What’s Width Got to Do with It? Narrow vs Wide Fly Reels

Narrow vs Wide Fly Reel Spools

30% Narrower, 30% Lighter

The new Orvis Mirage LT was recently released with a headline boasting that it’s 30% narrower and 30% lighter than its big brother the Mirage USA. Lighter is obviously a feature in which it’s easy to see what the benefits would be. Someone looking to balance an unbelievably lightweight rod like the Orvis Helios 3 or Sage X would be well suited to the Mirage LT.

But after the LT’s launch we once again found ourselves answering the old question of what’s better: a narrow or wide spool. The old misconception came up, the one that says because of the narrow spool, the line will stack up quicker, giving you a larger effective arbor with less rotations of the spool resulting in a quicker retrieve rate.

Arbor and Full Diameter

In modern reels, width doesn’t play any noticeable part in line pick up. In fact a narrower reel often means a slower retrieval rate, but for different reasons other than the width itself. The determining factors to look at when buying a reel for retrieval rate are arbor diameter and full diameter.

In simplest terms you pick up the most line per rotation when your effective arbor is largest. Your effective arbor is largest nearest the full diameter of the reel. The axiom is that modern reels are designed to be filled with line and backing as near full diameter as possible without rubbing line on the frame. So let’s say you have a full reel (backing + fly line) with a 4” (total) diameter and your friend has a full reel with a 5” diameter (total). Two fish eat right at the boat and each pulls 100’ of fly line. After losing that 100’, your friend is still going to have a larger effective arbor with the larger diameter reel (regardless of width). He’s going to get that fly line back with less rotations with the 5” reel. Since the time it takes you and him to make a full rotation should be extremely close, he’s going to get the line back quicker with the reel that needs to make less rotations. The larger diameter reel.

If we’re comparing reels with a full inch gap in total diameter, we’re most likely comparing two different size reels. So when comparing reels with the same diameter. Let’s say 8 weights with a 4” full diameter, arbor size steps up as the determining factor in retrieval rate, width only helps dictate backing capacity. So you have two 8 weight reels, each hold 200 yards of backing and have a 4” diameter, but one is narrow so its arbor diameter has to be smaller to fit the backing, the other has a larger arbor and is wider to fit the backing. At any point in the fight the effective arbor is going to be larger on the wider reel with the larger arbor, so it’s going to pick up more line per rotation. To fit the backing, the difference in width would be determined by how much larger the fixed arbor is on the wider reel. If the second reel were made even wider it could hold more backing, again increasing effective arbor at any point in the fight. The Orvis Mirage USA (spools only not including full frame width) is around 20% wider than the Mirage LT. Its arbor is also around 20% larger and its full diameter is around 7% larger. They both hold the same amount of backing (200 yards of #20 dacron). The USA picks up line around 14% quicker than the LT.

Fly Reel Silhouette

The Tradeoff

If retrieval rate plays a big factor in your decision, you now know or already knew that arbor diameter and full diameter are retrieval rate’s determiners and that backing capacity is width’s main concern. So if you have two reels with the same full diameter and the same arbor diameter, but one holds 150 yards of backing and the other holds 300 yards of backing, the spool that holds 300 yards is going to be wider. You decide that you only need and want 150 yards. Remember that each spool is designed to fill the reel to near full diameter. So your effective arbor is going to increase faster with the reel only designed to hold 150 yards (the narrower one) than it is with the reel that’s designed for 300 yards (the wider one). And that’s where I believe the theory about narrower reels having quicker retrieve got its roots – trading backing for speed.

How Important is Retrieval Rate?

So since a narrower spool usually means a smaller arbor and a slower retrieval rate, why would you ever get a narrow spool and why did Orvis make a 30% narrower reel claiming it’s perfect for bonefish? Let’s first look at how much importance you place on retrieval rate. If a speedy retrieve is all you’re interested in for your 8 weight, get a Mirage USA IV or a Lamson Speedster 3.5. They have the largest diameters and also the largest arbors. Most of the other reels are much more similarly proportioned to each other and any increase in retrieval rate amongst them is only going to be barely noticeable. They vary slightly but all modern reels, even the slower ones, have good retrieval rates. Especially compared to the small diameter small arbor reels of yesteryear.

Back to the importance of retrieval rate. If you’ve ever had a big bonefish run straight at you – you know that not even a 20% increase in retrieval rate is going to catch up to that fish so you need to use the drag of the line on the water to keep tension on the fish until it either turns or straightens out behind you. When fighting big fish such as albies, tuna or cobia close to the boat it helps more to have a quicker retrieve, especially when the fish is boat shy and is just spinning underneath the boat. But I believe there’s only one game in which retrieval rate for fly reels is absolutely critical. And that’s big tarpon. When you pull up and away to get a tarpon’s head up, you need to crank back down to get another good pull, all without giving him an inch to get himself back into a comfortable position. Big tarpon is the only game I can think of in which optimizing inches and seconds can literally save yards and minutes. It’s as mental as it is physical.

Measuring fly reel width

Torque & Level Winding, the Other Factors

Now, there are many factors to take into consideration that we haven’t mentioned when choosing a reel, including drag system and durability. For the sake of this article we’re focusing on the factors influenced by the narrow spool of the reel that brought up the question “why would I want a narrow spool?”. Specifically the Orvis Mirage LT in size IV for bonefish and inshore fishing. We’ve covered backing capacity and retrieval rate. We’ve touched on weight as it’s pretty self explanatory, a narrow spool can weigh less as it requires less metal, a lighter reel will balance a lighter rod. So what’s left are torque and level winding.


We know a narrow spool usually means a smaller, deeper arbor. The distance between your handle and the arbor is greater. You create torque by exerting force onto the handle. The greater the distance between the handle and the arbor, the more force is exerted onto the line and whatever is on the end of it. It’s easier to move a heavy fish or object with a smaller arbor. Not a big deal when you generate your moving power with the butt section of the rod. A slightly bigger deal is that the same is true in reverse. The smaller the arbor, the more force the fish has to exert in order to take line. This can be good or not so good. Good – when a fish is making a long run, peeling line, decreasing the arbor, and in effect creating more drag on himself that’ll potentially slow him down quicker. Not so good – if you’re fishing light tippet and the fish stops deep in your backing, then suddenly takes off again, leaving you with more drag than you intended. This is something not often talked about in fly fishing, as it normally doesn’t present a problem, but it is definitely something to keep in mind if you’re fishing extremely light tippet.

Level Winding

Where we do see narrow spools having a significant advantage is in line distribution on the spool. With less area to cover, the line or backing is less likely to stack up unevenly and cause problems. Level winding is easier to do with just your pinky. It also becomes less critical as it happens more naturally. Many anglers forget to level wind at some point in the fight, especially when they’re focused on the fish. A narrower spool allows you to get away with it more than a wider spool. In the final seconds of the fight with a narrower reel, it’s less likely you’ll have line rubbing on the frame due to poor level winding.

The Final Decision

So when you’re deciding on a reel, especially one for saltwater, take into account all the functions and features of a fly reel – from weight to retrieval rate, durability, drag system, backing capacity and even looks and appearance. Then base your decision on what’s most important to you and what’s going to be best for the kind of fishing you do. The most important features of a bonefish reel to me are: smooth reliable drag system, durability/quality, backing capacity (minimum of 150 yards of #20 dacron), and weight (I want a lightweight outfit, as balanced as possible. I’d error on the heavy side, but too heavy as well as too light can hurt your casting). And if your decision comes down to wide vs narrow spool after factoring everything else in, the narrower spool makes level winding easier :).

To give you a better idea of how the reels we carry compare to each other in terms of arbor diameter, full diameter and backing capacity, we’re working on redoing the specs on our reels’ pages.

In the meantime, feel free to check out this specs chart for our most popular 8 weight reels

Sign up for more fly fishing goodness like this delivered straight to your inbox