I've always thought that fly fishing reels serve two purposes only: to store the line and backing, and allow the angler to retrieve the line in an organized way. Almost all real constructions are very nice, from the classics to the ones built with the latest technology. In fact one of the things that has caught my attention throughout my life is to contemplate those perfectly rounded reels peppered with machined holes that are magically and flawlessly attached to the lower end of the rod handle. And I still think to this day that expensive reels are, pun intended, a hook to catch fishermen rather than something truly necessary, unless you are fishing for tarpon or billfish where exceptional braking power is absolutely necessary. However sometimes in the rivers of the Orinoco, the high-end reels may not be just luxury items, in those few occasions when a big payara runs downstream in a strong current and has already taken 100 meters (~109.361 yards) of backing, the fisherman may realize why having a good drag was a good idea after all.
Fly fishing reels tend to be more expensive when they portray special characteristics that clearly differentiate them, the most important one being the quality of the drag, however other features make them expensive as well: The brand itself, whether it was manufactured in machined or cast aluminum, the anodized layer (antirust paint), the spindle and arbor designs, the materials used in the various mechanical parts or accessories, the warranty and even the protective liner or pouch.
Most of the time in the rivers of the Orinoco basin you will not need a special drag, it would be enough with a disc drag of any kind for those few instances when a big fish takes a lot of line and is about to snag the line and leader in the branches or rock formations of the river. Fishing does not usually happen far from the boat, so tapping the reel slightly with the hand (palming) is just enough to apply the force required to stop the feisty fish. However, for any other instances, well-designed drags may be required as to avoid the slightest play when line is peeling away fast from the reel because it may result in the unspeakable break-offs. Some cheaper reels often have problems with play in the various mechanisms; they tend to not operate smoothly and may not gradually maintain good mechanical consistency when the fish starts to peel line off. Just don’t go crazy on very expensive setups in order to have good dragging power, reel and line setups of average affordable price ranges from known manufacturers all perform quite well.
The drag system must be completely sealed. In some rivers of the Orinoco, water has sediment originating from the riverside jungle that contains corrosive minerals that may enter the drag if not properly sealed and damage it over time. Also, regardless of the quality, once back at home you will need to rinse your reels in a bowl or container with warm water and leave them submerged overnight, washing them thoroughly with soap, brush and water the next day in order remove sand, organic particulates and river water rich in minerals and different kinds of salts (be aware Orinoco basin tributaries have sometimes very high acidic waters sometimes in the pH ~5ish range!) We recommend bringing saltwater reels since the ones designed for trout suffer greatly and can be damaged after only one fishing trip.
About 99% of the time, you will not need a lot of backing in the reel. Just be prepared with enough backing though. The peacock bass do not fancy long runs when they feel hooked, and payara in many cases run and fight within a reasonable distance, except when they get “creative” and decide to beeline straight downstream in strong currents, potentially spooling you.
What about extra-large arbor reels? That is just up to the taste of each fisherman, since the need for a fast retrieve by saving line into the reel does not apply to the Orinoco basin since most of the time you will accomplish good-enough speeds with just a standard large arbor.
We do recommend our visitors to bring light-weight reels and just big enough to barely fit the line due to the high casting frequency during these fishing expeditions. Casting with a very large or heavy reel in sweltering unforgiving heat can be exhausting.
An easy way to figure out what would be the right reel to bring with you, is to look at what's on the market and choose the ones with average price ranges designed specifically for saltwater and actually with a high personal appeal to you. For example, if you see reels of any particular brand you may like, priced $95, $280 and $750 respectively, pick the one north of the $200 bucks.
A lot of thanks to Andres Parra for all his help on this article!