In this article I am going to cover the basics of improving the drag system operation in a fishing reel. I will be using the drag system from a small threadline reel as an example but the same principle can be applied to any reel either threadline or overhead & sidecast.
The drag system on any fishing reel must operate smoothly. These days most reels even some of the less expensive models come with pretty effective drag systems which generally work reasonably well straight from the box. I find even on brand new high quality reels there is nearly always room for improvement in the drag operation. Lapping drag washers flat is simple to do & requires little skill or money outlay for the gear to do it. The drag systems in all reels should be checked properly & if needed modified to operate correctly .
There are 2 simple ways to check your drag system. You can check it by hand or use a spring balance scale to test it. I normally test mine by hand but if you haven't done it before I recommend using scales as that method will really highlight any problems & in some cases open your eyes to how important a smooth drag system is.
To check by hand simply set your drag to the pressure you would normally use & slowly pull line from the reel in a steady motion. The line should flow smoothly from the spool at an even pressure. Increasing or decreasing the speed you are taking line at should not alter the pressure at all.
If using a set of scales to test the drag system simply tie a loop in the line & connect it to the scales. Set your drag at your normal setting & start taking line. Watch the needle / readout on the scales closely. Any rise in pressure will show clearly on the readout as will any variations in pressure after the drag first releases.
Hopefully your drag system is spot on & smooth but these tests can often expose problems which need fixing. Most problems are fixed fairly easily & once you have got the drag spot on it will stay right for a lengthy period of time.
There are 2 basic types of drag systems - "Wet " & "Dry". The easiest way to tell which type they are is look at the fibre washers used when you dismantle the reel. If they are made of a hard non flexible / non absorbent material its a dry system. A wet system normally has soft felt washers or similar material. The most common type these days is the wet drag system.
The most common problems with drag systems are "build up" & "chatter". I will explain these 2 terms & go into the methods of how to correct them shortly. Most drag systems use a set of metal washers separated by fibre washers in the drag system. In front drag threadlines the drag system is located in the centre of the spool with the washers held in place by a clip & is easily accessible. In small overhead reels the drag system is housed inside the main gear & requires a bit of dismantling to access it. In sidecast reels the drag is in the centre of the spool.
Drag systems vary in configuration & some reels have a single metal washer & fibre washer as in the example below while some reels have multiple metal & fibre washers. Generally speaking the larger diameter drag washers are smoother than the smaller type.
Drag system of a Shimano Stradic 2500FH
Build up is exactly that. When you try to draw line from the spool there is a pressure build up until the drag starts to release line at which point the pressure needed to take line from the spool reduces. This is the most common of the 2 problems & the one most likely to break your line.
Chatter is when the pressure rises & falls while the line is being taken from the spool.
The 2 most common problems are most often caused in the main by the metal drag washers not being perfectly flat. The reason for this is that the washers are punched out of a sheet of steel & bend / warp slightly during the process. To operate correctly the washers must be flat so the whole surface of the washer is bearing on the surface of the fibre washers. This distributes the load evenly & helps the drag run smoothly. We need to lap the washers flat to cure this problem.
Another cause of both problems can be the intrusion of oil or water into a "dry" drag system. Its a simple fix just remove the drag system & clean all traces of oil / grease from the washers & reinstall them then test again.
The basic equipment needed to do up a drag system once it has been removed from the reel is a flat surface for rubbing the washers down, some emery paper of varying grit sizes, cleaner (methylated spirits or kerosene).
The ideal lapping plate is a piece of steel around 150mm square or a tad larger that has been surface ground to produce a flat surface. If you can't get a piece of steel plate like that a piece of thick glass will do the job also.
I use emery paper in 240 grit, 600 & 1200 grit. Or coarse , medium & fine if you like. Most hardware shops stock emery paper.
To lap the drag washers flat set up your lapping plate on a flat stable surface & after cleaning off any traces of oil from the drag washers lay a sheet of medium emery paper on the plates surface. Place the washer on the emery & using your finger give the washer a light rub around on the emery paper for a few seconds then lift it off & have a look at it. You will see where the emery has cut away at any high spots on the washer & it will show how flat or warped the washer is. In the example pictures below I have marked the 2 faces of a washer with ink from a marker pen so the results will show clearly in a photograph.
Emery paper in position on lapping plate & lapping washer
Drag Washer marked up with marker pen ink
Drag washer after lapping showing concav surface
As you can see in the bottom right picture the washer has been rubbed on the emery paper & clearly shows than this washer is slightly concave from the manufacturing process. The low areas still have a covering of ink while on the high spots the ink has been rubbed off. Only about 50% of this washer is in contact with the fibre washers when the drag is assembled. In a correctly operating drag system the whole face of the washer must be in use. Marking the washer face with ink to check is not a bad idea when you are learning this process as it makes it very easy to see high spots.
The process now is to keep rubbing the washer on the emery until the whole face is even & flat. There should be no ink visible after a couple rubs on the paper. Start by using medium emery paper & pressing down with your finger rub it slowly & evenly around the paper. It pays to stop & rotate the washer a little every 20 seconds or so. I find rubbing in figure 8 patterns the easiest. You will rub a little skin off the fingers but it does grow back :-). When you can see the whole surface of the drag washer is flat change to fine emery paper to finish it off & give it a nice smooth surface.
Repeat the process on the other side until that is nice & flat also. Carry out this procedure on all the metal washers in the drag system then clean them off in methylated spirits or something similar. Ensure there are no metal filings left on them. If there are fibre washers in the drag give them a very light rub on fine emery as well just to smooth them off. Clean theses also. I wash any soft felt type washers as well & re oil them on assembly.
Now its time to reassemble the drag system & test it. If it is a wet type drag system add a drop of light oil to the washers before putting the drag back together. If it is a dry system make sure there are no traces of oil or grease on the washers. When this is done test your drag again there should be a big improvement in the smoothness of operation. If you have taken the time to do this properly the drag should be spot on.
If there is still any chatter or build up in threadline drags check the small washer located on the main shaft which holds the spool. This may need a light rub also. Another possible cause is a sticky line roller. A rusty or damaged bearing in the line roller can have an effect on the smoothness of the drag. To isolate this as the cause test the drag pulling line directly off the spool at 90 degrees to the reel & if it is OK then run the line through the line roller & test again.
On the odd occasion the actual machining of the spool can be at fault & if lapping doesn't fix the drag I suggest trying the washers in another spool to establish whether it is the washers causing the problem or the spool itself.
Spending time on your drag system is time very well spent. A good smooth drag is extremely important no matter what type of fishing you are involved in. Good drag means you can fish heavier drag settings with confidence without worrying about break offs & makes all the difference when the fish of a lifetime comes along. Remember to back off your drag after each fishing session as leaving it under pressure will result in the washers buckling a little.
Tight Lines :-)