Fishing Reels 101

Fishing Reels 101

In this reels 101 I am going to go through all the reel types and explain their design, intended purpose and strengths and weaknesses. Keep in mind that you can catch the same fish with any of these reels. There are four basic types of fishing reels:

  1. Fly
  2. Spincast
  3. Baitcaster
  4. Spinning

All of them are different in their design and function and each have their strengths and limitations.

The basic function of a reel is to store fishing line. Each reel adds additional functions but line storage is basic to all fishing reels. Two related functions are to assist in presenting the bait / line and retrieving the bait / line.

I would always try to match your reel to your rod and the type and size of fish you are targeting. This is something you hear stressed a lot for fly-fishing but it is equally important for all reels.

Common to all Reels

Drag System

All four of the reel types have a drag system. The drag system serves two basic functions, one, to ensure that the line does not tangle as it is cast, and two, to tire out the fish. To tire the fish the drag works in concert with the rod to create resistance and leverage. Ideally the drag is set to just below the line breaking point. This protects against the line breaking by releasing line before the line snaps.

Gear Ratio

All reels retrieve the line through a crank and spool system. How many times the pool turns with each turn of the crank determines the speed of the retrieval. Higher end reels have gears that increase the ratio of how many times the spool turns for each turn of the handle.

Gear ratios are expressed in numbers such 2.5:1 or 4.3:1. You read the gear ratio of 2.5:1 as the line is wound around the spool 2.5 times for every 1 turn of the handle. Typically reels with lower gear ratios retrieve the line slower but have more cranking power. You trade off speed for power.

This information can be a key data point in comparing reels based on the type of fish you are after and the bait you fish.   If you just plan on fishing for smaller fish or with live bait, then the gear ratio is probably not as critical to you. I would use the gear ratios to compare within each reel category rather than across all reels.

With that general primer behind us, lets get started. First the fly reel.

Fly Reel

Redington Surge Fly Reel 5/6

The fly reel is the one specialty reel amongst the four general reels. Fly reels come in two main types; fresh water and salt water. The operations of both are identical with only the saltwater fly reels having larger arbors and are typically aluminum based to retard corrosion.

The fly reel’s only purpose is to store the fly line and backing. The fly reel is also a single action reel with a 1:1 gear ratio; meaning that for each turn of the handle the spool rotates one turn.

Modern fly reels do have a drag system that is used when you have a fish on, but the reel does not participate in the casting of the fly line. As the weight of the fly line / lure combination is all in the line, casting is completely different than a traditional reel. To begin the casting process you strip out the approximate length of fly line and use the weight of the line to project the lure (typically a fly) out rather than the lure “pulling the line out”.

When you want to change out the fly line, you change the spool, which contains the whole length of fly line and backing. Most fly reels come with interchangeable spools to facilitate the line change. The reels are reversible between left and right handed crank and due to the casting motion a right-handed fisherman will typically have the take-up handle on the left.

Although you can fish with bait on a fly reel, they are designed to hold the weighted fly line that is used to present the essentially weight-less fly.   I have fished with worms; minnows and wax worms with a single hook tied on fly reel/rod combination and have caught fish. However this is not what the reel (and or rod) is designed for.

Fly Reel Strengths

  • Simplicity - there are few moving parts so maintenance is minimal and fly reels can last a long time.
  • Function - they are easy to use as fly reels only really store the line and don’t participate in the casting process.
  • Interchangeable spools allow for the line and backing line to be changed out quickly.

Fly Reel Limitations

  • A single purpose reel essentially used to present flies and small lures.
  • Low gear ratio can make retrieving large fish more of a challenge.
  • The low gear ratio makes it difficult to fish certain lures that operate most effectively with a quick retrieve.


The Spincast Reel

Red spincast reel

The spincast reel is also known as the closed reel. Based on its simplicity, the spincast reel is an ideal beginner reel.

Similar to a baitcaster reel, the spincast reel mounts on top of the rod. The spool is fixed inside a cone-shaped enclosure that focuses the line back on the spool upon retrieval. This cone-shaped enclosure also reduces the risk of backlash tangles during casting.

The casting process is initiated though a button on the back of the reel that is depressed during the start of the casting motion and released to present the lure or bait. The line is set to retrieve with a simple turn of the handle.

Spincast reels do have both a drag system and a geared retrieval system. Typical retrieval gear ratios are between 2.5:1 and 4.5:1. These are typically lower than a baitcaster or spinning reel.

The basic operation and design of these reels haven’t changed and I don’t believe get the same focus on innovation and enhancement in design or materials that you see in the baitcaster and spinning reels. Not necessarily a weakness, but rather a testament to the tried and true design.

Spincast Strengths

  • Ease of use – the simple casting process makes this a great reel for beginners. There is limited risk of tangles and the “one-button” casting process is ideal for learners.
  • Great for live bait fishing as the required arc of the casting motion can be small but still effective.
  • The fixed spool allows for casting light lures and bait.
  • The design of the nose cone-shaped enclosure significantly reduces the risk of line tangles.

Spincast Limitations

  • The design of the nose cone-shaped enclosure reduces casting distance compared to other reels as the enclosure maintains constant friction on the line.
  • Spincast reel design necessitates a smaller reel and therefore less line capacity.
  • Not an ideal reel for deep fishing or trolling as a result of the limited line capacity.
  • Generally do not have the durability of a baitcaster or spinning reel.


The Baitcaster Reel

Baitcaster reel

The baitcaster reel is considered an advanced reel. This is the other reel, along with the spincast reel, that attaches above the rod. The spool is perpendicular to the rod and is geared so that one revolution of the crank handle results in multiple turns of the spool. Typical gear ratios are 5.4:1, 6.4:1, and 7.1:1. When casting the fisherman use their thumb on the spool to moderate the spool spin. Too much pressure and the lure does not reach its intended location and too little tension and you create a tangled “birds nest” of line.

This reel is used for bait typically weighing at least 1/4 oz. and can handle a lot of abuse and tough fishing. When you are fishing in a lot of cover requiring heavy lines and lures this is the reel. It is the most difficult to cast and therefore I would consider this an intermediate reel. I wouldn’t recommend this for your first reel.

The baitcaster reel is the one reel that use really improves with practice. Off water practice will really help your success and enjoyment with this reel. The key to baitcaster casting is the smart thumb. You got to work the thumb on the spool during casting and this will greatly improve your success.


Baitcaster Strengths

  • Designed for heavy fish with heavy lines and lures.
  • With the “smart thumb” accuracy in the lure placement with this reel is high.
  • Fast retrieval of bait is possible without the line twist you get on a spinning reel.
  • These are substantial reels that are designed for fishing in brush or weeds. This reel has the guts to pull the lure and fish through heavy brush and foliage.
  • With proper care these reels are extremely durable.
  • Excellent performance on any bait weighing in over 1/4oz.


Baitcaster Limitations

  • Difficult to learn and master - This reel is the most difficult to master. With a spool that can spin freely upon casting you need to monitor the line release with your thumb.
  • Beginners tend to spend more time untangling birds nests rather than fishing. Once mastered though pinpoint accuracy is possible.
  • This reel in not good for light lures. Anything under 1/4oz is typically not heavy enough to cast. With modern reels and drag systems, once set properly they significantly reduce the risk of birds nests but need to be set with each lure as the drag is really dependent on the weight for casting.


The Spinning Reel

Mitchell 350 spinning reel

The spinning reel, or open face reel is a great all around reel. The spool is fixed, in line with the rod, and the retrieval mechanism, the bale spins around the spool. The spool is fixed and when the bail is open the line is completely unimpeded thus allowing longer casts. You can also change out line on this reel by replacing the entire spool.

The handle is easily switched between right and left handed action. The drag system adjustment is generally a dial on the front of the spool that is turned for heavier or lighter drag. This is easily adjusted when a fish is on.

This reel doesn’t perform as well when heavy line is required. Anything above 20 lbs. test you will see a degradation in performance as this thick of a line starts to cause friction upon itself as it leaves the fixed spool. Also the design of the reel makes it difficult to generate reel-cranking power.

Spinning Strengths

  • Comes in a wide variety of sizes and spool line capacities.
  • Ideal where long casting is necessary.
  • Excellent for light lures and bait.
  • Relatively easy to use and master, probably the next step up in ease of use from the spincast reel.
  • Easy to cast when overhead or rear cover is present.
  • Adjusting the drag setting is easier.


Spinning Limitations

  • Can generate line twisting as the line is spun onto the spool during retrieval.
  • If you have big hands the bail trigger releases reduce the amount of clearance when the handle spins which can cause you to hit your knuckles as you turn the handle.
  • Tangles are a possibility when casting if the line is not loaded on the spool evenly.
  • The durability of the bale springs and bearings can be an issue. They are prone to fail and that will render the reel unusable.



All the reels out there have specific strengths and limitations that need to be considered when selecting a specific rod / reel combination. As a beginner I would lean towards either the spincast or spinning reel. The ease of use and low “frustration” factor will lead to more enjoyable fishing right from the start.

I hope you find this fishing reel 101 information interesting and useful for selecting your rod reel combination. If I missed anything or you have additional strengths or limitations for these reels please share in the comments below.