Fly reels have been an endless source of innovation for tackle manufacturers. Just when you think that it's all been done, someone comes out with a new design of reel. So you'd think that with all these changes to reel designs over the years that the older ones would be obsolete. You might even wonder why someone would use an older reel. This assumes that the newer designs are better, but when we think about what a fly reel actually does, we realize that the older designs still have a usefulness. After all, they worked way-back-when & the methods of catching fish haven't really changed all that much.
So what does a fly reel really do? It holds your fly line. That might sound like a wise-crack, but it's not. For the majority of fishing situations that's about all you'll use your reel for - holding line. It's not until you get into fishing for larger fish like tarpon, large mouth bass, salmon, pike, or really large trout where the drag system of your reel becomes an issue. For most of the time & for average size fish you won't be using the drag at all. Playing a 10" to 14" trout or a small mouth bass in a medium sized stream shouldn't require the use of an intricate drag on your reel. Those fish can be landed by simply pulling your fly line in by hand.
A fly reel does need some kind of drag system, or at least some tension on the spool to keep it from spinning backward & causing the line to tangle &/or the spool to jam. Also it's nice to have a little bit of drag to help out - especially while you're getting set up to play the fish just after you've set the hook. So a drag system is nice to have on a fly reel.
These days reels, just like rods, are being made of lite weight material & an emphasis is put on the overall weight of the reel. To me that's fine - so long as you use these ultra-lite reels on a rod that doesn't weigh much. In fact, many anglers go to a lot of trouble to get a reel that will balance their fly rod. Again, that's fine - to a point. Don't get too hung up on on that. All you should care about is how the rod & reel feel together. There's no need for a postal scale, if you ask me.
I think the truth is that we choose a particular reel more for how it looks than anything else. There's nothing wrong with that within reason. Fly fishing is full of traditions & you probably don't want to put a new graphite, wide-spool, space-age reel on a classic bamboo fly rod. It just wouldn't look right. You could, but would you want to? It would be like putting big rims & thin-walled tires on a '58 Oldsmobile instead of white wall tires. There's no rules against it, but really???
So the next time you're shopping for a fly reel, new or vintage, don't be made to feel like you need a specific reel (of a certain price) because of all the intricate drag system parts that look like a Swiss timepiece. Instead, find one that will hold your line in a style that you'll enjoy & that functions as it's supposed to. Now, if you're going after the big fish then do some research about drag systems. Otherwise you can handle those average fish without it. You know you can!!