Setting lines right kind of a drag

Bill Dillsaver, who landed the king mackerel he’s tussling with here, used a light-action rod with a drag setting of 2 pounds.

Several years ago a column about drag settings received positive comments.

However, the use of braided lines has grown exponentially, and anglers are discovering the original rules of drag don’t fit as well as they once did.

With improvements and growing variations in fishing lines, other factors, especially rod and hook sizes and types figure heavily in a proper drag setting. Line strengths are a starting point, but other factors must be considered.

For many years, the standard principle was to set fighting drags at 1/4 to 1/3 the rated line strength. The approach remains an excellent idea, however these settings may be too high.

Trout anglers were the first to note the 1/4 or 1/3 principle was too much drag because of losing papermouthed gray trout (also called “weakfish”). They used lighter drags, even with heavier lines, and allowed the fish to run and tire itself before trying to land it.

Trout fishermen also were the first group of anglers to insist on lighter-action rods to assist in landing fish.

Live-bait king mackerel fishermen are another group that said the 1/4 or 1/3 principle was too strong. Their concerns were brought about by the small size of the hooks they used with live baits (the hooks wouldn’t stand the strain without pulling free or bending open). Live-bait king mackerel fishermen also wanted rods with lighter actions to aid in subduing fish.

As an aside, it’s been my experience most live-bait king mackerel and a surprising number of trout anglers actually use even less drag than they think. Some informal tests and polls have shown this anomoly.

Here’s two points. Using too light a drag isn’t all that bad when trying to catch fish intended for the dinner table. By allowing these fish to stay in the water longer, it increases the possibility for something to go wrong. But if the fish will be eaten, it’s not a concern the fish will be exhausted beyond the point of recovery.

However, when using catch and release, the sooner fish can be landed and set free the better. You wouldn’t want to take a chance on overpowering your equipment to the point of breaking, but releasing a fish that isn’t completely worn down increases its odds of surviving.

Many factors led to the guideline recommending the 1/4 to 1/3 of the line strength setting for maximum fighting drag. Using 20-pound-test line, the setting would be 5 pounds at 1/4 and 6 2/3 pounds at 1/3.

Various factors anglers can’t control increase the drag while fighting a fish.

One is a bow in the line when a fish runs sideways rather than straight away. The line has more resistance being pulled sideways and creates more pressure on the line and hooks without increasing drag at the reel.

Another factor is drag increases as line is pulled from the reel’s spool. The principle is similar to a multiple-gear bicycle, with the smallest rear sprocket requiring much more effort to turn the pedals.

Without changing any settings at the reel, a smaller spool diameter creates more drag, while a larger (full) spool diameter equates to less drag.

Hook strength also factors into the drag setting equation. In a nutshell, hooks with lighter wire usually set easier but won’t withstand as much drag as hooks with heavier wire, even if they’re similar in overall size and bend.

At the risk of becoming a discussion about hooks and metallurgy rather than drag, note the different styles of bends in hooks can affect their strength, instances significantly.

An O’shaughnessy style hook, with a pronounced bend in the curve just above the point, is stronger than an Aberdeen style hook, with a symmetrical round bend, when they’re the same size.

Live-bait king fishing is a prime example of factoring hook strength into the drag formula. Most king mackerel fishermen use a size 4 or 6 treble hook rated somewhere between 2X and 4X strong, with 4X the largest diameter and strongest wire.

In a non-scientific test with a size 4, 4X-strong Eagle Claw treble hook and several feet of 12-pound-test Berkley Big Game Line, I was able to straighten multiple hooks without breaking the line. The hooks were lightly embedded in the edge of a work bench and pressure gradually increased until they bent open enough to allow a fish to escape.

Following the 1/4 to 1/3 principle for setting the drag, these hooks were bending with a line that should have the drag set at between 3 and 4 pounds. Most king fishermen use 15- to 20-pound-test line but set their drags at 1 1/2 to 3 pounds and these hooks work well.

Most king fishermen prefer monofilament line for its inherent stretch, which helps with drag and protects poor hook sets. They’ve found with the lightest-action rods and even lighter drag settings, the lack of stretch in a small-diameter braided line isn’t good for their type of fishing; it tends to pull and bend hooks.

On the other hand, most trout fishermen have embraced the small-diameter braided lines with open arms. While the lack of stretch initially presented a problem with pulled hooks, small braid had enough positive attributes to overcome that deficiency.

One way to prevent pulled hooks is to use lighter drags.

Trout fishermen refined their rods to work with braided lines. High-modulus graphite rods allow them to load a rod tip to make a longer cast, while having light-enough action to protect a marginal hook set.

The reel manufacturers have also paid close attention to the refinements in rods. Many of the more popular spinning reels now come with a second spool included in the box. One spool has a smaller arbor and is for use with mono, while the other has a larger arbor and is intended for use with small-diameter braid.

The drag changes less during a fight with the large-arbor spool and because braid has a smaller diameter, there is still adequate line capacity.

Another group of anglers who abandoned the 1/4 to 1/3 principle for drag settings is offshore bottom fishermen, specifically those who target snappers and groupers. They prefer heavier drag settings rather than lighter.

Many offshore bottom fishermen use 50- or 80-pound line with Penn 6/0 reels and set their drags as heavy as they can by tightening the star on the handle. They aren’t worried about fighting the fish for any length of time or pulling hooks; they’re just trying to move the fish out of structure before it can duck in a hole, get hung up or wrap around something.

So how does one determine the appropriate drag for a particular type of fishing and how does one go about setting it?

A combination of experience, type of fishing, targeted species, type, strength and kinds of equipment, baits, hook sizes (and types) and line strengths are blended together to devise an optimum drag setting.

An excellent guideline is to set the drag as high as possible, up to the 1/4 to 1/3 of the line-strength point, while protecting the weakest link in the line or terminal gear. If there are any questions or concerns, it’s usually wise to err on the side of caution and go with the lightest setting being considered.

Once the drag setting has been determined, it should be set.

Two tools that work well for measuring drags are a known amount of weight and a scale with a memory setting.

Using weights is simple. Almost any weight can be produced by tying sinkers together. For heavier weights, down-rigger balls or combinations of down-rigger balls and sinkers will work.

Simply tie the weight to the end of the line and lift the rod to test the drag. Adjust the drag until it’ll barely lift the weight off the ground then creep back down.

I carry several known weight combinations in my “assorted junk” tackle bag and usually check the drag settings before a fishing trip.

Upon returning from a fishing trip, I wash the reels, then back off the drags for storing. This helps prevent drags from flat-spotting and becoming inconsistent or jerky. They’ll need to be re-set before the next fishing trip.

After setting drags several times, you should develop a feel for proper settings. Many experienced fishermen are amazingly close.

The only way to gain this feel is through experience. Rather than gain the experience through lost fish, setting the drag is an excellent exercise.

Using a scale to set drag is somewhat similar, except you put the rod in a rod holder, attach the scale to the end of the line, then smoothly pull on the other end of the scale to measure how much drag it requires to pull line off the spool.

Using a series of checks, adjust the drag until the scale shows the preferred setting as the maximum pressure before the drag surrenders line. A scale with a memory of the maximum pull helps when setting drags this way.

However, the proper use of drags can make fishing more fun and productive.

If anglers give these suggestions a try, they might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

Fishing, after all, shouldn’t be a drag.

About Jerry Dilsaver 1172 Articles
Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island, N.C., a full-time freelance writer, is a columnist for Carolina Sportsman. He is a former SKA National Champion and USAA Angler of the Year.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply