The rod arched and the line grew taut, signaling the sizable fish you had on the hook. But suddenly the drag started slipping and you realized your trusty old reel just wasn’t up for the fight. Landing big fish requires having the right reel loaded and ready for action. With so many types on the market, how do you pick the perfect reel tailored for your fishing needs?
This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about selecting the ideal fishing reel. You’ll learn:
- Top recommended reels across 5 categories
- Matching reel types for different fishing situations
- Must-have performance features to look for
- Proper use and techniques for any reel
- Maintenance tips to extend your reel’s life
- Answers to frequently asked questions
Let’s reel in the knowledge so you can land monster fish with confidence!
Top 5 Fishing Reels
Based on rigorous testing and reviews, these are our picks for top fishing reels across varying styles and budgets:
Best Spinning Reel: Penn Battle II Spinning Reel
- Full metal body and sideplate
- HT-100 carbon fiber drag
- 5 sealed stainless steel ball bearings
- Superline spool requires no backing
The Good: Durable construction built to last. Powerful smooth drag. Sealed design for saltwater. Great value for performance.
The Bad: Bail trip can sometimes hesitate. Occasional grip handle roughness.
Best For: All-around fishing – bass, walleye, trout. Excellent versatile option.
Best Baitcasting Reel: Abu Garcia Black Max Low Profile
- 4 stainless steel ball bearings + 1 roller
- MagTrax brake system
- Power Disk drag
- Lightweight graphite frame and side plates
The Good: MagTrax provides consistent brake pressure. Compact for palming and casting. Great introductory baitcaster.
The Bad: Lower gear ratio than premium reels. Plastic gears less durable than brass.
Best For: Getting started with baitcasting. Freshwater bass fishing.
Best Fly Fishing Reel: Orvis Hydros SL Fly Reel
- Aircraft grade aluminum construction
- Sealed drag with clutch operation
- Unique concave design
- Large backing capacity
The Good: Generous backing capacity for long runs. Sealed drag stays smooth. Lightweight and corrosion resistant.
The Bad: Expensive compared to other styles. Limited color options.
Best For: All-around quality fly reel. Ideal for trout, steelhead, bass.
Best Surf Fishing Reel: Penn Spinfisher VI Surf Reel
- Full metal body and sideplate
- Watertight IPX5 sealing
- Powerful HT-100 carbon fiber drag
- Overflow drainage holes
The Good: Durable watertight construction. Smoother carbon fiber drag. Line capacity up to 500 yards.
The Bad: Bail closure can catch line. Heavier than some other surf reel options.
Best For: Demanding surf fishing in heavy currents and open ocean.
Best Ultralight Reel: Okuma Ceymar Ultralight Reel
- Precision elliptical gear system
- 7 ball bearings + 1 roller bearing
- Ultra smooth multi-disc drag
- Lightweight narrow graphite body
The Good: Affordably priced. Super smooth performance. Great balance of power in small package. Corrosion resistant.
The Bad: Limited 10 lb max drag. Prone to tangling with limp braided lines.
Best For: Finesse and ultralight fishing. Trout, panfish, walleye from small streams and boats.
Matching Reels to Fishing Situations
Selecting a reel tailored for your specific fishing needs optimizes performance.
Spinning Reels – Versatile, easy to use for beginners. Great for bass, trout, walleye.
Baitcasting Reels – Allow longer, more accurate casts. Ideal for bass, pike, inshore saltwater fish.
Spincasting Reels – Enclosed housing, push-button cast. Simple for kids and novice anglers. Good for smaller freshwater species.
Fly Fishing Reels – Lightweight profile to balance fly rods with long line capacity for battling strong fish. Key for trout, steelhead, salmon.
Conventional Reels – Used for trolling offshore and surf fishing where extra line capacity is needed. Robust for large saltwater species.
Electric Reels – Battery powered motor for continuous retrieve without cranking. Ideal for deep drops or trolling.
Match the strengths of each reel type to your target fish for optimized performance.
Key Features to Look For
- Gear Ratio – Retrieve speed. Slow provides more power, fast enables quicker pickup. Ideal gear ratios depend on lure type and species.
- Bearings – More ball or roller bearings mean a smoother reel. 4-6 sufficient for most, but 8+ enhances premium performance.
- Drag System – Should be smooth, consistent and powerful. Look for carbon fiber, cork or hybrid drags.
- Anti-Reverse – Crucial mechanism preventing handle spin-back when line is pulled. Standard feature today.
- Gear Material – Nickel, aluminum and brass alloy gears vary in power and durability.
- Reel Housing – Graphite or aluminum frames and side plates. Graphite is lighter but less durable.
- Line Capacity – Monofilament line capacity ideal for intended fishing. Heavier lines take up less space.
- Corrosion Resistance – Important for saltwater fishing. Look for aluminum housing, stainless bearings and sealed components.
Proper Use and Technique
Learn to use your reel properly to avoid problems and optimize function:
- Set drag tension – Tighten down just enough pressure to run line when fish pulls. If too loose, hook will pull free. Too tight risks breakage.
- Improve casting accuracy – Practice good thumb control on spool. Tighten brakes on baitcasters to avoid backlash until proficient casting technique is developed.
- Prevent line twist – Fill reel correctly and alternate casting side. Dragging baits causes twisting so periodically flip lures.
- Maintain tension – Keep line slightly taut during fight, but ease drag pressure if fish is pulling extremely hard. Keep rod tip up.
- Set baitcasters properly – Adjust braking and spool tension knobs to match lure weight. Heavier lures require more braking.
Learn your reel’s unique quirks through practicing and repeating proper technique.
Reel Maintenance and Care
A well maintained reel will stand the test of time and big fish battles. Follow this routine:
- Rinse after saltwater – Flush reel with freshwater to clear salt and prevent corrosion.
- Lubricate periodically – Keep gears, bearings and axles lightly greased. Too much oil attracts debris.
- Inspect drag washers – Replace fiber or carbon drag washers if worn, frayed or heat damaged.
- Check line condition – Replace monofilament annually. Braided and fluoro lines last longer.
- Inspect components – Look for loose screws, cracked housings, bent rotors, worn handle grips.
- Store properly in off season – Disassemble, clean and lightly lubricate reel before storage to prevent seized parts.
With proper care, a quality fishing reel should deliver years of service life. Perform regular maintenance and replace components as needed.
How do I choose the right gear ratio for my needs?
Lower ratios around 4:1 provide power for working lures and heavy cover. Speedy 7:1+ ratios excel for quickly picking up slack line and fast retrieves.
What gear materials are most durable in fishing reels?
Brass alloy gears are extremely strong but add weight. Aluminum is lighter yet strong. Some brands offer hybrid mixes with aluminum main gear and brass pinion.
Is it worth paying more for premium fishing reels?
Serious anglers find higher-end reels offer noticeable improvements in longevity, drag smoothness, ergonomics and corrosion resistance. But budget reels work fine for more casual needs.
How can I fix issues with backlash/overrun on my baitcasting reel?
Properly adjusting spool tension knob, brake system, using lighter lures until casting is mastered and maintaining a tight line all help overcome backlash problems.
How long should a well-maintained fishing reel last?
3-5 years on lower-end inexpensive reels with proper maintenance. Over 5+ years lifespan expected for quality mid-range and premium reels.
Take the Fight to Big Fish
Don’t let your fishing dreams get spoiled by an inferior reel that gives out under pressure. Follow the guidance in this guide to zero in on a perfectly matched fishing reel for your needs. Pay attention to performance features, intended use, and proper operation. Keep your reel in peak fighting shape with regular cleaning and maintenance. Soon you’ll be landing fish after fish as you experience the joy of a reel finely tuned for the fight!