One might wonder what all the hub-bub is about. After all, a fishing reel is just a spool to hold the fishing line, right? In reality, the fishing reel is a high-tech piece of equipment, without which many types of fishing would not even be possible. A fishing reel serves many functions besides just holding line.
The reel supplies drag, which allows you to land a fish much heavier and stronger than the line and reel would otherwise be able to handle. For example, 6 lb. test line could be easily broken by a 2 lb. fish with one good surge. Remember, they have the water and tails to provide leverage. An 8oz. bluegill can easily generate more than 10 lbs. of thrust with just a flick of its tail. The flex of the rod also provides some shock absorption, but it is the reel that does most of the work of fighting the fish.
The reel also supplies power to crank the line in without exceeding the breaking point, with help from the rod. It allows you to retrieve lures, and cast line out for much farther than would be possible any other way. Reels allow you to have an idea of how deep and how far out your bait is by letting you count the number of cranks and knowing the retrieve ratio. In other words, a reel with a 6.0:1 retrieves about 2 feet of line for every complete crank.
In the modern fishing world, there are many models of reels to choose from. How is one to know which is best? That’s what this article will attempt to demystify.
Some Reel History
How did people catch fish before they invented reels? Anyone who has ever ‘Noodled” for catfish can tell you….very carefully. Fish were originally caught by hand, and larger species could make this a challenging proposition. Spears were used for more chances at success for a time. At some point, more than 20,000 years ago, an enterprising Asian figured out how to make a hook and use line to catch fish without it being quite so dangerous. The line still had to be pulled in by hand, which severely limited the types of fish you could land successfully. This was the way it was until 1100 A.D. Around that time, a clever Chinese person who is unknown to this day, designed a fishing reel to use with a pole to allow you to fish at greater distances and depths, in addition to saving a lot of wear and tear on the hands… It was a simple single-action reel, but better than no reel at all. Since then, reels have evolved greatly.
There are three main types of reels in use today. There are actually 4 types, but fly reels are a more involved subject and merit an article of their own, so I won’t consider them here. The types are; Spincasting, Spinning, and Baitfishing reels. They use different systems to accomplish their purposes, but there are many things that are common to all types.
- Reel Foot – the flat piece at the side of the unit. It clamps on to the reel seat of the rod by means of threaded or sliding lock rings, or sometimes just duct tape, depending on what kind of shape your rod is in…
- Reel Handle – this is the crank that lets you reel in line. It can be single, or double-handled. One is really no better than the other. It is mostly a matter of personal preference.
- Reel Body – this is the casing that covers and protects the gears and internal mechanisms.
- Anti-Reverse Switch – turns the anti-reverse on and off.
- Anti-Reverse – when engaged, it prevents the reel spool from spinning backward and forces the line to pay out through the drag system. Turning it off puts the reel in free-spool, meaning a fish can take out line just by pulling on it with no resistance from the drag at all. It also allows you to pay out line by cranking backward.
- Bale – releases the line from the reel’s mechanism so it can pay out freely with minimal friction, as in casting or dropping line to the bottom. It can be a simple curved piece of wire, as on most spinning reels, or a button, or lever as on spin-casting and baitcasting rods.
- Spool – the cylinder that holds the line and rotates (except on spinning reels, which have a fixed spool) to facilitate taking it in or letting it out.
- Drag Control – increases or decreases the amount of drag exerted on your line. Useful for tiring out fish, and aggravating anglers….
- Line Guide – directs the line evenly wrap up on the spool during the retrieve to minimize snarls, tangles and knots, (in theory, anyway…).
The reels all cast the same way. The difference is in the physical actions you must take to make each step happen. There are 4 steps in casting:
- Opening the bale while holding the line, button, or the spool (depending on what type of reel you are using) to keep it from unspooling.
- Loading the rod. This means moving the rod tip backward sharply to put a bend, and potential energy, into the terminal tackle.
- Unloading the rod while simultaneously releasing the line at the proper moment. This means moving the rod sharply forward to let the bend flex forward, propelling the terminal tackle forward through the air with great speed, and releasing the line at the correct time to create the proper trajectory of the terminal tackle.
- Engaging the bale after the terminal tackle has hit the water, tree, rock, or whatever you hit but weren’t aiming at…
Spincasting vs Spinning vs Baitcasting Reels
Here’s the differences between these 3 types of reels.
Invented by R.D. Hull and produced by the Zero Hour Bomb Company (ZEBCO) in Tusla Oklahoma in 1949, the spincasting reel revolutionized fishing. Its ease of use and reliability made it so that anyone, even very small children, could cast like a pro with just a few minutes of practice. Today spincasting reels are made by several companies and they are all outstanding fishing tools, especially for how little they cost. They are much less expensive than baitcasting or spinning reels.
Before the ZEBCO, people had to learn to use spinning and baitcasting reels, which have a significant learning curve, and also maybe require a little talent to use really well. Backlashes and tangles, known as the dreaded “Bird’s Nest” are common, even with ‘experts’. With spincasting reels, all you have to learn is how to push and hold a button down, and release it at the proper moment. 15 minutes of practice, and anyone can get a lure or bait very close to where they want, within reason, with little or no danger of backlashes. Spincasting reels are great for 80% of most of the fishing done, in the US, anyway.
Spincasting reels do have a few drawbacks due to the design requirements. Since the spool is internal, with a protective casing around it, it must be narrow to fit comfortably on the rod, so the amount of line it can hold is limited. But unless you are fishing very deep water (more than 200’ deep), need to cast more than 120 yards (and that is a very long way…), or fishing for fish that make incredibly long runs, such as tarpon, spincasting reels are perfectly adequate. They are best suited for panfish such as crappie, bluegills, medium-sized bass, medium-sized catfish, carp and even pike. The other drawback, though not much of one, is that they do have a bit more line friction when casting, so you may experience some reduced casting distance with very light lures, in the 1/32 oz. category. These super ultralight lures are best used with small spinning reels. Lures in this size range are mostly used for fishing through ice, so casting really isn’t much of an issue if you still want to use your favorite small spincasting reel.
The spinning reel was invented in the 1930s in Europe and was brought to America after WW-II. They were invented to cast lures that were too light to cast with a baitcasting reel. The under-the-rod mounting provides a superb balance and feel, and once mastered, are an absolute joy use even for all-day casting.
Spinning reels are prone to line snarls, but they are easier to clear than from a baitcasting reel because the spool can be easily popped off, the snarl cleared, and popped right back on again. This also makes changing line sizes very easy by simply carrying a few extra spools with different line sizes on them. Another great advantage of spinning reels is that most are ambidextrous. The handle can be switched to either side very easily. They cast smooth as silk, and have less moving parts than either spincasting, or baitcasting reels. They hold plenty of line and can cast even very light lures a long distance.
On the downside….well, I can’t really think of a downside other than the learning curve required to use one. It’s not really all that bad, but it does take some practice. And, they cost a little more than a comparable spincasting reel, but they are worth it.
To cast a spinning rod, you must crook your finger under the line to hold it when you open the bale. To cast, you just straighten your finger at the proper time to release the line. After your lure or bait hits the water, you just have to turn the handle to flip the bale back over and engage the anti-reverse. It will feel a little weird at first, but you will get used to it and develop the timing to make accurate casts (most of the time…). Once you get ‘in the groove’, spinning rigs are a pleasure to use.
Although spinning reels are made in sizes that allow you to fish for anything that swims in any water, anywhere in the world, they really excel in casting small jigs and spinners for trout in beautiful streams, sunfish, and crappie, etc… They have an advantage over fly rods in that there is no backcast, so you don’t have to worry about what is behind you when you cast, like with a fly rod. In fact, you can even fly fish with a spinning rod by tying on a fly below a light bobber. They work equally well for both lure fishing and bait fishing. Of the three types of fishing reels, the spinning reel is the most versatile. If I could only have one fishing reel, it would be a spinning reel.
Baitcasting reels have been around since the 1600s. The reason for their longevity is that they get the job done. They are made to handle big fish and tough conditions. They have powerful gears and instant response, making them the preferred reel for fishing with soft plastic lures in heavy cover. In fact, they are the reel to use for any big fish. You’d be hard-pressed to find a tournament bass fisherman who didn’t have at least one baitcasting reel in the arsenal.
Baitcasting reels are a lot more complicated than the other two types of reels and require more manual operation. But they have instant line engagement, and gears powerful enough to reel in a car if the line can stand it. They are the only reel to use for big fish and big water. And they are absolutely beautiful, crafted like a piece of jewelry. For those who own a Penn or Ambassaduer baitcaster, they are considered a prized possession, and it is not uncommon for them to be passed down from generation to generation.
On the downside, first off, they are much more expensive than either of the other two types, but they are way over-built. They are almost bomb-proof. They require you to manually set the spool brake to the right tension for the lure weight you are using before casting, or you will experience reel overrun, causing Birds Nests any sparrow would admire. Serious tangles like this take time to clear and often require cutting the line and re-splicing, wasting expensive fishing lines. And no matter how good you are, you will get Birds Nests from time to time. They are also limited to how light a line you can use. 8-lb. test is about the lowest limit they can cast. This is because they generate more line friction that the other types of reels, but it’s a trade-off. The line friction is one of the factors that allow you to catch really mean fish.
To cast with a baitcasting reel, first, you must adjust the spool brake for the weight of the terminal tackle you are using. This is done by reeling the lure or rig to within 1” of the rod tip with the spool brake tightened down all the way. Next, turn the spool brake knob to loosen the brake slowly, until the weight of the terminal tackle just starts to pull line out. Any more than this, and you will get spool overrun when your bait hits the water. Now, to cast, place your thumb directly on the spool and hold it in place as you disengage the anti-reverse by pushing the lever. While holding the spool with your thumb, load the rod, unload it and raise your thumb somewhere near the mid-way point, about at the 10 o’clock position, releasing the line. As it flies through the air, you need to watch it closely, and as soon as your bait hits the water, or maybe just right before, you need to place your thumb back on the spool to stop it from over-spooling. Now, give the handle a short crank to re-engage the anti-reverse. As you can see, it takes impeccable timing to cast one of these well, and there is no such thing as too much practice with a baitcasting reel. But if you ever plan to be a serious angler, this is an essential skill you should learn.
Which Reel should You Use?
Spinning reels are the reel to use for ultralight fishing. If you plan on doing any fishing for trout, panfish, crappie, or perch, then you need at least one good spinning ultralight rig in your fishing tool kit.
For almost all medium-sized fishing situations, it is hard to find anything better or more convenient than a good spincasting rig. They are made in large sizes that can handle some surprisingly large fish, even some inshore saltwater species. For most smallmouth and largemouth bass fishing, medium-sized catfish up to 25-40 pounds, salmon, white bass, carp, and even mid-sized stripers and snook, a spincasting rig in the appropriate sizes is just the thing for hassle-free fishing junkets.
If you are planning on going after trophy-sized fish, or large mean piscatorial pugilists, then a baitcasting rig should be your main battle-weapon. This is also the right rig for fishing in heavy cover, where you may have to drag a large bass out of the trees or bushes before they can hang you up.
These are just guidelines. Nothing is written in stone, and you should use the equipment you feel the most comfortable with. The fishing situations often overlap the reel requirements, so you usually have a choice of what type you can get away with using. Don’t be afraid to experiment and push the envelope. Personally, for crappie, I like putting a light spinning reel on my 5 wt fly rod. It works beautifully for using 1/16 oz. marabou jigs. Be adventurous…