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 Written By:  Pescador

Shopping for a Fishing Reel - By Pescador

Shopping for a fishing reel can be a lengthy process. Knowing what you are looking for in a reel is the first step. The second step is knowing what all those reel manufacturers are talking about when they rave so highly about their reels in the attempt to get you to purchase theirs over any other. I will attempt to explain what they mean in lay terms so you, the consumer will not fall victim to sales pitches that mean absolutely nothing to you. Also, just like when shopping for a rod, there are a few questions that you need to ask yourself before you start looking. So let's get started.



Spinning or casting?
Saltwater or freshwater?
To level-wind or not to level-wind?
Bait or lure?
What size and type of line will you be using?
What kind of gear ratio do you need?
What type of fish will you be targeting?
Where will you be fishing from? (boat, tube, shore, pier, kayak, etc)
What do all those terms mean on the box and advertisements mean?
What is your budget?

Again, there are so many different kinds of reels out there. And many are designed for a certain type of fish or a certain method of fishing. But like rods, these designs can cross over to other methods. Many times a reel will be ideal for a completely different kind of fishing from what it was designed for. So knowing what you need to do with the reel will let you narrow down your search to find the ideal reel for YOU. In the end you are the one holding the weaponry to be used against your prey. So let's, again, break these questions down into sections to understand what they mean to you.

Spinning or casting?
Self explanatory right? If you don't know how to cast a casting reel, then you should get a spinning reel, right? Wrong. Not in all cases. Lets discuss the differences between these reels.

First there is the spinning reel. Developed, I believe, by Mitchell. The spinning reel is the beginner fisherman's friend, yet in many cases is the ideal equipment for certain fishing. Often referred to as "coffee grinders" because of their resemblance to one with the spinning bail section winding the line while cranking on the handle. There are three main types, categorized by the location of their drag or drags. The first type is the rear drag (see fig 1a below). On this particular style the adjustment knob for the drag setting is on the rear of the reel. The second type is the front drag (fig 1b), which, you guessed it, has the drag adjustment on the front of the reel. It is actually integrated into the spool. Having the drag system here brings it close to the actual moving part of the reel as line is being paid out against the drag. This results in a smoother drag. Also by having it there, it allows for larger and more drag washers to be used. The increased surface area greatly contributes to the smoothness of the drag while line is being paid out. The third type of spinning reel is, believe it or not, a dual drag spinning reel (fig 1c). This type of spinning reel actually has TWO sets of drag mechanisms: one in front and one in back. These reels are referred to as "bait feeder" type spinning reels. The purpose of having two sets of drags is to avoid having the bail open in order to let a live fish swim freely. It is also used as an alarm, much like the clicker on a conventional reel, when fishing with sitting bait. The rear drag is usually set very light. When line is being taken out by a fish striking the bait, a flip of a switch or a turn of the handle (depending on the brand of the reel) will disengage the rear drag and engage the front drag. This drag is often referred to as the "fighting drag" for obvious reasons.

(fig 1) From left to right, shown are examples of a) a rear drag spinning reel, b) a front drag spinning reel, c) and a dual drag spinning reel. The arrows show where the adjustments on drag pressure are made. The red arrow on fig 1c shows the lever that is used to switch from one drag mechanism to another on a dual drag spinning reel.

Next, we have the casting reels. There are also several types of casting reels. Some will suit certain methods of fishing, while some will serve personal preferences. But generally the casting reels are the types that have the spool winding the line parallel with the direction that it is paid out, as compared to the spinning reel which has the spool winding the line perpendicularly to the line being paid out. One type of casting reel is the bait caster (see fig 2a and 2b below), which is primarily used for casting lures. These come in two kinds, the low profile and the round bait casters. Whichever one you chose is up to you. But they each have their own advantages and characteristics. A low profile bait caster will fit nicely in your hand, has an open top which gives easy access to clear out a backlash (birds nest, line tangle, bloody mess, etc), and in some cases just looks cool hehehe. A round bait caster will generally have more drag washers (which can translate to smoother drag and more power), more line capacity (because of the availability of bigger sizes), and usually made with a durable all (or mostly) metal construction. Another type of casting reel is the conventional (fig 2c and 2d), which is usually of the bigger saltwater variety. But that doesn't mean that they don't have their place in some freshwater applications. Some may come with the level-wind (the part that guides the line evenly onto the spool for you) and some may not. Some are designed to be cast, while some are not. Some are designed to drop a bait straight down from a boat either to sink to the bottom by use of weight, or to just let a live bait fish swim away and do its own thing. But again, just because it was not meant to be cast, doesn't mean that the angler should not cast with it.

(fig 2) Shown, left to right, are examples of a) the low profile bait caster, b) the round bait caster, c) non-level wind conventional, d) and level wind conventional reels. Note the differences in structure each has due to the shape of the overall reel or whether it has a level wind or not.

So what should you choose? Well that all depends on all the answers to the rest of the questions you need to ask yourself. To a certain point it does come down to the preference of the angler, but if you leave it solely to your ability to cast either one, you may be missing out on the ideal tackle for the type of fishing you plan to use it for.

Saltwater or freshwater?
The main concern here is corrosion, or rust. But reels designed for freshwater can be used in saltwater, as long as there is no magnesium (Mg on the periodic table of elements) on it. So how do you know your reel doesn't have magnesium? Trust me you will know. Reel manufacturers don't just use magnesium on any reel. And these reels are generally quite expensive. Why don't you want to use magnesium around saltwater? Because it is a HIGHLY corrosive metal when in contact with the saltwater. Not a good thing when you pay the money for a reel that is made with magnesium parts. Why is it on some reels then? Two words: light weight. But other than that, generally there is no reason a freshwater reel cant be used in saltwater. How long it lasts depends on the quality of the reel and the diligence of the angler to keep up with the constant needed maintenance (check out the reel maintenance tips) to keep things in good working order. Reels designed for saltwater will have things like anodized aluminum parts, anti-rust bearings, and special coatings to avoid corrosion. Reels designed for saltwater use can be used in fresh water as well (ie. The Daiwa SL30SH is commonly used while fishing for sturgeon and big catfish).

To level-wind or not to level-wind?
That is the question. Okay enough of the bootleg Shakespeare. This question is in reference to conventional reels only. Should you be looking for a level-wind on your reel? Depending on the type of fish you are targeting, the type of bait you are casting, or just the general local preference you may or may not need a level-wind on your reel. Each has its ups and downs. So it is important to know whether you will need to have a level-wind depending on the type of fishing you are going to be doing. A reel of this size with a level-wind will have the line guide following the line as it is either laid on the spool or as it comes off the spool. This is done by actually connecting the movement of the line guide to the spool by gears. Whenever the spool rotates, the line guide will follow. What's so bad about this? Having the level-wind correspond to the spool‘s rotation means that it must be directly connected to the spool by gears, and this can mean shorter casts. Because that line winder's movement is dependent on how much the spool is rotating, it is robbing some of the kinetic energy from the spool as it revolves during a cast. Not having a level-wind on the reel can sometimes alleviate that problem (depending on the construction of the reel and the quality of its bearings). Since there are no hidden gears involved, inhibiting the free revolution of the spool, you can generally achieve further casting distances with a non-level-wind reel. The bad news is you will have to guide the line onto the reel yourself. Doing this efficiently will take practice. If you forget to guide the line onto the spool in an even fashion, you will end up with a pile up of line in one area (usually the center) of the spool.

Bait or lure?
What kind of bait are you using - live or dead? What kind of lure are you using? Things to consider are the weight of the sinkers or lures you plan on fishing with. You will want to match this to the size of line that you are using. It would not be efficient to attempt to throw a 6oz sinker with 8lb line. But throwing that 6oz sinker using 30lb line is very feasible. But would you try to do it with a low profile bait caster or a saltwater class conventional reel? The conventional reel, of course. Match the lure to the line to the reel to the rod and you will be in pretty good standing.

What size and type of line will you be using?
Size of line, as stated previously, is important in choosing the right reel. You are not going to try to put 30lb monofilament (nylon) line on a trout reel, because it is not rated for it. The drag mechanism is just not strong enough to set accordingly. And the line capacity will be too short for efficient casting distance. But then there are the super lines like braids, Dacron, spectra, etc. These lines are very small in diameter considering their breaking strength, resulting in a higher possible line capacity. For example, a bait casting reel designed for freshwater bass fishing may be able to hold 100 yards of 20lb monofilament line. 20lb spectra has a diameter similar to that of 8lb monofilament, so that same reel will be able to hold more than twice the amount of line of the same strength rating. If you already know what size line you would like to be fishing with, then you should look on the packaging or body of the reel for the line capacity that the reel is rated for. You can use less however. That will not hurt, as long as you can still set the drag accordingly. But going over that limit can actually hurt the reel. If the drag system is set according to a line strength that is higher than what the reel is rated for, it can cause undue stress to certain parts of the reel, resulting in failure.

What kind of gear ratio do you need?
Different types of fishing will require different cranking speeds either for proper presentation of the bait, or for powerful leverage during cranking. Bottom fishing in the ocean in about 200ft of water for fish like rock cod requires a slower gear ratio, which translates to cranking power. When throwing a 6oz iron lure to surface feeding tuna or jacks, it is better to use a reel with a faster gear ratio to keep the lure moving and on the surface. Presentation of a crank bait can also be affected by the gear ratio. Sometimes a slower presentation is needed, so a slower gear ratio on your bait caster or spinning reel will benefit. But sometimes a fast moving presentation is needed so a higher gear ratio will make it easier to reach the effective speed.

You should also take note of the diameter of the spool on the reel that you are interested. Sometimes a reel manufacturer will actually say how much line will be retrieved per handle crank. But you can actually figure this out if you have a good background in math, and end up with a fairly close number, by finding the circumference of the spool (?r²) and multiplying it by the first number in the gear ratio. But without having to go through all those computations, eye-balling the size of the spool can give you a pretty good idea that a conventional reel with a 5:1 gear ratio will still have a faster retrieve than a bait caster with a 6:1 gear ratio.

What type of fish will you be targeting?
This is a very important question to ask yourself. You will want to make sure that the reel that you are buying is strong enough for the particular targeted fish. But you also don't want to overdo it. Do research on the fish you are going after. Find out how hard they fight. Do research on the drag systems and overall construction of the reels you are interested in and find out if they can handle the pressure of that fish. It just would not be efficient to fish for marlin with a freshwater bait caster, or try to target crappie with a saltwater conventional reel.

Where will you be fishing from?
Much of this question can be answered by the previous question - what type of fish will you be targeting? But when shopping for a reel the location that you are fishing from can influence which reel you should go with. Obviously you will be able to target different fish from a boat than from shore (with exceptions depending on location ie marlin from the rocks of New Zealand). But other factors can come into play. Depending on how well you keep an eye on your gear or how much you baby your reel, you might not want to take a $400 reel to fish off the rocks of a saltwater jetty due to the dangerous and destructive nature of hiking through the large rock pile and the slipperiness of the surfaces when wet. Slipping and smacking that beautiful reel on the rocks can be heartbreaking. Surf fishing on a beach can also be hazardous because of the amount of sand that can enter the innards of the reel, causing eventual failure. Certain reels are more ideal for these situations, and are no necessarily more expensive, but get the job done and can handle the abuse. Again, you must do your own research on the reels that you are interested in to figure out which reel will suit your personal preferences (ie durability, price, looks, etc). Another example is when fishing from a kayak or float tube. Being so close to the water and sometimes even having to navigate through surf, your gear will be more exposed to the elements. Saltwater getting on the reel, then having the sun dry it out can have quick undesirable effects on your reel. Some reels excel at keeping water out of the innards and resisting corrosion, while others might be good for only a few trips before maintenance is needed, or a new reel must be purchased to replace it.

What do all those terms on the box mean?
There may be other terms, but generally these are what you will see either on the box or on the reel itself.

Number of bearings: generally the more bearings you have, the smoother the reel is. By ‘smooth' I mean how little resistance you feel when cranking. But keep in mind that more bearings does not necessarily mean that the reel is smoother than others with less. Let's take two Daiwa reels for example. The Daiwa Regal-Z spinning reel only has four bearings, while the Daiwa Samurai 7i has seven bearings. But because of the tighter tolerances used in design and manufacturing for the Regal, and the use of better quality bearings, the Regal is a much smoother reel than the Samurai. So seeing that a reel has more bearings should not be the deciding factor in picking out your reel. Actually getting your hands on it and cranking it, preferably side by side with other reels that you are interested in, is the only way to see which reel is smoothest. There is also a down side to having more bearings. Bearings are made of metal, and metal is, of course, heavier than plastic. In many cases where a reel uses less bearings, a plastic bushing is used. To provide smoother operation a higher class reel may have a bearing in its place. One bearing in place of one bushing is an almost insignificant increase in overall reel weight. But additional bearings placed in strategic areas that usually don't even have a plastic bushing will add more weight to the reel. You should decide for yourself whether this is important to you.

Gear ratio: This is the amount of revolutions the spool will make (casting reels) or the line winder (spinning reels) for each full crank of the handle. For example, when you crank the handle of a casting reel one full revolution with a 6.1:1 gear ratio, the spool will revolve 6.1 times. If you crank the handle of a spinning reel one full revolution with a 5.2:1 gear ratio, the line winder (the part that spins around the spool when you crank) will rotate around the spool 5.2 times.

Anti-reverse bearing: Many reels nowadays come with this as a standard feature. What is means, is that when you crank the handle, it doesn't slip backwards on you. Depending on the quality of the anti-reverse bearing, some will have less ‘play', if you will, than others. Tighter tolerances in the anti-reverse bearing provides a solid hook set because of no line being let out from excessive play. But you must also understand that these bearings are not meant to withstand the pressure of fishing heavy line for large, hard running fish. So it is not going to be seen on most large, offshore saltwater reels. Instead, there will be an anti-reverse gear with a pawl that restricts excessive backward movement. Some reels will actually use both the anti-reverse bearing AND the gear. This gives the anger the crisp handle movement, solid hook sets, and the security of the gear to stop backward movement if the bearing cannot handle the strain.

Variable cast braking systems: The most common type is the kind similar to that of the Shimano VBS (variable brake system). What this entails is a number of casting brakes (usually six) that can be turned on or off, which assist in casting a bait casting or conventional reel, avoiding the dreaded backlash. The more brakes you turn on, the more brakes you will get as you cast. The way this works, is when you cast, the spool rotates very fast. The law of centrifugal force (for you physics buffs) causes the brakes (when turned on) to push outward and make contact with a surface that surrounds them. Much like a brake drum on a car. The faster the spool rotates, the more pressure the brakes will have against the ‘drum' surface. The more brakes you have turned on, the more braking will occur due to more surface friction on the drum surface. Every angler, depending on their casting skill, will prefer a different amount of brakes to be turned on for optimal distance and backlash control. (just FYI, I don't use ANY brakes on any of my casting reels hehehe)

The other type of cast braking system is the magnetic cast control. The mechanics behind this is difficult to understand unless you have some background in physics. But basically it entails creating what is called an eddy current by use of a non-magnetic metal revolving around a magnet (ie aluminum). In the case of a fishing reel, the spool is the one made of the non-magnetic metal and a magnet is positioned on the side plate (usually at an adjustable distance from the spool). The faster the spool revolves around the magnet, the stronger the eddy current gets. It is this eddy current that causes the braking effect to the spool. As the spool slows down, the eddy current weakens. As I stated earlier, the distance that the magnet is from the spool is usually adjustable. The closer the magnet is to the spool, the stronger it will be at slower revolutions. Just like in the VBS or similar systems, every angler will have to adjust this to adapt to their casting skill.

Line capacity: This is a general statement on how much monofilament line a certain reel will hold. But with the varying diameters of available lines, this number can be expected to be off by several yards. These numbers will also tell you what strength line the reel is rated to handle without either stressing parts or making it difficult to use. When you see the following: lb./(yds) 8/(175) 10/(155) 12(130), it tells you a few things. One is that when using 8lb test mono line you can put about 175 yards of line on the spool, and with 10lb test line, well you get the picture. It also tells you that the reel is rated for 8-12lb line, so trying to put 30lb monofilament on it is not only going to give you an inadequate amount of line for many applications, but it can make it difficult to cast properly, and can damage the reel due to stress from drag settings too tight (if you set the drag at the proper setting for 30lb test line).

What is your budget?
Ahhhh again probably the most important factor on most people's minds when shopping for their new reel. In many cases, the more expensive the reel, the better the quality. But not always. There are many reel manufacturers around nowadays. And many of them make quality gear. In many cases you might be paying for the name of the manufacturer of the reel. But with some names, you are also buying excellent customer service, or extra parts availability, or even customizability. Price should not be the only issue that holds you back from purchasing a certain reel. And many cases will require you to police yourself and force your wallet back into your pocket to save up the few dollars (or whatever your currency is) extra it takes to buy what would be considered the minimum, yet still optimal, quality equipment for what you plan to use it for. Do not sell yourself short to save a few dollars if it means that you end up with something that will not perform the way you want it, or be as durable as you need it to be. Now, please take note that the last statement did not mean to save up the $400 for a super reel. But it does mean that you might want to save up the extra $20 to buy that $60 reel over the $40 reel that you know is going to fail a lot sooner.

In conclusion...
I hope I did not confuse anyone any more than they were already. But honestly, you must understand that tackle shopping is a confusing animal. Every manufacturer has their own ideas of how to rate and price their reels. And no two reels are exactly the same. You must do your own research. Visit their websites. Read their catalogs. Ask people who own the reel or reels that you are interested in. Hopefully you can even find someone that owns or has owned both (or all) of the reels that you are trying to compare. This information can be invaluable in your search, since anglers that only own one of the reels can only give you an account of what they experienced with the reel. Every angler has different standards, so one may verbally bash a certain reel, while others may think it's the best thing that's happened to fishing.


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