Fishing Reels 101

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Fishing reels come in a range of different shapes and sizes. Understanding the differences between them all can be difficult, especially as a beginner or an angler that has stuck with one type of reel throughout their angling life. This article is the go-to place to get an in-depth understanding of how each reel type works, what style of fishing they are best for, and the differences between them all.

What Should You Look for in a Fishing Reel?

What you look for in a fishing reel will change depending on the type of waters you fish, your experience level, the type of fishing you do, and your target species. There are a few reels that are great as all-rounders for a range of fishing purposes and some that are more specific to one type of fishing. Understanding what each reel does well at and what style of fishing they are suited for will help you make the right choice when heading out the door to go fishing.

Some reels are primarily for spinning, some for coarse fishing, some for fly fishing, and some for float fishing and light tackle work. At the same time, some of these reels have more specific purposes within their favored categories and some crossover into each other to provide a versatile solution for multi-species fishing. To help you get to grips with what reel is best for each purpose we have devised this handy table, so you know exactly what to look for when you head out to catch that lake or river record.

Reel TypeDesigned PurposeSpecific Benefits
Spin-Cast ReelsSpinning, Drop-shotting, JiggingBasic and easy to use for beginners only
Open-Face Spinning ReelsSpinning, Drop-shotting, Jigging, Dead and Live-Bait, Coarse FishingExtremely versatile, primarily designed for spinning but can be used effectively for predator bait and coarse fishing
Bait-Caster ReelsSpinning, Drop-shotting, and JiggingFor the experienced predator angler, once mastered it is perfect for pinpoint accuracy
Center-Pin ReelsFloat fishing, Light Ledgering, and TrottingPerfect for a natural drag-free bait presentation
Fly Fishing ReelsFly FishingSpecifically made for fly fishing, spooled with weighted fly-line
Bair-Runner ReelsCoarse Fishing, Dead and Live-Bait FishingVersatile reel designed to accommodate bites while rods are placed on bite alarms
Big-Pit ReelsCoarse Fishing, Big Fish Hunting, Predator FishingA versatile large capacity reel for distance fishing purposes

Why Is Selecting the Right Reel Important?

Selecting the right reel is important to maximize your potential when fishing for your target-species in your favorite way. Whether you love spinning for muskie, bass, perch, and walleye, bait fishing for catfish, carp, and sturgeon, or fly fishing for trout and salmon, having the right reel for the job increases your chances of success.

Having the perfect reel for your experience level and purpose will help you cast accurately and enjoy the sport more. Owning a reel that is perfect for the specific water you fish will help you present your bait or lure better as well. If your trotting a float down a river for grayling then a center-pin is best, if you are fishing in a weedy or pad-filled pond a bait-caster will serve perfectly, and if you are fishing deep water or casting at distance, a big-pit is the best reel.

Having the perfect reel for your environment and fish species will help you improve on your fishing and ensure that when you hook up to the “big one” you land it with ease.

Casting and Clutch Control

Casting and clutch control are important factors to look at when selecting a reel for your skill level and fishing purpose. Most reels have a bail-arm function that can be flicked back in order to cast your bait or lure. This is the most common way that reels release line tension and allow a free spool for casting, however, there are a few other reel types that function in different ways. Some have buttons, some require a different casting-technique, and some have no release function as the spool is already free-spooling within the reel casing.

Different reels have different clutch control and drag adjustments, and some have no clutch or drag at all like the center-pin and fly fishing reel. Where the adjustment controls are placed on your reel depends on what type of fishing the reel is designed for and it will affect how user-friendly and accessible quick line control is during a fight.

Spinning reels will have the drag controls in an easily accessible place because quick adjustments are needed when a fish hits the lure and starts taking line. Coarse fishing reels are always open-face and commonly feature drag adjustment on the rear of the reel, but they can sometimes include front drag controls on top of the spool-head like their spinning reel variant. Other styles of coarse reels will have a bait-runner. This allows two stages of line control, so you can adjust line release for use on alarms and control the drag during a fight when you have a fish on.

Fly fishing and center-pin reels have zero drag or clutch control as they are free-spooling, this gives them delicate line control for natural bait presentation. When fighting a fish with a center-pin style reel you have to back-wind to give the fish extra line. During fly fishing, you will sometimes have to strip line in manually to “reel” the fish in, and release line to allow the fish to run.

Each reel has its own clutch system/ drag adjustments and its own form of line release for casting. The most common reels in every fishing sub-category are open-face, these are an age-old design that sits beside the center-pin reel. In the next section, we have information on each of the reel types you are likely to come across in general freshwater and light saltwater situations.

Different Fishing Reels and Their Uses

Spin-Cast Reels

A spin-cast or closed-face reel is a cheap easy to use reel that features an encased spool with a button that is pressed to release line upon casting. They are extremely simple to use and are generally much cheaper than other types of reel. The preferred choice for the beginner and a first reel for many American anglers, the spin-cast has no complicated features and is easy for the fresh angler to master.

Spin-cast reels are on the cheaper end of the scale and tend to break extremely easily after extended use. Although these reels are easy to master for the beginner, they aren’t very versatile, and a new angler will likely outgrow one incredibly early on in their fishing career. Don’t get us wrong though, these reels do serve a purpose, they are perfect to gift to your child if they want to head out fishing with you. Young anglers will easily get the hang of these simple reels and it is a great way to teach them the ropes without too many tangles or tears.

Open-Face Spinning Reels

The open-face spinning reel is the style that is most common amongst predator anglers. This is the classic reel shape that you will likely see used by most anglers on waters all over the world. Open-faced spinning reels are a great place for beginners to start if they are confident enough. Once mastered, this style of spinning reel enables you to chuck a lure tight to a feature or over long-distances with precision. If you don’t know how to use them effectively then you are likely to end up with a few tangles and snarls, but this is all part of the learning curve.

These reels feature a front drag adjustment system for easy and quick adjustments when you need to give a bit more line or tighten up to a hard-fighting fish. They are much more versatile than the spin-cast because they allow you to change bait, weight, and lures without worrying about how it will cast. The only thing that will hold you back against casting heavy leads or lures is the rod the reel is mounted on and the line around the spool. The open-face spinning reel is a classic, durable, reel that is hard-wearing and perfect for most applications.

Bait-Caster Reels

A bait-caster reel has a spool of line that sits on top of a casting rod that is connected to a trigger. When the trigger is pressed, it releases the line from the reel. Unlike the open-face spinning reel, the bait caster’s spool sits atop the reel and directly feeds line off of the spool and through the rod rather than in a circular motion. This technically allows you to cast further and with more accuracy than a traditional open-face reel because the line rolls off of the spool directly.

When you cast a bait-caster reel you keep your thumb above the spool of line and when your bait or lure closes into the feature or a distance you are aiming for you can add pressure on the spool to gently stop the line. This allows you to stop the bait or lure in its tracks, and with a bit of practice, allows you to hit spots with pinpoint accuracy every time. These reels are primarily used for predator fishing and once mastered, bring accuracy and precision to the table that other reels cannot compete with. They are perfect for lure and dead-bait fishing around lily pads, reeds, and under bankside vegetation.

The Center-Pin Reel and Fly Fishing Reel

The center-pin fishing reel is a classic. It is the traditional disk-shaped fishing reel that is commonly seen used by fly fishermen and die-hard float fishermen. They offer a completely clutch and drag-free system for a sensitive float or fly presentation. A fly fishing reel and a centrepin reel are identical, however, center-pins used for float fishing tend to be a bit larger to accommodate the art of “trotting”. Trotting is the act of running a float and bait downstream for a natural presentation used to catch wild trout, grayling, and other finicky feeding fish.

A center-pin used for fly fishing is spooled up with a heavy line that usually floats. The fly rod and reel is used to cast the weight of the line back and forth to generate the distance needed to present a delicate fly on the top or mid-water. Center-pin reels are extremely versatile and created for lightweight tackle setups. You can fish fast water, slow runs, and still waters accurately with an incredibly natural-looking presentation. These reels are for the more traditional angler that enjoys light tackle fishing and fly fishing.

Bait-Runner Reels

The bait-runner reel is an open-face reel that is similar to the spinning reel. These reels generally come in larger sizes and are commonly used for carp, sturgeon, and cat-fishing. The bait-running feature allows you to flick a switch on the rear of the reel that engages a second drag function. When this switch is set you can adjust the drag so the spool strips off fishing line freely.

The bait-running ability means you can set the reel down on a bite alarm setup and leave your bait and tackle in the water like a trap, sometimes for 24 hours or more. When the alarms set off, the sound notifies you that a fish has taken the bait and the free-spooling bait-runner will allow the fish to run. At this point, you can pick up the rod and reel and start winding the handle, this will engage the switch and set back into the normal drag system to allow you to strike and play the fish as normal.

The bait-runner reel is primarily for coarse fisherman that play the long game by setting up a “trap” in the water and covering it with a carpet of bait. This style of fishing takes place over long sessions where sleeping in a fishing bivvy by the lake while your bait-runners and rods are set waiting for a bite is commonplace. If you are the passionate carp, catfish, or sturgeon angler that loves specimen hunting for big fish, the bait-runner is at the root of your style of fishing.

Big-Pit Reels

Big-pit reels are an open-face reel that either has its drag adjustment on the spool head of the real or the back of the real, they can also come in the form of a bait-runner. Big-pit reels are built for large line capacity and are used for targeting big fish in large expanses of water where strong lines are needed in long lengths. A big-pit is the next step up from standard open-face reels and bait-runners. An open-face reel is considered a “big-pit reel” when over 320 yards of 10lb monofilament line can fit on the spool. These reels are built for long-distance casting, deep freshwater fishing from a boat, and large-lake fishing from the bank where baits must be rowed out to open water. These are favored by all kinds of anglers, from coarse fishermen, big game fishermen, to predator fishermen using live or dead baits. These reels are extremely versatile and durable with their main benefit being the ability to store copious amounts of line on the spool.

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