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The Ultimate Guide To Fishing Reels (Types, Uses, Pros and Cons)

all fishing reel types hanging on a wall

This fishing reel guide was written with an all too real scenario in mind. Picture this, you’re heading out to the lake or camping with friends, so you decide to stop by the local sports supply or browse around on Amazon to pick up a new fishing rod and reel. Should be a quick and simple task right?

Unfortunately, you quickly realize there are seemingly hundreds to choose from and you don’t know where to start. Rather than settling for something that is cheap or just “looks cool” you could do a little research and figure out the exact reel you need to make your trip a huge success.

Whether you are new to fishing, just average, or a pro you should walk away from this article with the confidence that you are buying the right fishing reel.

All Different Fishing Reel Types

Let’s get right down to it. There are four main types of fishing reels you should be familiar with:

1. Spincast Reels

Spincast Reel Characteristics

Spincast reels sport a closed face where all the important parts are kept beneath the nose cone. The back of the reel has a button which you can press during your forward cast. The fishing line then peels out of a small hole in the cover and when you release the button the line stops. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

When to use a Spincast Reel

If you are new to fishing, fish only a few times a year, or are teaching your children to fish then the spincast reel is by far the best choice. Spincast reels work great for targeting smaller fish (10 pounds or less) in a freshwater environment.

The spincast reel is a good choice for anglers targeting:

  • Average size bass
  • Channel catfish
  • Trout
  • Small salmon

Spincast Reel Advantages and Disadvantages

Spincast reels are inexpensive and easy to use which makes it the standard reel system for seasonal fisherman, recreational anglers, kids, and for having a second or third pole in the water on a budget.

Spincast reels aren’t ideal for long-term use or targeting heavier fish. While ease of use is a huge factor for this reel, you will forgo some distance and accuracy. However, unless you are a pro, you likely won’t notice these limitations.

The reason the spincast reel is best suited for smaller fish is that they have a limited line capacity which makes wielding heavy weight fishing line an issue. Going after trophy fish or catfish tend to fill up the reel quickly and without that added line weight your line will quickly snap.

Plastic gears, poor drag systems, and lightweight line give spincast reels a reputation for being cheap, undesirable, and ineffective out on the water. While there are higher end spincast reels on the market, the majority of them are lightweight builds that aren’t great for heavy long-term use.

2. Spinning Reels

Spinning Reel Characteristics

The big difference separating spinning reels and other reel types is that on a spinning reel the spool is mounted in a parallel fashion to the rod’s underside and it remains in a stationary position when casting. When casting, the line uncoils from the spool from the weight of the bait or lure as it soars through the air.

Upon the retrieval, or reeling process, the reels arched rotating bail (or pick up mechanism) feeds the line down on the spool and concurrently reverses the twists that formed from the casting. While it sounds more complicated than a spincast reel, the mechanics of using it can be picked up typically within a days fishing trip.

When to use a Spinning Reel

Spinning reels are by far the most popular style of fishing reel and are an ideal selection for use by amateur anglers and pros alike. The reel sports an open-faced design that has superior accuracy over the spincast reel and is easier to use than the baitcasting reel.

The best use of spinning reels is on smaller bait fish but wrestling in 20+ pounders is more easily accomplished than with a spincast setup. Old spinning models were made to be super lightweight and primarily for rapid casting and finesse casting. However, many modern spinning reel options are available targeting big game fishing as well.

Spinning Reel Advantages and Disadvantages

Spinning reels are by far the most versatile reel and have one of the largest capacities for fishing line. They are relatively easy to cast, have a greater casting distance, and rarely have backlashes.

The lightweight variety reels suffer when carrying a heavier line (20+ pounds). Heavy saltwater spinning reel and rod combos are available and a great fit for new and experienced anglers. They are larger, built to handle a heavyweight fishing line, and are equipped with higher quality heavier materials making them ideal for targeting larger saltwater fish.

Spinning reels are a great value reel because they aren’t expensive like most baitcasting models but aren’t cheap like spincast reels. That leaves them as a good mid-range price option that is respected in the fishing community and should last decades if maintained properly.

3. Baitcaster Reels

Baitcaster Reel Characteristics

One of the most difficult types of reels to master because the spool turns when casting. The spool needs to be controlled otherwise it can easily turn into a tangled nest of fishing line.

Mastering a baitcaster reel comes down to how you are using your thumb. The rule of thumb here is that your thumb should ride and guide the line.

If it is your first time using a baitcasting reel don’t get frustrated because it usually takes a few outings to get it down fully. If you want to speed up the process, you can take it to an open field with a sinker attached to practice your cast and retrieval.

When to use a Baitcaster Reel

Baitcaster reels are not suitable for beginners because they are more difficult to learn to cast and the frequency of backlashes upfront requires a lot of patience and maintenance knowledge to troubleshoot effectively.

Typically they are used by more experienced anglers and considered a staple of fishing tournaments for the following reasons:

  • The drag systems are sophisticated and designed for landing bigger fish because the line comes straight off the spool rather than turning like on a spinning reel.
  • Superior line capacity with the capability of wielding a heavier fishing line
  • Higher gear ratio giving the reel greater power and durability

Baitcaster reels are the preferred choice for experienced anglers targeting all species and sizes of freshwater fish including bass, catfish, and more.

Baitcaster Reel Advantages and Disadvantages

The reel has a superior drag system that lets you set how much resistance the fish feels when it yanks on the fishing line. Setting a tighter drag means the fish feels more resistance and will tire out more easily. However, you have to find the sweet spot on the drag setting because if it is to tight the line will stress and break.

Frequent backlashes are common and the reel itself is considered challenging to cast. Baitcasting reels are infamous for forming “birds nest” knots when the spool travels faster than the line can release it. The frequency of backlashes isn’t a deal breaker because the easy fix is to only fill your spool up to the halfway mark. The thinking behind this trick is that a full spool spins longer and faster which causes backlashes. Having a tighter spool that doesn’t spin quite as fast will highly reduce the frequency of backlashes.

The reel has a lot of parts to maintain and clean. With all the internal moving parts it is highly recommended that you keep maintenance a top priority through consistent cleaning and lubrication. This will ensure the gears engage properly, incur less resistance, and stick less often.

Baitcaster reels are considered to be exceptionally accurate and work the best with heavier lures and lines meaning they can easily manage heavier test lines and a lot of stress.

Baitcasters aren’t the cheapest, but cheaper models are available. We suggest spending a little more on models and brands that you can find parts for, can withstand some abuse, and are durable enough to last a lifetime.

4. Fly Fishing Reels

Fly Fishing Reel Characteristics

Fly fishing reels are used for exactly that — fly fishing. The art of fly fishing is using a fly rod and reel which has a special weighted fishing line. This line carries an almost weightless lure or “fly”, and this reel setup requires a significantly different style of casting which provokes fish to strike at the “fly on the water” (lure). 

The main difference between a fly fishing reel setup and a bait and spin setup is that in fly fishing the weighted line carries the lure and hook through the air while in bait and spin fishing the weight of the hook, lure, and/or sinker gives the casting its weight and distance.

When to use a Fly Fishing Reel

Now a common misconception is that fly fishing is a very narrow and limiting style of fishing. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Fly fishing reels can be used in both saltwater and freshwater and work on an abundance of fish such as trout, bass, salmon, pike, carp, drum, and many more.

Where you wouldn’t use a fly fishing reel is when you need to fish deep for bottom feeders like catfish for example. For that style of fishing, a spin style reel is the most practical choice.

Fly Fishing Reel Advantages and Disadvantages

Less reeling is what makes fly fishing reels so effective. Their high rate of retrieval is due to their bigger reels. These enlarged reels allow you to retrieve more line with each crank. How much more? Switching between conventional and fly fishing reels can yield up to a 500% faster retrieval rate.

Superior bait and bait presentation really set fly fishing apart from other types of fishing. Spinning fishing traditionally uses a heavy lure that imitates fish while fly fishing uses flies (emergers, streamers, nymphs, and dry flies) which imitate all forms of food that fish feed on. This expands the range and size of fish you can catch and with fly fishing the bait is presented more delicately and quietly as opposed to a spinning reel setup. Casting properly when fly fishing allows you to drop a fly directly on top of the fish gently without scaring them.

Traditionally performed on moving water meaning you are going to need extra gear to go fly fishing effectively. This typically requires more room and is largely considered a solo style of fishing which can be off-putting to some.

Fly fishing is more expensive than traditional spin style fishing. While flies are often cheaper than traditional lures that is about the only break you are going to get. You’ll need to fork over extra cash for decent line, a suitable rod, leaders, backing, strike indicators, and not to mention waders. These added costs can grow rather quickly.

Fly fishing is in a realm of its own when considering which reel suits your needs best. It isn’t likely that you’ll be swapping out a spincast, spinning, or baitcast reel for a fly fishing reel because they are almost two different sports. A well-rounded fisherman will have a traditional rod and reel combo and a fly fishing reel to suit specific situations and environments.

Conclusion

Contrary to popular belief there is no “best reel”, only the best reel for you. Finding the right fishing reel depends on a lot of factors from your fishing environment, your skill level, and of course the fish you are seeking.

The environment you are fishing in will play a critical role because there’s a significant difference between freshwater reels and saltwater reels.

Your level of angling experience will largely dictate the type of reel you will want to buy. Some are perfect for beginners while others take a real investment of time to master.

The type and size of the fish you are after will naturally play a role in the type of fishing reel you select. Some catfish naturally grow to be over 50 pounds which might make reeling one in particularly difficult with a push button spinning reel and rod combo. While that same rod and reel combo might be perfect for trout fishing in a local lake.

Any pro or experienced angler will tell you when it comes to fishing reels you get what you pay for. While there isn’t a best reel for every situation, it is unanimously agreed upon to forgo the sale aisle and instead buy something that will retain its value for years to come.

Written by Don

When I'm not bass fishing or looking for steelhead in my home state of Oregon I can be found working on house projects dreaming of my next fishing adventure.

I started this website to share just some of the things I've learned along my fishing journey, and the many things I'm still learning. Enjoy!

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