The development in fly reels over the last 20 years has been amazing. I think that most of the development has been due to the rapid growth in saltwater fly fishing and the requirements of the serious striper, tarpon, bonefish or permit hunter. Saltwater fly fishing has done for freshwater fly fishing what snowboarding has done for skiing.
I have fished for years with Hardy reels. I love the sound and the feel of the Golden Prince or a Marquis but I have to say that some of the current reels such as Galvan, Lamson and Ross provide excellent competition. They certainly have better drags than the Hardy. Tibor is very hard to beat as are the Billy Pate reels for saltwater however Albright is coming out with a range of saltwater reels which will certainly give a great value alternative.
Two questions when looking for a reel. First, does it have a drag? This is essential. Whatever you do make sure you have an efficient and responsive drag system. It has to respond to each adjustment as required. If you look at the Lamson conical drag system, you will see what I mean. The conical insert works on friction tightening as required to give an even and consistent drag. Compared to older reels with spring drags which don't respond it is a work of art.
Second, will the reel withstand the rigors of the quarry you are hunting? That little spring creek reel might work on a brookie but hook into a bighorn rainbow in overdrive and it may give up the ghost.
When buying the reel, have the salesman pull it apart and have a look at the workings. You will be amazed how many pretty looking reels have plastic parts where it matters. Maybe they work but when you have that big rainbow heading for the hills will you be asking yourself should you have shelled out a little more for metal or are your happy with plastic. In addition check if the drag is sealed. In some reels a sealed drag system gives complete protection against immersion. If you get the reel wet in the cold and it freezes you are not going anywhere. Similarly in saltwater, immersion will not corrupt a sealed drag.
Arbor size. Reel makers are now gravitating to larger arbor reels. There is a simple reason for this. They retrieve more quickly and compress the line less. It is a personal choice but unless you want to use a multiplier the larger arbor will assist in swifter retrieving.
Materials and weight. The more expensive reels sometimes are just lighter weight with more sophisticated materials. For instance the higher end Lamson such as the litespeed has the same drive as the lower priced Lamson but is just lighter weight made from more expensive and stronger material. Again it is a matter of choice. The lighter construction might concern the angler that dropping it onto rocks will knock it out of shape because it appears less substantial. This is a legitimate concern and is something which you should investigate when purchasing. Ideally if you buy a reel through a full service fly shop and guide service where the guides have used it for a year or two you will get a better more balanced opinion than asking the high-school graduate at the giant points for purchase discount store who struggles to spell "trout" and thinks it is the name of a rock band.
Size. Generally manufacturers will nominate the size of the reel by reference to the weight of the line they anticipate it will carry together with an appropriate length of backing. The backing is usually 50 to 100 feet of Dacron or some similar material which permits a larger fish to run out the line itself and still be able to continue to play it. On larger reels more backing is required because of the size of the fish and/or the willingness of the fish to run. Therefore when choosing the reel, consider the line you will be casting and the amount of backing you will require.
Interchangeability. Reels might need to be changeable from left to right hand retrieve. It is therefore necessary to check the process involved to make sure it is not too difficult or complicated. The other aspect of interchangeability is the ability to swap spools. One might want to switch quickly between a floating and a sinking line as the fishing conditions change. Again if this is required check that the process is easy and efficient.
Care. Check the manufacturer's recommendation for care of the reel. If the manufacturer doesn't want you to pull the reel apart and oil it, that is for a good reason.
We carry a range of reels which all have been tested through the shop and our guides. At the lower end we like either Albright or Stone Creek. They are made at the same Korean factory and are very similar quality. They are great value for the price. At the higher end we carry Lamson, Galvan, Ross and Hardy. They each have their selling points and we stand by them all. There are literally hundreds of reel manufacturers. There is therefore a great choice available. How all of these individual manufacturers make money is beyond me but bless their hearts, they are all contributing to the evolution of the fly reel. Check out your local choices, read the literature and preferably talk to someone who has fished with the reel. A guide who spends 200 days a year on the river and has been there for the last 10 years ought to know something!