Fishing Reels: How to Choose the Right One for You

Published on 05/17/2023 · 18 min readThere's a lot to consider when picking out a reel! Fishing Expert Danny Palmquist gives a detailed guide to fishing reels so that you can make the right decision!
Danny Palmquist, Fishing Expert
By Fishing Expert Danny Palmquist

Photo by Azwar Ipank

When searching for a fishing reel online, there is no shortage of information available. While having access to such a wealth of information can be empowering, it takes a lot of time and energy to dive in and find the perfect reel for your conditions. This guide is my attempt to consolidate all the information necessary for anglers to make an informed decision when purchasing a new fishing reel.

As a lifelong angler, there is nothing that I love more than spending time on the water and catching fish. I have spent a lot of time refining my approach and finding gear that allows me to be as efficient as possible. When not out fishing, I enjoy taking the time to research new gear and learn new techniques to use and catch more fish. As an Expert here at Curated, I enjoy creating content to share my passion with others and helping my fellow anglers find gear tailored to their needs.

What Is a Fishing Reel?

A fishing reel is a tool that will allow anglers of all skill levels to cast and retrieve lures and safely bring fish back to the bank. Two main fishing reels are currently available: spinning and baitcasting.

What to Consider When Purchasing a Fishing Reel?

When trying to find a new reel, there are several factors that anglers need to keep in mind. While many reels will be versatile to get the most out of your money, reviewing these essential questions will enable you to find a reel that meets your needs.

Which Species Will You Target?

Photo by Paul H.

The species you target influences your choice of fishing reel. For trout and panfish, a 500-2000 size spinning reel is ideal for casting lightweight lures on light lines. For smallmouth bass and walleye in clear water, a 2000-3000 size spinning reel provides the necessary line capacity, power, and drag system. Large game fish like muskie and catfish require a 4000-6000 size spinning reel or a round-profile baitcaster with high line capacity and powerful drag washers.

For largemouth bass in cover-rich environments, a 100-150 size low-profile baitcaster works best. This size also suits some smallmouth bass and walleye anglers. For northern pike and bass fishing with large swimbaits, a 200-300 size low-profile baitcaster offers power and line capacity. Round-profile baitcasters with high line capacity are preferred for muskie and catfish, providing long casts and ample stopping power.

Spinning reel size by species:

  • 500-2000: Trout, panfish
  • 2000-3000: Walleye, smallmouth bass
  • 4000-6000: Northern pike, muskie, catfish

Low-profile baitcaster by species:

  • 100-150: Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, walleye
  • 200-300: Northern pike, largemouth bass

Round-profile baitcaster by species:

  • 5000-6500: Channel catfish, northern pike
  • 6500+: Muskie, flathead catfish

Which Techniques Will You Use?

Bladed jigs rigged up for pre-spawn bass fishing. Photo by Danny Palmquist

The techniques you intend to use with your setup are another determining factor when purchasing a fishing reel. The gear ratio of a fishing reel refers to how quickly the reel can pick up line. A reel with too fast of a gear ratio will make it harder for fish to catch up with your lure, resulting in short strikes and disappointment. On the other hand, a reel with too slow of a gear ratio will struggle to pick up the slack in your line and make a quick hookset when using bottom-contact techniques.

Generally speaking, spinning reels feature slower gear ratios than casting reels. One of the benefits of using a slower gear ratio is that it offers anglers more torque and power over large fish species. Still, well-designed fishing reels of all gear ratios can be powerful and durable. It is important to note that increasing your spool size will also make it easier to reel in the slack quickly. For example, a 2500-size spinning reel with a gear ratio of 5:5:1 will pick up line more slowly than a 4000-size reel of the same make and model.

  • Bottom Contact: When fishing presentations that sit on the bottom of a body of water, a reel with a fast gear ratio will allow them to pick up the slack line and set the hook easily. It may sound counter-intuitive because presentations like jigs, worms, and shaky head jigs are worked slowly across the bottom, but the action of these lures is generated by the rod tip rather than the reel. A spinning reel with a gear ratio of 6:1:1 and up will be ideal for bottom contact techniques, and a casting reel with a gear ratio between 7:1:1 and 8:1:1 will allow anglers to catch fish in and around heavy cover.
  • Moving Baits: While bottom contact baits attract fish by imitating the creatures that fish are feeding on, other lures work by causing a disturbance in the water and triggering instinctual reaction strikes from unsuspecting fish. Also referred to as reaction baits, moving baits are retrieved through the center of the water column. When fishing these techniques, anglers will need to use a reel with a gear ratio fast enough to catch the attention of fish but not so fast that fish can’t catch up with your lure. A spinning reel with a gear ratio of 5:1:1 to 6:1:1 will be effective in these situations, while a casting reel between 6:1:1 and 7:1:1 will be ideal.
  • Topwater Lures: To keep topwater lures up on the surface, a reel with a fast gear ratio will allow anglers to keep their lure up high and attract fish hiding in nearby cover. For example, when fishing a buzzbait, a gear ratio of 7:5:1 to 8:1:1 will allow anglers to keep the blades churning on the water's surface. Likewise, when fishing a hollow-body frog, a gear ratio of 8:1:1 will be ideal for imparting action to the lure, reeling in slack line, and pulling fishing out of cover before they can get tangled and hung up in weeds and other structures.
  • Large Gamefish: When fishing for species that average 5lbs and up, lowering your gear ratio relative to the technique that you’re looking to fish will offer more power to fight these larger fish. For instance, when fishing bottom contact presentations, using a gear ratio of 6:1:1 instead of 7:1:1 will offer increased torque, preventing angler fatigue. The gears featured on a reel with a lower gear ratio will be larger than those on a reel with a higher gear ratio. These larger teeth will also last longer and hold up against the stress of fighting larger and more aggressive fish.
  • For anglers who are fishing techniques for species of fish that average 5lbs and over, using a reel with a slower gear ratio will give them more power over these impressive fish. Anglers who target northern pike, muskie, and catfish find that a reel with a gear between 4:5:1 and 6:1:1 and below will give them the best chance of success while chasing these giant fish species.

Gear Ratio By Technique:

  • Bottom contact: 6:1:1-8:1:1
  • Moving baits: 5:1:1-7:1:1
  • Topwater Lures: 7:5:1-8:1:1
  • Large gamefish: 4:5:1-6:1:1

How Much Should a Fishing Reel Cost?

The amount an angler can expect to spend on a reel will depend on their budget, the application, and the conditions they plan to fish in. Spending a lot of money on a fishing reel is not always necessary, but in some cases, increasing your budget will pay off in the long run. This section will cover what anglers can expect from reels at various price points.

Pricing: Around $50: For around $50, anglers can acquire a versatile spinning reel suited for ultralight and finesse techniques, in sizes 500-3000, targeting species like trout, panfish, walleye, and bass. These reels typically have a durable graphite frame but wear faster with heavy use.

Pricing: $75-$100: By increasing the budget to $75-$100, more durable spinning reels with sizes 1000-5000 and graphite or aluminum frames become available, providing smoother operation and greater power for catching larger fish.

In the $75-100 range, anglers can explore baitcasting reels, which offer longer casts and reduced backlashes compared to cheaper options. These 100-size reels typically feature adjustable magnetic braking systems and support techniques like spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and jigs, making them suitable for targeting species like walleye, largemouth, and smallmouth bass.

Pricing: $100-$175: Upgrading to spinning reels in the $100-$175 range provides improved materials, lightweight rotors for better sensitivity, and spool designs for increased casting distance. In this price range, casting reels offer aluminum frames, optimized braking systems for distance and accuracy, and better performance with heavier lures.

As far as casting gear is concerned, increasing your budget will allow you to find more durable reels capable of making longer casts. Anglers can find casting reels with aluminum frames and braking systems optimized for greater casting distance and accuracy. These reels are better suited for fishing in thick vegetation with heavier lures than cheaper models.

Pricing: $175 and Over: For $175 and up, spinning reels feature quality components, sizes 500-6000, gear ratios from 5:1:1 to 7:1:1, lightweight and durable aluminum frames, and smooth operation for various fishing styles. So whether purchasing a lightweight spinning reel for finesse fishing or a powerful reel for catching muskies, the $175+ price point will include durable reels that will last for years.

Baitcasting reels at this price point offer a range of gear ratios for technique-specific setups, such as lower ratios for deep diving crankbaits and higher ratios for hollow-body frogs or buzzbaits. These reels also include dual braking systems, enabling easy distance optimization with both lightweight and heavier lures.

Types of Fishing Reels

Fishing reels can be broken down into two different categories: spinning reels and baitcasting reels. The general rule is that spinning reels perform better with lighter tackle and that baitcasters are more equipped to handle heavier applications. From here, I will offer a more in-depth description of each type of reel and explain how they can help you achieve your goals as an angler.

Spinning Reel

Spinning Finesse Setup- Daiwa Revros LT 3000, Cashion Element Drop Shot Rod. Photo by Danny Palmquist

Spinning reels, mounted to the underside of a spinning rod, enable anglers to manage lines, retrieve lures, and combat aggressive fish while avoiding line breakage. Although sacrificing some casting accuracy, spinning reels allow long casts with minimal effort and are ideal for light lines and lightweight lures. Their user-friendly nature makes them a popular choice among beginners and an essential tool for all anglers.

Baitcasting Reel

Casting Swimbait Setup - Daiwa Tatula 200, Cashion ICON Swimbait Rod. Photo by Danny Palmquist

Baitcasting reels, suitable for ambitious beginners and experienced anglers, allow for precise casts with heavy lures near vegetation where bass and other game fish live. Positioned atop a casting rod with line guides, the baitcaster's spool runs parallel to the rod, facilitating a direct path for the line and enabling easy, accurate casts.

There are two variations of casting reels available: low profile and round profile. The type of casting reel that will be best for you will depend on some factors.

1. Low Profile: Low-profile casting reels are currently the most popular options on the market, especially among bass anglers. Low-profile baitcasters are smaller than round baitcasters and sit closer to the rod. This makes it easy for anglers to hold in their hands and makes it easier to create a balanced and sensitive combo.

Low-profile baitcasters come in sizes ranging from 100-300. As the size of the reel increases, so does its line capacity. Larger reels can also house larger and stronger gears, making them more powerful for heavy-duty fishing applications.

2. Round Profile: Round profile baitcasters are an excellent option for anglers who need to make long casts and fight large game fish like northern pike, muskie, and catfish. They are also popular with bass anglers fishing with large swimbaits. These large reels house sturdy gears and include powerful drag systems, allowing them to fight aggressive fish without snapping their line.

Round profile reels come in sizes ranging from 5000-8000. Just like with low-profile baitcasters, increasing the size of your reel will mainly affect the line capacity and overall power of the reel.

Features to Look Out For When Buying a Fishing Reel

Frame

The frame of a fishing reel is vital for housing the gears and protecting them from the elements. The material used to create the frame of a reel will significantly impact the overall weight and durability of the reel. The most common materials used to manufacture spinning and casting reels are aluminum and graphite, each with its strengths and weaknesses.

Graphite

Graphite is a popular material for the frame on both spinning and casting reels. Graphite is sought out for being light in weight, adding to the overall balance and sensitivity of your rod and reel combo. For finesse techniques like in-line spinners and weightless soft plastics, a reel with graphite housing will allow anglers to feel faint bites while reducing fatigue during a long day of fishing.

While graphite is durable and relatively rigid, a reel with a graphite frame is more likely to flex under a heavy load, potentially damaging the gears inside. While a well-designed graphite frame that uses a high-quality graphite composite will hold up to heavy use, an aluminum frame will ultimately be more durable.

Aluminum

Aluminum is a rigid and durable material, making it an excellent choice for use on a fishing reel. Although it is heavier than graphite, aluminum frames can still be relatively lightweight and effective for lightweight presentations. Aluminum frames become essential for fishing techniques requiring heavy-weighted lures and fishing in thick vegetation. Whether flipping and pitching for bass with heavy tungsten weights or pursuing trophy catfish, a reel with a graphite frame will have the power to fight aggressive fish and safely bring them back to the boat.

A reel with an aluminum frame could potentially balance poorly with a lightweight rod, especially retains shorter graphite models, decreasing the sensitivity of your setup. Also, since aluminum retains heat, aluminum frames can be uncomfortable to grasp in extreme temperatures.

Benefits:

  • Aluminum frames are durable for heavy-duty applications
  • Rigid aluminum frames protect gears
  • Graphite frames are lightweight and reduce fatigue
  • Graphite frames are ideal for finesse applications

Be Aware:

  • Graphite frames can flex under pressure which damages gears
  • Heavy aluminum frames can be cumbersome

Braking System

While using a baitcaster, a good braking system will help anglers control the spool on the cast, allowing them to make longer casts without line overrun. Two types of braking systems are commonly used on a casting reel: magnetic and centrifugal. Since spinning reels don’t utilize a braking system, this section will focus on casting options.

Magnetic

A magnetic braking system uses magnetic resistance to slow the spool as your lure nears its target. Magnetic braking systems are easy to adjust with a dial located on the reel’s side plate. Increasing the brakes will increase the pressure on the spool while decreasing the brakes will allow the reel to spin more freely. Since magnetic braking systems are easy to adjust, most beginners will start on a reel with magnetic brakes.

While magnetic braking systems are easy to learn on, they can be harder to use with lightweight presentations, so anglers can expect to lose some casting distance with finesse lures. In addition, some anglers find the external dials of a magnetic braking system uncomfortable to hold on to while fishing.

Centrifugal

A centrifugal braking system reel will include brakes extending from the spool as a lure is cast. These brakes will create friction against the frame, slowing the spool and preventing backlashes.** **Anglers must remove the side plate and adjust a series of pins on the spool to adjust the braking pressure on a reel with centrifugal brakes.

Removing the side plate to adjust the brakes can be burdensome for some anglers. However, once properly dialed in, centrifugal brakes require less adjustment when changing lures than reels with magnetic brakes.

Benefits:

  • Magnetic brakes are easy to adjust
  • Magnetic brakes are ideal for beginners
  • Centrifugal brakes are ideal for lightweight applications

Be Aware:

  • Magnetic brakes aren’t ideal for finesse techniques
  • Centrifugal brakes are difficult to adjust on the fly

Rotor

As the name suggests, the rotor of a spinning reel spins outside the spool, gathering line on the spool as the handle is turned. When fishing lightweight presentations, a lightweight rotor reduces startup inertia, making it easier for anglers to maintain consistent tension on the line when retrieving lightweight lures. In addition, maintaining even tension on the line allows anglers to feel faint bites and detect structures under the water’s surface.

Along with its weight, a rotor's balance will significantly impact the reel's performance. A well-balanced rotor remains true while spinning, keeping it from rubbing against the spool, which can distract and prevent anglers from feeling bites. A balanced rotor will also perform more consistently, adding to the overall longevity of the reel.

Benefits:

  • Lightweight rotors are ideal for presenting lightweight lures
  • A balanced rotor will allow anglers to focus on feeling bites

Be Aware:

  • Poorly balanced rotors will cause a reel to deteriorate prematurely

Drag System

A fishing reel's drag system safeguards anglers' lines from snapping during battles with aggressive fish, ensuring safe catches. Drag systems consist of compressed washers that create friction against the reel's spool and an adjustable dial for managing drag pressure based on the line type and target fish size. Incorporated in both spinning and casting reels, drag systems employ either carbon fiber or felt as the primary materials for drag washers.

Felt

Felt drag washers are frequently used in spinning reels due to their affordability and suitability for finesse and ultralight techniques like fishing a wacky rig or a micro jig. The fibers on a felt drag washer are softer and less dense than those of carbon fiber, making them ideal for use with light tackle and smaller fish.

However, one downside of felt drag systems is their faster deterioration compared to carbon fiber. This means they need more frequent replacement depending on usage. Occasional anglers might replace their drag washers at the beginning of each season, while more frequent anglers may need to change them twice a season, considering the weight of their lures and the size of fish they catch.

Carbon Fiber

More durable than felt, carbon drag washers require more force for them to compress. The dense fibers on a carbon fiber washer will withstand more pressure, making them ideal for anglers targeting large gamefish like northern pike and muskie. Due to their durability, carbon fiber drag washers won’t need to be replaced very frequently; however, they are more expensive than felt washers.

Due to their density, carbon fiber drag washers aren’t ideal for ultralight fishing applications. Since they require more pressure to compress, they don’t release lines as readily as felt washers while fishing for smaller species.

Benefits:

  • Felt drag washers are inexpensive
  • Felt drag washers are ideal for ultralight techniques
  • Carbon fiber drag systems are durable
  • Carbon fiber drag systems are ideal for heavy applications

Be Aware:

  • Felt drag washers require regular replacement
  • Carbon fiber drag washers aren’t ideal for finesse techniques

How to Find the Right Fishing Reel for You

As a Curated Fishing expert, I have the opportunity to work alongside my fellow anglers and guide them to their perfect gear. Now that I have given a detailed explanation of the information I use when matching a fishing reel to a customer’s conditions, I will show what that looks like in action using some real-life examples based on customers I’ve helped.

Jared: Beginner Pursuing Panfish

Jared is looking to try a new hobby and catch his first fish. He doesn’t have a particular species in mind but wants to fish in small ponds for small species of fish. Jared wants to use live bait, but he also wants to find a reel that will be effective for fishing with soft plastic lures and reaction baits. In addition, Jared wants to find an affordable reel that will grow with him as he learns to fish.

Features Jared should look for:

  • 1000-2500 size spinning reel for fishing lightweight lures
  • A gear ratio of between 5:1:1 and 6:1:1 for versatility
  • A spinning reel with a lightweight rotor for easy line management

Reel examples: Shimano Miravel, Daiwa Fuego LT

Ash: Experienced Angler Pursuing Smallmouth Bass

Ash has been fishing for most of their life for a variety of species, but they want to put together a dedicated setup to use for smallmouth bass. Ash has a lot of experience with spinning gear but wants to find a baitcaster that will allow them to fish soft plastic tubes and small jigs for smallmouth bass.

Features Ash should look for:

  • A gear ratio of 7:1:1-8:1:1 for easy hooksets with bottom contact lures
  • A magnetic braking system for easy adjustment
  • A casting reel with an aluminum frame for durability

Reel examples: Lew’s Tournament MP, Daiwa Tatula

Julio: Experienced Angler Pursuing Catfish

Julio enjoys fishing for various species, and he wants to put together a combo for river fishing for giant flathead catfish. Julio needs a powerful reel with a high line capacity for making long casts and fighting aggressive flathead.

Features Julio should look for:

  • A round profile casting reel for long casts
  • A reel with a gear ratio under 6:1:1 for increased power
  • Carbon fiber drag system to prevent line breakage during the fight

Reel examples: Shimano Cardiff, Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Round Reel

Conclusion

While finding a new fishing reel can feel tedious, learning how to match your reel to your conditions can pay off in the long run. After reading this guide, you’ll hopefully be prepared to purchase a reel. However, finding a good reel can be challenging, even with the right information. Still, many anglers have their preferences, and it’s important to determine what ultimately suits you best.

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