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Everything You Need to Know About Fishing Reels

Buying and understanding fishing reels can be daunting. Let's cover what features really matter and what you should be looking for in a fishing reel.

Everything You Need to Know About Fishing Reels

Cut through the high-tech terminology of marketing to understand essential aspects of reel design and construction.

Any angler should know that a decent reel must have CorroBlock, UniMod gearing, a Titan Alloy pinion gear, Nannoseal construction and Monad-Body design. And that’s just for starters. Clearly, these are cutting-edge, high-tech proprietary features without which a reel will be doomed to short-lived, mediocre performance.

The truth is, I just made up all these terms. But take a look at the lists of features for just about any reel on the market, and you’ll find myriad catchy trademarked names that sound like something important but which in reality are meaningless to most consumers.

Whenever a consumer is looking at reels, they would be wise to look past all the techie mumbo jumbo and consider what really matters.

This is not to say that those trademarked terms don’t describe components or design features that are not important and often ingenious. Many are—but it’s hard to tell anything from the terms and the hype.

So, I spoke with three industry insiders, experts in the field of reels and reel design, to get to what is most important in fishing reels, generally. No hype and no arcane proprietary terms. Just essential information.

MATERIALS

fishing-reels-101-intvigears
Aluminum frame, stainless steel gears, PENN International VI leverdrag reel.

There are four materials that account for most reel frames, or bodies, these days: magnesium, aluminum, carbon fiber and nylon-based graphite, says Marc Mills, senior marketing manager for Daiwa. Reluctant to label one “better” than another, “They all have pluses and minuses,” Mills says. “It really comes down to personal preference.” Mills offers the thumbnail breakdown listed here.

MAGNESIUM
Pros: very light in weight, excellent strength
Cons: pricey, can suffer from corrosion
ALUMINUM
Pros: fairly light, affordable (mid-range price point)
Cons: good vs. corrosion but not bulletproof
CARBON FIBER
Pros: lightest of all, no corrosion
Cons: some flex in frame, somewhat pricey
NYLON-BASED GRAPHITE
Pros: no corrosion, inexpensive
Cons: Considerable flex

Echoing that sentiment, Elliott Peralta says deciding what material is best for your reel depends on what sort of angler you are and what works for you. Peralta, product team manager for Shimano North America, says, “An entry-level angler will have different needs in a reel from an ‘elite’ or tournament angler.”

No matter the angler or his needs, the material from which a reel is made is important. And that material is one characteristic of a reel that anyone can determine simply by reading features and specs. In truth, says PENN’s Ben Joyce, senior brand manager, an angler fishing for smaller fish, and making minimal demands on his reel, would likely find any of these materials to be just fine. But any angler who’ll be making greater demands on his gear will need to pay attention to what it’s made of (and how it’s made), Joyce says.




fishing-reels-101_penn_authority
PENN Authority 8500-series reel with IPX8 waterproofing standards, which includes seals in multiple points.

He adds that materials are important inside as well as outside (the frame) of a reel. For example, not so long ago, die-cast gears— inexpensive and easy to make—were the norm. But today, “for long-term use, you definitely want a reel with machined or forged gears. These could be aluminum (good) or brass/ bronze (better) or stainless steel (best). It all has to do with [the metals’] hardness,” he says. Stainless steel gears are the ultimate; however, besides being expensive, they’re harder to tool for silky smoothness. Stainless gears won’t be found in less expensive reels.

REEL WEIGHT

fishing-reels-101-permit_underwater
Not exactly standard practice, dipping a reel in the water next to a permit for a picture, but possible with fully sealed reel like the Van Staal VR50, shown here (drag is also waterproof).

Clearly, what a reel is made of affects its weight. How important is a reel’s weight?

“In general, lighter gear is easier to fish,” Mills says, and, in prolonged use, “means less fatigue. On the other hand, some people actually like the feel of somewhat heavier gear.”

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To comparatively quantify respective weights according to a reel’s primary materials, Mills says a one-inch square piece of magnesium would weigh about 92 grams, aluminum 152 grams, carbon fiber 71 grams and graphite 104 grams (divide by about 30 to get ounces and round down, if that’s your reference).

Peralta suggests that a desire for reels light in weight is probably commensurate with anglers’ experience, so less-experienced anglers may be happy and do fine with somewhat heavier materials/reels.

In general, lighter gear improves the fishing experience, so the anglers fight the fish, not the tackle.

But lighter reels are increasingly important in view of the recent trend, across the board in most salt and fresh reels, to downsize, says John Bretza, Okuma’s director of product development. He points out that the pervasive use of braided lines, so much thinner than mono pound for pound, has meant smaller but stronger reels (and rods), and smaller means lighter: “In general, lighter gear improves the fishing experience, so the anglers fight the fish, not the tackle,” says Bretza, a sentiment echoed almost word for word by Mills.

In addition to how the frame/body material affects overall weight, what materials make up internal components of a reel can make a big difference as well. With spinning reels, check the specs to find what the rotor is made of. When fishing lighter or finessing, says Peralta, a lightweight rotor may perform best, offering lower start-up inertia in the rotor (allowing, for example, more immediate hooksets).

fishing-reels-101-tripetail
Spinning tackle best for presenting very light jig (as for tripletail).

Mills notes that anglers who pick up a spinner and give the handle a spin will find that lightweight rotors won’t then make as many revolutions as will reels with heavy rotors. That automatically makes some assume the reel with a heavier rotor—that revolves freely for longer duration—is the better reel. But again, it depends what you’re doing with it. While heavier, solid rotors require more effort to overcome initial inertia, their robust nature will serve better than light rotors in heavier spinners used for jigging or big-fish live-baiting and the like.

And in the case of baitcasters, while a heavier spool will revolve more turns on its own once an angler turns to build up momentum, then lets go, “That doesn’t necessarily mean it will cast farther,” Mills says, “and in fact it may be harder to control” during a cast. He offers the analogy of stopping a spinning bicycle tire vs. a spinning large-truck tire.

DRAG

fishing-reels-101-penn_inset_dragstack
CRANKING POWER Stainless steel main gear (far left) and pinion from a PENN U.S. Senator star drag conventional reel. The disc array features HT-100 carbon-fiber (black) surfaces.

As with many aspects of reel construction, it’s hard to see or feel how effective a drag is, at least until a spool is filled with line. But the drag is so critical to fishing that anglers need a basic understanding. As with materials used to make the reel, the drag system is something that can be discerned in a reel’s specifications. But that only works if you understand what you’re looking at.

“Honestly, most reel drags nowadays are pretty smooth,” Mills acknowledges. “Drag materials have really improved over the past 20 years.” He says most better reels now used greased carbon drag washers.

Some still rely on more traditional felt washers, and felt works very well, says Bretza, for very smooth performance. The “but” comes into play with durability: “But felt drags won’t last as long as carbon,” he points out, and anglers shouldn’t count on felt for much more than panfish-size action, Joyce adds. (Anglers who do use feltdrag reels should be aware that storing these reels with drags backed off to minimal pressure will keep the felt from compressing and losing effectiveness.)

Bretza also points out that carbon drags washers may be greased or dry, as a reel’s specs will reveal. “Some anglers will tell you that dry drags mean a higher max drag,” he says, and while there is some truth to that, it’s not a major difference (vs. greased drags). “I prefer greased drags because they have a much lower startup coefficient, so are smoother.” That startup coefficient is important since it has to do with how much force is required to overcome a drag’s inertia to allow the spool to start turning. In a sudden, savage strike, a low startup coefficient reduces likelihood of a line break with a tight drag. Also, grease does offer more corrosion resistance.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS: LINE CAPACITY

fishing-reels-101-cav-5nii
Okuma Cavalla 5N-II, two-speed jigging reel with middleweight punch in bantam frame.

More than most features, capacity is something that really requires an angler to know how he plans to use a reel. Then they can consider capacity for the given strength (and type) of line they’ll fish. A shallow-water bass enthusiast may find 75 yards to be enough; a deepwater jigging fan might want 400 yards or more. Peralta suggests anglers avoid buying reels larger than they really need for more line capacity than they’ll use.

Anyone looking at reel specs should be aware that many manufacturers list reel capacity in yards of monofilament. Unfortunately, this is a holdover from decades when mono was the only game in town. Today, braid has become widely popular. Accordingly, some manufacturers list capacity for both mono and braid (which are vastly different due to mono’s far greater diameter), yet some manufacturers won’t (or can’t) tell you how much capacity a reel offers in braid. If an angler intends to fill a reel with braid, they may have to do some digging online to try to find out how much braid a reel will hold or if not, at least know it will hold far more braid at the same line strength, or offer a capacity similar to mono but with much stronger-rated braid.

LINE PICK UP

fishing-reels-101-shimano-curado
“X” in XG here refers to high-speed retrieve (8.2:1) of this versatile Shimano Curado baitcast model.

This is a big one for Bretza—not how a reel picks up line but how much and how quickly. Typically this comes down to a reel’s gear ratio and amount of line retrieved per handle turn. So a gear ratio of 5-to-1 for example means for every full turn of the handle, a levelwind reel’s spool turns five times or, in the case of a spinning reel, for every turn of the handle, the bail makes five full rotations around the spool.

“There’s a big push now for highspeed reels,” Bretza says. While for larger saltwater reels, 6-to-1 is considered high speed, some freshwater baitcasters and spinners offer a retrieve of 7- or 8-to-1 (and a few exceed 9-to-1).

“Higher speeds put more stress on the whole gear train system,” Bretza advises. The result is quite visible in many conventional reels where the gearbox is fully visible on one side of the reel; these gearboxes have gotten considerably larger for high-speed applications. The gearing isn’t visible inside spinning reels, but the same trend exists. Bretza says often an angler can look at a spinner’s features and may see “larger diameter gears” or the like promoted with highspeed reels.

Anglers need to look at gearing based on what they’ll be doing with their reels. In general bigger fish and tougher fights suggest lower gearing (gear ratios) for strength. Very high-speed reels may sacrifice some of that cranking power. “But if I’m ripping lures across the surface regularly,” for example, Bretza says, “I want a high-speed line pick up.”

The actual amount of line retrieved per turn of the handle is not just a function of the gear ratio but also the size of the spool and the length of the handle. Most reel specs will state the amount of line retrieved per turn of the handle.

CASTABILITY

fishing-reels-101-baitcaster-casting
Baitcast reel (new Daiwa Coastal 80) often preferred for throwing heavier topwater plugs.

This is a big one for enthusiasts like Bretza who, particularly when fishing the Pacific Coast, rely on conventional reels (star or lever drags) that require long casts with “iron” (metal jigs) but also have the ability to toss out an unweighted live sardine or anchovy as far from the boat as possible. This demands a lighter spool that minimizes start-up inertia and high-quality bearings with a good lubricant (grease).

When it comes to how spinning reels cast, the way in which they pack line onto the spool during the retrieve is a big factor, Bretza says. In recent years, because so many anglers are using braided line on their spinners, more manufacturers are offering reels with slower oscillation. That packs braided line on more snugly than with fast oscillation that puts line in larger criss-crosses around the spool, making for longer casts. Again, anglers who’ll be fishing braid can look at a reel’s features for this; some manufacturers will advertise slow oscillation.

DIRECT DRIVE

Anglers looking at better-quality spinning reels can and should easily check to be sure a reel is designed with a direct-drive system, Mills says. That means the handle screws directly into the drivetrain. If a long handle stem slides through the reel body into a nut on the opposite side, that’s not direct drive, won’t be as strong, and the angler will notice more play during retrieve.

OVERRATED?

fishing-reels-101-close-up-daiwa
Line rollers are mostly trouble-free on modern spinning reels, but still advisable not to reel against the drag when a fish is taking line.

Our experts mentioned a couple of features not worthy of an angler’s time or angst, these days.

One is claims for line rollers on spinners that will guarantee no twist or problems. The fact is, says Bretza, most manufacturers include ball bearings for line rollers on better reels and that minimizes line twist. He does offer one tip to further reduce line twist with spinning reels: After each cast, flip the bail manually. Each time an angler cranks to flip the bail automatically, a bit of twist is added to the spool, he says.

Another overrated feature is the number of bearings. Joyce points to reels to be found on, for example, Amazon, that cost 50 bucks and offer 16 bearings or more. Seriously? “You can have 20 bearings in a reel that cost less than 20 cents,” he explains, “or a few bearings that cost $3 apiece.” All those crappy bearings may make the reel feel great when new, but they’ll wear out soon and make for very rough retrieves. Rather than the number of bearings, he says, consider the type and quality of bearings. Typically, more expensive reels with incorporate higher-quality bearings that will last.

And in the end, Joyce says— and other experts agree—for the most part, you get what you pay for when it comes to reels. But simply buying the most expensive reel you can find might be unnecessary to get a reel that will work best for you. Clearly there will always be different approaches to design, materials and construction, and nuances in the way manufacturers handle such things can make a big difference to an angler with their own particular needs. That’s where understanding what’s important in a reel, well, reelly matters. FS

Florida Sportsman Magazine December/January 2023

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