No drag system out there today on any reel whether it's baitcasting, spinning or any other style of big game reel can efficiently react to all the variables that present themselves on any given fishing outing. The perfect drag simply does not exist. Reel manufacturers do a great job overall of providing a very durable little machine that we call "the baitcasting reel". For the price, they cast, retrieve and function with amazing durability. Yet, drag systems on even the best baitcasters have a long way to go before they could ever be considered perfect.
Some of this has to do with pure economics. In order to make a reel affordable to the angler masses, only so much technology can be built inside these line winching machines. Most of the improvements and true innovations that have found their way to the commercial side of today's baitcasting reels have come in the way of improved castability, superior gear strength, smoother retrieves, and lighter overall weight. Drag systems, as a whole, have changed very little in the last 30 years. A drag system that would truly revolutionize the reel industry is one that would automatically adjust to various conditions. Imagine the cost increases at the retail level for such a product. And then, even if it was created, would anglers actually buy it?
Usually, we set a drag at a fixed position and hope it functions correctly when that big fish finally strikes. Most of the time, a drag is an after thought. In fact, during any typical hour of fishing, the drag is rarely called upon to work. The angler is simply casting and retrieving. We do a lot more casting and retrieving, than we do "catching". So, we don't call upon our drags very often. When we do, we hope they work.
DRAG SETTINGS FOR CASTING VS. TROLLING
It is much harder to set a drag properly for casting versus trolling. This is mainly because trolling provides a fixed distance from lure to rod tip enabling you to set the drag properly for that amount of line out. As you will see as we move along in this discussion, the length of line out or distance between rod tip and lure is the key factor in the overall drag setting. What makes the casting game more complicated on the drag setting side has to do with this ever changing length of line. This ever changing length of line (distance between lure and rod tip) has a direct bearing on how a drag should be set, and the effectiveness of the drag itself.
Try to visualize what I am talking about here - When you cast and retrieve a lure, the distance between rod tip and lure changes continually. This produces the problem that no one reel made today can accommodate - a variable setting on the drag system according to the amount of line you have out, or the distance from rod tip to lure. In other words, the correct drag setting is directly proportional to the amount of line between you and the fish. In the perfect world, the drag would continually adjust itself as you retrieve your lure.
When your lure first hits the water at the end of a long cast, the ideal drag setting should be lock-tight. Any fish that strikes your lure from long distance must be met with a rock solid hookset that sweeps all the slack out of the line and drives the hooks home. Drag slippage of any kind in this case will surely negate a good hookset and decrease your chances of landing the fish. Lures with large hooks and a bulky hard body profile compound the problem even more since a musky's jaw will clamp down so hard on it. Imagine the bite force that is generated against the body of the lure by the musky's jaws initially. Trying to move a big hard bait in a big musky's mouth while it has its jaws clamped down is almost fruitless at long range. Add large diameter hooks to this equation and the job becomes even harder. If the fish is moving at you, the task is complicated even more. Now, add drag slippage to this equation and you've spelled l o s t m u s k y.
A low-stretch line coupled with a long rod helps along with sharp hooks. So is a good hookset; something that only a few anglers have truly mastered. Initiating a strategic rotation of the body sideways while simultaneously stepping back is the key way to generate the power needed to achieve an explosive and decisive hookset 60, 70, 80 feet or more from the boat. But remember, drag slippage negates even the best hooksets. That's why I am a big fan of a heavy set drag. You simply must have it for strikes from any distance with the size of the lures we use.
Now, of course this whole tight drag philosophy starts to work against you as the lure nears the boat throughout the retrieve. With each yard of line retrieved inward, the perfect drag would be loosening to accommodate the changing line length and potential impact of a strike at that given range. Remember, this range is always changing as your retrieve. It's never fixed.
By the mid way point in your retrieve, a drag setting of "medium tight" would be more appropriate. In this instance, a power hookset initiated the way I described it earlier would result in a very slight drag slippage. I'm not talking about much slippage here; just an ever so slight slippage at the end of the hookset under solid pressure from both the weight of the fish against the momentum of your rod bend and body movement. In fact, unless the fish was sizable, over 42 inches or so, no slippage would occur. It would take a big fish with both power and weight to generate this drag slippage, but the drag would slip only under a lot of pressure. This would still insure an absolute solid hookset, yet release any excessive energy created by the shorter line distance. A superbly hooked fish should be the result.
Finally, once that lure gets inside the last ten feet or so, a completely different drag setting would be ideal. No longer do you have all these negative factors that demand the tight drag. You don't have a lot of line between your rod tip and the fish now. No longer do you have any line stretch insurance. The margin of error for over pressure goes way up. Once that lure reaches the rod tip and you're into your boatside figure eight, you are at the "red line" mark. Now, it is theoretically possible to put way too much pressure on a big fish with a drag set too tight. The drag on the ultimate fantasy baitcaster would now have loosened quite a bit from its original lock-tight setting at the beginning of the cast. At this point, it should be ready to spill line quickly and steadily if and when an explosive boatside bruiser strikes.
A COMPLICATED SITUATION ACTUALLY HAS A SIMPLE SOLUTION
Tough scenario hey? While at first it might seem like it, there's actually a very simple solution to this whole drag setting problem. There's an overlooked element in this whole drag setting scenario that most anglers don't even considered, and it actually neutralizes many of the tight drag negatives. Thankfully, this simple solution doesn't require any special after market purchases or any customizing of any kind. In fact, the true answer to most of your drag setting problems is so simple, you're probably not going to believe it when I reveal it. The answer to many of your drag setting problems is your rod choice. That's right, it's all in the rod. A longer rod, 7 1/2 feet or more, compensates or acts as a slipping drag on short range, tight quarter battles with big fish. Simply put, once you start utilizing a longer medium/heavy power 7 ½ to 8 foot rod, the problems of drag setting suddenly become easy.
Think of a long rod as your insurance policy in the musky world. When properly utilized in a battle scenario, the long rod does most of the drag's job. As an extreme example, consider that this is how a fly fisherman are is able to effectively battle huge saltwater fish on light tackle without line breakage. It's the long rod bend absorbing all the power and explosiveness of the fish. In addition, if any drag adjustments need to be made, the deeply bent rod provides the angler with additional time needed to adjust the drag accordingly. In essence, the long rod is the answer to many of your drag problems.
I'm willing to bet that a lot more muskies are lost to drags set too loosely, than drag's set too tight. Most musky anglers are overly concerned with line breakage and terminal tackle failure. This results in a drag set emotionally rather than practically. Thinner gauge lines and lighter tackle can further promote this tentative attitude on drag settings. In this case, the angler is also simply relying on the drag too much to counter the power and explosiveness of the fish.
Set the drag with a positive aggressive attitude. Don't worry about breaking the line. Instead, concentrate on setting the hooks. While a drag set too tight might put too much pressure on a short line musky battle, a loosely set drag will not put enough pressure on a fish hooked at the end of a long cast. Also remember this - you can always back off a bit on a tight drag after a solid hookset, and you'll still likely have the fish hooked and on its way to the landing net. However, it is a not as easy to do the opposite. A weakly set drag destroys all of your power and momentum, reduces your chances of driving a hook in solidly from any range outside of ten feet. A much higher percentage of missed opportunities at big muskies is sure to be the end result.
As you can see, the casting world presents some interesting problems and scenarios that challenge the best baitcasters, as well as the rods, lines, and leaders. However, once you are aware of the simple physics involved during any typical encounter with a musky in a casting situation, overcoming any shortfalls of a reel's drag system is surely attainable. A quality rod containing a powerful butt section combined with the right amount of flex at the tip end is the answer to many of your potential problems during any battle with a big fish.
So, crank that star drag down semi-tight, just so it will barely slip under a lot of pressure. Always lean towards a longer rod of 7 feet or more whenever possible. Set the hook with one fluid motion that combines a rotation of your body sideways while your rod tip roars upwards over your opposite shoulder. Never set the hook more than once. Set it once-- hard! Always rotate your body to generate more power. Step backwards if needed to pick up even more line and stay with a fish that is heading at you. Above all, utilize the full length of the rod to compensate for any drag short comings. Keep that long rod "doubled" in a deep bend with good solid pressure. You'll be amazed at how well this works for consistent hookups with big muskies. Once a fish gets near boatside, back your star drag off a bit, if you feel compelled to do so. Or simply engage the free spool on your baitcaster and rely on your own thumb pressure to do the job at short range. This combination, working as a unit, allows you to control even the biggest fish and rely on the mechanics of drag very little. You'll find this system to be the best way to deal with the age old problem of setting the drag for muskies!
Hall of Fame angler Joe Bucher is the Editor Emeritus for Musky Hunter Magazine and one the most highly recognized multi-species fishing and hunting authorities in the outdoor business trade. Joe is the host of Fishing with Joe Bucher TV show which has been on the air for over 20 years. For more information on Joe please visit his website at JoeBucher.Com