the reel against the run of a fish. The latter part of the century saw drags, which were operated by holding the reel handle stationary while the line ran out under tension. It wasn’t until 1911 that Julius vom Hofe was granted two patents: the first for a positive free spool clutch and the second for a modified clutch and a friction disc drag. This reel had the classic yoke as part of the free spool mechanism and was the first time a free spool and disc drag were combined into the same reel.

Those who collect and study old reels are not in agreement as to who invented the star drag. Several accounts of the star drags invention have been published with no two being alike. They do credit the famous angler William Boschen for the primary impetus for its design, but Boschen had many collaborators and that is where the confusion arises.

A 1914 patent described a slotted drag washer as a ‘Star Wheel’ and other patents referred to the same component as a ‘Spider’. In any event, the ‘Star Wheel’, combined with multi-disc washers, was destined to become the preferred drag and remained so until the lever drag came along.

The threadline drag is a different matter because it wasn’t until post WWII that the reel became popular in Australia and multi-disc drags weren’t an option until the late 60s.

That just about completes the history lesson but much of the following information is a result of a series of practical tests conducted by Harland Major for his 1938 book, Salt Water Fishing Tackle.


Most game fishers are conversant with drag theory as their targets are fast running fish that have the potential to strip most of the line from the reel on their initial run. Consequently, setting the drag prior to any trip is of the utmost importance. Anglers chasing other species, especially if they are following sportfishing principles, would be well advised to take the example of their game fishing brothers.

Drags are set at about a quarter to a third of the line’s breaking strain. Traditionally this has been done with a spring balance with someone holding the end of the leader, outside the rod tip, with the balance attached. The angler adjusts the star wheel/lever pre set until the line coming from the reel pulls the spring balance to the desired poundage.


We will take 8kg pre-test line as our datum, as this is the standard line used in SE Queensland game competitions, and we will assume our angler has 1,000 metres of line on the spool and has set his strike drag at 2.5kg. Off the angler goes at 7am, with the rod and reel on the boats transom and starts trolling at 8am. At 8.30am the angler hooks a sailfish. The initial run takes 500 metres of line off the spool and the spool is now half empty. The drag pressure is now at 5kg. The lower the line level on the reel the more drag will be applied. The original illustration from Harland Majors book is reproduced here and the diminished line theory is quite dramatic.



There is also the effect of water pressure of the line in the water. I can do no better than go back to a Harland Major illustration again, but some explanation will be required as this was prior to the invention of nylon when cuttyhunk and linen line was the norm. The breaking strain of cuttyhunk and linen line was never an exact science and the IGFA listing of linen line breaking strains showed considerable variation. They were calculated so that the new nylon lines could be categorised into a thread classification for record claims. If a potential fish was caught on 20lb mono it would be classified as a 9 thread capture.

Other common relationships include:

3 thread = 0 – 9 lb

6 thread = 10 – 18 lb

9 thread = 19 – 27 lb

15 thread = 28 – 45 lb

24 thread = 46 – 72

39 thread = 73 – 117 lb

54 thread = 118 – 162 lb.

The reproduced graph illustrates the effect of water friction on linen line and it is safe to assume that braid would act in a similar manner but mono, being slicker, would be somewhat more robust.



Heat, both internal and external, has an affect on drag components. What happens to the drag whilst the reel is sitting in the rod holder in the tropical sun? It expands and the drag pressure is increased. In all my hours on the water trolling for billfish, I have never, nor have I ever seen anyone check their drag. We all pull a little line from the reel and say “That’s two and a half kilos” but, of course, it never is. The reason I have never checked my drag properly is that the terminal tackle has to be retrieved the lure or dead bait removed, the spring balance attached and another person seconded to hold the spring balance while the drag is re-set. Too much hassle in the small area of a boat’s cockpit!


Jack Erskine has released a product that is about to change the way we check drags. It is an instrument from Japan called the Bouz Drag Checker and I use the word ‘instrument’ because it is a scientific instrument and reeks of class. Apart from checking the drag, it can also be used for testing line and knot strength and even weighing a fish. Initially the drag is set in a similar way to the spring balance method (ie: line threaded through the guides and strike drag set). This can be achieved single handed because the Drag Checker is placed on the line rather than at the terminal end.

The feature about this product that drew me in was the ease in which the drag can be checked whilst fishing without doing anything other than attaching the Drag Checker on the line between the reel spool and the stripping guide and pulling line off the spool.

The Drag Checker comes in two models. The DC1005 measures from 0.3 - 5kg and lines up to 0.41mm. The DC1015 measures from 1 – 15kg and lines up to 0.78mm. The reason for the extreme accuracy of the Drag Checker is that the line goes around a pulley and there are five different colour coded pulleys (DC1005) for different size lines. I usually use 0.35mm line so I use the red pulley, which is for 0.33 - 0.37mm line.

As you can see by the photographs, the line goes over the left guiding pulley, under the main pulley and over the right guiding pulley. As the line is pulled through the pulleys under tension, the main pulley is forced upwards and the measuring needle (black) and the memory needle (orange) stop at the degree of drag set. The black measuring needle returns to zero but the orange memory needle stays in the measured position until it is manually returned to zero.

If the strike drag is set at 3kg, we now check the drag again, but this time we position the Drag Checker between reel and stripping guide. The reading will be less than the initial reading because this is a steady pull and not a sharp upward movement of the rod to imitate a strike.

Let us assume that the second reading was 2.5kg. Every time the drag is checked on the water, a reading of 2.5kg needs to be read, which will give us an effective strike drag of 3kg.

Changing the strike drag to 4kg is simple. Let’s call the strike drag outside the tip A and the measurement at the reel B.

The reel is currently set up with A at 3kg and B at 2.5kg. Doing the sums, it can be seen that B is 80% of A (2.5/3 = 0.8 or 80%). To achieve a strike drag of 4kg, then 4 x 0.8 = 3.2kg. Set the measurement B at 3.2kg and the strike drag will be right.

The external influences on drag settings are many and varied but they can all be taken into consideration when initially setting the drag and, with the Bouz Drag setter, spot checking will ensure that the drag remains at it’s initial setting.


Next issue we will look at replacing factory fitted drags with state-of-the-art components.

1) The now superseded spring balance.

2) The only way to check a drag with a spring balance.

3) The small but extremely accurate Drag Checker.

4) The drag checker used between the reel and the stripping guide.

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