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Mastering the Reel: The Dominant Hand Advantage

By: Clark Smyth

There is a commonly acknowledged yet seldom discussed debate in fly-fishing: "Right Hand Retrieve" or "Left Hand Retrieve". It is often assumed that anglers should reel using their non-casting hand, meaning right-handed casters would reel with their left hand and vice versa. While this approach may be more conventional in trout fishing circles, I believe that skilled anglers can successfully land trout without even touching the reel handle, making it a somewhat irrelevant example. However, when venturing to salt flats, the importance of the reel significantly increases, as reeling in fish becomes crucial for successfully landing them. Setting personal preferences aside, one could compare this debate to "stick-shift vs automatic transmission", "Apple vs personal computer (PC)", "Coke vs Pepsi", "Lays vs Ruffles", and so on. My argument is that there is a superior choice when it comes to fighting game fish that challenge both the angler's skill and their equipment. My stance is that the most effective way to reel is with your dominant hand.

A quiver of he author's rods rigged right hand retrieve.

Improved Coordination and Control

Imagine this scenario: You find yourself barefoot at the front of a shallow water fishing boat, with the catch of a lifetime on your line. As you start reeling in using your weaker hand, it feels as awkward as trying to write a postcard with your foot. Employing your dominant hand ensures superior coordination and control, which are crucial for handling the line and battling the fish. This method is noticeably quicker and offers significantly greater control over your fishing rod. Your dominant hand naturally possesses more power and agility, enabling smoother and more precise movements. This advantage can prove particularly valuable when facing larger, more powerful, and more energetic fish such as tarpon.

Increased Efficiency

Efficiency is key in fly-fishing, where the difference between landing a fish and losing it can come down to minuscule mistakes. Imagine trying to reel in quickly to avoid a snag while your non-dominant hand performs a comical dance of confusion. Reeling with your dominant hand will undoubtedly increase your efficiency, making the process of retrieving the line smoother, faster and more fluid. This approach can be especially beneficial in scenarios requiring a rapid reel-in to prevent issues such as snags or to maintain tension on the line when a fish suddenly changes direction.

Dominant hand retrieve helped land this golden dorado.

Enhanced Stamina

Fly-fishing, particularly the pursuit of giant tarpon, can be physically demanding. Reeling with your dominant hand can reduce fatigue and strain on your casting arm/hand, allowing you to fish longer with less discomfort. Since your dominant hand is generally stronger, it can handle the repetitive motion of reeling more comfortably, preserving your energy for the next one, or the one after that - if you are so lucky. No more wondering why you feel like you arm-wrestled a grizzly bear! Or, if you are feeling fatigue (try landing a tarpon over 100-pounds with your casting hand) wouldn't you rather your line hand feel the fatigue than your rod hand?

Better Handling in Challenging Conditions

Fly-fishing often involves dealing with various challenging conditions, such as strong currents, waves, wind, or the sudden movements of a fish on the end of the line. Your dominant hand's superior motor skills can make a significant difference in handling these challenges effectively. The ability to reel quickly and accurately can be crucial in maintaining control over your line and ensuring a successful catch. Trust me, you don’t want to be fumbling around when the fish on the end of the line is cartwheeling across the flat.

Natural Alignment with Casting

Most anglers cast with their dominant hand, and if they are hauling the line appropriately, the reel handle can interfere with proper hauling technique. Not when reeling with your dominant hand. The handle will be facing outward and therefore not in the way of the line in your hauling hand. Additionally, reeling with your casting hand can create a more natural and seamless transition between casting and reeling. This alignment can streamline your movements, making the entire fishing process more intuitive and less cumbersome.

Alleviating Soar Ribs Syndrome

Most modern tarpon fishing techniques have evolved to prioritize using short, swift strips to make the fly swim rapidly. This approach is commonly observed among anglers who adeptly tuck the rod under one arm, allowing them to employ both hands for a rapid retrieval of the fly. It is crucial that the reel setup facilitates a seamless transition from casting to retrieving. When the reel is configured to retrieve with the same hand used for casting, the reel handle will be positioned outward, ensuring that it does not become a hindrance by poking the angler in the ribs. This setup also minimizes the risk of inadvertently dropping the rod, especially when a powerful fish like a tarpon decides to engulf the fly, requiring quick and precise reactions from the angler. By optimizing the equipment and technique in this manner, anglers can enhance their efficiency and effectiveness.

Another example of a fish that required landing it on the reel.

Clearing Line from the Deck Appropriately

Regardless of the situation, it is essential to clear the slack line near your feet when a significant fish is hooked in order to smoothly transition the remaining slack line and the fish onto the reel. If there is even a slight tension in the slack line running through the rod's eyelets, the line may suddenly jump up near the reel/butt of the rod. If the reel handle is facing towards the moving line, there is a high risk of the slack line catching onto the handle and causing the hooked fish to break free. I have witnessed this unfortunate scenario occur far too many times, much to the dismay of every angler involved. Moreover, if the angler opts to set up the reel for reeling with their dominant hand and rotates the reel upwards, towards the sky (a helpful tip from Lefty) while clearing the line, their forearm acts as a protective barrier preventing the line from accidentally snagging on the reel handle or rod's butt. When executed correctly, the line will clear smoothly without any hang-ups, ensuring a successful clearing of slack line every time.

A hefty permit that tested the author's tackle.

Notable Anglers Who Advocate for Dominant Hand Reeling

Several legendary fly-anglers have embraced and advocated for reeling with their dominant hand. The big three:

Lefty Kreh

Lefty Kreh, a renowned fly-fishing instructor and author, was a strong proponent of using the dominant hand for reeling. He believed that this method provided better control and efficiency, especially when fighting larger fish. Kreh's techniques and teachings have influenced countless anglers worldwide, many of whom have adopted his preferred reeling method. I learned this technique from Lefty at a fly-fishing show in Denver in the early 90's and have been casting right handed and reeling right handed ever since. Lefty didn’t just teach fly-fishing—he revolutionized it.

Maybe he did, but I doubt it!

Flip Pallot

Flip Pallot, a legendary fly fisherman and television host, also champions reeling with the dominant hand. Pallot's extensive experience in various fishing environments has shown him the advantages of this technique, particularly in challenging conditions. His approach to fly fishing, emphasizing simplicity and effectiveness, aligns well with the benefits of dominant hand reeling. If Flip says it works, it absolutely works.

Andy Mill

Andy Mill, a celebrated tarpon angler and former Olympic skier, advocates for reeling with the dominant hand due to the increased strength and control it offers. Mill's success in catching large, powerful fish like giant tarpon underscores the practical benefits of this technique. His expertise and achievements serve as a testament to the effectiveness of reeling with the dominant hand. Andy’s no stranger to high-stakes situations, and neither should you be.


Using your dominant hand to reel provides a wide range of advantages, including enhanced coordination and control, improved efficiency, and decreased fatigue. Renowned anglers such as Lefty Kreh, Flip Pallot, and Andy Mill have showcased the benefits of this method through their impressive achievements. I am here to reaffirm their teachings, which I truly believe have enhanced my skills amd successes as an angler.

While tradition and personal preference play a role in how you choose to reel, considering these advantages and examples might persuade you to try reeling with your dominant hand. Why not give it a try? Ultimately, the goal is to enjoy the art of fly-fishing to its fullest, and using techniques that enhance your performance can lead to more satisfying and successful fishing adventures.

Whether you’re a seasoned angler or a newcomer to fly-fishing, give reeling with your dominant hand a try on your next fishing trip. You might find that this simple adjustment can make a world of difference in your overall fishing experience. Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, and let’s keep the conversation going. Tight lines!


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