What To Look For In A Fishing Reel

by Marc Malkin

There are literally thousands of different reels available on the market today. With so many products to choose from, the task of selecting that perfect reel can be somewhat perplexing, especially for less experienced anglers. To simplify the process, those in the market for a new reel should be aware of the main features and components that may make one particular reel different and/or better than another. By evaluating your specific fishing needs and knowing what to look for in a reel, you'll be able to make an informed purchasing decision. Here are some useful pointers:

Examine the Broad Picture First

Before comparing specific reel features, there are several broader factors to consider. Think about the fishing situation/application. What kind of fish will you be catching? What will be the average size of these fish? What pound-test line will you be using? Also consider the angling technique – will you be casting lures or bait, trolling or bottom fishing? Make sure the size and type of reel you are considering is appropriate for the kind of fishing you will be doing. Obtaining answers to these questions will help you establish a list of general requirements that will narrow down your search tremendously.

Choose a Category

Decide what basic category of reel will best meet your needs. If you are a novice angler, you’ll probably find a spinning reel easier to cast and fish with than a conventional model. Operation is simple and backlash is essentially a non-issue. If you are a more proficient caster, a conventional reel or baitcaster with an adjustable casting control may be better choice. This kind of outfit will allow you to maximize casting distance and overall performance. Selecting a reel category is not merely a question of experience, however. Personal preference certainly comes into play. There are many veteran anglers that prefer spinning preference certainly comes into play. There are many veteran anglers
that prefer spinning reels over conventional models. Whatever type of reel you decide upon, make sure you are comfortable with the use and operation of that particular type of product. If you’re not, chances are you’ll experience frustration instead of fishing enjoyment.


Drag Systems

When buying a conventional or baitcasting reel, anglers can choose either a star drag or lever drag system. With a star drag, pressure is increased or decreased by turning the star-shaped “wheel,” located just inside of the handle. While star drag systems are simple to operate and are fine for most applications, lever drag systems typically supply smoother, more consistent fish-fighting performance. Most lever drags also allow for drag tension to be adjusted in smaller, more precise increments than star drag systems. If there is a downside to lever drag reels, it’s price – they tend to be more expensive than star drag models.

If you prefer spinning reels, you’ll discover that there are two basic categories to choose from – front drag and rear drag models. The difference boils down to where the drag system is located on the reel. While location alone doesn’t necessarily make for a better system, front drag spinning reels generally feature larger, multiple disc drag washers that a higher level of performance and durability. Rear drag spinning reels may offer convenience and ease of use, but they normally don’t stand up to big fish and demanding conditions like front drag reel models. As with conventional reels, the smoothness and precision of a spinning reel drag system is extremely important. Whether
you select a front or rear drag model, make sure the drag can be tightened in small increments. Also look for consistency – when you pull on the line at any particular drag setting throughout the spectrum, the pressure should remain even and constant. Any inconsistency within the system will undoubtedly cost you a big fish somewhere down the line.

Ball Bearings

Spinning, conventional and baitcasting models all feature either ball bearings or bushings strategically placed within the reel for smoothness, support and stability. Many spinning reels also feature a roller bearing within the line roller. When it comes to smooth performance and durability, sealed stainless steel ball bearings are preferable over bushings. Generally speaking, the more ball bearings a reel has, the more smoothly it will perform. Quality reels typically feature at least two stainless steel ball bearings. Top-of-the-line models usually boast about four to six ball bearings, however, some of the newer, deluxe spinning reels on the market feature up to 12.

Gear Ratio

Another key consideration when purchasing a reel is gear ratio, which refers to how many revolutions the spool makes with each complete turn of the reel handle. This determines, in part, how rapidly line is retrieved as the angler cranks the handle. Spinning reels, baitcasters and conventional models can offer differing gear ratios, ranging from slow retrieves (ie. 2-1 or 3-1) to high-speed retrieves (4-1 to 6-1). Reels with high-speed gear ratios are better for working lures quickly back to the boat, or gaining line in a hurry when a fish charges toward the boat. Models featuring lower gear ratios don’t offer as fast a retrieve, but provide the greater cranking power ideal for bottom fishing and trolling
applications. Anglers thinking about buying a heavier-duty conventional reel, may want to consider purchasing a two-speed model. While pricier than their single speed cousins, two-speed reels provide the best of both worlds when it comes to retrieve speed and cranking power. With a two-speed reel, an angler can shift at will from the faster-retrieve of “high gear,” to the more powerful “low gear” with a simple push or pull of a button.

Housings and Frames

Most reel housings are composed of either aluminum (die-cast or forged) or graphite. Each of these materials has its advantages and disadvantages. Reels made of anodized aluminum are generally stronger and more durable than graphite models, however, they are heavier. Graphite-bodied reels are light and corrosion resistant, yet they normally don’t offer the same strength and durability as die-cast or forged aluminum reels.

Due to the nature of a spinning reel’s design, their bodies are composed of multiple pieces. Many conventional reels are also constructed in the same fashion, however, some manufacturers have introduced one-piece graphite frames. This design increases the overall integrity and strength of the reel, while maintaining the lighter weight.

Balance and Stability

Whether you prefer conventional reels or spinning reels, make sure the reel you are considering feels smooth and solid when you turn the handle. In spinning reels, this has much to do with the quality of the rotor assembly and handle. If you notice a wobble, it usually means that the reel has a poorly balanced rotor. The reel should also have a counterbalanced handle, which contributes to ease-of-use and smooth operation. Another important feature for both spinning and conventional reels is infinite anti-reverse. This mechanism helps to eliminate play in the reel handle for more solid, positive hook-sets. Any existing handle “kick-back” can result in lost fish when you try to drive the hook
home. Handle knob shape and composition are a matter of personal preference, but many anglers prefer the more ergonomic, soft grip knobs offered by Penn and other manufacturers. This variety of knob also allows for a more secure grip, even when wet.

Casting Controls

Conventional and baitcasting reels often come with special, built-in casting control systems that help determine how fast the spool spins when casting. These systems can be centrifugal or magnetic, (depending upon the reel model), and are either internally or externally adjustable. While casting control systems can go a long way in helping to maximize casting distance and minimize backlash, they are not a cure-all when it comes to preventing backlash. It’s important for the angler to realize that no reel is 100 percent “backlash-free,” regardless of how advanced the casting control mechanism. Whether the model incorporates magnetic power or centrifugal force to help control the spool when casting, the angler still needs to apply light thumb pressure to the spool in order to prevent backlash. An “educated thumb,” in conjunction with an effective casting control system, is the best prescription for trouble-free casts.

Level Wind Mechanisms

Baitcasters and some larger conventional reels feature level wind mechanisms, which automatically ensure that line is distributed evenly on the spool upon retrieve. While level wind reels offer greater convenience (you don’t have to worry about guiding the line on manually as you crank), they tend to have more mechanical difficulties than standard, non-level wind models. Some level wind mechanisms are more durable and reliable than others, however, the parts in most of these systems tend to wear out when used repeatedly. This is basically a trade-off for the added convenience the feature provides.


The composition and design of the spool should be a consideration when purchasing either a spinning or conventional reel. Spinning reels typically come with either an anodized aluminum spool or a graphite spool. The anodized aluminum spool offers greater strength and durability than graphite spools, which can break or crack under torque. As far as spinning reel spool design is concerned, there are two basic types – internal spool and skirted spool varieties. While some anglers swear by the performance and simplicity of the older-style internal spool models, more advanced spinning reels typically feature skirted spools. The “skirt” helps prevent line from becoming entangled within the housing of the reel. Additional skirted spinning reel spool options include choice of a standard spool, or a shallower, elongated “long cast” spool design. In theory, the newer long-cast spool design allows for reduced line friction, resulting in greater casting distance.

Most conventional style reels, including baitcasters, feature machined, anodized aluminum spools, however some models may feature spools composed of graphite. Again, the anodized aluminum spools provide greater strength and long-lasting performance. For even greater durability, anglers can opt for a conventional reel with a chromed, bronze or stainless steel spool. While these spools do not spin as freely as those made of anodized aluminum or graphite, they offer the highest level of strength and corrosion resistance. Metal spools like these are best for heavy-duty angling applications, or when specialty lines like Dacron or Wire are being used.

In addition to composition and design, be sure to consider the spool’s line capacity. Regardless of the type of reel you will be buying, the spool will need to hold a sufficient amount of whatever pound-test line you’ll be using.

Credit - Boaters World Article