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Setting Drag On A Baitcast Fishing Reel

setting the drag on a fishing reel

As promised in the parts of a baitcast reel I am going to run through some of the proper settings, use and functions of the different parts of a baitcast fishing reel for catfish.

For these examples I am using the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500C3 considered by the many to be the “gold standard” in catfish reels but if you are new to catfish reels go read my article on choosing a catfish reel. While you are at it you should probably read choosing a catfish rod and suggested catfish tackle as well if you have not already.

The drag is one of the most important parts of any fishing reel and becomes even more important when catfishing because of the opportunity to catch BIG catfish. The drag being set and used properly can make or break you when attempting to land a trophy catfish.

The drag (often referred to as a star drag) is controlled by the star shaped knob that is on the reel just inside the handle. When the star is turned clockwise it tightens and when it is turned counter clockwise it loosens.

Being adjusted tighter is often referred to as “more” and being looser is often referred to as “less”. For instance if someone said you need to tighten the drag or you need more that would mean you needed to turn the star clockwise to apply more pressure on the washer. If someone said you need less drag or loosen it that would mean you needed to turn the star counter clockwise lessening the pressure on the drag washers.

What does the drag on a fishing reel do?

When it is tightened, it applies more pressure to the drag washers. When it is loosened, it applies less pressure to the washers.

In a nutshell what this means is that the tighter the tension is is on the spool, the less give there is between you and a fish.

The drag functions as a “buffer” between your reel an the catfish allowing “give” which prevents the fishing line from breaking. This is what compensates for the difference between the break strength of the fishing line and the actual amount of pull the is being applied to the fishing line.

If you are using 20 lb test line and catch a 1 lb catfish, the setting is not so important. If you are using 20 lb test and catch a 100 lb fish then properly set (and used) drag system will make the difference between having it in the boat or it being the “one that got away”.

I have mentioned several times that I use 20 lb test Offshore Angler Tight Line and if you have looked at my catfish guide service website you have seen numerous pictures of fish that are well in excess of 20 lbs, many are double and triple that. Proper settings and proper technique is what makes this possible.

Here is a bit of (sideline) trivia for you. Did you know that every Texas state record flathead catfish ever caught was caught by a crappie fisherman? If you know anything about crappie fishing you know that crappie fishermen use ultra light gear and ultra light line. Proper technique and properly using the drag on the reel is what makes it possible for a crappie fisherman to land a trophy class flathead catfish in 2 or 4 lb test fishing line.

How to properly set the drag on a fishing reel.

If you have been fishing very long you have probably heard this, but others may not have some I am going to give a brief readers digest version of the “proper procedure” here. Technically, the proper way to set the drag on a baitcast reel is to spool the reel with line, attach the reel to the rod, run the line through the line guides and then tie a small loop in the end of the fishing line (where the hook would normally go).

One person holds the rod, and the loop tied in the fishing line is the attached to a digital fish scale and the rod is held at a fourty five degree angle. The drag is adjusted and the person holding the rod and reel pulls back against the line (again attached to the scale). The drag should slip at approximately 25 to 35 percent of the unknotted line strength for the fishing line.

For thirty pound test fishing line this would be 7.5 to 10 lbs.

Basically the process is adjust the drag, pull against the scale, notify the person holding the scale when the drag slips the check reading on the scale and rinse and repeat until you get it right.

Blah, blah, blah ……..

Let me know how this works out for you. I have never once, ever used this process nor do I ever have any intentions of doing so, and honestly I don’t know of anyone else who does this either.

The “Real World” Way

Spool your reel with fishing line and set your reels on your rods.Adjust the drag so it is semi loose (counter clockwise) and grab the fishing line about 3 to 6 inches above the reel and pull (away from the reel, towards the end of the rod). You should be able to pull the line and feel the drag slip fairly easily, if you think it is not easy enough, loosen it a little more and try it again.

Now, the thing you need to remember about this is that if it is set too tight, and there is no “give” in the reel, when you hook a big catfish it is going to snap your line so fast you are not going to know what hit you and you will be left standing there, fishing rod in hand with broken line scratching your head. If the drag is too loose, when you set the hook and begin your retrieve with the reel you are not going to gain any ground at all on the fish, the handle will turn but the spool will not.

You can always compensate for a drag being to loose by simply tightening it up a bit when you hook that monster catfish of a lifetime, about 1/4 turn at a time. You only have one shot at getting this correct though and  if it is set too tight (too much drag) you will NOT get a second chance at it.

When I hook a big catfish, I start my retrieve and am watching the drag and feeling the handle, getting a sense for what is taking place and whether I should increase or decrease the settings, if it is too loose, I increase one quarter turn at a time until I feel it is right, but even then you want the fish to be able to pull drag on the reel.

When a client of mine hooks a big fish I am watching the reel, watching the line and watching the drag and making adjustments if needed (which is 100% of the time increasing the drag).

Major Mistakes

I see anglers way too often trying to land big catfish, or any size fish for that matter and fishing with the drag set way too tight, and losing fish. The other fatal error is they get overly confident and think there is too much slippage so they start cranking that star down tighter and tighter until it quits slipping.

Often times this works out fine, until one critical point, which is when they get the big catfish to the side of the boat. It is very rare that you will get a big catfish to the side of the boat and it will just sit there and look at you waiting to be scooped up with your dip net.  I have seen it happen a couple of times but this is typically when a fish is caught in deeper water and the fish is brought up too quickly, and even then the it almost always still has some fight in it. More often than not though, the angler is gaining line on the catfish, they gain confidence, starting cranking that star down adding more tension, the catfish gets to the side of the boat, has a walleyed hissy fit (that’s Texan for goes nuts and starts splashing around) and makes another run and the line snaps at that point.

The last thing you need to remember is that it is the fishing rod that brings the fish in, not the reel. I will go into more detail on this later in a seperate article but it is something for you to ponder long and hard if you don’t already understand it.


Last but not least is reel storage and drag washers. If for some reason after all of my advice you are compelling to crank down that star on the reel as tight as it will go, you need to make sure that you back that off and loosen it up when you are done fishing. Most drag systems contain some synthetic washers as part of the system. When you crank that star down as hard as it will go and leave it that way for extended periods of time it compresses these washers and causes them to lose shape, and in turn will ultimately not function properly. If you are in an area that has extreme heat in the Summer then this can be a really big problem very quickly, which forces replacement of these parts for the fishing reel to function properly.

Hopefully this is all you ever wanted to know about drag on a fishing reel and how to use it.

Make sure you check out my cafish tackle page and also choosing a catfish rod and choosing a catfish reel to get the complete listing of the gear I use as a professional catfish guide.

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About Chad

Chad Ferguson is a professional catfish guide and founder of Learn To Catch Catfish. Click here to subscribe for more exclusive catfish fishing tips by email and then follow on Twitter or Google


  1. Chad;

    Thanks for the great info. Even though I was only practicing with my new rods, [an 8' MH Ugly Stix Catfishing, and a 7'6" ML Ugly Stix Intercoastal] & the new 6500 C3 reel, I found out that my drag was not properly set. According to your directions, my drag was too tight. I will pay much closer attention to the adjustment next time I go out.

    Also as a side note, the term you used, “a walleyed hissy fit”, is not relagated only to Texans. That term was a frequent threat to my siblings and I from our Mom. She was an Okie from McAlester OK. Big Grin here. In fact, I was born there myself.

    Thanks for your info on “GoFISHn. I have contacted Ned Desmond about the problems/mistakes I have made on my profile there. He has gone out of his way 3 or 4 times since yesterday to help me out on this matter. A very conscientious and most likable fella.

    Thanks again for all you provide to us, the angling public.


    • Hope they get it worked out for you. This article is one in a series so there is more great info coming on baitcasting reels. I think I have 3 or 4 more that are already scheduled to post and I have 2 or 3 more that are in the works. By the time I am done I should have all of your bases covered and then some!

  2. Steven Gonzalez says:

    Fantastic info, Sir! I have a fishing buddy that had a charter business out a Rockport years ago, and he set his drag “all technical and stuff.” I believe that with cats, it’s more a matter of learning how to feel it out….just like trying to cast a baitcast reel. Now, I was out a few months back with my local guide, and he was kind enough to let me use my gear (slip corkin’ with spinning rigs for channels). He sure did school me about using the drag properly for landing the fish.
    I’m glad you have posted this article, and I believe you have answered MANY questions. Good stuff, Chad!

    • If your chasing giant tarpon or something there would be a critical need but your not likely to catch anything in freshwater you cannot calibrate with a “hand pull test”.

  3. Chad: every time I thinnk I am ahead of the learning curve, you throw a fast ball past me. I would have been out in my yard with a digital scale and my fishing poles, making all sorts of calculations to precisely adjust the drag, when the object is to allow a fisherman to actually get a big one in the boat or on shore. You have a way of simplifying and taking the mystery out of catfishing essentials. I am very lucky that I have only lost a monster carp to a tight drag. (They take too long to smoke anyway). I can always count on you and your sites to give the information straight and I know it has been tested, tried and true. You have simplified my fishing life and that is great. See you on GO FISHING!


  4. Dustin Brown says:

    I think that I generally start out with mine too loose, but manage to make the right adjustments I guess. Now if I could only find that “BIG” one. My family and I plus a couple of friends were recently at Possum Kingdom. The first night that we were there we decided to do some catfishing from a point in the Rock Creek area. I had already pulled in a couple of fish between 2 and 5 lbs when all of a sudden I heard a loud pop! I turned to see on of the friends say that she felt a nibble then the line just snapped. “Must have been a gar” my friend exclaimed. I guess it could have been, but I sure didn’t hear the tale-tale sound of the drag slipping either. I have a feeling that is why I spent more time reeling fish in and they spent more time tieing on new leaders. Great article! Thanks for the information!

  5. Some of the best Channel cat fishing in the world is right here in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Channel cats in the 25-35lb range are extremely common and require some fairly beefy tackle. The most important part is of course, proper drag control. Personally, I set the drag very tight while my bait is on the bottom (I use 50lb braided line). The circle hooks I use almost always guarantee a solid hook set in the corner of the mouth but it’s important that the drag be tight to properly set the hook. As soon as I get that tug on the rod that tells me the fish is hooked, I immediately back off on the drag. Fighting a 35lb channel cat in very strong current will quickly break off even 50lb monofilament leaders. I’ve managed to break not one, but TWO Ugly Stiks over the years as a result of setting the drag too tight when close to the boat. Thankfully the line held, but the rod did not! Anyway, just wanted to echo your words Chad. Drag control is paramount. Good fishing!

  6. I am fairly new to catfishing. Thanks for the info. and your web site. I have learned a lot of info and love catfishing. Keep up the information.

  7. Hey man you should fish up in shreveport by the casino boats sometime on the Red river done monster blue here

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