When starting out with fishing equipment, the number of options and amount of information can be overwhelming.
One of the more important specs will be the ball bearings on your reel—both the number of them and how they were made. Understanding the basic options can help you choose the ball bearings that work best for your reel.
What Are Ball Bearings?
At its core, a ball bearing is a single bearing, or more often multiple, shaped into a sphere or ball. A bearing is any component designed to make a machine move faster, while reducing friction. Ball bearings sit between a fixed axle in their center and a moving wheel on the outside, facilitating the circular motion.
The balls allow the inner section to stay stationary, while the outer wheel can move to perform its function. While there will always be some friction present on a reel, the bearings limit this friction as much as possible.
When applied to a fishing reel, both the handle and the spool need to have ball bearings in place to ensure efficient and easy moving, less friction, and speed.
Parts of Ball Bearings
The ring inside of the wheel that holds the ball bearings is known as a race or raceway. This interior groove holds the balls when they are at rest, and allows them to move smoothly.
A fishing reel typically contains two raceways, an inner race and an outer race. The outer raceway is the piece that is actually moving when in use.
Also inside of the bearing is a cage, a thin and light metal piece that is meant to keep the balls evenly spaced. These sit between the inner and outer raceway where the balls are.
Because the movement of the reel can cause line twist and anti-reverse issues, most reels have something called a ball. The ball is a gate for the spool, preventing the line from unwinding when casting.
It also allows the line to glide back onto the spool during retrieval.
Some ball bearings come with the option of being shielded, where the ball bearings have discs on one or both sides. These serve to keep debris out, preventing anything that stops the smooth movement of the balls along the races.
What Do Ball Bearings Do on a Fishing Reel?
The main purpose of ball bearings is to reduce friction, create ease of motion, and increase speed when fishing. Together, this essentially means that ball bearings make your fishing reel easier to use and more effective. Without ball bearings, it would be much harder to cast and retrieve your line.
When casting your lure, the spool needs to move freely for the line to come off easily. This enables maximum casting distance. More friction leads to a less smooth cast, and therefore a less than optimal casting distance.
It is similar for line retrieval. A smooth, fluid retrieval is important to retrieve your line, and your catch, quickly. Having well-working ball bearings will lower the amount of muscle power you need to efficiently retrieve the line.
This can be particularly important when catching large fish that may be difficult to reel in.
Are More Always Better?
Many people believe that the more ball bearings a fishing reel has, the better quality it will be. This can be true because the more ball bearings present, the less friction there will be, leading to a smoother operation overall.
However, a higher number of ball bearings will not necessarily lead to better performance if the quality of those bearings is low.
You may see reels on the market that boast as many as 12 ball bearings—but if the bearings are poor quality, this reel is not necessarily better than its counterpart with 5 ball bearings that are very high quality.
Determining quality can be based on the material, which will be covered later. You can also consider the placement of the ball bearings within the real and if they are placed in a way that is conducive to smooth operation of the reel.
You may also look to see if certain labels have been placed on the ball bearings. For example, ARB or anti-rust bearings can be important for some. Others will look for CRBB, or corrosion-resistant bearings.
Depending on these factors, you may be willing to go for more or fewer ball bearings to make sure the reel meets your needs.
Another factor that can indicate quality is whether or not the ball bearings are shielded. While a reel may initially work the same with or without shields, the lifespan of a ball bearing is likely to be much longer when shields are in place.
Many advise that it can be better to have few ball bearings with a shield, than a lot of ball bearings with no shield. Shields become even more important if you are using your reel in saltwater.
What Is ABEC? What ABEC Rating Should I Look For?
One way to determine the quality of a ball bearing is to look at the ABEC rating before you make a purchasing decision. This is an industry-accepted standard that tells you the tolerance of ball bearings.
The ABEC rating system is primarily standard to North America, but nonetheless can tell you if you are looking at the right sorts of ball bearings.
The ABEC rating system goes from 1 to 9, and ball bearings can be rated a 1, 3, 5, 7, or 9. The higher this rating is, the more durable the ball bearings will be. A higher rated product will also have smoother movement and higher performance.
While the ABEC rating can be a good indicator of quality, it is not the most important factor when making a decision. ABEC ratings of 7 or 9 can be very expensive, when often results with a lower-rated reel can be just as quality.
Some qualities, like if the ball bearings are corrosion-resistant or shielded, may outweigh the rating of a given ball bearing. That said, you may be better off buying a higher rated reel with a lower number of ball bearings, than a low rated fishing reel with ten to twelve ball bearings.
How Many Ball Bearings Minimum on a Fishing Reel?
Most quality reels will have at least four ball bearings, which allows the balls to separate within the races equally and provide some level of friction control.
Four is generally considered the lower end, and most advice suggests five is the place to start if you are serious about having an efficient reel and relying on ball bearings
You may notice that some reels are advertised as 4+1 or 5+1. The first number in these equations references the true number of ball bearings, while the +1 is referring to a roller bearing.
This bearing is used to support the handle axle rather than the movement within the reel, so do not take it into consideration when choosing your minimum threshold for ball bearings.
What Material Should Ball Bearings Be?
Some reels offer ball bearings where the balls are not made of the traditional stainless steel, but of ceramic. While ceramic is more expensive, some believe the benefits make them worth the extra cost, while some people prefer the traditional stainless steel.
Traditionally, most ball bearings have been made of stainless steel.
Because this material is cheap to produce, stainless steel is a more cost-effective option for most manufacturers. If not shielded, stainless steel can be vulnerable to damage.
The damage to steel is often more pronounced when the reel is used in saltwater environments. Saltwater is more likely to cause corrosion. However, if you plan to use your reel in mostly freshwater, with the right care, stainless steel is a less expensive and standard choice.
The hardness of ceramic makes these ball bearings much less vulnerable to wear and tear, even tripling the lifetime in some cases. Ceramic can also roll faster due to their lighter weight, meaning that they have less contact with the walls, reducing friction even further than the typical ball bearing.
By nature of the way they are made, ceramics are more chemically resistant and therefore are easier to use in wet environments without worrying about rust. They are also less likely to corrode because the material is stronger and not heat-treated.
Ceramic ball bearings are not known to be good at handling heavy shock load. If your intention is to catch very large fish that require strength to reel in, ceramic is not necessarily the best choice.
When making your choice between ball bearing materials, it will be important to consider where you intend to use the reel and what is important to you. Both require some level of maintenance, but it is important to be cognizant of what that entails when considering the cost differences.