Fishing reels come in countless variations today that are designed for every conceivable situation. Choice is a good thing, but it can be intimidating for the beginning or casual angler.
I get asked to explain the differences between fishing reels all the time, so for those who just want to take the kids fishing or wet a line on your day off, maybe this post will help you understand the differences between the most common reels and how each kind fits your fishing goals.
Let’s separate reels into two categories, general recreational fishing and specialty fishing. For this article, I’m calling flyfishing and trolling specialty fishing, as opposed to general recreational fishing, which can be done pretty much anywhere with inexpensive gear found at Canadian Tire or Walmart. Specialty fishing is not always exclusive or difficult, but it usually requires more expensive gear, more skill, or is designed for unique species or water venues.
General Recreational Fishing
Most of us in North America grew up fishing with one of these three kinds of reels—whether from shore, a wharf or small boat.
Sometimes called a closed-faced reel because of the cone that covers the spool, and is mounted above the rod. Press the button on the back of the reel with your thumb and hold it down. Release the button during the forward cast to allow the line to fly off the spool. Pressing the button during the cast will stop the lure at the desired target. Spin casting reels have a fixed spool, making it easier to cast lighter lures and presentations. Simple to use, great for kids and beginners.
Sometimes called an open-faced reel because of the exposed spool, the spinning reel is mounted below the rod. This is the go-to reel for utility, versatility and affordability. Hold the line against the rod with the finger of one hand, and flip the wire bail, or pickup, with the other hand. On the forward cast, release your finger and let the line fly off the spool. Once you begin cranking the retrieve, the bail will flip back and catch the line, allowing you to reel it in. Spinning reels have fixed spools and come in a wide range of sizes—from ultralight for small trout and panfish, to large, heavy reels that can be used for trolling and surfcasting.
The baitcasting reel is a revolving-spool reel mounted above the rod and is good for heavier line and lures. Bass fishermen prefer baitcasters for their accuracy when flipping and pitching large presentations into weed cover and around structures where bass tend to congregate. Press the “free spool” button while holding your thumb on the spool to keep the lure in place. Bring the rod back to the “two o’clock position” and snap it forward, releasing you thumb to allow the spool to revolve and the line to fly off. Put your thumb back on the spool to control the speed and stop the lure at the desired target. Issues with baitcasting reels include “backlash”—when the lure stops but the spool keeps revolving and line balls up—and right-sided crank handles (the natural inclination for most people is to crank the handle counterclockwise with the left hand). However, reels with left-side crank handles and casting brakes to control backlash are becoming more readily available and affordable.
These reels are designed and customized for specific angling situations. They are becoming more popular with the general public, but are relatively expensive compared to spinning reels.
Although fly reels have far fewer parts than a spinning reel, they are designed specifically for flyfishing and need to be used with a fly rod. Fly line is completely different than conventional monofilament or braided fishing line and needs to be stripped off a fixed spool with one hand and then cast with the other like a whip. Turning a handle on the side of the reel rotates the spool and retrieves the line. Spool release and the drag adjustment are controlled by knobs on the outside of the reel. Flyfishing is one of the most satisfying ways to enjoy angling, but be prepared to invest money and time if you take it up.
As their name indicates, trolling reels are used for trolling, or dragging lures/baited hooks behind a boat. They are revolving spool reels mounted above the rod and have a large line capacity. This allows them to carry heavy line designed for big fish—whether fresh or saltwater. Trolling reels have 3 basic features: a star drag or line braking system on the reel handle for fighting large game fish, an on/off line release lever and a line counter to gauge the amount of line used in successful fishing patterns. Trolling reels are used in deep water, mainly on charter fishing boats.
The Ultimate Purpose
There are other kinds of reels designed for even more specific fishing circumstances, but remember—regardless of the design or model, all a reel does is allow you to retrieve line efficiently. Take advantage of all the great options out there, but don’t let the jargon and marketing noise keep you from getting out and having fun on the water.