Invented during the Song Dynasty in China, fishing reels have been a staple of angling since their early origins as hand-wound attachments on bamboo poles.
Since the simplicity of those days, many different types of fishing reels have emerged. From spinning to spincasting and baitcasting to trolling, understanding the differences in reels, as well as finding the best one for a certain type of fishing, can be a little overwhelming.
But we’re here to help.
Types of Fishing Reels
Before determining the best type of reel for you, it’s important to look at what’s conventional. Cylindrical in shape, most reels are mounted to the top or bottom of a rod with the common function of winding and stowing line. The line is then cast out into the water.
Other typical features of reels include drags (which improve balance and lower the pressure of a taut line), reel handles (controlled by the hand to wind in line) and reel feet (the part connecting the reel to the rod). Depending on a reel’s type, there may be other features too. These vary across each of the five main types of reel: spincasting, baitcasting, spinning, fly, and trolling.
The easiest thing to spot with spincasting reels is the closed face. Compared to other reel types, the spool where the fishing line is wound is not exposed.
With spincasting reels, there is a button that’s pushed by your thumb during your cast. As you release your wrist during the cast, you also release the button which lets the line free to cast.
One thing to know about spincasting reels is that they make use of a fixed spool. This determines how much of your line goes out and comes back when re-casting or hauling in a fish. Spools are usually made from some type of metal in order to be strong and durable.
Working in unison with the reel handle, spools are “spun” as the handle is turned with the hand. On spincasting reels, this does not happen. Instead, the spool sits parallel to the rod axis and does not rotate during the cast.
According to fishing company Shakespeare, one of the benefits of a fixed spool is that it allows people to fish with “lighter lures and baits”.
Although spincasting reels aren’t as popular as they once were, they are great for beginners and children. The plastic cover that enables the line to come out from a small hole at the front of the reel is said to prevent tangles and other technical problems commonly seen in fishing tackle.
- Fewer tangles or line twists
- Good with light lines and lures
- Not as strong or durable as other reel types
- Poor performance with heavy lines, heavy lures or heavy bait
Baitcasting reels, as their name suggests, go with baitcasting rods. These rods differ from spincasting rods (where the guides are on the bottom) and are commonly used by experienced bass fishermen due to their increased sensitivity and control.
Another key feature of baitcasting reels that set them apart from spincasting types is the revolving spool. This requires fishermen to hold down the line with their thumb on a bar or button, meaning that the mechanism for casting (and controlling the amount of line that goes out) is different. One plus of this is greater control.
Besides more control, baitcasting reels allow for more power when reeling fish in. This is due to an interior gear system where one revolution of the handle results in several revolutions of the line spool.
As for the biggest drawback to baitcasting reels, most novices or beginners feel intimidated by the steeper learning curve involved in casting. The biggest challenge is the birds-nest style tangles when using these reel types. You’ll definitely want to practice casting before you are on the water as dealing with birds-nests on the water is not a fun thing to do.
Potentially the biggest difference between baitcasting reels and other reel types is that it’s the best at handling heavier line and lures. Due to this greater versatility, this could be good for reel buyers who like to fish using a range of techniques in different types of water.
- Best at handling heavy lines and lures
- Strong drag system that reduces pressure on the rod and line
- Not as efficient for use with light lines and lures
- Casting takes some practice
Spinning reels are positioned on the bottom side of the rod and are similar to spincasting reels feature-wise except for two things. One is the lack of a plastic cover over the spool (which exposes all of its parts and pieces), and the other is a spool that rotates rather than being fixed.
In comparison to baitcasting reels, a key difference spinning reels have is the feature of a power roller. A small wheel that ensures the line runs smoothly from the spool up to the guides on the underside of the rod, the roller is coupled with movement of the bail (a metal arm keeping the line in place). Casting a spinning reel involves this bail being moved to an upward position (“opening the bail”).
Casing a spinning reel involves opening the bail and holding the line with your pointer finger to keep the line taught. You then cast and release your finger at the same time as your break your wrist.
When compared to a spincasting reel, the line unspools smoothly and the cast is more accurate. It also has less of a risk of tangling.
Possibly one of the biggest advantages of spinning reels is that the drag can be easily adjusted involving a dial on the front side of the spool. This added control, according to Mitchell Fishing, “makes it a lot easier to fight a catch”. It also helps with throwing lighter lures farther out into the water while avoiding the backlash of the line in high wind.
Although they can be prone to line twists due to small spool sizes, spinning reels, because of their added control, are said to be a good choice for novices and beginners.
- Good with light line and lures
- Solid casting capability and little backlash
- Can be prone to line twist with large diameter lines
Having not changed a great deal since they were first patented back in the late 1800s, fly reels have seen something of a resurgence recently due to the introduction of large arbor fly reels. Differing to antique fly reel models with their typically narrow spools, this “arbor” (distance from the base of the spool to the center spindle) update helps increase retrieve rate. That means faster speed when reeling the line back onto the spool and thus maximizing your efficiency on the water.
Another important consequence of this “500 percent” increase in speed (that the large arbor types allow) is it saving you from annoyance. Fly fishing can be more technical than other fishing styles because it uses a casting technique centered on a nearly weightless line and lure.
One common frustration of this fishing style is having to strip off long lengths of slack for casting and then repeatedly reeling in while moving locations or fighting a fish. Large arbor fly reels help rectify this by reducing the reeling component and making it, in the words of Field and Stream magazine, “very easy” to quickly switch things up.
Aside from the more modern large arbor type, fly reels also have two other options in standard and mid arbor reels. Standard reels have the spool base located in the middle part of the reel while mid arbor has it moved out (with increased reel width). Both differ from the large arbor by being smaller and having a lower diameter.
Choosing between all three fly reel types, if you overlook the benefit of fast retrieval, is mainly down to preference in terms of aesthetics and comfort. In comparison to other reel types, however, it’s all about the style or technique that someone uses to fish. Fly reels, for that matter, should not be used with spin rods that utilize crankbaits or other resistance lures.
Due to playing no part in casting (unlike each of these other reel types), fly reels are only suitable for use with specific fly rods and lightweight line. The main disadvantage of this lack of versatility is cost (fly fishing gear is usually more expensive) as well as a compromise on ease of use (spinning reels are a lot easier to manage).
In terms of construction, fly reels have more of a commonality with other reel types in that they are made from similar materials. Milled aluminum reels are the most expensive yet most durable option, while cast aluminum types provide a less expensive, but more easily cracked, alternative. Plastic components in fly reels are also quite common (and help lower the reel cost) but should be avoided if possible, primarily due to durability.
- Suitable for use with lightweight lures cast at a distance
- Large arbor has a fast retrieval rate
- Large arbor likely to have fewer tangles than other arbor types
- More expensive
- Restricted for use with fly fishing
- Make no contribution to the cast
Designed specifically for large fish in saltwater environments, trolling reels (sometimes known as conventional reels) are fairly similar to baitcasting reels in their function, as they are mainly used on lakes, streams, and rivers. One big difference is that these reels are commonly used to drag a line behind a moving boat in large open water.
For that purpose alone, trolling reels often have more width or are rounder than other reel types in order to house more line. Elsewhere, the reel handles, feet, and spools are larger too, making them imperative for use with a trolling rod. Added features like bait clicker alarms and built-in line counters which count how much line has release and allows bait to be kept close to the bottom of the water, also set trolling reels apart.
Technique-wise, trolling can differ among fishermen. Suitable for hauling in heavy-weight species like tuna, marlin, and sailfish, trolling is sometimes used for smaller salmon, trout, and bass too. A trolling reel and rod can manage both types but is probably too heavy duty (and expensive) for stream or river fishing.
Trolling reels, although commonly modified with aftermarket add-ons, usually differ from each other due to the aforementioned line counter feature.
Most manual counters are better for the casual or novice buyer as they track the revolutions of a spool and have preset settings that, depending on the weight of the line, change to keep bait at a target depth. Electric counters, on the other hand, allow you to calibrate these settings more exactly but can be more difficult to use. They can also be more temperamental in outdoor elements where battery life could be an issue.
In terms of materials, trolling reels are usually cast aluminum, machined aluminum, or graphite aluminum. The cheaper graphite types aren’t as strong but are lighter to handle. Cast aluminum types are solid but can strain under the weight of a particularly heavy fish. Machined aluminum, due to their rigidity, handle big fish well and are more durable than other alternatives.
Another feature that fans of trolling recommend to look for on a reel is a level wind, a mechanism that distributes line evenly on the spool. Although learning to cast with this feature can be tricky at first, it does help with casting bait out more smoothly. Some trolling reels also have lugs to help strap into a harness, which is an important add-on for serious deep-sea fishermen.
- Offer lots of versatility with fishing line (suitable for use with a wide range of lures)
- Heavy duty and robust (not easily damaged)
- Solid spools (more force required to get spool spinning, causing difficulties with control)
- Heavy in weight (difficult to transport)
Selecting the Right Fishing Reel
Once familiar with different types of fishing reels, it’s important to also think about the more practical aspects of the sport that might come into play when choosing the right one. This is where you begin considering habits and preferences, especially in terms of experience level, tackle, and where you fish. These factors can help you make the best decision.
The amount of time you’ve spent fishing should play a big factor in deciding what reel type to go for.
Novice anglers, who might be dipping into the sport for the first time, are usually advised to go with spincast reels because of the simplicity. They are simple to cast, simple to use, and simple to maintain.
As you gain experience, most people will move onto a spinning reel. They offer an added level of control and added casting length.
Finally, the more advanced anglers will move onto a baitcasting reel. These offer maximum power and control, but come with the hassle of being a bit more difficult to cast.
Baitcasting and spinning reels make both those promises but in slightly different ways. Tournament bass pro Craig Nels claims that the difference between them is “situational” rather than quality-based, with spinning reels being “simpler to use” but ineffective in heavy weeds where baitcasters handle better. Experienced users of spinning reels unphased by that might argue otherwise.
The pros tend to agree that baitcasting reels edge out both spincasting and spinning reels in terms of handling heavier line. This is primarily due to their increased torque.
In terms of purchasing a reel, that gives anglers plenty to think about, especially if you plan on fishing more frequently across winter and autumn. The weather conditions during those seasons can be unpredictable, so a heavier line may be a necessity, as will a reel that can handle it well.
A light line and spincasting (or spinning reel) combination could prove frustrating in heavy winds and rain while a heavy line might be overkill in the summer.
As a general rule, it pays to match the line with the reel type. That means thinking seriously about when, where, and how (especially in the case of fly fishing and trolling) you’re likely to fish and adjusting your search to match those considerations.
The biggest factor in the purchase of a new fishing reel, tackle-wise, is most likely going to be the rod. Fly rods, as previously suggested, should only take fly reels. A baitcasting rod should only take a baitcasting reel. Etc.
That said, there are exceptions. Given that the reel handles fit the rod, there’s really no reason you can’t use different types of reels with different types of rods. A common example of this is using a baitcasting reel on a spinning rod, where only the “action” (rod bend) will be slightly different.
Knowing this opens up your options. If you’re looking to match a reel with an existing rod you already have or if you are likely to buy a new rod in the future, spincasting, baitcasting, and spinning reels can all be potential candidates.
Lures (the part the fish bites), on the other hand, are usually more rod-dependent rather than reel-dependent in terms of being a decisive factor.
Fishing Techniques and Location
Within each particular style of fishing, whether it be fly, trolling, or spin-fishing (that includes jigging, bottom bouncing and more), there are additional techniques. While these usually don’t have much of an impact on influencing reel types (at least outside of those already mentioned), it’s still useful to have some idea of how you might prefer to fish.
Trolling, for example, although pretty similar to the rod and reel technique of casting seen in baitcasting and spinning, needs more weight on the line to compensate for the boat’s movement. Wanting to fish that way means only a specific trolling reel will do. No other reel type will help with that.
Novices, on the other hand,are more likely to jump into pond or stream fishing first before they get more adventurous with other techniques given the accessibility and relative ease of fishing in these environments.
Baitcasting, spinning, or spincasting reels are good in these environments because they are well-suited to a range of lures and weighted-lines and suit beginner rods better.
Types of Fish
A final thing worth mentioning in terms of finding the best fishing reel is thinking about the types of fish you hope to catch both now and in the future. A dependable and durable reel shouldn’t get in the way of changing goals.
Novices, for that matter, might want to work their way up from easy-to-catch freshwater sunnies to eventually begin taking on bigger and stronger fish likely to give more of a fight. A solid fishing reel with a well-crafted spool can definitely help with that.
Dependable enough to trust when graduating to fishing for an aggressive largemouth bass that’s perhaps never been caught before, you’ll want to know your reel can do the job. Researching a reel’s components, especially the materials it’s constructed from, is one way to better your chances.
One final tip for thinking about what you hope to catch is to pay close attention to the friction plates inside a reel. These parts are responsible for a reel’s drag and will help the reel rotate backward if a fish pulls hard on the line. That means no line break and no lost fish.
Obviously, if you’re a novice. sticking to small fish while first starting out this shouldn’t be too much of an issue. That said, there’s always the odd chance a bigger fish might unexpectedly take your bait. Flimsy friction plates, in a circumstance like that, won’t only break your line but could even break your reel.
The best advice? Invest in a reel that’s versatile but also likely to last you for years to come.