"Loosen the drag, lock it down, it's peeling drag"
Whether you are new to fishing or an experienced angler I'm sure we have all heard these words while on the water on in some video, tv show, or article. Drag is a crucial part of an anglers arsenal that allows them to get fish in the boat. But do you know what it really is and how to use it properly? While drag is a variable setting there are few key scenarios that have completely opposite set points!
Let's start things off from the very beginning. What is drag? Drag is a setting on your spinning or casting reel that limits the amount of tension that can be put in the line. This is accomplished by allowing the spool on the reel to spin backwards (opposite of the direction when reeling in) when a certain force is applied. As line is pulled out by the fish the tension or force is limited as long as the drag activates smoothly and can keep up with the rate of line being pulled out.
But why would you want to limit the amount of tension in your line? Limiting the amount of tension gives the angler an advantage over the fish as too much tension in the line can lead to gear failure; line breaks, hooks bending out (if they are weaker than the line), as well as giving the fish the ability to pull against a solid object to rip a larger hole in their mouth where hook is which allows them to throw the bait more easily.
Now you may be thinking what happens when the drag is too loose? This is equally as disadvantageous for anglers. Loose drag prevents anglers from getting a good hookset, reduces control over the fish, and can allow the hook to fall out of the fish by not keeping enough tension on it!
So where is the right point and how can you ensure your drag is set correctly?
The important considerations to make are what gear are you using, and what situations are you fishing?
When using very light gear you want, rephrase, need to have smooth drag and a light setting so that your line won't break and hooks won't bend out. This requires a spinning rod as casting rods are not smooth enough. Ideally if you grab the line by the spool and pull out there will be a slight force required to get it. As you fish and start fighting fish you want to adjust and make sure the drag is set such that when the fish pulls or makes a dive that the drag allows the line to be pulled out smoothly. If the drag is peeling as you reel in it is too loose, but if fish are trying to make big runs or headshakes and it is not coming out then you are too tight. We prefer to have the drag set a little tighter than we expect to need it for a solid hookset and then loosen as necessary during the fight.
When fishing around heavy cover or with lures that have big thick hooks (like muskie and pike baits) anglers want all the control and all the power they can have to drive hooks into the fish. In these scenarios drag isn't used at all! In fact the drag setting should be locked right down or set to the highest tension setting it can possibly do to give anglers the advantage. Now in these cases there is still the risk of line breaks. As a result anglers should also upgrade their line strength so that there is no chance of failure. This will make fighting the fish different than when using the lighter drag and anglers should be using the more powerful gear to "drag", horse, or straight up overpower the fish to get them in the boat. This is only possible with really stiff rods, strong line, strong hooks, and a rock solid drag!