Baitcasting Reels: How to Choose the Best Baitcaster for You

Published on 09/29/2023 · 20 min readCurated Fishing expert Joe M. uses his engineering background to help you find the perfect baitcasting reel for your unique style of fishing.
Joe M, Fishing Expert
Danny Palmquist, Fishing Expert
By Curated Experts Joe M and Danny Palmquist

Photo by Vince Fleming

Purchasing a casting reel can be an arduous task. We all love the feeling of being out on the water, getting a bite, and landing a nice fish. It can be easy to purchase whatever reel is on sale or one that looks nice sitting there in the tackle shop so we can hurry up and get out to fish it, but there are some things to have in mind before deciding to spend your well-earned money on a reel. In this guide, my aim is to give you all of the information needed to make a good decision when purchasing your next reel.

What Is a Casting Reel?

Photo by Ton Bangkeaw

Also known as a baitcaster, a casting reel is a type of fishing reel that is perfect for anglers targeting large fish in and around heavy cover. For species that live in areas with dense vegetation, anglers need to be able to make precise casts to pockets of open water in a field of lily pads or under overhanging tree limbs. A baitcaster makes it easy to manage thick braided and fluorocarbon line which is necessary for these situations. A baitcasting combo is also useful in open water and isn’t purely good for fishing in the weeds, but in heavy cover, using a baitcast rod and reel combo opens up areas that a spinning rod and reel just can't go.

It can be a challenge to learn to use a baitcaster. The spool has a tendency to keep rotating even after the lure has reached its target, causing a tangled up “bird’s nest” of fishing line that can take a lot of time to undo, but for intermediate anglers and ambitious beginners, a casting reel is a great tool for anglers to have in their arsenal.

What to Consider When Buying a Casting Reel

When deciding which is the best baitcaster for your needs, there are a lot of factors to be kept in mind. Baitcasters are versatile, but not all baitcasters are created equal. Taking the time to find the right reel for your conditions will ultimately save you time and money, and make your time on the water much more enjoyable.

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.

What Species Will You Target?

Photo by As. Trofey

Your target species is an important consideration to be made when buying a baitcaster. When fishing for bigger fish species like carp, muskie, redfish, and catfish with heavier lures, a lot of anglers—including myself—prefer to go with a round-style baitcaster. These reels have a larger spool and a higher profile which provides greater line capacity, which is better for fish that may require more line for increased casting distance or when these aggressive species try and “run” to safety with your bait in their mouths. I have one of these reels and I find it great for chasing larger species. In these situations, a reel with a good drag system is also essential.

In other scenarios, you may find yourself instead opting for a low-profile reel. In recent years, low-profile baitcast reels the more prevalent style—a durable and lightweight frame that fits easily in your hand will allow you to maintain complete control of your presentation while limiting fatigue during a long day out on the water. Along with bass, anglers who target walleye, pickerel, and pike will find a place for a low-profile baitcaster in their lineup.

What Techniques Will You Use?

When searching for the next baitcasting reel to add to my collection, I try to determine what types of lures 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.

Figure by Joe M.

Figure by Joe M.

  • All Purpose: For those just starting out or who want a reel that can work for a multitude of techniques, a casting reel with a gear ratio of around 7:1:1 will be an excellent choice. At a retrieval rate of 7:1:1, the reel will be able to pick up line quickly enough so that anglers can get an easy hookset, but not so fast as to pull a reaction bait like a spinnerbait out of the mouths of hungry fish.
  • Bottom Contact Baits: 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. A reel with a high gear ratio allows you to quickly pick up the slack in your line so that you can set the hook.
  • Moving Baits: When fishing reaction baits like spinnerbaits or bladed jigs, reeling in too fast can mean that fish aren’t able to catch up to your presentation, meaning that you’ll miss out on bites. Using a reel with a gear ratio between 6:1:1 and 7:1:1 will make it easy to keep your bait in the strike where fish can easily come and swipe at it.
  • Topwater Lures: When fishing topwater lures like hollow-body frogs and buzzbaits, a reel with a fast gear ratio will allow you easily work your lure across the surface of the water. A high gear ratio reel will also allow you to quickly reel in the slack for a good, solid hookset before the fish has the chance to spit the lure and swim off. When fishing topwater lures, a reel with an 8:1:1 or even 8:5:1 gear ratio will help anglers catch more fish. With higher gear ratio reels, your gears will tend to wear down quickly, especially when catching larger fish.
  • Finesse: While baitcasters aren’t generally ideal for lightweight presentations, bait finesse system (BFS) is a subcategory of casting reel designed for finesse techniques. BFS fishing is a growing niche in the bass fishing industry, and there are even BFS reels being used with ultralight BFS rods to fish for trout in small streams with lightweight lures. These reels use a shallow, ported aluminum spool with low startup inertia for easy casts with lighter presentations. Further, while most low-profile casting reels use brass gears, anodized aluminum gears are commonly used on BFS reels to reduce unnecessary weight. Designed to be paired with specialized casting rods, BFS is opening up the use of casting gear for fishing with light tackle.

How Much Should A Baitcaster Cost?

For anglers who are looking to purchase their first quality reel, they can expect to pay somewhere in the $100-150 price range. While it is possible to find a decent reel below $100, there aren't many good options.

For intermediate-level anglers and those who are looking to upgrade to a reel with more features, spending between $200-250 will be sure to find them a nice reel that will be durable enough to last a long period of time.

There are some instances where spending more than $300 on a reel is justifiable. One is when you are trying to cast very lightweight lures. Casting reels that are designed to manage lightweight presentations and finesse lures can cost upwards of $300. Another is when anglers are fishing in heavy cover and need a powerful reel that will hold up to heavy use for multiple seasons.

Types of Baitcast Reels

Casting reels can be split into two different categories, round reels, and low-profile reels. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses which I will cover below.

Round Profile

Round baitcaster fishing reels have been around for ages and are still an important tool for anglers who pursue a wide variety of species. They hold a great deal of line and have the power and drag needed to safely land some impressively sized fish. They can however be heavy and cumbersome for some anglers to manage. For anglers who are consistently catching fish upwards of 7 lbs, a round profile casting will have the power needed to maintain control over giant fish. Round baitcasters are very popular amongst freshwater and saltwater anglers alike.

Since round-profile reels have a larger circumference than low-profile models, they are capable of housing drag washers that are larger. This increased surface area means that they are capable of withstanding more pressure, and ultimately species of game fish that are larger and more aggressive.

Round reels are often used when targeting species like catfish. They hold plenty of line, so they are capable of making long casts from the bank and allowing your bait to reach the bottom. They also balance better on the longer and heavier rods that are required for fighting large species of fish. Round profile baitcasters are also popular for anglers pursuing salmon in large rivers and in many saltwater fishing applications.

For catfish and other species that take the bait in their mouths and run with it, some round reels will come equipped with a bait clicker. A common way to fish for catfish involves casting out multiple rods and allow the bait to sit on the bottom. Anglers will then stand by and wait for a bite. A bait clicker allows fish to take the bait and run with it while creating a clicking sound that alerts anglers that they have a fish on the line.

Benefits:

  • Plenty of line capacity for long casts with thick diameter line
  • Pairs well with heavy-duty rods designed for large game fish

Be Aware:

  • Round profile casting reels can be heavy and cumbersome for some anglers to manage

Low Profile

Low-profile baitcasters are a popular choice for anglers of many species. They are easy to hold in your palm as you work lures through the water, so they are excellent for fishing jigs or soft plastic worms where all of the action of the lure comes from the angler as they twitch and pause a lure across the bottom.

Since low-profile reels are smaller than round ones, they will be lighter in weight, which allows them to easily balance on rods that are designed to be used for bass fishing. This leads to a setup that is well-balanced, which is especially important for techniques that require a lot of sensitivity.

Low-profile reels come in some sub-categories for more technique-specific applications. Bait Finesse Systems, or BFS, is a sub-category of casting reel that is smaller and optimized for lightweight presentations. This opens up the accuracy of a baitcaster to finesse anglers who are used to fishing spinning reels.

Some low-profile reels also come equipped with a flipping switch. A flipping switch allows anglers to immediately engage the reel when their presentation hits the bottom for a hookset. Flipping is a technique performed in heavy cover and requires that anglers cover water quickly and remain vigilant for detecting bites.

There are also variations of low-profile baitcasters with line capacity between that of a round reel and a smaller low-profile casting reel. These are popular for anglers in saltwater situations or bass anglers fishing oversized swimbaits.

Benefits:

  • Low-profile baitcasters are lightweight and comfortable to use
  • Ideal for flipping and pitching in heavy cover

Be Aware:

  • Low-profile baitcasters have limited line capacity for the largest of game fish

Features to Look for in a Baitcasting Reel

Braking System

Baitcasters are an invaluable tool, but many anglers shy away from them because of the dreaded bird’s nest. A bird’s nest happens when your spool is moving faster than your line and lure on the other end during a cast. This causes line to puff up on your spool and create a tangled mess.

Also known as casting control, the braking system on a casting reel helps regulate the speed of your spool throughout the cast to reduce instances of bird’s nests, also known as a backlash. There are two main types of braking systems currently in use: centrifugal, and magnetic. Before I go over the different types of braking systems, I want to talk about spool-tension adjustment which is an integral part of the braking system that will be found on any casting reel, whether it uses magnetic or centrifugal brakes.

An essential part of any reel’s braking system is the spool-adjustment knob. Usually located right behind the handle, turning the spool tension knob will either tighten or loosen the spool within the frame. When turned counter-clockwise, the spool will become loose and move lightly side to side. As the knob is turned clockwise, the spool will be more static and will take more force to get it to rotate.

Centrifugal Brakes 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.

Centrifugal braking systems are ideal for anglers who are looking to cast lightweight lures on their baitcasting setup. The downside is that it can be time-consuming and complicated to have to remove the side plate of the reel in order to access the brakes on the outside of the spool.

Benefits:

  • Once dialed in, a centrifugal braking system needs minimal adjustments
  • Excellent for long casts with lighter lures

Be Aware:

  • In order to adjust centrifugal brakes, it is necessary to remove the side plate which can be challenging while on the water

Magnetic 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 brakes to slow down the spool while the lure is in the air.

Magnetic braking systems are versatile and easy to adjust on the outside of the reel. While magnetic brakes are affordable and easily adjustable, when casting lightweight lures on a magnetic braking system, you will lose some casting distance.

Benefits:

  • Magnetic brakes are easily adjustable on the reel’s side plate
  • Magnetic brakes are ideal for heavier lures

Be Aware:

  • Magnetic brakes can sacrifice distance with lightweight lures

Drag System

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!

The drag system on a reel is designed to prevent line from breaking when there is a lot of tension on the line while fighting a fish. A drag system consists of a series of washers that are compressed to put pressure on the spool. When a fish pulls against your reel, the drag system will allow the spool to release some line, reducing the tension and protecting your line from breakage.

Along with steel, drag washers can be made of carbon fiber or synthetic materials such as rulon. There will be a drag knob on the reel right between the handle and the reel’s frame that is shaped like a star. Turning the knob clockwise will increase pressure on the plates, and turning it counterclockwise will release that tension. Increasing the drag pressure will mean that more pressure is required for the spool to release line, and decreasing it will mean that the spool will release line more freely.

Carbon fiber drag washers require little to no maintenance and will likely last for the life of your reel. Synthetic drag washers will need to be lightly greased every season or they will dry out and your drag will become jerky and unpredictable.

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 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 a heavy line like braid rather than opting for a fluorocarbon or monofilament line can allow you to handle fish even larger than your drag system would normally permit without the heavier line.

Benefits:

  • Carbon fiber drag washers will require no maintenance
  • Multiple carbon fiber washers will enhance drag performance

Be Aware:

  • Synthetic drag washers will require regular lubrication and/or replacement

Frame

Another important factor to consider in your quest to find the perfect baitcaster is the frame. The frame on a baitcaster is important. It houses the gears inside and protects them. It contributes to the overall weight and balance of your setup, which ultimately leads to catching more fish. There are 2 main materials that are used to make the frame: graphite, and aluminum. I’ll briefly describe the merits of each below.

Graphite Graphite is a material that is lightweight, corrosion-resistant, and relatively durable. It's also comfortable to hold in your hands as it less reactive to extreme temperatures. Graphite can flex under a heavy load, but not all graphite is created equal and there are some solid reels with graphite frames available. That said, reels with graphite frames will be better suited for more lightweight presentations like fishing a weightless soft plastic worm around sparse cover. For lightweight presentations, a reel with a graphite frame is a really excellent choice. Graphite framed baitcasters are also an excellent choice for younger anglers and those who are prone to fatigue.

Benefits:

  • Graphite is lightweight and compact, reduces strain on hands and wrists
  • Ideal for fishing lightweight presentations

Be Aware:

  • Graphite frames can twist under pressure, damaging internal gears

Aluminum Aluminum frames are sturdy and dependable, and they can still be relatively light in weight with the power to resist twisting which keeps the gears intact for years to come. The rigidity of an aluminum frame makes it perfect for fishing in thick vegetation. When retrieving a heavy weight in dense cover, it puts a lot of pressure on the gears which can cause the frame to flex. A rigid aluminum alloy frame keeps the internal gears in precise alignment, even under a heavy load.

Benefits:

  • Aluminum is rigid and won’t twist under a heavy load
  • Aluminum provides sturdy housing that keeps gears precisely aligned

Be Aware:

  • Aluminum can be heavy and increases fatigue

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 bearing.

There are many types of bearings such as shielded, double-shielded, sealed, and stainless steel ball bearings. Roller bearings are used to support the main shaft that drives the gears. It is best to consult with a local shop when trying to evaluate a reel, as these usually have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

Benefits:

  • Quality bearings will help a reel operate smoothly and increase casting distance
  • Sealed bearings are ideal for saltwater and high-corrosion environments

Be Aware:

  • The number of bearings in a reel isn’t a direct reflection of its quality

How to Find the Best Baitcaster For You

Selecting the perfect baitcasting reel requires significant knowledge of a person’s style of fishing and the goals they have for themselves as anglers. Hearing terms like gear ratio and rotational torque might feel intimidating, but they have a significant impact on your experience as an angler. As a Real Expert, it’s my job to understand all of these factors and guide fellow anglers to find the perfect gear. Below I will share what that process looks like based on customers that I have worked with on Curated.

Damian: Seeking Largemouth Bass

Damian has been fishing for largemouth bass with a spinning setup and he wanted to add his first baitcaster to his collection. He will be fishing in medium-sized ponds and rivers and he’s planning on fishing a variety of lures before trying to focus on any specific technique.

Features Damian should look for:

  • 7:1:1 gear ratio for versatility
  • Magnetic braking system for easy adjustment
  • Low-profile reel for comfort and lightweight applications

Reel Examples: Lew's Speed Spool lfs, Shimano SLX XT

Sarah: Targeting Smallmouth Bass

Sarah loves fishing for smallmouth bass in rocky reservoirs. She plans to fish soft plastic tubes and worms while using 12lb fluorocarbon line. After losing some smallmouth due to them snapping her light fluorocarbon line, she wanted a reel with a good drag system to help her fight aggressive smallmouth bass.

Features Sarah should look for:

  • Carbon fiber drag system for smooth drag pressure
  • 7:1:1 - 7:5:1 gear ratio to quickly reel in slack for a hookset
  • Aluminum frame that won’t flex while fighting aggressive smallmouth on light line

Reel Examples: Daiwa Tatula 150, Shimano Curado DC

Alex: Catfish Angler

Alex loves fishing for channel catfish and has always used a spinning setup. While he loves his spinning gear, he has been wanting to get into fishing for huge flathead catfish and wanted to purchase a durable round profile casting reel to use for these bigger fish.

Features Alex should look for:

  • Round profile reel with carbon fiber drag system to help fight big catfish
  • Good line capacity for long casts with heavy diameter line
  • Low gear ratio for increased power to fight trophy fish

Reel Examples: Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Baitcasting Reel, Penn Squall II Levelwind

Final Thoughts

Photo by Proshkin Aleksandr

Selecting a baitcasting reel requires experience and extensive mechanical, material, and brand knowledge to make an informed decision. Hopefully this article has provided some valuable insight. Best of luck out on the water and for more Fishing content, check out the Expert Journal here on Curated.

Cheers!

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