Buying a New Reel: What You Need to Know to Make the Right Choice
Buying a New Reel: What You Need to Know to Make the Right Choice
Anglers shopping for a new fishing reel are spoiled for choices, and from ultra-high end options like Shimano’s Stella series to the budget-minded Okuma Aria, it’s hard to know what’s important in a new reel other than the price.
That’s perfectly understandable given the wide array of styles, sizes, and manufacturers.
We’d like to demystify this topic and help you make the right choice for your needs and budget. Once you’re educated on the types of reels and their characteristics, visit USAngler to find the top-rated fishing reels available today.
Reel Characteristics: Get to Know What Matters
Regardless of the style of reel you choose for your fishing adventures, you’ll want to assess the following characteristics.
A good reel with a bad drag is a bad reel. It’s that simple.
A reel’s drag does two things. First, it provides a cushion for your line, absorbing sudden shocks that might otherwise cause failure. And second, your drag creates a brake of sorts that forces fish to fight to take line from your reel.
To accomplish this well, a drag needs to release line smoothly. Sudden starts and stops can dramatically change the forces applied to your line, and that’s always something to avoid.
The best drag systems provide buttery release across their drag settings, but even the most capable reels perform best in the mid-range of the drag settings.
Typically, the larger the reel the greater its capacity to hold line.
That’s because as reel size increases, so too does spool size. But there are exceptions to this rule, and you want to look carefully at a reel’s reported line capacity numbers.
Usually, these are given in yards/test weight, such as 300/12, meaning that the reel can be filled with as much as 300 yards of 12-pound nylon monofilament line. Sometimes, a reel will also be marked with its braid capacity, and many reels bear their capacity with three test weights, for example, 325/10, 300/12, 285/14.
Capacity matters for two reasons.
First, more line gives you greater options to cut and re-tie through a day’s fishing, shedding compromised line and starting fresh. That will reduce break-offs and failures, and running low by the end of the day is something all anglers want to avoid.
Second, when fighting big fish, you’ll often need to let them run, taking line as they do. Getting “spooled,” that is, running out of line, is a sure-fire way to lose a great fish.
Gearing and gear ratios
Reels use gears to translate your turns of the handle into turns of the spool.
The first thing to be aware of is that not all gears are equal.
To save cost and weight, some reels will use plastic gears that will break under heavy loads and big fish. Others use brass as it’s both corrosion resistant and easy to machine, and brass gears are very smooth, offering a solid, silky feel when you spin the handle.. Still others opt for stainless steel alloys that resist saltwater’s effects and provide very high strength to weight ratios.
Beyond that, the quality of the machining of those materials matters for overall strength and longevity, as well as the smoothness of the reel’s performance.
We like to know what gear material a reel uses, but that’s often a matter that requires a bit of research.
All reels will report a gear ratio, which is simply a number expressed as a ratio 5.1:1.
In this case, 5.1:1 means that one turn of the cranking handle spins the spool 5.1 times. Higher gear ratios typically mean “faster” reels, that is, reels that retrieve line more quickly.
Faster isn’t always better, but it matters when you’re fighting quick-swimming species or when you have a lot of line to pick up between casts.
When you spin the crank on a reel, you want the action to be as smooth and free of vibration as possible.
Smooth, effortless spinning isn’t easy to produce, and smoother reels typically cost more than less refined alternatives.
As the gears and other parts of your reel work, they’re contacting one another and producing friction and heat. To reduce this, and increase a reel’s casting distance, reel manufactures install bearings.
Bearings are nothing more than polished metal or ceramic balls captured in a “cage” and contained within a “race.”
Reel manufacturers like to report the number of bearings, and you’ll often hear advice to pick the smoothest reel you can find.
But bearing quality matters more than bearing count, and bearing wear over time will compromise even the smoothest reel.
That’s why you want to maintain your reels, oil and grease them properly, and make sure that you clean them after every use.
Weight and Size
Finally, you want a reel that pairs well with your rod, doesn’t weigh more than it needs to, but can handle the fish you’re chasing.
Lighter reels mean less fatigue over the course of a day’s fishing, but compromises in size usually mean compromises in capacity as well.
Reel Types: Get to Know What You Need
Most anglers choose one of the following kinds of fishing reels:
Let’s break these designs down to see how they tick and get to know the advantages and disadvantages of each choice. To learn more about the types of fishing reels and their characteristics we recommending visiting USAngler: Types of Reels: The Complete Guide
- Excellent for beginners
- Poor longevity
Spincasting reels like those offered by Zebco are excellent choices for new anglers.
Enclosing the spool in protective casing, they tend to reduce frustration knots and tangles. Furthermore, they use a thumb-activated button to release the spool, making casting easy and intuitive.
Typically, they sport their drag controls on the top of the reel body, using a dial to set drag pressure.
The strengths of spincasting reels are easy to see. They offer hassle-free casting and are very easy to learn to use.
Their disadvantages are more hidden from view.
Spincasting reels use take-up pins instead of the bail you’ll see on a spinning reel. These pins catch line and release it, and they’re absolutely essential for the performance of spincasters.
The bad news is that they don’t last forever, and when they wear down, the reel will no longer cast or retrieve reliably.
Why buy a spincasting reel?
Spincasting reels are great options for anglers new to the sport, and they’ll offer reasonable performance and longevity for the price.
Typically – but not always – manufactured with less powerful gears and drag systems, they’re best reserved for smaller species like panfish, croaker, and the like, though some models, like the Zebco Bullet, are more than capable of winning fights against fish like largemouth bass, walleye, or channel catfish.
Keep in mind that spincasting reels deliver ease of use at the cost of durability, and you’ll be well-served by them.
- Excellent for everyone from beginners to pros
- At their best with lines thinner than 10-pound mono
- Awesome with light lures and finesse techniques
- Great in the wind
Spinning reels like Shimano’s Vanford series are a fixture on the water whether you fish bass in a quiet pond in Alabama or work a moving tide for reds in Louisiana.
Spinning reels employ a fixed spool around which a bail turns, picking up line when closed or releasing line when open.
Casting is pretty easy to learn with a spinning reel, and performance in windy conditions is excellent. Largely tangle free, you’ll find spinning reels on beaches, inshore, and anywhere else wind is a constant threat.
Spinning reels are at their best with lines with a diameter of less than 10-pound nylon monofilament. Above that, friction with the edge of the spool will reduce casting performance. Moreover, heavier monofilament and fluorocarbon lines may produce too much memory after being wound around a tight spool.
Due to their design, however, spinning reels are capable of casting very light lures without creating backlashes or overruns. For finesse bass techniques and the light lures used for everything from panfish to trout to smallmouth, spinning reels simply can’t be equaled.
Drag systems on spinning reels are most often located on the end of the spool, providing direct mechanical contact.
Why buy a spinning reel?
Durable, capable, and easy to use, spinning reels are great for beginners.
But professionals use spinning reels, too, especially when fishing with light lures or adopting finesse techniques like Ned rigs, drop shots, shaky heads, or weightless Senkos.
That’s because spinning reels can cast very light lures well, achieving distance and tangle-free performance that no baitcasting reel can match.
- Best for experienced anglers
- Provide awesome casting with all lines and heavy lures
- Excellent control and great drag systems
Baitcasting reels like Daiwa’s Lexa LX HD are amazing choices for species as diverse as largemouth bass and snook. At home in freshwater as well as the salt, they offer nearly unbeatable casting and drag performance with larger diameter lines and heavy lures.
The spool on a baitcasting reel spins freely when a thumb lever is depressed, allowing truly impressive casting with as little friction as modern engineering can manage. Spool tension is adjustable via a variety of systems – some magnetic, others mechanical – that adjusts how easily the spool can spin.
When set properly for an experienced angler, casting is as slick and powerful as possible.
But that performance runs into problems in the wind or when the lures are very light, as the line can billow, overrunning the lure and tangling. Poor casting technique can also lead to massive bird nests near the reel, with the only option being to cut line.
But for anglers who’ve learned to cast baitcasting reel, the slick performance and impressive casting distance are well-worth the trouble.
Baitcasting reels typically wear very advanced drag systems that offer tremendous smoothness and performance. They’re usually tuned via a star-shaped knob located behind the crank.
Why buy a baitcasting reel?
Baitcasting reels are ideal with lines ranging from thick mono to hair-fine braid. A favorite among bass anglers for accurate casting and control, they pack great capacity and awesome drag systems into palmable bodies that reduce fatigue.
They’re just at home inshore, too, and plenty of fishermen prefer them for redfish, snook, speckled trout, and the like.
- Designed for very large fish
- Powerful, durable, and built to win fights
When you’re fighting fish the size of grouper, shark, tuna, or marlin, you need a reel that delivers more – more toughness, more drag, more torque, and more line.
That’s when anglers turn to conventional reels like Avet’s EX 2-Speed Lever Drag Big Game Reels.
Mechanically similar to baitcasting reels, conventional reels are built with the most durable materials, powerful gears, and fight-winning drag. Some even come with a two-position drag lever that allows instantaneous adjustment between “strike” and “fight” modes.
Not truly designed for casting, conventional reels are typically used to troll or jig, and the emphasis of the construction is on turning the odds in your favor during the fight of your life.
Capacities are typically huge, drag settings are powerful, and the gear ratio and spool size work together to deliver speeds that can maintain a tight line when fighting the fastest fish in the ocean.
Overkill for anything less than the largest fish, you won’t see conventional reels often unless you head for the salt, though there are exceptions like lake trout where these reels come into their own.
Why buy a conventional reel?
If you fish for species like shark, tuna, grouper, sailfish, marlin, and tarpon, the power and durability of a conventional reel is a must.