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How to Choose a Star Drag vs Lever Drag Reel

How to Choose a Star Drag vs Lever Drag Reel

If you are new to fishing or have never fished a conventional reel before, the question is sure to come up about what is better, a star drag or a lever drag on a conventional reel.

Let’s take a look at the two styles of conventional reels so we can learn the difference between the two types of drag systems and when one might be preferred over the other.

In the photo below, you can see on the left a Penn Squall Star Drag and a Daiwa Black and Gold Star Drag.  Notice the star-shaped wheel that sits just inside the handle?  The star drag is used to progressively tighten the drag, some will have a ratchet system and some will not, they will just tighten the drag quietly.

One thing to keep in mind with a star drag is that you are kind of guessing how much drag you have applied at any time to the spool, there is no way to look at the reel and visually see how much drag you have applied.

To the right of these two reels is an image of the Penn Squall Lever Drag reel.  You can see that there is a lever that can be moved back and forth to tighten the drag to the desired setting.

One thing I personally like is that I can visually see how much drag is on the reel, this is particularly useful if I am fishing with less experienced anglers.

Drag Adjustment

Most lever drag systems will also have what is called a strike setting.  The strike setting is where you want to have your drag adjusted so that you have enough drag to set the hook properly but give the fish enough drag that it goes not break the line or leader.

Again, the advantage of the lever drag in this instance is that you can quickly set the reel to the proper strike setting with the simple movement of the lever drag to the strike position.  When you are going after larger species like billfish, the lever drag is the way to go, as you can set the strike setting drag and the max drag easily, and you can then be confident that you will not break the line.

With the star drag, it is too easy to over tighten the drag and set yourself up for disappointment when the line breaks.

As you can see in the photo above, the star drag wheel is located between the spool and the handle.  In most cases, it is pretty easy to use your thumb to add a little bit more to the drag when you are fishing.

When you do get a fish on the line, this all changes.  If you are cranking the handle with one hand and holding the. rod tightly with the other, it can be difficult to get your fingers between the spool and the handle to make an adjustment.

Fish Size Matters

For smaller sized fish, a star drag is fine and what I mean by smaller-sized is anything under say 40-50 lbs.  So if you are fishing off the coast for smaller tuna, barracuda, cobia, etc. then you can look at using open conventional reels like the Penn Squall Star Drag and Okuma Cortez Star Drag.

You will find that the low profile reels such as the Daiwa Lexa 300 and Lexa 400, Shimano Tranx 500 or even the Shimano Tranx 300 and 400 have a star drag adjustment, which is fine for your smaller species.

When targeting fish above 40–50 lbs, you are typically going to either have a fish that takes a lot of line off the spool or, in the case of bottom fishing, an anchor that you are trying to reel to the surface.

In either of these cases, you not only want to lean towards the lever drag for the aforementioned reasons but you also probably want to take a look at a 2-speed reel like the Penn Squall 2-speed Lever Drag or the Okuma Makaira SE Lever Drag.

With the 2-speed option, you have the ability to push a button typically located in the handle and switch between a high gearing for fast retrieval of the line and a low gearing for hauling in those heavy fish.


Most anglers will tell you that a star drag reel is going to give you better castability as the spool has a tendency to spin more freely. Certain reels, such as the Penn Fathom, have what they call a live spindle design.

What this means is that when you throw the clutch lever into free spool mode, the spool completely disengages from the spindle, the pinion gear and everything else that could potentially cause friction.  At this point, the spool is completely free to spin as it is simply riding on the ball bearings, which means that you are going to get a very long cast.

If you are a west coast fisherman and are throwing iron, or if you are an east coast fisherman and are live baiting, then having the ability to cast long distances with the free spool will be important to you.

I think that this still holds true today; however, with the newer technologies that have come to market in the last few years, such as Magnetic cast control, the lever drag reels are getting close to the star drag reels when it comes to castability.

One thing that you need to keep in mind with a free spool is that a feature like a centrifugal brake will come in very handy for someone who has a less educated thumb to prevent back spooling.

With some of the newer technologies that are coming on the market and multiple sealed ball bearings, the lever drag reels are getting close to the star drags when it comes to castability.

These additional features that allow for better castability in the lever drag are going to cost you a few additional dollars and are typically only found in the higher-end lever drag reels.

In Conclusion

At the end of the day, you are going to have some people who swear by a star drag and others who swear by a lever drag.  From our point of view, here are our preferences:

Best ForStar DragLever Drag
30 lbs and UnderSuperiorInferior
30 lbs and OverInferiorSuperior
Drag AdjustmentInferiorSuperior
Seeing Drag LevelInferiorSuperior
Throwing IronsSuperiorInferior
Bottom FishingSuperiorInferior
Live LiningSuperiorInferior
Kite FishingInferiorSuperior

If you have the opportunity to try several star drag reels and several lever drag reels before you purchase your own, I think that is the way to go.

If that is not an option and you are fishing for smaller fish under 30 lbs, then get yourself a good star drag reel and practice casting with it.

Remember, you don’t have to be on the water to practice casting.  You can attach a weight, go to your local sporting field and practice to educate your thumb.

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