Using the right types of fishing reels can make fishing a lot more enjoyable! There may be nothing worse than showing up at the fishing section of your favorite store and not knowing what types of reels and rods match the kind of fishing you intend to do.
How will you know what reels and rods to buy? We've all been there! When you're just a beginner you may not have all the information you need to decide which is the right reel and how you're supposed to use it. We're here to help!
There are 5 main reel styles you can choose from, each with its strengths and weaknesses. For each style, we cover the features, how to cast, what fish to target, and the pros and cons to help you decide the type of fishing reel you need to buy. Let's go!
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In This Guide
- Spincast Fishing Reel
- Spinning Reel
- Baitcasting Reel
- Conventional/Trolling Reels
- Fly Fishing Reel
- How To Choose a Fishing Reel
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Final Thoughts
Spincast Fishing Reel
I was 6 years old when my uncle bought me a Zebco fishing reel and rod combination from our local store. I was bewildered by it, but after arriving at a stocked fishing lake I was catching bluegill like a pro on small red worms in under ten minutes.
A lot of us old-timers grew up with a Zebco as our first reel. I won't go into it, but the name is derived from the 'Zero Hour Bomb Company' who later abbreviated it to just Zebco. Smart move!
I've always thought of spincast reels as beginner reels that anyone can use for fishing, even if you never saw a fishing rod before. They are ideal for children or anyone who wants a super-cheap rod and reel to catch small fish. Let's learn some more about this basic fishing reel!
Features and Design
Spincast reels keep it simple. They are small, lightweight, easy to operate, cheap, and intended for catching small fish. They often come with line, hook, and bobber pre-rigged so all you need to do is add a worm or a piece of balled-up bread to be catching fish in your favorite fishing hole.
They have a one-button casting operation, drag control, and a crank (handle). A spincasting reel is basically a spinning reel that is covered up with a plastic or metal case over the top part of the reel to hide the line.
How To Cast with a Spincast Reel
Here's how simple it is to cast a spincast reel.
- Put your bait on the hook, the simplest way to get started is to use small live worms. Add a bobber about 8 inches from the hooked worm so you can see when you have a bite.
- Reel up your line so your bobber is a foot or so away from the rod tip.
- If right-handed, hold the base of the rod in your right hand with your index finger around the nub on the back of the rod. Your thumb is placed on the button on the top of the reel.
- Push the button with your thumb. Hold it down.
- Swing the rod out toward the area where you'd like your bait to hit the water.
- At some point, after you reach halfway through your swing, release the button with your thumb and it will let the line leave your reel and cast the bait.
- To retrieve the line, turn the handle in a clockwise direction. You should give the handle a turn after you cast to stop the line from leaving the spool.
It sounds more difficult in words than in reality, I know! Practice this and you'll have it in no time. Even small kids are capable of casting these spincast reels. If they can't get it, put them in an area on a pier or rock where they can just push the reel's button and drop the bait straight down to reach the fish.
- Perfect for Beginners – I've only seen kids use them, but adults could start with a spincast reel too.
- Good Experience – Beginners can immediately catch fish, resulting in a great first fishing experience.
- Very Affordable – You won't feel too bad about buying one and breaking it, or your child not enjoying fishing and never using it again.
- Cheaply Made – Most of these break within a year. Constant lubrication is necessary to keep metal parts from rusting. Usually only for freshwater.
- Short Casting Distance – The small hole that lets the line out from the spool also limits casting distance.
- Only Small Fish – Not for strong or heavy fish as the reel will break under significant strain.
- Prone to Bird Nests – While quite good, the reel's design is far from perfect, and frequent bird nests (jumbled, knotted line) under the reel cover is a common problem.
When To Use a Spincast Reel
They are made for beginners and small kids and they have a very limited use case because you can only catch small fish and have a limited casting range.
Use a spincast reel when you want to introduce a beginner, likely a child, to the sport of fishing and you want to have the highest chance of a successful experience.
Use spincast reels in freshwater only because most are not meant for saltwater and will quickly rust and become unusable.
What Fish Species Is a Spincast Reel Used For?
Spinning reels are the next step up from spincast reels, and can be the final step for many anglers because they are suitable for a wide range of fishing environments. Small spinning reels are perfect for catching small fish in freshwater, and large ones can help you land 100 lb. fish in the ocean.
Features and Design
The design of spinning reels is kind of remarkable and great for many kinds of fishing. Like the spincast reels, a spinning reel's line spool is anchored on a vertical axis. The bail arm spins around the spool to wind line on with the line roller when turning the handle.
The spool is also capable of rotating and does so when drag is pulled. There is resistance in the spool movement caused by friction between surfaces that can be tightened or loosened with the drag control dial located on the top of the reel. Drag resistance increases when the dial is turned clockwise and lessened when turned counter-clockwise.
Drag is important to keep some tension in the line at all times, but not too much tension or the fish will break off or launch your fishing rod/reel into the water. After casting, set your drag to a level that will apply some stopping pressure to the fleeing fish and yet not so hard that the line snaps. It's a skill you'll get better at judging with time using spinning reels.
How To Cast a Spinning Reel
Learning to cast a spinning reel is not difficult. Just follow the steps below and you'll be casting like a pro in no time!
- Set your drag properly so you don't end up losing the fish as soon as one bites when your bait hits the water.
- Reel up your rig so your sinker or bobber, or whatever is highest on the line, is about 18-24 inches from the rod tip.
- If you're right-handed, hold the fishing rod just above the reel with that hand.
- With your index finger, pull the line toward your hand and press it up against the rod. Hold it there.
- With your other hand, flip the bail arm up and out of the way for the cast.
- To cast from the side, face the area you want to cast your bait to. Turn the rod at a 90° angle to where you want your bait to go.
- In a swinging motion with the rod, with your left hand on the bottom of the rod and one just above the reel, swing toward the ideal location in the water and release the line with your finger so it can freely come off the spool.
- The crucial part of this is of course the amount of speed you use to swing the rod and the timing of when you release the line from your finger so your bait can go to the perfect spot.
- Once your bait hits the water, then you can flip the bail arm back down and be ready to retrieve the line.
Practice with short casts first, only a few feet in front of you. Gradually increase the distance of your casts until you are proficient.
- Easy to Use – Adults can learn how to cast, retrieve, and catch fish with a spinning reel in a matter of minutes. Also very quick to deploy if you need to cast quickly.
- Catch a Variety of Species – Can handle catching anything from small pinfish to big king mackerel, tuna, or other very large fish.
- Replaceable Spools – It is very easy to swap out spools of line of different strengths if you need to.
- Handle Swap – On some spinning reels, you can switch the handle to the other side of the reel easily.
- Variable Sizes – Size ratings from 500 to 30000 enable you to choose a reel based on the weight and fighting power of the fish you're targeting. A 500-level reel is for small fish while a 30000-level one is for very big fish, even sharks. Some manufacturers use a 2-digit number corresponding to a 4-digit size. For example, calling a model a '50' instead of '5000'. Or using 3 digits like 300 to refer to a 30000 size reel.
- Moderate Price – Spinning reels are priced for value as there is tremendous competition between brands and now China is putting out a lot of junk reels (and a few good ones) into the market.
- Bails Break – I've had a number of bails break on spinning reels over the years. It's a common point of failure.
- Line Twist – Because the line comes off the spool sideways, it causes the line to twist and can result in a knotted line.
- Casting Distance – Line twist can cause more friction while casting than with baitcasting reels – especially with monofilament line which has some 'line memory'. It's also harder to control the accuracy of casts compared to baitcasting reels.
When To Use a Spinning Reel
Use a spinning reel anytime you want to catch fish, big or small, in any kind of water, saltwater or freshwater. They are very versatile reels and many anglers never change to any other fishing reel style because a spinning reel can cover all the basics.
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What Fish Species Is a Spinning Reel Used For?
The short answer is, you can catch nearly any species of fish with a spinning reel because the range of sizes allows you to fish with heavy or light drag and strong to lightweight fishing lines. It’s common to catch bass, crappie, trout bowfin, gar, perch, sheepshead, redfish, black drum, permit, pompano, snook, mackerel, jack crevalle, and most every other fish outside of the largest species.
My favorite type of fishing reel is the baitcasting reel. The accuracy and distance possible while casting line from these reels are unbeatable. The spool spins during casting so the momentum of the spool unwraps the line very quickly and smoothly. It's a nice experience!
Many people are hesitant to purchase a baitcasting reel because a different casting style is necessary. People may be afraid to foul their reels as well (bird nesting the line). You can learn within a very short time, definitely less than a day. Realistically, it will only take you about an hour or so before you have the hang of it. After fishing with it a few times, you'll be good enough to enjoy it and you'll love your new reel.
Features and Design
The primary difference between a spinning reel and a baitcasting reel is the position of the line spool. On the spinning reel, it is on a vertical axis. On the baitcasting reel, the spool is sitting horizontally.
The advantages this horizontal configuration creates are substantial and in my mind, really a game changer.
Baitcasting spools spin when the line is cast or retrieved. This momentum when casting is helpful to unspool line with very little friction and uses the momentum of the weight of the line and spool itself to help you cast farther. It's a fantastic design!
There is no spinning external bail that can snag on something, snap off, or get stuck. The gearing is internal and protected from the elements so it lasts longer and feels more precise.
How To Cast a Baitcasting Reel
A baitcasting reel has a button right over the spool that you can depress to free the spool and allow it to unwind during casting. Notice that you can control the speed of the spool with your thumb directly on the line on the spool. This is crucial to understand.
To prepare your baitcasting reel for casting, do the following.
- Set your drag properly.
- Prepare the line with the rig you will be using. If you're going to use a live shrimp, add the shrimp to the hook now. Everything should be ready to cast, but don't cast yet.
- Reel in the line so whatever part of your rig is highest on the line (sinker, swivel, bobber, hook) is about 12 inches away from the top of the rod.
- Tighten the spool tension knob all the way clockwise.
- Hold your rod horizontally. Push the spool release button to free the spool, keeping your thumb on the line in case the spool spins fast and bird nests. Let your thumb off the line slowly. It shouldn't release and unravel the line. If it does, you haven't set the spool tension knob tightly enough. Set it tighter and try again.
- With a thumb very lightly touching the line on the spool, loosen the spool tension knob slowly until your rig starts to drop to the ground. You'll need to find the perfect drag setting that allows your rig to fall slowly to the ground without your finger on the spool and without causing a backlash (bird nest). Be careful when it gets close to the ground you will need to use your thumb to stop the spool from spinning to prevent the line from unraveling.
- A perfect adjustment depends on what you prefer. I always let the rig fall a little faster because that means less tension on the spool when I want to cast out far. If you set the spool tension a bit too tight, your hook will stop in mid-air as you cast and you won't reach the maximum distance. You may also get to watch as your live bait sails through the air after it rips off the hook. Not a pretty sight!
- If your dominant hand is your right, then with your right thumb on the spool, press the spool release button. Your left hand can hold near the butt of the rod. Face the direction you want to cast and swing the rod from the right side of you to the front of your body. The end of the swing should point the rod at the spot you want to cast to.
- As you are swinging the rod, you'll release your thumb from the spool so it can spin and cast the line out. It's crucial where you release it and it's just after you reach midway of your swing. The timing of the release is what will take practice to learn.
- It's essential that your thumb is resting lightly on the spinning spool as you cast out. Many people call this 'feathering' the spool. When the bait/lure is over the area where you want it, you can apply more thumb pressure to the line and spool to slow and stop it so the bait or lure drops in the water right there. Or, you can wait for it to fall naturally and slow the spool with your thumb gradually.
The whole idea is that you set the spool tension so you can control the spinning of the spool with your thumb easily. I like the spool to spin fast and give me a lot of line easily because I'm very attentive to keeping pressure on the spool as it spins. So, when I set the tension, I set it a little bit looser than most people do.
If you let the rig hit the water and your thumb is not on the spool, the spool does NOT STOP spinning. This leads to bird nest situations and cussing and whining!
With lures, you can forcibly stop the line from going out with your thumb on the spool. With live bait, it will likely rip the hook from the bait. With cut bait, as long as it is on the hook really well, it may stay on.
It sounds harder than it is, but to be honest, some people do have trouble initially figuring out how it all works. Ideally, you'll have someone teach you with hands-on repetition until you're able to master it.
Practice with short casts, just 10-20 feet in front of you. Gradually increase the distance of your casts until you can cast at least 20-30 yards accurately.
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- Superior Casting – Baitcasting reels offer exceptional casting accuracy and distance.
- Smoother Drag – Applied drag is more consistent than with spinning or spincast reels.
- Line Capacity – Baitcasting reels of roughly the same size as spinning reels will hold more line due to the larger spool capacity.
- Less Exposure to Elements – All of the crucial pieces are inside the reel and not exposed to saltwater, rain, sweat, dirt, fish slime, etc.
- Steep & Short Learning Curve – It is harder to learn to cast a baitcasting reel than a spinning reel, but it won't take long until you are casting farther and more accurately.
- Spool Replacement – On most models, it is not possible to replace the spool with a line of different strength.
When To Use a Baitcasting Reel
You can use your baitcasting reel every time you go fishing, but it is especially useful for a couple of situations.
When beach fishing, you need to get as much distance on your cast as possible, use a baitcasting reel with some decent weight on the end, and a long (9 foot+) surf rod. This will launch your bait out there as far as it will go.
I've also found this setup helpful while on piers when a school of baitfish is spotted within casting distance. With just a Got-Cha lure and some braided line on a small baitcasting reel, it's possible to cast 80-100 yards, especially with the wind at your back.
What Fish Species Is a Baitcasting Reel Used For?
What species do you want to catch? Like a spinning reel, a baitcasting reel ranges in size and can catch fish of nearly any size. I've used my small Abu Garcia and Penn baitcasting reels to catch pinfish, trout, reds, black drum, jacks, sheepies, cobia, mackerel, snook, bass, and dozens more species.
You can use a baitcasting reel for catching nearly any fish species – in saltwater or freshwater.
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A Conventional reel is a stronger type of reel than a baitcasting reel but in the same general style. They also have more capacity for heavier line and the drag is capable of considerably more resistance. For these reasons, they are used for big fish like marlin, tuna, and other large fish. Conventional and trolling reels are not different types of fishing reels.
Features and Design
These are the heaviest, biggest, and strongest reels made for fishing and they are used for deep sea fishing – either dropping straight down or trolling the deep sea.
These reels are built for powering fish in with strong line on strong rods. The shape resembles a baitcasting reel but conventional reels are not used for casting because they are fished from boats in deep water.
Features include star drag, lever drag, gear speed selector, spool release lever (eccentric lever), line guide and reels without guides, drag clicker, and precision-made gears that can handle the strain of reel-smoking runs by big fish.
How To Cast a Conventional/Trolling Reel
Trolling reels are not made for casting. You can either drop your bait straight down from a stationary boat, pier, or bridge or troll your bait with a moving boat.
- Strong – Conventional reels are strong enough to handle really big fish.
- Fast or Slow Trolling – A big conventional reel can handle slow or fast trolling.
- Strong Drag – The drag on these reels can handle much more resistance than spinning reels.
- Fewer Twists – With a trolling reel, just like a baitcasting reel, the line comes off and back onto the spool in a straight line. Meaning, it doesn't come sideways off the spool like spinning reels which can induce twists and tangles in the line.
- Expensive – The good trolling reels are very expensive. Of course, if you're running a fishing charter business, it will make sense to invest in good reels that will last.
- Complicated – Not too complicated to use once you get used to all the functions and how to use it you'll appreciate what a fantastic job it does. Convention reels are much more involved than a spinning reel and much slower to deploy quickly.
When To Use a Conventional/Trolling Reel
Use a conventional reel when you need a powerful reel to catch big fish. These reels should be used when trolling, as they are made to be strong enough to handle almost anything that bites.
What Fish Species Is a Conventional/Trolling Reel Used For?
The biggest fish in the ocean can be caught using a big conventional reel including marlin, bluefin tuna, swordfish, sailfish, and sharks.
Fly Fishing Reel
Fly fishing aficionados prefer this type of fishing to others for many reasons. Fly fishing is seen as more traditional, technically involved, and often more challenging than fishing with spinning or baitcasting reels. Here are some reasons people choose fly fishing!
- Artistic Experience – Fly fishing anglers think of it as a sort of art form with a long history and tradition behind it. Tying flies and the casting movements are personal expressions of fishing not possible with other types of gear.
- Challenging – Fly fishing requires a different casting technique and skill in fly tying if you do it yourself.
- Stealth – Using a light line and a careful, quiet presentation allows anglers to sneak up on fish as if stalking them. It brings out our inner predator!
- Light Tackle – Lightweight tackle adds to the excitement of catching fish!
- Versatility – Fish in freshwater lakes, rivers and ponds or saltwater.
- Connection to Nature – fishing in scenic environments in the water or at the water's edge gives anglers a chance to connect directly with nature, escaping the stresses of life.
- Satisfaction – Catching fish on a fly tied at home gives one a stronger sense of accomplishment than catching on store-bought lures or live bait.
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Features and Design
Fly fishing reels have some unique features that set them apart from other types of fishing reels. Below we point out some key features and design elements of a typical fly fishing reel.
- Line Retrieval – Single action, multiplying fly reel, and automatic retrieval options are available on some reels.
- Drag System – Though it isn't all that necessary for small fish like trout, a smooth and reliable drag can be helpful to apply tension to the line while reeling in a fish. There are two basic types of drag – spring and pawl, and disk drag. Sealed drag is a must for saltwater.
- Line Capacity – Fly fishing reels must hold a length of thick fly line and backing.
- Lightweight – Fly fishing rods are always actively used, so they are lightweight and can be used for hours without tiring.
- Materials – High-quality fly fishing reels use corrosion-resistant materials like aluminum, magnesium, carbon fiber, and titanium for durability.
- Design – Fly fishing reels come in a variety of designs, including large arbor and mid arbor, full cage and open style frame, multi-cassette spool systems, and special reel handle designs.
- Price – Reels can range from under $100 to well over $1,000 for premium quality gear.
A good fly fishing reel will provide reliable performance and make your fishing experience more enjoyable.
How To Cast a Fly Fishing Reel
Casting a fly fishing reel takes practice and patience. Follow these steps to learn how to overhead cast.
- Begin by holding the rod at a 90-degree angle to the water in front of you. About 10 feet of fly line should be hanging down in front of you from the tip of the rod.
- Hold the rod in line with your forearm and your thumb on top.
- Your index finger will hold the fly line against the fly rod until you're ready to let the line go to cast.
- Make a backcast by smoothly lifting the rod behind you until it is at a 45-degree angle to the water. Stop the rod at the backcast position for a moment to allow the line to straighten out behind you.
- In a smooth, sweeping motion, bring the rod forward until it reaches a 10° to 15° angle to the water.
- At this point, release the fly line with your index finger to allow it to land on the water.
It's important to use smooth, fluid movements when casting a fly fishing reel. Practice makes perfect!
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Fly fishing reels have some advantages over other types of fishing reels. Some key benefits are below.
- Precision – Fly fishing reels can put your fly exactly where you want it because as you cast, you can visualize exactly where your fly will drop before you let the line go.
- Stealth – Fly fishing reels can be nearly silent, which can help you get closer to the fish without spooking them.
- Light Weight Rod, Reel, and Tackle – Fly fishing gear is lightweight which reduces fatigue during long days on the water.
- The Experience – Feeling connected with nature, making your own flies, minimalist bait presentation, quiet, almost silent fishing, and sometimes solitude, all contribute to the almost surreal fly fishing experience so many anglers enjoy!
While fly fishing rods have many advantages, there are also some potential drawbacks like those below.
- Learning Curve – Learning to cast and use flies efficiently as bait takes time to learn and requires more skill to master.
- Limitations – Fly fishing is designed for light tackle use and targeting smaller fish. It isn't appropriate for very large fish. That said, some people still insist on fishing for tarpon with fly rods!
- Wind – While casting, wind can affect the line and make it difficult to place your fly in the right position.
- Cost – Fly fishing reels, rods, lines, and other gear can be more expensive than other types of fishing rods, especially high-end models.
When To Use a Fly Fishing Reel
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Whether or not to use a fly fishing reel depends mainly on the experience you are looking for while fishing. Different types of fishing reels give different experiences.
Do you want to catch the biggest fish possible? Or, as many fish as possible?
Great! Just go out on a boat, or fish from a pier with multiple spinning, baitcasting, or trolling reels and rods and do that. However, this is not what fly fishing anglers are interested in.
Fly fishing is not just about catching fish, it's also about the process and way to go about catching fish. It's sort of like the feng shui or zen approach to fishing. Fly fishing gear matters, apparel matters, comfort matters, style matters, tying flies matters, and taking a minimalist approach to fishing matters. All of these things are taken into account and given some thought before and while fly fishing.
Fly fishing is not for everyone, but millions of people across the world have chosen this style of fishing as their primary way to enjoy the sport, even in the winter. If you haven't tried it, at least give it a chance!
What Fish Species Is a Fly Fishing Reel Used For?
Fly fishing reels are more commonly used to catch freshwater fish, but more people every year try their hand at fly fishing in saltwater. Some common species of fish caught on a fly reel and rod are freshwater trout, salmon, steelhead, bass, and bonefish – the holy grail of saltwater fly fishing!
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How To Choose a Fishing Reel
Choosing the right fishing reel depends on a few things, including the type of fishing you will be doing, your personal style, and the species of fish you will be targeting. Here are some questions to answer and considerations that will help you choose the right fishing reel.
- Fishing Type – Freshwater or saltwater, lake or surf fishing reel? Will you target heavy or light fish?
- Fishing Platform – Will you fish from a boat? Shore? Pier or bridge? Will you do casting and trolling? Would you like to fish quietly on freshwater trout streams in the mountains?
- Rod – If you have a rod to put a reel on, you may want to match the size.
- Budget – There is a wide range of gear that can be cheap and temporary or expensive and last for decades. How much can you afford to spend on a fishing reel? Decide on a budget.
- Reel Reviews – Read hundreds of reviews about the reels you're considering to see how they stack up against each other. Real world experience shared in comments and reviews can be a gold mine and help sway you toward the right reel for you.
- Hands On – Ask friends if you can fish with their reels, it may help you decide on a good reel.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Fishing Reel Is Best for Kids?
Here are some reels kids can start with.
- Zebco 202, 404, or 606 spincast models
- Zebco 33 Micro Spincast Reel
- Zebco Spyn, or Stinger spinning reels
- Shimano FX, or Sedona FI spinning reels
Kids from 5 to 10 will enjoy using a spincasting reel. Children over 10 may be better to start with a spinning reel because they can learn to cast for some distance, catch bigger fish, and have a better experience.
What Reel Is Best for Beginners?
For teen or adult beginners in freshwater, a spinning reel is a great first reel to purchase. Some good starter reels are listed below.
- Penn Fierce or Pursuit
- Shimano Sedona, Nexave, Nasci, Ultegra
- Penn Fierce or Pursuit
- Shimano Spheros SW A or Socorro SW
These reels are easy to use, durable, and offer good value for the price. Match the size of the reel to the size of fish you want to target.
What Kind of Reel for Bass?
Bass fishing can be done with a variety of reels, but the most popular options are baitcasting reels and spinning reels. Here are some that work well for bass fishing.
- Penn Warfare
- Shimano SLX DC
- Shimano Spheros or Socorro
- Abu Garcia Revo SX
- Penn Battle or Pursuit
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The differences between these reels is clear enough that you probably already know which reel you should buy for the fishing you'd like to do. The only gray area is the difference between a spinning reel and a baitcasting reel of the same size. In many cases, you can use either one successfully.
In my own experience, the better casting accuracy and distance I get with a baitcasting reel, along with the larger line capacity, better durability, higher reliability, and smoother drag, I would always choose the baitcasting reel when given a choice.
I hope this helped inform you about the different types of fishing reels available to you. Most anglers who have fished for years have more than one of the reel types above for different fishing adventures. Choose wisely and remember there is a balance between affordability and durability!