How to Choose What Fishing Reel to Use

three rods in holders on a boat
In this article we go over how to choose what fishing reel to use. We will cover important things to consider such as the type of reel, sizes, gear ratios, bearings, drag systems and more!

“What fishing reel should I use?” is a question I see and hear a lot.

The debate is often whether to use a spinning or baitcasting reel which is a good place to start.

But the truth is that there’s a lot more to it than that and the right choice will depend on several other factors.

In this article, will go over the most important things to consider when deciding what fishing reel to use:
What type of reel to use
Choosing the specs of your reel
Other features of your reel

Keep reading to find out what fishing reel you should use.

What Type of Fishing Reel to Use

The first step in deciding what fishing reel to use is the type. For the average angler who might be looking to catch bass or crappie, there are three main options to choose from; spinning, baitcasting and spincast reels.

The type of fishing reel you should use will depend on your experience level, the species of fish you are targeting, your fishing location and technique. Keep reading to find out which type you should use.

Spinning reels

The spinning reel is the most commonly used type of reel in the world.

A spinning reel is an open faced reel that is mounted below the rod with a spool that is parallel to the rods axis. In spinning reels, the spool does not rotate and instead uses a bail guide system. When you crank your handle, the bail spins and wraps the line around the spool.

Pros of spinning reels

Ease of use

Spinning reels are one of the most simple reels to use. Casting is easy to learn and just involves flipping the bail to allow line to come freely off the spool. After the cast just flip the bail back, wait for a bite and reel the fish in.

They are also less prone to tangled lines compared to reels like baitcasters. When tangles do occur you have much better access to the spool and line to fix the problem.

Excel with casting lighter lines and lures

As I mentioned, during casting, the spool of a spinning rod doesn’t move. When the bail is flipped open, very little force or weight is required to pull the line off the spool during casting. This makes spinning reels work really well for light lines and lures.

The design of many spinning rods are also well suited for casting light lines and lures. The are often more flexible acting almost as a slingshot to help get extra distance for a lighter lure.

Cons of spinning reels

Poor casting accuracy

Spinning reels suffer poorer casting precision than other reels like baitcasters. This has a lot to do with the rod design which has to accommodate for the line unravelling from the spool during casting. The line guides are held further away from the rod and are usually larger in size. So there is a lot more room for the line to move around while casting which will affect your precision.

Less suited for heavier lines and lures

You can use heavier lines and lures on spinning gear and be successful with it. However, the design of these reels and rods don’t excel with heavier tackle like baitcasters. Heavier test lines are often quite a bit stiffer with more memory. This can cause the line to not sit properly on the spool and want to jump off. This can lead to line twists and affect your casting.

When to use a spinning reel

Beginners

If you are new to fishing or a casual angler, I highly recommend a spinning reel outfit. The main reason for this is how simple they are to use. Even children can pick up using a spinning reel and rod relatively quick and have lots of fun doing it.

You can use your spinning reel to fish with a variety of baits like worms or shrimp. They are also quite versatile so can work with a variety of lure techniques if you wanted to try your luck with them.

Finesse and sensitivity

Spinning gear is the go to option if you want to use more finesse techniques with better sensitivity. This goes hand in hand at handling light lines and lures exceptionally well. The rods for spinning reels are also more suitable for this style of fishing, as they usually have a much lighter action compared to the stiff and powerful casting rods.

Light cover

Due to the poorer casting accuracy of spinning reels, they are better suited to areas of light cover. Areas with lots of underwater structure like logs, rocks and plants pose a high risk for getting a snag, breaking your line and losing your lure. Water with heavy cover are best left for a reel and rod combo that offers better casting precision.

Baitcasting reels

The baitcaster is opposite to the spinning reel in many ways. It sits above the rod with a spool that is perpendicular to the rods axis. Another important difference is that the spool of the baitcaster spins during casting and retrieval.

Pros of baitcasting reels

Casting accuracy

During casting, because the spool is perpendicular to the rod, the line of a baitcasting reel comes off straight to give better control. This contrasts with spinning reels where the line has to uncoil from the spool. The guides on a baitcasting rods are also much smaller, giving the line less room to move around. 

Even more accuracy can be achieved using what is called thumb breaking during casting. After casting and your lure is flying through the air, you can apply pressure to the spinning spool to stop it. This gives you great control over your casting distance and allows you to drop your lure right where you want it. 

Excel with heavier line and lures

Stronger fishing lines with high memory like monofilament and fluorocarbon are managed well by baitcsters. The line comes off the spool straight so you don’t have to worry about the line jumping off spool which can be a problem for spinning reels.

Heavier lures also cast very well on baitcasting outfits. The design of the reel means that the extra weight of the lure aids in rotating the spool for a better cast. Baitcasting rods are often stiffer with a stronger backbone which can help you get some extra force behind the lure for casting.

Cons of baitcasting reels

More difficult to use

Casting with a baitcaster is notoriously difficult for beginners because the spool is required to rotate to release line. The difficulty here is that when your lure hits the water, the spool can continue to spin. This unloads a whole not of unnecessary line to give what’s called a backlash. This tangled mess of line can be super annoying to fix.

To combat the issue of backlashes, baitcasters are equipped with a braking system. This helps slow the spool rotation down as your lure approaches the water. This is handy, but requires tuning and adds another layer of complexity to using these reels.

Less suited for lighter lines and lures

As I’ve mentioned, to release line during casting the spool of a baitcaster is required to rotate. Compared to a spinning reel, this requires a little extra weight is usually required to pull the line off. So lighter weight lures can be difficult to cast. However, that’s not to say it can’t be done. It just requires more experience and finer tuning of your baitcast reel braking system.

Baitcast rods are also usually more stiff and powerful, making them better suited for heavier line tests.

When to use baitcasting reels

Heavy cover

Baitcasting reels really shine in water with plenty of structure, plants and weeds. The accurate casting allows you to place your bait or lures near these features without getting snagged. Fish love hiding near these things and a precise cast is going to make your bait presentations that much more successful.

Another benefit is from the stiff and powerful rods that pair with baitcasting reels. They are great at quickly horsing fish out of heavy cover to prevent you getting tied up.

Precise casting

Accurate casting is also important in other situations besides heavy cover. One example is if your trying to target an underwater shelf where many fish species frequent. Using your thumb to break during the cast is going to give you control over your casting distance like no other reel.

Another great example is bass fishing from a boat, where you sit in the middle of the lake and cast towards the shore. Being able to stop your lure before it goes too far is really important. If you’re using a spinning reel in this scenario, you have no control of the line during the cast. If you go too far, your lure is going to end up in the bushes which is going to be a massive pain.

Heavier tackle

As I’ve mentioned baitcasters excel at handling heavier lines and lures. Stronger lines with high memory are going to perform much better on a baitcaster. For example, if you plan on using a fluorocarbon mainline, anything stronger than 8 lb test should really be reserved for your baitcasters.

The same goes for lures. Heavy lures like football jigs or big swimbaits are going to cast and handle much better on a baitcasting outfit than a spinning one.

Spincast reels

Spincast reels have things in common with both spinning and baitcasting reels. Like spinning reels, it features a fixed spool parallel to the rod axis. But as with baitcasters, spincast reels sit on top of the rod. A unique feature of these reels is that they have a closed face, so the spool and line are protected by a cover.

Pros of spincast reels

Super easy to use

These reels are even more simple to use than a spinning reel. It really is as easy as pressing a button to cast and then winding in the line with the handle. No need to deal with the braking systems of baitcasters or the bails of spinning reels.

They also won’t experience backlash like a baitcaster and are less prone to line twist sometimes encountered with spinning reels.

Protected mechanics

The closed face of the spincast reel covers all the moving component. This prevents you or the user from playing around with the mechanics and causing any problems.

Cons of spincast reels

Poor performance

One of the biggest downside of spincase reels is that they do not perform as well as spinning or baitcasting reels. They are usually much cheaper than other types of reels and hence will have lower quality internal components.

In terms of design, the closed face spool causes much more friction with your line during casting. So your casting distance is usually going to be much shorter. The spool design also offers less line capacity which can also be a disadvantage.

Shorter lifespan

The closed face of spincast reels trap water or debris brought in while retrieving the line. This can encourage corrosion and interfere with the reels mechanics. They are also generally a little less robust than spinning and baitcasting reels.

When to use spincast reels

A simple fishing experience

If you are a casual angler that just wants an easy day catching fish spincast reels can be great. This is as easy as fishing gets and you will usually encounter less problems when using these reels. You can use them with easy to get bait like worms or shrimp to catch popular fish species like bass or crappie.

For children or beginners

Spincast reels are perfect for children. They can pick up casting very quickly and the closed face design stops them from playing around with the reels mechanics.

If you are a beginner I would generally recommend a spinning reel. However, if you like the sound of the button casting feature and aren’t too fussed on performance, a spincast reel can make a great option.

Choosing the specs of your reel

Now that you have a better idea of what type of fishing to use, you can look closer at what specs are going to be most suitable.

After thinking about how you will be using your reel you can start looking at the specs. The size, line capacity, gear ratio, bearings and drag are all going to have a massive impact on how your reel will perform for a given style of fishing. 

Size and line capacity

A good place to start for picking the right reel is the size you will need. Reel sizing can seem a little complicated at first so let’s break it down.

Sizing systems

Most reel manufacturers will have their own system for rating their reel size. It will usually be given as a number, with smaller numbers for smaller reels. While there can be some differences, equivalent sizes across manufacturers will be roughly equal.

The sizing system will vary between brands. For example, some manufacturers use double digit numbers like 20. Others use a number in the thousands like 2000 or in the hundreds like 200. Essentially these are the same approximate size. So a 20, a 200 and a 2000 will be roughly equivalent.

The point of these different sizes is that they are designed for different strength fishing lines. A larger size will usually be designed for stronger line and vis versa.

What line your reel is designed for will be specified by the manufacturer under “line capacity”. This will be defined by two different numbers. The first number will be a weight or thickness to tell you what strength line to use for the reel. The second will be a length. This tells you the maximum length of that weight line the reel can store.

For example, a specification of Mono capacity 6 lb/200 yds means that the reel is ideally designed for use with 200 yds of 6 lb monofilament line. Often there will be a separate line capacity for mono and braided fishing lines.

What size to use

The main consideration of which reel size to go for will depend on the strength fishing line you plan on using.

Ideally, the strength of the line will be matched to the size of fish you are targeting. For example if you are aiming for smaller fish, like panfish or bream, you might choose a 6-10 lb monofilament line. This will match well with a 3000 or 3500 size reel. But if you’re going for larger fish, like a kingfish or snapper, you might choose a 12-16 lb monofilament line which will work nicely with a 6000 size reel.

A reel will generally only specify one line weight for the reel, but it can usually handle one size up or down from that. So if you like to use 6 lb line for crappie and 10 lb line for bass, choosing a reel designed for 8 lb line will work good for both applications.

Pairing with your rod

The reel size and line should also be matched to the weight of your rod. Rods also have line weight specifications they are designed to be used with.

Using a rod that is rated for heavier line than your reel can lead to more frequent line breaks because the rod is too powerful. On the other hand, using a reel and line that heavier than the specs of your rod can be more disastrous. Because your line is stronger than your rod, guess which one breaks first?

So try to keep the specifications of your rod and reel close to one another for a great performing set up.

Gear ratio

This term sounds technical but it’s really quite simple. Gear ratio is just a measure of how many times the spool rotates for each turn of the handle. This is presented as two numbers separated by a colon such as 5.2:1. In this example, for every turn of the handle, your spool will make 5.2 rotations.

The line retrieve rate is related to gear ratio. This is also called inches per turn or retrieve per crank depending on the manufacturer. It tells you the length of line retrieved per rotation of the reel handle. So a 32 inch retrieve rate just means that for every time you turn the handle, 32 inches of line will be retrieved.

Retrieve rate doesn’t just depend on the gear ratio but also the dimensions of the spool and line size. So reels with the same gear ratio won’t always have the same line retrieve rate.

How gear ratio affects performance

To illustrate this I like to use the analogy of a bicycle. Using a lower gear is great for powering up a steep hill without wearing yourself out. But when you are on a smooth flat surface, a lower gear is going to limit your speed. If you want to go really fast, you will use a higher gear. But when you are trying to ride up an incline, a higher gear takes a lot more effort.

It works the same for fishing. A lower gear ratio is going to give you more power and a slower retrieve. A higher gear ratio gives less power but a faster retrieve.

When to use low gear ratios

What’s considered a low gear ratio will change depending who you ask. But in general a low gear ratio would be considered below 5:1 for a spinning reel and below 6:1 for a baitcatser. Here is when you should use a low gear ratio reel.

High resistance baits

Big lures that experience a lot of water resistance during the retrieve will pair well with a low gear ratio. Lures like crankbaits, alabama rigs or big swimbaits are some examples. These are lures you don’t really want to work too quick anyway and the low gear ratio is going to help prevent your arm from wearing out.

Strong fighting fish

If your targeting fish that really put up a good fight, a low gear ratio is also going to help out. This is especially true for surf or offshore anglers who like to target pelagic fish species. You’ll often find larger reel sizes are made with lower gear ratios for exactly this reason.

When to use high gear ratios

A good guidelines for a high gear ratio is any above 6:1 for a spinning reel and 7:1 for a baitcaster. Here are some example of where a high gear ratio is going to perform best.

Fast retrieve

High gear ratios work well with any presentation that you use the rod to work the lure. Baits like topwaters, poppers, jerkbaits and texas rigs are some examples. When you work the lure with your rod you generate slack in the line. A fast retrieve reel is going to give you the speed to keep up. That way when a fish strikes, your in position for a good hookset.

Heavy cover

Higher gear ratios like 8:1 for a baitcaster are perfect for fishing heavy cover. When flipping or pitching your usually making lots of short quick casts to get your lure in there, work it and move onto the next. The fast retrieve also lets you turn the fish really quick to get it out and away from the cover.

When to use moderate gear ratios

A mid range gear ratio is really any value between 5-6:1 for a spinning reel and 6-7:1 for a baitcaster. These reels balance out the pros and cons of the slow and fast ratios. Here are some scenarios when you should use a moderate gear ratio.

Steady retrieve

Presentations that you work with your reel pair well with moderate speed ratios. Spinnerbaits, chatterbaits and even lipless crankbaits are some examples. With these lures your often going for long casts and steadily work it back with no slack in the line.

Versatility

These gear ratios are some of the most versatile speeds for your reel. You can pretty much work any presentation with these middle of the road gear ratios. You get a great balance of speed and power. If you are only going to get a single reel or less experienced, go with a mid-range gear ratio.

Bearings

Whenever two surfaces rub together, friction is generated creating a feel of resistance. In reels there are many moving parts and ideally you want a little friction as possible for smooth performance.

This is where bearings come in.

Bearings reduce the friction between moving parts and act as the medium by which the reels components rotate. You can find them in various placed in your reel such as the main and pinion gear of spinning reels or on either side of the spool in baitcasters. Some manufacturers even put bearings in the handles of their reels.

Bushings can also be used in place of bearings, but generally bearings are going to give you a better performing reel.

Quality versus quantity

People often get caught up with the number of bearings used in a reel. The idea being that the greater the number of bearings, the smoother your reel will perform.

Not true.

While the number of bearings can make a difference, the quality is a much more important factor. A cheap reel with 10 low quality bearings probably isn’t going to outperform a more expensive reel with 6 high quality ones.

One trick I’ve seen some brands do is load up bearings in every spot possible. Even going as far as putting four bearings in the handle! People then get tricked into thinking it’s a better real because it has 12 bearings.

The quality of the bearing depends on a few factors like the precision of their manufacturing and their material. Higher quality reels tend to use stainless steel or ceramic bearings. Cheaper reels sometimes use chrome-steel bearings that are more susceptible to corrosion.

If you want to learn more about the importance of quality versus quantity of bearings in your reel check out the video below.

Bearing protection

You should also consider if your reel offers any protection for your bearings. Corrosion is the number one cause of bearing failure. So protecting them from water, especially salt water, during your fishing is going to prolong the life of your reel.

There are three main reel designs that offer different levels of protection for your bearings.

The first is open reels where the bearings are exposed. This design reduces friction allowing the reel to spin faster. But because the bearings are exposed they are more susceptible to corrosion.

Shielded bearings use a shield to cover the bearings. These designs are particularly good at prevent sand or debris intrusion and can help with prevent water from getting inside your bearings as well. Some reels use double-shielded bearings for extra protection.

If you want even more protection for your bearings you can go with a sealed design. These bearings feature a rubber seal which effectively prevents damage from both debris and water. They usually aren’t as smooth as the other designs but its the price you have to pay for such a robust design.

Drag

The drag system uses a series of discs and washers that come into contact with the spool. These can be tightened or loosened to control the amount of friction and how much pressure is applied to the hooked fish. When the fish exceeds this force, the line will begin to unravel from the spool. Having the correct drag is important so your line can hold enough pressure to reel in the fish without breaking.

The drag of a reel will usually be specified as a max drag value. This tells you the force required to pull the line at the reels maximum friction. This max drag needs to be appropriate for the type of fish you are trying to catch.

Types of drag systems

There are two main types of drag systems used in reels.

A high quality drag system is important. You want a smooth drag that doesn’t jerk or hesitate when pressure is applied. A poor quality system is going to increase the chances of your line breaking and the fish getting away.

Oil Felt

Drag systems that use oil felt are much cheaper but provide a lower quality drag system. After extended use, the felt begins to degrade and wear down. This causes metal on metal friction that well eventually seize up the mechanism.

Carbon Fibre

I recommend using reels with carbon fibre drag systems. They usually provide a higher quality drag with a better range and holding power. They provide smoother and more consistent resistance for your line and won’t wear down as much over time.

Drag protection

Much like the bearings, drag systems can be compromised by the elements. Debris and salt water can get between the discs and washers making it turn from smooth and consistent to crunchy and jerky.

A sealed drag system will provide good waterproofing and give your reel that extra durability. This is particularly important if you fish salt water where accumulation of salt spray can send your reels performance downhill pretty fast.

Other Things to Consider

Reels with the same specs are not all created equal. There are several other factors of the reels design that are going to affect its performance, durability and its price!

Frame Material

The materials used to make the reel are going to have a massive impact on the durability of your reel and particularly its price. One key consideration is the material used to make the reels frame.

It can be made from a few different materials like graphite, aluminium or magnesium.

Graphite

The cheapest option out there are the graphite or carbon composite body reels. These materials are usually made by combining carbon with a plastic polymer. The properties and cost of these materials vary depending on the carbon and polymers used as well as the manufacturing process. So while they are usually the cheapest option, there are also some very expensive reels that use composite materials.

One big advantage of carbon composite frames is their lighter weight. If you’re going to spend a whole day on the water casting, a lighter rod and reel setup is going to reduce wrist and forearm fatigue.

Another advantage is their corrosion resistance. Carbon composites, unlike metals, don’t corrode which can increase the durability and lifetime of your reel. This is especially advantageous if you fish salt water which corrodes metal much faster than freshwater.

The problem with graphite is that it is relatively fragile. Accidentally dropping your reel or stepping on it can cause catastrophic damage. So if you go with a carbon composite material, especially if it’s expensive, just exercise some extra care.

Carbon composites are also less rigid which can lead to frame flex. If you’re targeting larger or more aggressive fish species on a high drag, the tension of the line can cause the frame of your reel to flex. This can cause miss alignment issues with your reels gears, making your retrieve less smooth. The reel may even break in the most extreme cases.

Depending on the technology, more expensive carbon composites may suffer less frame flex or poor durability. There are a whole bunch of fancy names out there for graphite reel material. If you are ever in doubt, go check out a product review. Look out for any mentions of durability or flex issues to make sure you’re getting what you paid for.

Aluminium

If you’re looking for a more rigid frame with less flex, aluminium might be the way to go. You will usually need to fork out a little extra cash for these types of reels, but they are going to be able to better handle those high tension scenarios.

Aluminium frames are also less fragile compared to carbon composites. So dropping it or accidentally stepping on it will be less likely to just cause major damage. However, you pay for this extra durability with extra weight. So a long day casting is going to tire your arms out a little faster.

The disadvantage of aluminium frames is that they are more susceptible to corrosion. As they are metal, water and especially salt water can corrode your reel. This is going to require a little extra maintenance on your behalf. So make sure you give your reel a good clean after every trip.

A high quality aluminium reel will incorporate a protective treatment or layer over its aluminium frame. This can include anodising or applying corrosion resistant compound to improve its longevity. So try not to get any scratches on your reel which will damage the coating and expose the aluminium frame.

Magnesium

Some reels are also made with magnesium. They offer the same great mechanical properties as aluminium but are approximately 30% lighter. Magnesium reels also offer better corrosion resistance compared to aluminium. The downside is that they are usually a little more expensive and less common.

Braking system

If you’re opting for a baitcaster, you’re going to want to pay attention to your braking system. There are two main types, centrifugal brakes and magnetic brakes. Baitcasting reels can have either one of these systems or a hybrid system that contains both.

Centrifugal brakes

The centrifugal brakes have small weights inside the reel which essentially act as brake pads. When you cast your baitcaster, the spool will start to spin as the line unravels. The spinning motion creates centrifugal force which pushes the weights outwards. The force presses the weights against the outer shelf, causing friction and slowing down the spools rotation.

There are usually a total of six weights in the reel which can be turned on or off. This is usually done by unscrewing the side of your reel to access a plate which holds the weights. The more weights that are turned on, the more braking you will experience. They need to be activated in a symmetrical pattern so the braking force is applied evenly to the spool. This means you can have 2, 3, 4 or 6 brakes activated at a time. 

Magnetic brakes

Magnetic brakes operate a little differently by using magnets to slow down the reels rotation. These work using a scientific principle called Lenz’s Law. The spinning motion of the spool in the presence of magnets creates an attractive force which slows down its rotation.

How much braking is controlled by how close the magnets are to the spool. The distance is controlled using a small dial on the side of the reel. This dial system gives finer control of your brakes compared to centrifugal systems. Magnetic brakes are also easier to adjust because there is no need to unscrew the side plate of your reel.

Comfort

Finally you’re going to want to consider how comfortable the reel will feel. A high performing reel just isn’t going to be as fun to use if it’s awkward and uncomfortable to hold.

The first thing to check is the arm and knob of the reel. They come in many different shapes and sizes including round, oval, paddle and t-bar. What’s the best choice for you will often come down to personal preference. Get your hands on some reels and have a feel to see what you like best.

You will also want to consider the material. Handles made from EVA foam or cork are usually quite comfortable and commonly used in reels. The downside is that these materials are less durable compared to alternatives. Other handles that use aluminium are usually more durable but probably won’t be as comfortable.

The shape of the reel body can also come into play, especially for baitcasters. The part of the frame that sticks out over the line guide is usually where you’re going to be resting your thumb. So how far it sticks out is going to affect how natural or awkward the reel will feel.

If you’re ever in doubt about what’s going to be comfortable for you my best advice would be to get your hands on different types of reels. Have a feel to see what you like best and compare.

Final thoughts

What fishing reel to use can seem difficult at first but is really quite simple once you break everything down.

Start with your end goal in mind. What fish do you want to catch, where do you want to catch it and using what technique? Think about what is important for this application and choose the type of reel and specifications that match.