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Fishing Reels 101: How to Choose the Right One for You

When it comes to picking out the best possible reel for your rod, there are several factors to consider. Whilst the rod that you’re using is probably the biggest indicator of which reel works best, you also need to consider where you’ll be fishing and the types of fish you’re looking to catch.

Picture of fishing reel on wooden board

Price is also an important characteristic for many, as reel costs differ massively depending on the type, what features you’re paying for and the aesthetic design choices just to name a few things. 

With four different types of fishing reels to choose from, allow us to break down the most commonly utilized, who they might be good for, and reasons you should (or should not) consider picking one up.

The Different Types of Fishing Reels

  1. Spincast Reel
  2. Spinning Reel
  3. Baitcasting Reel
  4. Fly Reel
  5. Conventional Reel

Spincast Reel 

Spincast reels are some of the most straightforward reels to use because they eliminate the problem of bird’s nest tangles on the line. They are popular for fishing beginners but have the strength and versatility to appeal to experienced anglers. 

person fishing with a spincast reel

Spincast reels were created to solve a problem for baitcasters. As anglers cast their lines with a baitcasting reel, using their thumb, they had to stop the line once it hit the water. Otherwise, the line would tangle and snag on the way back in and cause them to have to cut the cord. 

Spincast reels solve this because the spool that the fishing line sits on doesn’t move. Instead, when you cast the line, the weight of the lure pulls the line with it. Once the lure hits the water, there’s no more pull, and the reel automatically stops letting out the fishing line. 

All you have to do to cast a spincast reel is to hold down the line-releaser until you’re at the top of your cast. Once you release it, the line will unwind and automatically stop once it hits the surface of the water. 

person fishing with a spincast reel

There are two types of line-releasers on spincast reels: the finger trigger and the thumb button. The thumb button sits on top and is triggered by the thumb as you cast, and the finger trigger is underneath. Line retrieval works the same way as baitcaster or spinning reels, just reel it in. 

The line capacity on a spincast reel is slightly smaller than other reels, but they are easy to use and surprisingly strong. Unless you’re planning on regularly catching large fish, spincast reels will work for almost any kind of angling. 


  • Great for beginners
  • No line tangling or backlash 
  • Smoother than traditional or baitcasting reels
  • Ideal for catching small or medium fish


  • Not as sturdy as other reels 
  • Shorter line and weaker drag, so fish size limited 

Spinning Reel

Suitable for spinning, surf, and telescopic rods

Modern and versatile, the spinning reel is probably the most commonly used in fishing today. Composed of one stationary spool, with which you wind your line using a handle, attached to the rotating wire arm, it’s simple and easy to figure out.

old spinig reel on the background of the lake and forest

Beginner anglers working in most freshwater or light saltwater fishing spots would absolutely get along with a spinning reel, given they are not at all complex and tend to be available at a range of different prices.

With a spinning reel, it doesn’t matter if you’re after light or heavy catches, though you’ll struggle to pull those larger game species and other giants and may need more specialist equipment if you’re hunting the heaviest.

Casting is straightforward and reliable – simply fold your bale arm (the rotating wire mechanism) over so you can cast your line, then flick it back to wind it back in. Positioned beneath your rod, a spinning reel can be adjusted for use with your left or right hand, depending on your personal preferences.

best rod and reel combos for trout

Choosing the size of your spinning reel might be a little complex at first, as they are presented differently: in some places, they’ll be quantified in thousands, though some manufacturers prefer to use tens or hundreds. 

For example, a reel classified as being 10-35 is the same as a reel that is rated 1000 to 3500, with the same being true for 40-55 and 4000 to 5500, as well as for reels rated 60-95 and/or 6000 to 9000.

If you remove the extra zeros, they’re the same number. It’s also possible to get giant spinning reels designed for game fishing, with heavier weight classes, usually rated between 100000 and 300000.


  • Simple mechanisms that are easily used, beginner-friendly
  • Affordable (though they do get more expensive with more features)
  • Suitable for most fishing environments


  • Less effective when paired with lines or lures on the heavier side

Baitcasting Reel

Suitable for baitcasting and telescopic rods

Positioned above the rod, with a low profile design that’s perfect for bass fishing in freshwater, baitcasting rods might be harder to get to grips with – and more likely to tangle up than more conventional designs – but they’re ideal for use by those with a bit more fishing experience.

The male hand holds the baitcasting reel

Once you figure out a baitcasting role, you can benefit from their added accuracy and stability, provided by an integrated braking system, adjusted via a knob that controls the tension of your spools. This helps you to prevent line backlash, as well as send out a longer and more specifically targeted cast.

When looking at baitcasters, you’re going to want to familiarize yourself with the gear ratio system – this will help you match up the right reel to your rod. A gear ratio has two numbers: the first one indicates the number of times the spool revolves per turn of the handle, whilst the second number indicates how many turns have been taken.

best baitcaster under $100

For example, if your reel has a ratio of 6.2:1, that would mean the spool rotates 6.2 times every time the handle is turned three hundred and sixty degrees a single time. The higher the first number, the faster your catch will be pulled in when reeling starts.

Please note: you might also see what’s known as a spincaster whilst shopping for baitcasting reels: this is a combination of the baitcasting and spinning reels, but don’t tend to be worth looking at, as they’re usually cheap and of poor quality. Try and avoid them where possible.


  • Powerful and capable of handling heavy lines
  • Customizable with various additional accessories
  • Good line feel


  • Settings must be adjusted whenever you change your lure
  • On the expensive side

Fly Reel

Suitable for fly and telescopic rods

As the name suggests, a fly reel is traditionally designed to be used for a fly fishing rod, but it can also be utilized with certain telescopic rods too.

Fly fishing rod and reel close up covered in water

Whilst they were quite traditionally simple in appearance and design, modern iterations of these long-popular reels are gradually becoming part of the modern world.

They work in the same way as other single action reels – using one hand, you pull a line from the spool and use your other to cast it out.

All the reel does is neatly store your line until it’s ready to come out, as well as offering some drag resistance if a fish makes a long run for it.

Primarily, though, they are intended to offer a counterbalance to the weight of your rod as you cast your line off, which means fly rods will usually come with a recommended weight rating printed on, indicating the weight of fly line that is appropriate to use.

fly reel in a fishmans hand

This will help you narrow down which reel you need, as you can only really utilize one that is compatible with the weight of the fly line your rod can accommodate. For example…

1wt – 3wt fly line  – recommended for casting in smaller locations, targeting lightweight fish

4wt fly line – great for targeting medium-sized fish in rivers that are on the bigger side

5wt – 6wt fly line – ideal if you’re lake fishing and targeting species that call for a longer cast

7wt- 8wt fly line – typically saved for open water, when you’re casting especially long distances or using a fly rod on the larger side

9wt – 14wt fly line –  the heaviest there is, this is reserved for those larger than average species found in saltwater


  • Longer distance casting due to lightweight nature
  • Allows for drag adjustment whenever you want
  • Simplistic, easy to understand design
  • Less reeling required


  • Additional gear required for the most effective fly fishing
  • More expensive than traditional spinning reels

Conventional Reel

Suitable for overhead fishing rods only

Similar to a baitcasting reel, you’ll find the overhead design placed on top of your rod, offering direct contact with both your line and spool. This is especially useful if you’re regularly changing bait/lures or dropping directly beneath your boat.

Conventional Overhead reel with white background for deep sea fishing

You’ll find they’re very similar in design, with the same sort of braking system, though overhead reels are primarily marketed towards those who are looking to catch big game using trolling techniques and head out onto the open seas, so tend to be on the larger side.

Though you can get small conventional reels from certain manufacturers, you’ll find that anglers prefer to utilize the lower profile baitcasting reel with smaller rods, as this is a lot lighter and makes casting less of a hassle.

big game rod and reels

It’s worth noting that whilst baitcasters are targeted at those who have more experience in fishing, you’ll find the overhead reel is less prone to tangling and therefore a more beginner-friendly option if that’s important in making your choice.


  • Less likely to tangle than baitcasting counterparts
  • Can be used on or offshore
  • Ideal for handling particularly tricky fish
  • Best for trolling


  • More difficult to learn – designed for big fish
  • Harder to cast

How To Choose A Fishing Reel – Tips And Tricks To Pick The Best One For You

  • Consider What You’ll Be Catching:  the easiest way to determine which rod is right is to think about the species of fish you’ll be focusing on when you hit the water, as well as what bait and lures are required to achieve that – some accessories are only compatible with certain reels

  • Think About Your Fishing Rod: also narrowing your choices down significantly, the type of fishing rod you have will dictate what size of reel you’ll be able to utilize, as well as help you to appropriately match the strength of your rod to the reel so they aren’t working against each other

  • Don’t Forget About Material: as reels are available in a variety of different designs and constructions, consider which is most durable and long-lasting – otherwise you’ll be buying a new one far too soon!

  • Brainstorm Which Locations You Want To Visit Most Often: as you might expect, fishing in the sea requires a different setup to successfully catching fish in a small creek or in a boat out on the lake, for instance, so the places you’ll be heading out to frequently will also indicate which reel may be best

  • Contemplate How Much Line Capacity You Want: how far you’ll be able to cast out your line is primarily dependent on how much line your spool holds, also known as its line capacity: if you’ve not got enough line on the reel, you’ll experience more drag than you necessarily want 

  • How Many Handles?: these days, you can pick up reels with one or two handles – which you prefer is up to you! Though it sounds counterproductive, two handles offer you additional balance against wobbling when you’re retrieving your line, though it does add weight and bulk to your rod, often being a little impractical – one reel can get the job done just as well with less fuss, but either is fine to use

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