The Different Types of Fishing Reels Explained

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Anyone new to fishing may have a hard time trying to figure out what all of the different types of fishing reels are designed for.

Even those that have more experience may not have used all of the different reels before, so this guide will help you understand the different types of fishing reels available, and what each type has been designed for.

When you look at the different types of reels available now, you will see just how diverse the designs are.

This is because they have been designed for different styles of fishing, so to give you a better idea of what each type of fishing reel is optimized for.

Spinning Reels

spinning reels

Let’s start with the most common type of reel, and that is the spinning reel.

Spinning reels were designed for lure fishing, although they have proven to be multi-functional and can be used for anything from float fishing through to bottom fishing.

The reel sits underneath the handle of the rod when the rod is being held.

The reason why they are so common, is a) because of their multi-functional potential usage as mentioned above, and b) because they’re very easy to use, especially when compared to some of the other reels, that certainly require a bit more know-how before you attempt to fish with them.

Spinning reels are not designed for accuracy, although some more experienced anglers are pretty proficient at casting their lures into the spot they want. But essential they are designed for quick and easy casting, where you want to cover a lot of area with the lure.

Spinning reel design

To make casting your lures as easy and efficient as possible, spinning reels use a bail arm that can be released when you want to cast and then flipped back over to engage the line as soon as you have cast your lure.

They usually have a very high retrieve ratio per each turn of the handle (this ratio will vary depending on the make and model of a spinning reel). This is because spinning often requires the retrieval of a lure to be fast, especially when targeting larger pelagic species such as Tuna and Trevally. There is a full explanation of gear ratios at the bottom of this article.

The line is wound onto a spool, and when retrieving the line the spool will move up and down at an even pace. This is so the line can be evenly distributed onto the spool, which in turn makes for a much more efficient casting ability, as the line will have little to no resistance when peeling off the spool during a cast.

When casting with a spinning reel the spool stays stationary, it does not spin around, the line just peels off the spool. This is why it is essential the line is applied nice and evenly to the spool on each retrieval, so it peels off with minimal resistance when the lure is cast.

Most spinning reels have a drag system built into them. To adjust the drag, the reels usually have a knob that is most commonly built into the top part of the spool. Older spinning reels used to put the drag knob at the back of the reel, but most new designs have the drag on top of the spool, as it just makes it easier to adjust while playing the fish.

With most spinning reels you are able to swap the side of the handle over to suit your preference, so you don’t have to worry about buying either a left or right-handed reel. The handle simply screws into the reel body, so if you wanted to swap it around you simply unscrew the handle and fix it back on the other side.

Baitcaster Reels

baitcaster reels

Baitcaster reels are not ideal for the beginner, as they take a little bit of getting used to (more explanation on this in a bit).

But for the more experienced angler, they are very popular and provide greater casting ability and accuracy than other types of reels.

The positioning of a baitcaster reel is on top of the rod, rather than underneath as you see with other types of reels such as spinning reels.

This allows the user to control the line and distance when casting, by applying pressure with the thumb on the line when required to drop the cast right on the intended target.

To cast with a baitcaster, you need to first apply pressure on the line with the thumb of your hand that you will be casting with, this is the stop the bait from dropping when you take the spool out of gear.

You then release the bail lever, which will allow the line to flow off the spool for casting (you need to ensure you have your tension and magnets set up correctly, see below for more information on this).

The casting action when using a baitcasting reel is different to a spinning reel action, it is more of a flick rather than the throw.

Once you have cast and the bait hits the water, you should apply pressure on the line and spool with your thumb again. This is to stop the line to continue to peel off the spool, which is how the tangles occur.

You can also apply pressure on the line when the bait is in the air if you want to stop it before its natural landing position. This gives you more ability to hit the target each time with your casts.

4 main control elements on a baitcaster reel


There are 4 main controls on a baitcaster reel that you need to know about, as follows:

  • 1
    Handle – the handle to wind in your line
  • 2
    Drag – Baitcaster reels have drag systems, and the control for this is most commonly located just inside the handle for easy access while playing a fish.
  • 3
    Tension knob – this is used to adjust the tension of the line for casting. It is essential that this is set up correctly in order to stop the dreaded ‘bird nest tangles’ when casting (see the video below for correct setup instructions)
  • 4
    Magnet adjustment – many modern baitcaster reels now have magnets build into them. These are designed to slow down the spool once the bait hits the water, again to help prevent tangles.

Common issues faced when using a baitcaster reel for the first time

Let’s get into a few of the common issues that new users of baitcaster reels face:

The first is not setting up the reel initially before using for the first time. This is more apparent if they have previously used a spinning reel, where the only setup required is to get the line wound onto the spool correctly. After that, you’re good to go. But this is not the case with a baitcaster reel.

But with the baitcaster reel you need to ensure that the tension knob and magnets are set up correctly, dependent on the weight you will be casting.

When the reel is not set up correctly, then big line tangles (often referred to as ‘birds-nests) are experienced on casting.

Here is a good video that shows you how to setup and use a baitcaster reel:

Things to consider:

A couple of things to think about before you purchase a baitcaster reel:

The first thing to understand with baitcasting reels is that the handle is fixed on a specific side of the reel, you won’t be able to swap it around as you can with a spinning reel.

Of course, you can buy baitcasting reels with the option of having the handle on either the left or right hand side, but you won’t be able to move it over to the other side.

So if you prefer to have the handle on a certain side of the reel, then make sure you check you are buying the correct reel, with the handle on the side of your preference.

The next thing to consider is the rod that you pair a baitcasting reel up with. Rods that are meant for baitcasting reels will have a much smaller first eye than spinning reels.

This is because the line comes off the spool in a straight line on a baitcaster reel, whereas on a spinning reel, it comes off in loops due to the way the spool is designed and facing on the rod-reel setup, so the first eye on a spinning reel is much larger to accommodate for this.

Overhead reels

overhead reels

Overhead reels are most commonly used from boats, for either bait or lure fishing.

They are named “Overhead” because they are designed to be used off boats of kayaks, where no cast is required and you simply drop the line down beneath you. They are also used for trolling from a boat.

They are very similar in design to a baitcasting reel, in that they have the spool facing the same way and the reel is positioned on top of the rod, rather than underneath.

As with other types of reels, you can get Overhead reels in varying sizes. They do go very big, as they are designed to battle the biggest fish you can possibly catch on a rod and reel (think big Marlin, Tuna, and Sharks).

The spools on Overhead reels have a lot of line capacity, which is required if you are fishing on deep water and need to drop your bait down to the bottom.

Drag systems on Overhead reels

The drag systems on Overhead reels are mostly very well designed and robust, they need to be with the potential battles they will be up against.

You can find two main types of drag levers on Overhead reels. The first is the star drag, and this is usually a 4-point lever that is positioned directly behind the handle. You simple twist the lever to either increase or decrease the drag.

The second type is the single thumb lever, with is positioned on the same side as the handle, but moves back and forwards around the reel. These tend to be found on the larger Overhead reels.

Fly Reels

fly fishing reels

Fly reels are very different to most other types of reels in their design (with the exception of center pin reels) and more simplistic in their design.

In a lot of cases, the fly reel is simply there to accommodate the fly line. It’s not designed for casting, and depending on what type of fly fishing you’re doing, it may not even be required for retrieving a fish.

Three main elements behind a fly reel


The three main things to consider when choosing a fly reel, are the type of construction, the drag system and the arbor size.

  • 1
    Construction – Either a pre-cast or a machined reel. A pre-cast reel is where the liquid metal is poured into a mold, and the reel is formed once the metal cools down and hardens. These reels tend to be heavier than the machined reels, not as durable and are cheaper to buy, so good entry level reels.

    A machined reel is where the reel is cut from a solid block of metal. The process is more complex than a pre-cast reel, so the cost for machined reels is usually higher. But the benefit is a much stronger and lighter reel.
  • 2
    Drag system – There are two main types of drag systems that you will find on fly reels, the Click and Pawl and the Disk drag.

    The Click and Pawl drag is a simple open system, but it does not offer much resistance. So it is best suited for lighter fishing for smaller fish in streams and small rivers.

    The disk drag is an enclosed system, and it works in a similar way to disk breaks on a motor vehicle. It is an adjustable drag system, and much better for fighting larger fish.
  • 3
    Arbor size – An arbor is basically the axis of the reel, in which the line is wrapped around. In effect, a spool, and it is actually built into the reel’s design

    There are three different sizes of Arbor to consider, a small, medium and large.

    Three things you should consider when determining the right Arbor size to get:

    The first is the pick-up rate of the line. A reel with a larger arbor will pick up more line than a small arbor per handle turn.

    The next thing to consider is the drag pressure. Larger arbor’s will provide more consistent drag, whereas a smaller arbor will have a more erratic drag, that can result in more lost fish if the fish is of a decent size.

Tip:

Make sure you get the pairing of your fly reel and rod correct. Example, if you have a 8-weight reel you should pair it with an 8-weight rod. If you don’t the balance of the setup will be out.

Gear ratios for fishing reels explained:

Below is an example of what a gear ratio will look like this when you read the details for a fishing reel:

6.2:1

Breaking this down, this is what each digit refers to:

6.2:1 = The numbers before the colon (6.2 in this example) refers to the number of times the spool revolves, and the number after the colon (1) is reference to the number of handle turns to achieve the spool rotation. So in this example, 1 rotation of the handle will produce 6:2 revolutions of the spool.

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