Left or Right?

Right-hand reel – for right-handers?

by Scott Sadil

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Not anymore.

I stop in at the local fly shop, in need of backing on a new spool for a reel I’m taking north. Fellow behind the counter, who used to ride skateboards with my oldest son, frees the spool, inspects it, reinserts it into the reel – and when he goes to knot on the bitter end of the backing, he asks, “Left hand or right hand reel?”

“Right,” I answer.

Mid knot, the guy glances my way.  Having seen it for decades now, I can all but read his look:  Oh, a lefthander – casts left, reels right.

Right cast, right reel

Or thereabouts.

The spool, inside the reel on the winder, begins spinning. Guiding the line into even layers, the guy comments, randomly, the way one will when engaged in a mindless task.

“Buddy of mine said he knew somebody who cast right handed and then would switch the rod to his left hand and reel with his right hand, too.”

I allow the backing to grow a bit on the spool before responding.

“That’s how I do it.”

Another glance my way.

“That’s how you’re supposed to do it,” I add.

I’m joking, of course. Sort of.  Having had this same talk elsewhere countless times over the past many years, I know full well it’s a conversational deadend. To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to.  Snook-er, snooo-ker.  SES-a-me . . . . se-SAM-e?  

That gets their attention.

But I do take it upon myself now and then, if the listener seems genuinely curious, to explain the logic.

Way back when, I offer, all reels were righthand reels because most anglers were, as they are today, righthanded.  Just as all boats had an accepted steering, or starboard, side, and the port side was for docking, a fly reel was reeled with the right hand, simple as that.

What changed this tradition, I argue, was the advent of spinfishing – a relatively recent development in the long history of angling.  Spinfishing put the handle of the reel in the hand opposite the casting hand – and it’s a pretty low blow to point out to serious fly fishers that they reel with their left hands, if they cast with their right, because of their connection, whether they recognize or not, to the lowly cousin of the royal form of the sport.

If, at this point, I haven’t lost my audience, started a quarrel, or found myself in a brawl, I like to add that there’s more behind my position than mere tradition.  You reel with you right hand, I suggest, for the same reason you cast with your right (or left and left if you’re a southpaw): It’s your dominant hand – stronger, faster, more coordinated.  In a serious fight, with a serious fish, why would you use any hand but your best?

The reel winder slows to a stop.  The guy begins knotting on the running line.  I’m about to start in on the topic of palming the spool, what it takes to stop a heavy fish, another job for your dominant hand – when the guy interrupts my thoughts.

“So – what?   The rod just magically appears in your left hand?”

“Exactly,” I agree.

Who can argue with that?


Back when he taught fly fishing, Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil allowed over 250 adult students to choose which hand to reel with. His sons, however, both reel with their right hands.