Selecting a Fishing Reel

By Tom Burden, Last updated: 4/14/2021

What a Fishing Reel Does

Penn Battle III Spinning Reel

Penn's Battle III Spinning Reel is suited for ocean use and features sealed, stainless steel ball bearings.

Reels let you control your fishing line, how it's paid out and how it's retrieved. In addition, reels have a "drag" system that is used to pressure the fish during the fight. Finally, reels provide a mechanical advantage to enable you to reel in that whopper.

Spinning Reels

Spinning reels are popular with many anglers because they are versatile and easy to use. The key difference from conventional reels is that the spool is mounted parallel to the rod on the underside of the rod and that it remains stationary when casting. During the cast, line is uncoiled from the fixed spool by the lure or bait as it flies through the air. When retrieving the line, an arched rotating pick-up mechanism or bail lays down the line on the spool, simultaneously reversing the twists that resulted from casting. Spinning reels are an excellent choice for light tackle and easy to use by less experienced anglers. For more information, read our West Advisor article on Selecting a Spinning Reel

Conventional Reels

Tiagra A TI80WA two speed conventional reel

Shimano's Tiagra A TI80WA Two-speed Conventional Reel features a lever drag system for easy adjustment while playing a fish.

Conventional reels are mounted on top of and perpendicular to the rod and are built to haul in large bluewater and game fish. The spool on a conventional reel spins, rather than staying stationary like a spinning reel, which allows the line to come out straight instead of the looping tornado shape of spinning reels. Many conventional reels are built with two speeds: A low gear to provide a lot of torque and allow the angler to really crank the reel and a high gear for quicker retrieval of the line or to take out the slack. Many conventional reels also feature a lever drag system which allows the angler to quickly adjust the drag while playing a fish. In general, conventional reels require a bit more technique when casting because the inertia of their whirling spools can lead to backlash and tangled line. For more information, check out our West Advisor article on Selecting a Conventional Reel

Baitcasting Reels

Baitcasting reels are similar to conventional reels but are built to be better for casting and often contain braking systems to avoid backlash. While braking systems help reduce backlash, the angler will still need to control the line with their thumb during casts to avoid the dreaded "birds' nest" on the spool. Baitcasters are available in round and low profile styles. Low profile models allow the angler to palm the reel and keep their index finger on the line for better sensitivity when fishing. For more information, check out our West Advisor article on Selecting a Baitcasting Reel

Shimano Chronarch Baitcasting Reel

Shimano's Chronarch Baitcasting Reels feature MicroModule gearing, providing a more efficient gear train with a smoother, more positive feel.

Electric Reels

Power Assist electric reels are used for deep dropping to depths of several hundred feet or for kite fishing. They're big, fast conventional reels with an electric power assist. Generally, they clip onto a 12V battery, plug into a receptacle on deck, or use their own Lithium battery pack. They include an expanding range of control panel features like automatic jigging functions, and LCD readout depth counters.

What to Look for When Selecting a Fishing Reel

  • Saltwater vs. Freshwater: Reels used for freshwater fishing do not need the extensive protection against aggressive corrosion brought about by exposure to seawater. Reels intended for saltwater are pricier because they use corrosion-resistant materials such as anodized aluminum, shielded stainless steel or bronze bearings and forged aluminum spools.
  • Bearings vs. Bushings: Small, inexpensive reels use bushings on rotating parts because they are cheap, easy to produce and don't demand close tolerances. Quality reels use sealed ball bearings, resulting in dramatically smoother action–even under loads imposed by big fish. More ball bearings are a good indicator of a reel's quality.
  • Single vs. Multiple gears: All reels are offered with distinctive gear ratios, which measure how many times the spool turns for one revolution of the crank. Like gears on a bicycle, a lower gear ratio is easier to crank but requires more turns. Gear ratios on spinning and baitcasting reels vary between 4:1 and 6:1. A hot 6:1 ratio is used for casting and retrieving lures that need speed to achieve their action. If you're after big game, heavy saltwater reels like Penn's International and Graphite Two-Speed Lever Drag Series allow anglers to switch between fast take-up and power to crank a heavy fish.
  • Adjustable Drags are part of every reel. The drag is a friction mechanism that enables you to adjust the resistance required to pull line from the reel. Adjusting the drag enables you to use different line weights and to pressure the fish during the fight. Some drag systems enable you to set a "strike" tension to set the hook, then flip to a different preset tension while the fight is on. Quality reels use proprietary materials to create drags that operate smoothly without momentary binding that can snap a line, and enable the angler to dial in just the amount of resistance needed to bring the fish to net. Depending on the reel, the drag will be adjusted by a knob, star gear or lever.
  • Levelwind Mechanisms: Some conventional reels come with a levelwind mechanism that automatically distributes line evenly on the spool from side to side during the retrieve. Conventional reels without a levelwind mechanism require an "educated thumb" to achieve the same result, and thus are somewhat more difficult to use.
  • Spool Capacity: When choosing a reel, consider the weight and capacity of line you'll need for the fish species you're after. Deep, V-shaped or skirted spools can take longer or heavier line while shallow spools are easier to cast because the line comes off more easily. We list a line class and capacity for each reel. Most reels can be used with the next lighter and heavier line than what's listed.


A rod and reel work together to form a system. Therefore, the most important consideration in choosing a reel is to match it to the rod you'll be using; light reels for light action rods, heavier reels for beefier rods. That said, you still have many options to consider when choosing a reel.

Spinning reels are the easiest style for most anglers to cast with. However, they don't have the sheer cranking power of conventional reels, so they aren't (usually) suitable for large saltwater fish. Conventional reels require a bit more skill to use because of their tendency to backlash on casts if the spool isn't properly controlled by the angler's "educated thumb" or, on some models, a mechanical backlash prevention mechanism.

What do you get when you pay more for a reel? Whatever reel configuration you choose, more expensive reels provide either smoother action or improved ruggedness–or both. Experienced anglers will tell you that a reel that operates smoothly while casting, retrieving and fighting a fish is well worth the extra cost. They're not only more comfortable to use for a long day on the water, but they significantly reduce the likelihood of losing a fish due to problems with a jerky drag or balky retrieve that can snap your line. If you'll be fishing in a corrosive saltwater environment, choosing a reel made from non-corrosive materials such as graphite, stainless steel and anodized aluminum is a sound investment for both the added durability and your fishing enjoyment.