An Expert Guide to Choosing a Baitcasting Reel

Curated Fishing expert Joe M. uses his engineering background to help you find the perfect baitcasting reel for your unique style of fishing.

A man in a sunhat holds a fishing rod with a baitcasting reel on it.

Photo by Vince Fleming

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Walking into an outdoor shop can be extremely overwhelming because when you are looking for a high-end, durable, and dependable baitcasting reel for bass fishing, there are sometimes 10, 20, or even 100 different options to pair with your new graphite baitcasting rod. Should you pick the KastKing Royale Legend, the Shimano Curado DC, Abu Garcia Revo SX, or the Daiwa Tatula to create the combo of your dreams? Do those names mean nothing to you?

I experienced this myself when I was younger, but after a few years of countless trips down those aisles, I started to get the hang of choosing the best baitcaster. It took years of talking to other fishermen and trying out different reels to get a better idea of how to select a baitcasting reel, especially when creating situational baitcaster combos for tournaments. The most impactful experience for my fishing knowledge has been my career in engineering, which has helped me understand the materials and mechanisms used to manufacture a baitcasting reel.

Selecting the perfect baitcasting reel requires significant knowledge of a person’s style of fishing. Major factors to consider when selecting a baitcasting reel are gear ratio, inches per turn, drag, bearings, braking, handedness, and style. There are other factors to consider such as the frame, spool, handle, and line guides, all of which an expert can help you with.

Gear Ratio

When searching for the next baitcasting reel to add to my collection for bass, I try to determine what type of lure(s) I plan on using. The lure type will help me select one of the most important factors for my reel: the gear ratio.

The gear ratio of a reel is the relationship between the rotation of the handle and the rotation of the spool and is shown as Rotation (Spool): Rotation (Handle). An example of the gear ratio is displayed in the graphic below. In this example, the handle has been simplified to the circular shaft connecting the handle to the reel.

A figure of the gear ratio between the handle and the spool. The title reads “Gear Ratio — 5.4:1” and below, there are two blue circles with red half-turn rotating arrows within them. The bigger circle is labeled “Handle” and the smaller one is labeled “Spool.” Below, the caption reads, “For 1 rotation of the handle the spool will rotate 5.4 times. This is because of the size of the gears in the reel connecting the two together.”

Figure by Joe M.

For fishing lures that require you to react swiftly to fish strikes, higher gear ratios in high-speed reels are needed to reel the fishing line in more quickly. These lures include jigs, jerkbaits, or live bait. For finesse fishing, lures like plastic worms, crankbaits, swimbaits, buzzbaits, or spinnerbaits, you would prefer a lower gear ratio to work the lure in the water more effectively.

Expert Tip: ceramic gear systems provide unique advantages over brass gears, including absolute corrosion resistance. So, if you plan to do any saltwater fishing at all, pay extra attention to the components!

Inches per Turn

Some anglers mistakenly purchase their reel by looking only at the gear ratio. This is a common mistake because the gear ratio can be slightly misleading. This is because the gear ratio can differ if the hardware is made differently between two different reels. This is why we also consider the inches per turn (IPT) of a reel as well as the gear ratio. Inches per turn is simply defined as the length of line spooled for one rotation of the handle. See the example below:

A figure of the gear ratios between two handles and two spools. On the left, the title reads “Gear Ratio — 5.4:1” and below, there are a blue and green circle with red half-turn rotating arrows within them. The blue circle is labeled “Handle” and the smaller, green circle is labeled “Spool 1.” On the right, the title reads “Gear Ratio — 5.4:1” and below, there are a blue and yellow circle with red half-turn rotating arrows within them. The blue circle is labeled “Handle” and the smaller, yellow circle is labeled “Spool 2.” Below, the caption reads, “For this example, the gear ratio between the handle and spool 1 is 5.4:1 and the gear ration between the same handle and spool 2 is also 5.4:1. The difference in these two setups is that spool 1 is smaller than spool 2. This means that although these two setups have the same gear ratio; more line will wrap around spool two as it rotates 5.4 times. Therefore, it is important to consider the inches per turn of a reel.”

Figure by Joe M.

Most reel manufacturers provide the IPT on their spec sheets; however, I have come across some companies that do not provide this information. If this information is not provided, you can base your purchase on the gear ratio or you could reach out to someone who could provide you with insight into the brand (like a Fishing Expert on Curated!).

Drag

Another important factor to consider is the max drag of a reel. I learned this the hard way when I was younger when a 20lb carp hit the line while I was using my ultralight trout fishing setup. Long story short, the fish not only pulled all the line off my spool but went ahead and snapped my line too!

Understanding the size of the fish you are targeting is important when choosing a reel because some drag systems' ratings can be higher or lower, and this can be crucial to landing a big fish. Drag can always be reduced using the tension knob, and I rarely fish with my drag at the highest setting. A carbon fiber drag system or carbon matrix drag system uses carbon drag washers to increase the torque as a whole.

If you are going for a variety of species with one setup, then I always think the best choice for serious anglers is a reel that has a drag rated for the largest fish you are targeting, which gives you maximum value and utility on high-end reels. Pairing that drag with heavy line like braid rather than opting for fluorocarbon or monofilament line can allow you to handle fish even larger than your drag system would normally permit without the heavier line.

Bearings

Ball bearings in a baitcasting reel are what help keep all of the rotating parts moving smoothly and mitigating friction, allowing smooth casts and increasing casting distance. Bearings can be confusing because there is a “rule of thumb” that can cause confusion among some anglers. The rule of thumb suggests more bearings offer greater performance. This is true assuming that the bearings are made of quality materials. However, you may find that a reel with twelve bearings made of lower-end materials performs worse than a reel with five high-quality bearings.

There are many types of bearings such as shielded, double-shielded, stainless steel ball bearings, and sealed bearings. It is best to consult with a Fishing Expert when trying to evaluate a reel, as these usually have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

Braking

Newer baitcasters have braking systems for the spool to control how fast the line comes off, determining your casting control. This helps prevent the dreaded bird nest, or backlash, that can form if the line is cast and the spool rotates too fast. Most bird nests can be fixed by simply releasing and reversing the spool. Once you get used to your reel and dial in the settings, you should experience very few bird nests.

There are a few different types of brakes that are used on reels today: centrifugal, magnetic, and spool-tension adjustment. The brake that most beginners will use is actually not listed above because it is not part of the reel at all. Every beginner will start learning baitcasting by using their thumb as a brake to prevent the spool from over-rotating. After a while, you will figure out the settings to the point where you no longer have to use your thumb on every cast.

Centrifugal Braking

These brakes use centrifugal force to slow the rate of line leaving the spool, and they have to be adjusted by opening up your baitcaster. They are used to prevent instant over-rotation during the initial part of a cast. A centrifugal brake engages when the first few inches of line pull off the spool. This is because when you make a fast cast, the initial speed of the line is extremely high and must be reduced to prevent an instant bird’s nest.

Magnetic Braking

Magnetic brakes are typically adjusted by using a numbered dial to increase or decrease the drag. The dial in a magnetic brake system correlates to the distance between the magnets and the spool, which ultimately allows the rakes to slow down the spool while the lure is in the air.

Spool-Tension Adjustment

The spool-tension adjustment is a type of braking which helps slow your spool to an eventual stop, ideally at the same time your lure hits the water. This type of braking is not a substitute for the other types of braking, and it is important to take the time to learn about your reel’s braking systems and how to adjust them. Even though it may be a pain to take the cover off your reel to adjust the centrifugal braking system, it is critical because overusing the spool tension adjustment may cause permanent damage to your reel.

Ultimately, it is challenging to compare the braking systems on each reel from every different brand. It is important to have someone you know who can help you compare and contrast the different brands. Most baitcasting reels on the market will have these features, but what sets them apart is the mechanical design and materials used to form the braking system.

As a mechanical engineer, I have a unique perspective on fishing reels. This is how I help explain this to my customers: you can have two reels that, in mint condition, perform the same but if one uses lesser-grade materials, the similarity in performance will only last until something corrodes. This is why it is important to consult with a fishing expert when trying to select a reel. It can sometimes be difficult to look through a catalog and find the materials that were used and sometimes it is not provided by the manufacturer. If it is not provided, that doesn’t mean that the reel does not perform, but rather, you will need to talk to someone who has actually used the product.

Handedness

Handedness is a simple, but important, factor when ordering a reel. Do you crank the reel with your left hand or your right? I started fishing with a spinning reel (I reeled with my left hand) and when I initially made the jump to a baitcaster, I ordered a right-hand retrieve reel. This was because someone I spoke to mentioned that when using a baitcaster, they recommended switching hands.

The result? It looked like it was the first time I had ever seen a fishing rod. I swiftly returned the reel and went with a left-hand retrieve. My recommendation to people when buying their first baitcaster is to reel with the same hand as they would for spinning. This is because when you use the same hand to reel, you only have to make minor adjustments to your rod hand for casting and setting the hook.

Style

Style is important in some scenarios for buying a baitcaster. When fishing for bigger fish species like carp, musky, redfish, and catfish with heavier lures, a lot of anglers—including myself—prefer to go with a round-style baitcaster. These reels have a higher profile which provides greater line capacity, which is better for fish that may require more line for casting or for fighting. I have one of these reels and I find it great for chasing larger species.

In other scenarios, you may find yourself instead opting for a low-profile reel. Low profile baitcasting reels are a more prevalent style—durable and lightweight aluminum frame side plates coupled with an aluminum spool are great build aspects for bass fishing. A titanium or graphite frame is another great build choice depending on the style you prefer.

Grips, the button, the spool tension knob, or the reeling handle, may be other style options that may sway your choice. Popular and dependable brands like Abu Garcia, Daiwa (check out their new T-wing system), and Shimano have plenty of different styles to choose from.

Final Thoughts

Selecting a baitcasting reel requires experience and extensive mechanical, material, and brand knowledge to make an informed decision. This is where Curated Experts can help with great advice, promotions, and special offers to get you the best baitcasting reel. Even if your Expert has not tested every reel on the market, they have access to our incredible community of fishing Experts and experienced anglers from all over the country. Typically, when someone reaches out about a brand or a specific product, someone in our group has used it before.

Best of luck out on the water and I hope that I or another Fishing Expert can help find you your next gear.

Cheers!

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Written By
Joe M
Joe M
Conventional Fishing Expert
Fisherman ever since I was born, I am an expert in fishing without a boat from shore and using maps and topography to find the best spots. I love to get out on my kayak to get to spots that the boaters typically cannot get into! I am saving to get a boat one day, but that does not mean I am going to...
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