Improving the Angling Experience: Types of Fishing Reels

Anglers will find a myriad of choices when it comes to buying fishing reels. There are more than a dozen reel manufacturers, but there are only a few types of fishing reels available. Since most of the commercially available reels are made to catch anglers and not fish, knowing a bit about your reel choices is vital to making an informed decision. This article will look at the five fundamental types of reels, their pros and cons, and some of the specific terminology and jargon associated with each type of fishing reels.

Before looking at the different reels, there is some terminology that you must become aware of to understand all of the different choices. The design, manufacturer and the like are, much like automobiles, fundamentally the same with a few minor differences, but the terminology is always the same.

  • Retrieval ratio – This is the amount of times the spool turns for each turn of the handle. The ratio can vary from as low as 2.8 to 1 and as high as 7.0 to 1.
  • Ball bearings – All reels have ball bearings. Bearings reduce friction in the reel, and bearings also changes how smoothly the reel turns. The higher the number of ball bearings, the better, but more ball bearings equate to more expensive reels.
  • Drag – Drag is fishing jargon for friction. As you fight a fish, the fish pulls back against you. The drag sets the line tension, so if the fish pulls hard, line will flow from the spool, allowing the fish a chance to run. If the drag is set too tightly, the fish pulls against the line or lure, and the fish can snap the line. Drag set too lightly means the angler will not be able to reel in the fish. Setting drag is crucial to successful fishing.
  • Right or left hand retrieve – The reel’s crank is on the right or left hand side. This means an angler can use either hand to retrieve line. Some reels are right or left hand retrieve only, and some reels can be switched between the two.•



The spincast reel is the most common reel for teaching new anglers the art of fishing and casting. The reel has a two to three-piece body, and casting is as simple as pressing a thumb button on the bottom. Turning the crank engages the line pickup, a small piece jutting from the side of the interior spool, and this piece winds the fishing line back across the line spool. Spincast reels are inexpensive, easy to maintain and provide a pleasurable angling experience. There is virtually no issues with line tangling, backlashes or problems that occur with other types of fishing reels.
Virtually all reel manufacturers make spincast reels. Daiwa, Abu Garcia and Zebco are only a few who make spincast reels.


  •  Requires very little learning to use and master
  • Can cast very small lures up to heavy baits
  • Often sold in a combo with matching rod
  • Perfect for teaching young people and new anglers fundamentals


  • Limited line capacity compared to other reel types
  • Right-hand retrieve only except on certain models
  • Low ratios of line retrieval
  • Small number of ball bearings
  • Drag system is substandard compared to other reel types


Shimanno Spinning

Spinning reels are the perhaps the strangest looking of all the reel types available to the angler. Unlike the other conventional rigs, spinning reels lie under the rod. To cast, the angler must hold the line with a finger, flip open a metal or ceramic bail and cast the line. These reels have the advantage of a removable handle for right and left-hand retrieve. Spinning reels have the most variety of all reels. Anglers can find reels that will hold the smallest lb. test line, two lbs., up to 30 lbs. test line.


  • Flexibility in price and line weights
  • Easily change from left to right hand retrieve on some models
  • Easy to use, second only to a spincast reel
  • More ball bearings
  • Better drag system than spincast reels


  • Variety of reels means finding rods to match, raising expenses
  • Metal bails can bend or break
  • Drag system on top of bail, making adjustment awkward
  • Line tangles more common than on a spincast reels
  • Reel sitting under rod is awkward in beginning



Watch any professional angler, and you will see the majority of them using a baitcasting reel. These reels are the most popular type for professionals, amateurs and are equally at home in fresh or salt water. Baitcasters have an open spool that lies parallel to the rod. These reels feature a large number of ball bearings, various line retrieval ratios and the largest variety of sizes, shapes and line weights of all the different reel types.

Baitcasters have particular elements that do require a learning curve to master casting correctly. The spool, when the button is pressed to cast, spins freely. The angler must push their thumb against the spool to stop the spin when the lure hits the water. If the reel’s spin is not stopped, a backlash will occur. Backlash is when the spool continues to spin, and the result is a tangled mass of fishing line that must be stripped off the spool before continuing to fish.

Looking at a baitcasting reel, you will see three different knobs. One knob is the crank, designed to retrieve line. The second knob, often immediately behind the crank, is the star drag. The star drag is the standard knob to adjust your line tension for fighting the fish.

The third knob, often very small and seated next to the reel’s body, is the cast-control knob. This knob sets the spool tension on the reel, and it must be adjusted with each lure tied to the line. Adjusting the cast-control is easy. Hold the rod at approximately 10 o’clock, and engage the spool by clicking the cast button. The lure should fall slowly to the ground. If it falls too quickly, the cast-control is too loose and must be tightened. If the lure does not fall, the cast-control must be loosened slightly until the lure falls.

Cast-control takes time to master. It is wise for beginning baitcast reel users to keep the cast-control set tightly. This will limit casting distance, but it will drastically reduce backlash. In time as you develop the feel for the reel and stopping the spool, you can adjust the cast-control to your own particular liking.


  • Flexibility – appropriate for fresh to saltwater fishing
  • Holds variety of line weights and amounts
  • Most ball bearings of all reels
  • Drag systems are easy to use and adjust
  • Variety of reel sizes, line retrieval rates and spool sizes


  • Large learning curve to master use
  • Each reel must be adjusted when changing lures
  • Often sold independently of the rod, requiring second purchase
  • Huge number of reel choices make decisions difficult
  • Backlashes can be frequent, resulting in wasted line


okuma Trolling

Back in the early to mid 20th century, there was one basic reel type. This reel was an early baitcasting reel, but these reels lacked many of the newer elements found on today’s reels. These reels are still used today, but the function has changed. They are the modern trolling reels.

A trolling reel looks like a large baitcasting reel with a shape more like a barrel than the sleek, modern design of the baitcaster. This barrel shape means the trolling reel can hold more and higher lb. test lines for larger fish. Many trolling reels come with a line counter, which is effective for trolling to a certain depth and is necessary for certain fish.

Those who troll in extremely deep water will often use a special outfit called a downrigger in addition to a trolling rod and reel combination.
Trolling reels use very heavy lines ranging from 30 lb. test up to 130 lb. test line. The largest fish ever caught on a rod and reel was a Great White Shark, and 130 lb. test line was used to wrangle the shark beside the boat and up to the dock for official weight.


  • Necessary for deep water fresh and pelagic fishing
  • High line capacity
  • Powerful, adjustable drag system
  • Variable line weights


  • Specialized tackle – cannot cast trolling reels
  • Expensive to buy
  • Very low line retrieval rates
  • Not appropriate for the average angler


orvis fly reel

Give an angler a spincast or spinning reel, and they will master it within minutes. A baitcasting rig may take a few hours, but a fly rod and reel will take days to master its use. Fly fishing is more art than it is fishing, and there are some who devote their time exclusively to fly fishing and all the nuances accompanied with it.

Unlike conventional fishing techniques, fly fishing casts a line, not a lure. This means specialized equipment is necessary to fly fish, and many novices choose to take lessons before setting foot onto the water.

Like conventional gear, there is jargon associated with fly fishing. Common terms include:

  • Fly reel – This is a highly specialized reel designed to be used in fly fishing.
  • Fly – This is the lure. The weight of a fly is so minute that casting one is not possible. This is why in fly fishing the angler casts the line, not the lure, to present to a fish.
  • Weight – All fly fishing starts with line weight. Weights range from a three, for delicate freshwater trout species, up to a 15, necessary for large saltwater fish such as sharks and tarpon.
  • Floating and sinking – Fly lines float or sink. The speed of the sinking line may vary, depending. 90 percent of fly fishing is done with a floating line.
  • Line taper – There are a variety of fly lines, and each line has a different purpose. Some lines are the same diameter for the length of the line, some have a tapered end, and some have a heavier line, weight forward, on the front part for better casting.
  • Tippet – At the end of the fly line is a piece of or sections of monofilament. The monofilament tapers down to a smaller and smaller diameter, allowing for a gentle presentation of the fly.
  • Backing – A standard fly line is only 80 to 120 feet long. For large freshwater or saltwater fish, this is simply not enough line when the fish breaks on a large run. Backing is additional line behind the fly line for these runs. Some reels will hold upwards of 300 yards of backing material.
  • Fly rod – Fly rods are long, thin and whip-like. Much longer than conventional rods, fly rods are necessary to cast the heavy lines. Most fly rods average nine feet in length and may have one to two handles, depending on the weight of the line. Fly rods and line weights match one another.
  • Package coding – All fly lines will have three pieces of information on the package. This is the line taper, line weight and floating or sinking. For example, 6 – WF – F means 6 weight line, weight forward taper and floating line.

Choosing a fly reel requires much more thought and consideration because of the many different aspects of fly fishing. Fly reels come in two basic varieties: automatic and hand crank. An automatic reel has a small level above the reel that retracts the line onto the spool via a coiled spring, while the angler must turn the handle to bring line back on the reel with a hand crank reel. Most anglers choose the hand crank type because this reel holds more line, has an adjustable drag and lacks many of the mechanical parts of the automatic reel.

Most fly reels feature a 1:1 ratio, although some reels do have a higher retrieval rate. Reels may have adjustable drags or an extended spool that the angler may use hand pressure for drag. Many find this hand pressure superior because the feel is instantaneous when fighting fish.

There are not as many fly reel manufacturers as there are conventional reel manufacturers, but there are some excellent reels from companies like Pfluegler, Okuma, Sage and Orvis.


  • Plenty of reels to fit any budget
  • Rod/reel combos often feature everything to get started
  • Necessary for some species like trout
  • Fly tying is often combined with the fishing


  • Very steep learning curve
  • Can get expensive depending on type of equipment
  • Not appropriate for all fishing types
  • Requires specialized tackle

Ultimately, what works for one angler may not be appropriate for another. Before rushing out and spending money, be sure to visually inspect each type of fishing reel and find the one that fits your hand, skill set and wallet the best.

Before you rush out and start fly fishing however, it is a good idea to find a local group that fly fishes and learn the fundamentals as well as some basic information about the craft. This will save you time and money, because fly fishing is very expensive compared to conventional fishing.

You will find that this guide will be very helpful to you in making your final decision in finding the best types of fishing reels to suit individual needs.  Good luck, and have a good time shopping for your reel choice.