With many modern reels capable of exerting extreme drag pressure, setting the drag correctly has become more important than ever. You want to be able to take advantage of the extra fish-stopping power these modern reels provide, but without losing fish to broken lines, rods and terminal tackle.
When fishing lines were always nylon monofilament, a handy rule of thumb for setting the reel’s drag was to adjust the tension so the spool slips (releases line) at one-third of the breaking strain of the main line.
One-third was (and still is) always the default ‘strike’ setting for lever-drag game fishing reels spooled with monofilament nylon line, and by extension any other reel spooled with nylon. For example, if the main line is 15kg breaking strain, the correct ‘strike’ drag, usually measured over the rod with a spring scale, is 5kg.
One-third of the line’s breaking strain is still an excellent guide for setting your drag when using mono, although in most fishing situations it doesn’t have to be quite that precise. A bit more or a bit less is okay, depending on the situation, though more drag increases the risk of the line breaking, especially if it is old, worn or otherwise damaged. Knots weaken lines too – poorly tied or unsuitable knots can reduce the breaking strain of the main line by as much as 50 percent.
Most anglers, if they pay attention to drag settings at all, set their drags by feel, pulling line off the reel and adjusting the drag pressure until the resistance is ‘about right’. For everyday fishing, less is better than more, unless you need an especially tight drag, say, to haul big fish away from structure.
The advent of braided gel-spun polyethylene (PE or GSP) lines has changed the drag equation somewhat. Many anglers using braided line routinely fish much heavier drags than they would when fishing ‘equivalent’ nylon lines.
They can do this because PE lines are much stronger for a given diameter than monofilament. Most PE lines also over-test: they are much stronger than the nominal breaking strain printed on the packaging, so there is a fair bit margin for error built in. That said, the low-stretch nature of PE lines mean they are vulnerable to shock loading, since unlike monofilament nylon, they have very little ‘give’.
A lot of PE lines do not offer up a breaking strain at all, but are classified according to the Japanese system based on line diameter. And while PE 5 roughly translates to 50-pound breaking strain, PE 6 to 60-pound, PE 8 to 80-pound (37kg) and so on, many PE 8 lines break at well over 100 pounds and most PE 5 lines break at 60 pounds or more.
Actual breaking strains vary widely between brands, and even between spools of the same line, but most lines will be much ‘stronger’ than their nominal PE rating.
Line diameter is a good guide to line strength, but some fine diameter PE lines are stronger than much thicker lines. Price is a fair indication of line quality, although not necessarily strength/breaking strain, with properties like the handling characteristics, fibre type (Spectra, Dyneema, others) coating type and thickness, the number of carriers and the type of fishing it is designed for all playing a part. Generally, though, the more a line costs, the better quality it is likely to be, with some of the most expensive lines offering high strength for superfine diameter.
IGFA-compliant lines break at or below their stated breaking strain, but most PE lines grossly over-test. Only a very few PE lines are IGFA-compliant. For this reason, claiming IGFA records for fish caught on PE lines used to be problematic. But recent changes to IGFA rules now allow anglers to claim records for fish taken using PE lines, provided they use a topshot of monofilament nylon or fluorocarbon that does meet IGFA line class specifications.
The non-stretch nature of braided PE lines and the ability to use much heavier drag settings have changed the nature of both lightand heavy-tackle sport fishing. Using braid, anglers can exert a lot more pressure on hooked fish than was possible using monofilament, often stopping fish in their tracks. Little or no line stretch means that whatever movements angler makes with the rod and reel is transmitted down the line to the fish rather than being partly absorbed in line stretch as happens with mono.
Low stretch allows the angler to better dictate the battle, but also poses some challenges, which I’ll touch on later.
Certain angling styles, such as vertical jigging and top water fishing, routinely employ heavy drag settings – often more than half the nominal breaking strain of the line. Drags are often screwed down so tight it’s not possibly to pull line off the reel by hand, even when wearing gloves!
Obviously, with such heavy drag settings, there’s always the risk of breaking the line – or having a knot, hook or other item of terminal tackle fail – but in many situations, allowing a fish to run will result in a bust-off anyway. Fishing heavy tackle and hard drags demands skill, goodquality gear and a fair bit of brute strength.
With today’s high-tech fishing tackle sport-fishers can exert an eye-watering level of drag pressure and there is always the temptation to pull on the gear as hard as you can. But anglers need to take care. Modern fishing rods designed for PE lines are wonderful, but they can be broken.
Pulling too hard, lifting a rod too high (point loading) or changing the rod’s fulcrum point, either by gripping a loaded rod above the foregrip or bracing it against the side of the boat, can result in spectacular rod failures and (usually) a lost fish.
Heavy tackle fishing can also place considerable physical strain on the angler, sometimes resulting in back, hand and arm injuries. Wearing gloves is sensible, not only to protect your fingers from taut PE line, which easily cuts through flesh, but also to maintain your grip on rod and reel (harnesses are seldom used with heavy jigging and topwater gear). With little or no ‘give’ in the line, a strong, heavy fish or a lurching boat can easily jerk the rod and reel out of your hands.
PE lines are also extremely difficult to break when snagged – I’ve seen large vessels effectively anchored by a single PE 8 jigging outfit snagged on the bottom.
With the lighter tackle used for inshore fishing, fighting fish is less physically demanding. Fishing PE braid affords the advantage of effectively upping the line class without the usual penalties of weight, bulk and increased line diameter: the angler can enjoy using compact, lightweight tackle that still packs a punch.
Compared to the gear I used 15 years ago, my current crop of light graphite rods, dinky reels and fine diameter PE lines are a pleasure to use. They are better fish takers too.
But for all that you can now pull harder using ‘light’ tackle, there are still limitations. A big snapper or kingfish is a powerful beast and even the best soft-bait, micro-jig or slow jigging outfit won’t stop one when it wants to run. Your drag needs to release line, or you will break the braid, the rod or some item of terminal tackle.
Where you set the drag continues to be important, but whereas you might have once set it at one-third, with braid one-half of the line’s nominal breaking strain may now be appropriate (assuming it over-tests, which is likely), perhaps more. Remember, though, that most knots in braid reduce the line’s breaking strain, so take this into account.
In some situations more drag pressure can be counterproductive. Pulling hard on kingfish and snapper often results in the fish panicking and making a bee-line for any structure on which to break the line. The harder you pull, the harder they pull back.
It can sometimes be better to employ a ‘softly, softly’ approach, leading fish away from danger using relatively light drag pressure. You can put the wood on later in the fight when the fish is clear of any underwater structure.
The softly, softly approach works well on inshore kingfish, but I’ve also caught many large snapper in very shallow water fishing this way. I use light rods and fine diameter lines to cast and work the lightly weighted soft -plastics I favour for this style of fishing.
To catch snapper in only two or three metres of water, the lure must sink slowly enough to give fish time to see it. That can mean going down to 1/6 and 1/8-ounce jig heads to get sufficient ‘hang time’ for snapper to spot the lure, which are invariably built on fine gauge wire hooks.
With 3-5kg rods and the light braid required to cast light jig heads a reasonable distance, softly, softly is the only way to go. Heavier tackle can apply more drag pressure, but it also straightens hooks and panics hooked fish into running for cover. Manoeuvring the boat/ kayak to get on top of a hooked fish and maintaining a short line is also important when fishing light gear amongst the rocks, but that’s a topic for another story.
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