Fishing Reels 101: How to Choose the Best Spinning Reel for You

Published on 06/23/2023 · 13 min readFishing Expert Danny Palmquist walks us through all the details to consider to narrow down what type of spinning reel would be best for you!
Danny Palmquist, Fishing Expert
By Fishing Expert Danny Palmquist

Reading over the description of any individual spinning reel can be very confusing, especially to a beginning angler. They may include new terminology, industry jargon, and bold claims that might sound too good to be true—and you might find yourself unsure of where to begin. In this guide, I will break down the features of a spinning reel in plain language, and explain how they can help you achieve your goals as an angler.

As an avid angler and Fishing Expert with Curated, it’s my job to understand the ins and outs of the gear that I recommend. I spend a lot of time fine-tuning my personal setups out on the water, learning about new products, and following industry trends so that I can better assist my fellow anglers to find fishing gear tailored to their conditions.

What Is a Spinning Reel?

A spinning reel is a type of fishing reel that is versatile and easy to use. It is made of four main components: the frame, spool, rotor, and handle. In fact, most anglers will learn to fish while using a spinning reel. As versatile as they are, a spinning reel excels in situations that require light line and lightweight lures.

What to Consider When Shopping for a Spinning Reel

What Species Will You Be Catching?

The first question to consider when purchasing a new spinning reel is the main species of fish that you plan to catch. While, of course, you can catch multiple species of fish with the same reel, it’s important to make the best use of your time out on the water. A reel that is too small won't hold up to big fish and won't be able to make long enough casts, while one that is too large will be likely to cause a bird's nest, costing anglers time and energy.

Spinning reel sizes begin at 500 and go on well above 4500. Reel sizes generally refer to the amount of line that the spool is capable of holding. There is no clear industry standard as far as reel sizes are concerned, so I will talk about reel sizes in the context of the species they are most often used to catch.

For trout and panfish under 3/4oz living in small ponds and streams, a 500–1000-size reel will be adequate. They tend to be lightweight, and they balance well with most ultralight fishing rods. While they don’t offer spools large enough to hold much extra line, they are able to hold just enough to make short casts in smaller bodies of water where these small species are plenty. Especially on rods that are 5’6'' and under, these small spinning reels are a great option.

As the fish you are catching get larger, so should your reel. A larger spool will hold more line, making it easier to make long casts. The gears in these reels will also be stronger and offer more power over bigger fish. If you are going to be regularly catching fish between ¾oz and 1lb, a 1500–2000-size reel will be your best choice.

For most bass fishing techniques, a 2500–3000-size reel will suffice. They will balance well with nearly any bass-focused fishing rod, and hold plenty of line for long casts even when braided line is being used as backing.

For northern pike and many species of catfish, a 3500–4000-size reel will be perfect. When using thick-diameter braided line, this reel will hold more than enough line for making long casts out deep. They also include strong gears that will give anglers the edge against aggressive fish.

For musky and many offshore species of fish, a 4500+ size reel will be necessary for allowing anglers to land their catch. These hefty reels are designed to withstand the strength of monster-sized fish.

Reel Size By Species

  • 500-1000: Small trout, panfish
  • 1500-2000: Walleye, larger panfish
  • 2500-3000: Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass; small pike
  • 3500-4000: Northern pike, catfish
  • 4500+: Musky, offshore saltwater fishing

Will You Be Fishing in Freshwater or Saltwater?

Photo by Mídia

Saltwater is highly corrosive, so reels designed to fish in the ocean will be treated to protect the body and gears against damage. Reels that are designed for freshwater can occasionally be used in saltwater, or in waters that are brackish, but they will need to be rinsed off right after in order to keep them operating smoothly.

Which Techniques Do You Plan to Use It For?

Many anglers look for a one-size-fits-all reel to be used for multiple species. For most freshwater fishing applications, a 2500-size reel with a gear ratio of 5:5:1 will be a great choice. Anglers who are looking to put together a technique-specific setup will have some additional factors to consider. I will briefly describe some of them below.

The gear ratio of a reel refers to the number of full rotations made by the reel’s rotor per hand crank of the handle. If a reel has a gear ratio of 5:1:1, that means the rotor will turn 5 times per turn of the handle.

Gear Ratio by Application

  • 6:1:1 + Bottom contact baits
  • 5:1:1 - 6:1:1 General purpose, moving baits
  • 4:1:1 - 4:5:1 Heavy duty and offshore fishing

Bottom Contact Lures: Setting the hook on a bait that is sitting on the bottom will require anglers to quickly remove any slack in the line before setting the hook. Attempting to set the hook prematurely will run the risk of pulling the lure out of the fish’s mouths instead. Using a reel with a gear ratio of 6:1:1 and above will be ideal for these types of presentations. Increasing the size of your reel will also help you to remove the slack in the line more quickly. For fishing a drop shot or a neko rig, anglers might consider a 3000-size reel instead of 2500 when given the opportunity.

Moving Baits: For lures that are meant to be kept in the middle of the water column like an in-line spinner, a reel with a gear ratio of between 5:1:1 and 6:1:1 will help to keep anglers from retrieving their lures faster than fish can keep up with.

Heavy Duty Applications: In order for anglers to handle large and powerful fish, they will need a large and powerful reel. In these situations, a reel with an aluminum frame will resist cracking while under the stress of a heavy load. A slow gear ratio of 5:1:1 and below will allow anglers the torque needed to fight against these impressive fish.

How Much Should You Spend on a Spinning Reel?

Photo by Thirdman

While you don’t need to spend a fortune in order to get a good reel, you do get what you pay for. For the occasional angler, a $50 reel might be enough to allow them to achieve their goals. While there are some reels out there that cost a bit less, the quality and reliability of the reel will inevitably suffer.

At the $100 price point, most anglers will be able to find a reel that will meet their needs. These reels will be of decent quality but will lack some features and attention to detail that will be found in reels at a higher price point.

When fishing finesse techniques for species that grow above 2lbs, it might be worth it to invest a little bit more in a high-quality spinning reel. These techniques require a sensitive setup that is capable of sensing the faintest of bites on lures that weigh very little. Part of that sensitivity comes from the balance that is created when pairing a lightweight reel with a lightweight rod. This requires a reel with a composite frame, and composites that are both lightweight and durable are expensive to manufacture. The best spinning reels for a finesse setup will be between $200–300.

Offshore saltwater anglers will need to be prepared to handle some truly giant fish. For these species that weigh upwards of 500 lbs, specialized gear will be required. These reels will include durable frames that are sealed to prevent saltwater from intruding and damaging the internal components. They also require brass or stainless steel gears that are precisely manufactured to withstand a heavy load and specially designed drag systems that offer smooth drag pressure, even under an immense load. For these applications, a good reel can cost anywhere between $400–1500.

Features to Look Out for When Buying a Spinning Reel

Over the years, reels have seen a lot of upgrades in terms of weight and durability. As materials evolve, reels have become lighter and more durable. However, the main components of a reel have not changed and I am going to describe them and explain their significance below.

Frame

A spinning reel’s frame houses its internal components and serves as a footing for the spool, rotor, and handle. Usually made of graphite or aluminum, a reel’s frame should be rigid to withstand the pressure that is created while reeling against aggressive fish. Graphite is lighter than aluminum, but it is more likely to flex under a heavy load—which can cause it to crack and damage the gears. While a quality graphite composite body can be very durable, it is much more expensive to produce than aluminum.

Benefits:

  • Graphite frames are lightweight
  • Aluminum frames are durable

Be Aware:

  • Quality graphite composites can be durable, but are more expensive

Spool

The spool of a spinning reel is seated at the top of the frame, and it oscillates up and down as the handle is turned—distributing the line evenly inside. Spools can be made from a variety of materials, but most commonly aluminum. Spools of varying sizes will hold different amounts of line. The line capacity on a spool will usually be written on its side, like MONO 4/250, which means that it holds 250 yards of 4lb test monofilament line.

Some spinning reel spools will be listed as “braid ready”. Braid-ready spools include a textured rubber strip that helps keep braided line from slipping around the spool while anglers are reeling in their catch. Monofilament and fluorocarbon lines don’t have that same tendency. Spools without this textured portion will require a short length or mono tied to the spool before a braided line can be added.

Benefits:

  • “Braid-ready” spools prevent line from slipping while under pressure
  • Deep spools hold more line for longer casts

Be Aware:

  • Spools that aren’t braid-ready will require mono backing before adding braided line

Rotor

The rotor on a spinning reel rotates as the handle is cranked and helps guide the line to lay evenly on the spool. The rotor is usually made of a graphite or plastic composite material, but can also be made of aluminum.

A lightweight rotor will decrease startup inertia as the handle is returned, which makes it easier for anglers to maintain even tension between the rod, line, and lure. It is essential that the rotor on a spinning reel remains balanced as it turns. This reduces “play”, which can make it harder for anglers to present lures and feel bites.

Benefits:

  • A lightweight rotor makes it easy to maintain contact with the lure
  • A rotor that is balanced will help line to lay evenly on the spool

Be Aware:

  • A rotor with “play” in it will reduce sensitivity and cost anglers some fish

Handle

The handle on a spinning reel allows anglers to grasp onto it and operate the reel. It can be made out of aluminum or carbon fiber. They come in varying sizes and lengths, and can include a wide assortment of knobs for anglers to hold on to.

Reels that are designed for heavy-duty applications might include a longer handle with a large “power knob” that allows the angler more power over aggressive fish, while smaller reels will include handles that are more proportional to the size and function of the reel. The handles on most spinning reels are ambidextrous and can be easily moved from one side to the other.

Benefits:

  • Aluminum handles are durable and rigid
  • Large “power-knobs” are ideal for heavy-duty applications

Be Aware:

  • While lighter in weight, carbon fiber handles might sacrifice some power

Drag System

A quality drag system on a spinning reel can be the difference between landing a trophy catch and watching it swim away. Located on top of the spool, a spinning reel’s drag system consists of a series of felt or fiber discs that alternate with metal washers. These components put pressure on the spool, which allows the spool to release some line while aggressive fish are pulling against it. This can help prevent your line from snapping and your fish from swimming away with your lure.

Felt deteriorates more quickly than carbon fiber, but it costs less and is usually included with cheaper reels. Felt drag washers can be replaced, however, which is a pretty easy task. As the felt deteriorates, the drag pressure becomes less consistent, which increases the likelihood of line breakage. Carbon-fiber drag washers are more durable than felt and can withstand more pressure. This makes them more durable and capable of withstanding more pressure. As a reel’s drag washers increase, so does the amount of pressure it’s able to withstand.

Benefits:

  • A good drag system prevents break-offs
  • Carbon fiber drag washers are durable to withstand strong pressure

Be Aware:

  • While inexpensive, felt drag washers require regular replacement

How to Choose the Right Spinning Reel for You

Now that I’ve explained the principles needed to find a new reel, I am going to go ahead and show you what that looks like practically. In order to illustrate this, I’m going to use some examples based on real-life customers that I’ve worked with at Curated.

Cole: New Angler Targeting Trout

Cole is completely new to fishing. He has access to some small ponds and streams, and he thought that he might enjoy a new hobby. He is looking to put together an affordable setup to use while fishing for trout and panfish.

Features Cole should look for:

  • 1000–2000 spool for use with ultralight tackle
  • Smooth drag system for fighting aggressive fish on light line
  • 5:1:1-6:1:1 gear ratio for versatility

Reel Examples: Daiwa Revros LT, Lew’s Mach 1

Rachel: Intermediate Level Targeting Catfish

Rachel has some prior fishing experience but is looking to put together a setup dedicated for fishing channel catfish. She has bank access to a nice lake that is home to many 2–4 lb catfish.

Features Rachel should look for:

  • Braid-ready spool to keep line from slipping
  • 4000+ size reel to hold plenty of thick diameter braided line
  • 5:1-6:1 gear ratio for increased power over aggressive fish

Reel Examples: Penn Battle III DX, Daiwa BG Saltwater Spinning Reel

Robert: Performance Level Targeting Bass

Robert is a dedicated bass angler. He has already put together some nice, technique-specific combos, and now wants to find a reel for finesse fishing. Specifically, for fishing the drop shot. He is looking to find a quality, performance-oriented spinning reel and is willing to pay a little more to get it. He is planning on using a 6-8lb fluorocarbon line and a medium-light, fast-action spinning rod.

Features Robert should look for:

  • 3000-size reel for plenty of line capacity
  • High gear ratio (6:1:1+) for quick line pickup
  • Quality drag system for fighting aggressive fish on 6lb test

Reel Examples: Shimano Vanford, Daiwa Tatula LT

Connect With Us

At this point, you should have a pretty good idea of where to start when searching for your next spinning reel. If you are still stumped or need help finding other fishing gear, reach out to me on Curated, or get in touch with any of my fellow Fishing Experts for free, customized advice.

Shop Conventional Fishing on Curated

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