Choosing a Reel

Tackle Advice |

The reel that you choose to use on your fishing rod is important, reels range from simple cogs to intricate systems which spin as smooth as silk. Nevertheless, all reels have some similarities, they hold the line until you need to release it, allow you to then recall then line and most reels also have some form of drag system. Here we cover the various different types of fishing reel which are available on the market and provide some guidance when looking to buy one.

Select the reel type that you are interested in to learn more

Spin-Casting Reels

A spin-casting reel is often the first one a novice fisherman will purchase. Also known as closed-face reels, they are easy to use and generally very reasonably priced. They are most commonly designed to rest on top of the rod, but some are positioned below it. The quality of spin-casting rods can vary quite a lot and purchasing a slightly more expensive one is generally the way to go as many of the cheaper ones have problems and don’t work as well.

A spin-casting reel

How a Spin-Casting Reel Works

A rotating cap rests over the spool of line within the cover of the reel. Either a lever or push button on the reel will hold the line taut in the reel, allowing you to cast. This is facilitated by a pin in the side of the cap which is controlled by the button/lever system as well as the handle of the reel. When the button/lever system is enabled the pin drops into the cap, engaging a locking device and thus holds the line in place. When the button or lever is released, the locking device is also released allowing the line to unravel from the spool and move without restriction around the cap.

As you turn the reel handle, the pin sticks out and picks up the line. Over time as the cap rotates around the spool it winds the line back on it. The line rubs quite hard in two places during this process, firstly on the eye of the cover of the reel as it makes an abrupt turn to go around the cap and secondly on the rotating cap and pin as it moves around it. Understanding this is important as these areas can be the source of problems with your reel.

Alert

If you do not pull the line tight as it comes out of the reel, the pin will sometimes fail to pick it up. A top tip is to hold the reel in such a way so that your thumb and trigger finger can squeeze the line ahead of the cap and draw it tight as you begin to reel.

Cost

Some of the best spin-casting reels on the market are available for less than £60, making them one of the cheapest reel on the market, with reels under £15 also holding up for a reasonable amount of time. This is because they are generally used by beginners and make a great introduction reel, with very few people who fish a lot using them regularly.

Putting Line on a Spin-Casting Reel

Issues with reels can often be solved by putting the line on in the correct fashion. If line is incorrectly positioned on the reel it will twist and will not cast properly as a result. In the case of spin-casting reels, twisted line will get stuck on the pin and inside the cover, meaning that in order to fix it you will need to take the cover off the reel. Light line is preferred on spin-casting reels as a pose to heavy line and ten-pound test is generally the heaviest line that should be used. When you purchase a new reel the suggested line size will be printed onto the reel itself or in the instructions provided.

The process in action

In order to correctly put line on a spin-casting reel you need to know which way the rotating cap spins. To do this simply unfasten the cover, turn the handle and observe the direction. Whilst the cover is off, run line from the tip of the rod up through the guides, through the hole in the cover and then fasten the line around the spool beneath the cap. Fasten the cover back onto the reel and place the new spool of line down on the floor. If you observed the cap in the reel spinning clockwise (when observed from behind), place the spool of line on the floor so the line also unravels from it clockwise.

Essential

The majority of new reels already have line on them. Remove the cover and observe the way that the line is wound onto the spool. How tight is the line wound? How full is the spool? Which direction does it run? Take note of the answers to these questions as this will make it much easier when you have to put new line on.

Grip the line firmly between your thumb and index finger and reel the new line onto the spool. Grasping the line tightly will mean that is nice and tight on the spool and unlikely to cause problems later on. Filling the spool to one-eighth inch of the lip is recommended. Filling it any less will cause it to drag and affect your ability to cast, whilst putting on more than this will cause the line to hang onto the cap and prevent casting altogether.

Spin-Casting Reel Quality and Drag

Reels come in all sorts of materials, from steel to plastics. However, all reels need to be tough enough to withstand continuous use whilst also being light enough to balance the rod but not exhaust you by simply holding it. Most cheap spin-casting reels are made using plastic and have plastic gears. Stay clear of these. Metal gears are ideal for long-term use and a metal cover will basically just survive longer than plastic. The handle must be big enough for you to hold comfortably and turn with ease. Small handles can bump your hand as you turn it so make sure that this doesn’t happen.

The drag system on the reel needs to facilitate smooth removal of line from the spool and must prevent any jolts. Pull line from the reel and alter the drag so that the line slips effortlessly. Next, tie the line to an object which isn’t going anywhere and pull against it to make the rod bend. If it is all working correctly, the drag should slip, allowing line to come off the reel even when the rod is bent. You can also connect a scale to the line and pull; this will change the drag to slip at two-thirds to three-fourths the breaking point of the line.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Spin-Cast Reels

There are several advantages and disadvantages to spin-casting reels:

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Spin-casting reels are cheap, if you break one it’s not a huge loss, making them great for children.It can be difficult to hold the line tight on the spool.
Using spin-casting reels are for the most part very simple.The drag system is usually not as good as it is on other types of reels.
Many spin-casting reels are very functional and can be right or left-handed, some even have handles which can be moved from one side to the other.If the line becomes twisted or loose it will get jammed, the only way to fix the problem is to take the cover off.
Spin-casting reels can be used with particularly light line and so make a great choice for ultralight fishing.Spin-casting reels should not be used with heavy line or for combatting aggressive fish.

Spinning Reels

Also referred to as open-faced reels, spinning reels can be used in a broad range of fishing situations. Spinning reels hang below the rod and a U-shaped structure (known as a bail) is used to guide the line onto a fixed spool, the bail then rotates around this fixed spool to take in the line. You can find spinning reels intended for both fresh and salt water, with some saltwater versions being able to hold huge amounts of line, making them great for surf-casting and for combatting fish which make long runs.

A spinning reel

How a Spinning Reel Works

The spool holds the exposed line and sits forward of the reel seat. A metal bail is fixed to a sleeve which rotates around the spool. The U-shaped bail also possesses a line guide spindle and can be opened, allowing the line to be cast. Once opened it is locked in such a state, remaining open whilst the cast is made. Upon turning the handle, the bail returns to the closed state, picking up the line and directing it to the spindle. The line then flows around the spindle and onto the spool.

Fact

There are spinning reels which include interchangeable handles, these handles can move from one side to the other. This is achieved by a hole or a threaded pin present on both sides, with the handle being able to fit into either one. Whichever side is not in use has a cap to protect the handle attachment.

The line travels up through the rod guides and turns once below the bail spindle to enter the reel. As the handle is turned, the spool moves in and out by a very short distance to fill the spool evenly and prevents it from stacking up in one area. Drag on spinning reels can be introduced into the spool or into the reel itself. Centre-drag reels function through an adjustment for drag on the spool, with the drag operating in between the spool and the reel housing by causing friction between the spool and the reel, allowing the spool to rotate and therefore letting line out slowly as the fish pulls. Rear-drag reels function through an adjustment on the back of the reel, the drag is internal and applies pressure onto the stem which keeps the spool on the reel, the spool turns gradually as a result of this friction.

Cost

Fishing reels vary in price, costing from a few pounds to many hundreds and chances are you don’t want or need one at either end of the spectrum. Cheap reels are exactly that and won’t hold up for very long, whilst high-end reels are designed for specialised fishing types and aimed at anglers who want to impress others more than they want to catch fish. Try and find a reel which is priced in the midrange for their type.

Spinning reels can be purchased for anything from £7.50 to £750, but few are priced above £100. A good spinning reel which will hold up for many years can generally be bought for about £50, around the midrange price.

Putting Line on a Spinning Reel

In order for a spinning reel to function correctly, the line needs to go onto the reel the same way that it comes off the new spool. Place the spool of new line onto the floor and run the end of the line up through the line guides on the rod, beginning from the tip. Keep the bail open and then tie the line to the spool. If you do not open the bail first, the new line will not be under it, meaning you will be unable to retrieve it.

The process of putting line on a spinning reel

Essential

Forgetting to open the bail is a common issue, simply detach the spool from the reel, open the bail, and then restore the spool. This is generally much easier than cutting the line from the spool and having to start again.

Hold the rod from the handle and look at the way the bail rotates on the spinning reel. If the bail spins clockwise, put the spool of new line onto the floor so it comes off in the same, clockwise direction. Turn the reel handle and hold the rod above the reel to close the bail. Next, begin winding line onto the spool, let the line flow between your fingers and don’t forget to keep tension on the line to ensure it spools nice and evenly.

Be Aware

If the line begins to twist and a loop starts to form at the tip of the rod, it means that you have the new spool of line on the floor turned in the wrong direction. Simply flip it to the other side and wind in again.

Filling the spool to one-eighth inch of the lip is recommended. Filling it any less will cause it to bind to the edge when you cast, cutting the length that you can cast significantly, whilst putting any more on will cause the line to “jump” off the spool whenever you open the bail and cause many problems. You should set the drag on a spinning reel so that the line will slip instead of breaking. This can be achieved by pulling the line from the reel yourself and tightening the drag until the line slips smoothly but with a constant resistance. Next, adjust the drag whilst the line and rod are enduring a large load, as they would be whilst combatting a big fish. Do this by tying your line to an object which isn’t going anywhere and pulling against it with the rod bent. Aim to have the drag slip at two-thirds to three-fourths the break test of the line.

Spinning Reel Quality and Drag

Spinning reels come in various materials with metal, composite and plastic being the most common materials. Spinning reels with metal or composite frames and metal gears within the reel are advised as they are considerably stronger than plastic and therefore will not break when under strain. In terms of bails, the best material is a light metal and the spindle should be hardened to prevent the line from cutting into it when under pressure. The best reels use spindles which turn as the line flows over it, preventing damage to the line.

A low quality, plastic spinning reel

Generally, the handle on a spinning reel makes a very large loop and the bail takes up a lot of space when it’s turning. Consequently, the handle can hit the bail or your hand whilst it is turning and this is something you definitely want to avoid. Ensure that the stem the reel seat is on is long enough for your hand to keep clear of the bail.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Spinning Reels

There are several advantages and disadvantages to spinning reels:

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Casting with a spinning reel is straightforward and easy to learn.Twisting the line is easy to do when using a spinning reel, particularly if winding in whilst the drag is slipping.
The spools for spinning reels can be particularly large and hold plenty of line.Loops of line can develop at the spool when you begin winding the line in, these loops can tangle on the next cast, causing problems.
For the line to enter the spool it only needs to make one turn, lowering the number of binding areas.Many anglers stay away from spinning reels as they struggle to get good leverage for a hook set.
The line comes off the spool to the first guide in a straight line whilst casting, reducing the drag on the line.Spinning reels generally lack the ability to pull fish out of a tight spot quickly.
Compared to a spin-casting reel, the spool on a spinning reel can be significantly larger, meaning that line is retrieved much quicker.
There are spinning reel models which can have the handles on either side, allowing anglers to use whichever hand is their dominant one.

Bait-Casting Reels

Also known as casting reels, bait-casting reels are suitable for various types of fishing. These reels are placed on top of the rod and line comes off a revolving spool. These reels require slightly more skill to use when casting and are renown for causing a bird’s nest in the line. Bait-casting reels range from cheap to tremendously expensive, but there are plenty of models which are reasonably priced and will last for many years.

A bait casting reel

How a Bait-Casting Reel Works

As you turn the handle on a bait-casting reel, the spool will turn and wind the line back onto itself. Most also have a release button which separates the gears inside from the spool, letting it spin freely. Once the spool has been released by pushing the button, place your thumb onto the spool to keep it in position whilst casting.

By holding your thumb on the spool throughout the cast you can regulate the line flow and make precise casts. At the end of the cast, turn the handle to interlock the gears between the handle and the spool, which will cause it to rotate and wind in the line. A line guide is also present which moves back and forth across the spool, ensuring that the line is laid evenly on the spool.

Baiting-casting reels use a drag system which is contained within the reel and engages the spool. It is commonly made up of a system of washers which rub together to generate friction and slow down the spool. These systems are also often very smooth and accurate, giving you excellent precision when holding your thumb on the spool to introduce even more drag.

Putting Line on a Bait-Casting Reel

The fact that the spool revolves on a bait-casting reel means that the line needs to be applied to it in a slightly different way to other reels. Run the new line up through the rod guides from the tip of the rod and through the level wind guide on the reel. Attach the line to the spool and hold the rod in between the first guide and the reel. Allow the line to flow between your fingers and keep it tight.

Poke a pencil or similar through the hole in the filler spool and get somebody else to keep it in place, or hold it in between your feet. The person holding the spool now needs to apply pressure to it, or you can let it rub on the floor as the line comes off to prevent it from spinning too fast. If the line winds onto the reel spool over the top, ensure that it comes off the filler spool from the top as well. Fill the spool to one-eighth of an inch from the top with line.

The process of putting line on a bait casting reel

Cost

Bait-casting reels are often a little more expensive, with the cheapest ones being around £30 and the most expensive going up to several hundreds. You can buy a bait-casting reel which will suit your needs for less than £100.

Essential

Bait-casting reels generally hold more line than you will need. A top tip which you can use to save money and use less line is to fill the spool by using backing underneath the good line. Then pull off however much of the old line you want to replace and simply tie the new line to it. Finally, fill the spool from that point using the new line.

Bait-Casting Reel Quality and Drag

High quality bait-casting reels usually have frames made from a composite material as this keeps them light whilst the gears are made from toughened metals to ensure that they last. For bait-casting reels, the gears are of particular importance as they engage and disengage when casting and therefore need to be able interlock frequently without being damaged. Lower quality, cheap reels, will strip gears and hence not last long.

Another bait-casting reel

Bait-casting reels use drag systems which are usually made up of layers of different materials which rub against each other to generate friction. Compared to other reels, bait-casting reels can be some of the smoothest. Using your thumb, it is possible to add drag when fighting a particularly tricky fish, meaning you can set the drag initially to a lighter setting. This is great when catching fish which make long runs, as less line on the spool leads to more drag and adding drag with your thumb is much easier than adjusting the drag whilst fighting a fish.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Bait-Casting Reels

There are several advantages and disadvantages to bait-casting reels:

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Bait-casting reels work very well with heavier lineMore skill required to use correctly
Far more control when castingOne of the most expensive reel types on the market
Enhanced control when combatting a fish
Far less line twisting during regular use
More power when fighting strong fish

As a beginner, it is unlikely that you will start out using a bait-casting reel, despite this it is still a good idea to get one and learn how to use it as this will help you when you decide to make the step up to catching bigger fish.

Fact

Bait-casting reels require a lot of skill to use but provide the most control of any reel. Using your thumb to control the line going out on a cast and to control the drag gives you incredible precision, making it worth the extra time to learn how to use one of these great reels.

Fly-Fishing Reels

Fly-fishing reels are simply used to hold the line and are not involved in the casting process. The line is stripped from the reel and sits at your feet during the cast and you feed it out as needed. One hand holds the rod and makes the cast whilst the other hand controls the free line. The reel is not touched whatsoever when casting with a fly-fishing set.

A fly-fishing reel

For the majority of freshwater fishing situations, fly-fishing reels are not as key as they are in other kinds of fishing, because recovering line and fighting the fish are done using your hand. Line is stripped in with your free hand, the same hand also alters the drag when setting the hook and fighting a fish. However, if fighting a strong saltwater fish or freshwater fish which make long runs this is not the case. In these situations, the drag on a fly-fishing rod has a much bigger impact, as with other reel types. Specialised fly-fishing reels are available which come with drag systems designed for big-game saltwater and freshwater fish.  These are best caught by controlling the line with your hand only for a few seconds until all the slack has been pulled off – from this point on you fight them with the reel just as you would with other reel types.

There are two main types of fly reels, manual and spring loaded. A manual reel has a handle which is either directly connected to the line spool or moves it via a drag system. Line is reeled in by turning the handle. A spring-loaded reel is different and operates through a spring which is wound up and turns the spool when activated through a lever which is present on the reel. This spring also functions as a limited drag system. 

Cost

Freshwater fly-fishing reels can be found for as little as £15, whilst saltwater reels designed to fight big-game fish costing over £500. Spring-loaded reels are generally preferred by beginners but the majority of experienced fly-fishermen opt for manual reels.

Excellent combo fly-fishing sets can be found for under £100 and the very basic combos can be bought for as little as £20. When buying a combo, keep in mind that you get what you pay for, and this is particularly true for reels. Starting with a good basic fly-fishing reel is generally the way to go, you can always upgrade later!

What Are Combos?

A combo is essentially a rod and reel which has already been put together and are ready to be used. It’s a supplier’s prediction of what the customer needs. Plenty of tackle shops sell these rod and reel combo sets, with some assembled by the manufacturer and some assembled by the shop. Combos are also available online and in fishing supply catalogues.

When you purchase a combo, you get a matched set which is generally cheaper than if you went out and bought exactly the same rod and reel separately. However, with combos you are far more limited if either the rod or reel isn’t what you’re looking for. Combos are typically in the middle of the park in terms of lures and fishing situations which they are appropriate for, meaning that it is very difficult to find them for specialised types of fishing.

Fact

A combination rod and reel set needs to be balanced. Ensure this is the case by placing the combo on an extended finger. It should balance just in front of the reel. If the set is heavy on either end, it will cause issues. This is a good way of checking outfits that you assemble yourself, too.