When the open faced spinning reel invaded these shores a half-century ago, setting the drag was accomplished via a wing nut on the front of the spool. The relatively large front drag -- made up of alternating disks of brass, steel, plastic and fiber -- was important because spinning was also known as "thread-lining" back then.
Fabulous catches were being made by spin-fishermen using gossamer, near-invisible line, a revolutionary change from the bait-caster's heavy, twine-like braided Dacron.
Using long, flexible rods and 3-pound-test line that was nothing more than one continuous leader, anglers could induce wary fish to pick up a bait.
To land Mr. Lunker, the skilled thread-liner had to start with a very light drag, perhaps applying finger pressure to the spinning reel's spool to set the hook. Then she would tire the fish out on the light drag, perhaps tightening and loosening the drag at critical moments.
Later, when "market share" became important, Abu came out with the "Cardinal," a 1965 design that put the drag knob at the back of the reel, so anglers' fingers would not get entangled in the line while fiddling with the front drag adjustment. Those rear drag reels also had click stops, and soon everyone was emulating them.
Now the folks at Abu-Garcia have gone one better, a "center drag" reel set by a ring that falls naturally under the angler's index finger. A second ring, slightly farther aft, turns the anti-reverse on and off.
"Our tests show this is the smoothest drag on a spinning reel yet," said Dave Trowbridge of Abu-Garcia, a division of Pure Fishing (the tackle giant formerly known as Prince -- oops! -- Berkley).
"This reel has twice the disk surface of a front drag, four times the disk surface of a rear drag," he said, "so it does not grab when the fish strikes. And when you get the critter near the boat or net, you can easily loosen up two stops to prevent losing the fish when it makes that last dash."
Like everything Abu makes, this is finely finished, and probably will last as long as my old Garcia-Mitchell 304 -- my first, basic, spinning reel, bought in 1966 and abused ever since in both fresh and salt water.
If you are a set-it-and-forget-it angler, this new wrinkle on drag adjustment might be trivial. But if you spin fish as the tackle was meant to be used, varying drag is all-important.
To see why, let's look back to 1884. In those days, reels just stored line. Drag came from your fingers, and "casting" a bait was like lobbing a worm from a fly rod. In that year Peter Malloch figured that line would just peel off a fixed spool that was aligned with the rod. Put it on a turntable, and you could cast, then snap the reel sideways and reel in. Cool, if crude. (These reels are still being made in Australia, by Alvey, and the big models, fitted with superb star drags, are popular for live-bait surf-casting.)
By 1905, A.H. Illingworth developed almost every feature wrinkle in today's spinning reels and could even win casting tournaments with tosses exceeding 300 feet.
Everything that followed was refinement, which continues to occur in small increments. The big break came with monofilament: Then the spinning reel could really shine!
Early adopters, like A.J. McClane, the late fishing editor of Field and Stream, were enthusiastic boosters. The key to their light-line success on trophy fish was varying the drag while playing the animal.
Today most of us put 6-, 8- and even 12-pound lines on spinning gear, and some shore fishermen for salmon are using 20-pound test. Why use spinning gear at all, then?
I am no guru, and don't have the space here to teach proper light-line spinning technique, but while I've lost plenty of fish, I can't recall losing one because the drag adjustment was located on the face of the spinning reel, nor on the hind end, nor because I set the drag too tight.
The proper way to set the drag on any reel, but especially on light-line spinning gear, is this: Thread the line through the rod, secure the end to a piling or tree, close the bail and step backward, exerting pressure.
If the line won't pay off, or slips grudgingly, loosen the drag until you get a smooth, even flow of line under light pressure -- pressure that does not appear to strain the line.
The second tip I offer is this: Go to your tackle storage area -- right now -- and loosen every drag on every reel you own!
Too many of us forget to do this. Leaving even a light drag set on a reel after fishing will deform the clutch disks and almost assure that you'll have drag problems later. Then, the next time you fish with spinning gear set the drags light, be ready to loosen up even more if the fish makes a panic dash near the boat, and you'll probably land more specimens.
If you want more strikes, drop down one or two line sizes. "Thread-line" fishing is what spinning gear shines at.
If you want to horse "hawgs" out of the weedbeds use 20-pound Trilene on a conventional bait-caster.