Fishing Reels 101

There is no denying it now, the cold of winter has been here for a month now.  Open water is still a few months away and all but the avid ice fishermen are spending more time indoors now than at any point of the year.  This makes for a great time of evaluation and education that can pay dividends in the spring.  I want to take a closer look at fishing reels, their anatomy as well as their applications.  If you are looking for a buyers guide for fishing reels go here.


All reels have a few things in common: drag systems, gear ratios, ball bearings, and line capacity/weight requirements.  Lets look at the details.


Drag Systems

The drag system of a reel applies friction to the spool as it lets out line, like a brake system.  All drag systems use a knob or star wheel that applies pressure to a stack of washers which creates friction on the spool as a fish runs with the line.  The knob or wheel itself does not apply the pressure to the washer but a spring that it is connected to it applies the pressure.  The quality of this spring will be directly tied to the consistency and performance of the drag system.  It is also important to consider how easy this knob will be to use during the actual fight with a fish.  If you can’t adjust the knob or wheel during a fight it is not worth purchasing.  The concept of the drag system is rather easy to grasp; however, finding ways to accurately set the drag is not so easy.  It is recommended the drag be set to 25% of the line breaking strength.  If you are using 10 pound line the drag should be set at 2.5 pounds.  Tieing your line to the end of the digital or spring tension scale can give you a good idea of what your drag is set to.  Remember to pull at the appropriate angle to simulate the rod when fighting a fish.  Drag systems can be finicky, remember to check them each time on the water. 


Gear Ratios

Simply put, the gear ratio is the number of times a spool (baitcast reels) or rotor (spinning reels) turns per each revolution of the handle.  More specifically it is calculated by taking the number of teeth on the large drive gear and dividing it by the number of teeth on the smaller pinion drive.  The large drive gear is connected to the handle and the smaller pinion gear is connected to the spool or rotor.  If a reel has 60 teeth on the drive gear and 12 teeth on the pinion gear it will have a 5:1 gear ratio.  It is commonly thought that the higher the gear ratio the faster the reel will pick up line.  This however, can be misleading because the gear ratio says nothing of the spool size.  So a reel with a 5:1 gear ratio and a 2 inch diameter spool will actually pick up more line than a reel with a 6:1 gear ratio that has a spool of only 1.5 inches in diameter.  This is why some manufacturers now tell you the “Line Recovery” of each reel.  This gives you a more accurate understanding of how each reel should be used.  Reels with slow gear ratios (5:1) and low line recovery are mostly used for deep crankbaits, big swimbaits, and big spinnerbaits.  The slow line recovery allows these lures to reach their maximum depths.  Medium gear ratios (6:1) and medium line recovery works well for a variety of situations and is a good all around gear ratio for a multi purpose reel.  They are popular when fishing medium and shallow crankbaits, jerkbaits, or spinnerbaits.  With the added speed they can be fished faster and cover more water.  High gear ratios (7.1:1) and high line recovery excel when using techniques that create slack in the line.  Jigs, soft plastics, topwater, jerkbaits, live bait, and blade baits are all fished with techniques that create slack in the line, higher gear ratios allow you to pick up the slack quickly for solid hook sets. 


Ball Bearings

The number and quality of the ball bearings in a reel will affect its performance and ease of use.  Bad bearings will be noisy during retrieval and when landing large fish they often reel with great resistance.  Most bearings are made from stainless steel but some are made from brass.  Stainless steel will always be a better choice than brass.  Chromium is added to the stainless steel bearings to add corrosion resistance to the bearings.  It is also important the bearings are properly lubricated to extend their life and keep the reel operating smoothly.  The US has a quality rating system for bearings that is established by the ABEC organization (Annular Bearing Engineering Committee).  The ratings from lowest to highest: ABEC 1, ABEC 3, ABEC 5, ABEC 7, and ABEC 9.  If a bearing does not have an ABEC rating it is considered to be outside the precision standards of the industry.


Line Capacity/Weight Requirements

Each reel will have a guideline of how much fishing line can be spooled onto it.  It is important to know these guidelines are set using monofilament diameters.  For example it is common to see a chart like this; 220/2, 110/4, 90/6.  This means the reel can hold 220 yards of 2 pound monofilament.  With the rise in the popularity of braided line many reels now come with line capacity for mono and braided line.  It is important to follow these guidelines for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, if you use higher pound test it will stress the drag system of the reel eventually causing it to fail.  Secondly, if the line isn’t spooled to the correct capacity the reel will perform poorly.  An over spooled line is susceptible to tangles or can slip off the spool.  An under spooled line will cast poorly and reduce your retrieval speed. 



It is important we have a basic understanding of what is going on inside our reels but just because they share the same functions does not mean they should be used in the same situations.  I’d like to map out some of the strengths of each type of reels.



Baitcasting reels sit on top of the rod and are generally used with medium heavy and heavy power rods.  There are several types of baitcasting reels, but we will only be discussing the low profile reels (the ones you see bass fisherman on TV use).  Think of the baitcaster as a winch used to pull a fish in.  They are tough and can withstand hard fishing and years of pulling big crankbaits.  This power is why they are used when fishing for large fish such as pike or muskie.  Baitcasters however, are not for the inexperienced.  They take practice in order to avoid “bird nests” which are caused when the spool begins to turn faster than the line is going out through the guides.  Most reels come with cast control features which allow you to control the speed the spool spins in order to help prevent bird nests.  Prior to advances in technology fishermen would have to use their thumbs to slow the spool during casts.  Today there are two main types of braking systems in baitcasters, centrifugal and magnetic.  Both types are designed to prevent the spool from turning too fast and have controls that adjust the levels of braking.  When mastered, baitcasters offer a fisherman a powerful reel that casts accurately. 



Spinning reels are favorites of both expert and beginner fishermen because of their ease of use and flexibility across a variety of presentations.  Spinning reels are seated underneath the rod and are more finesse than power, not to say they cannot handle large fish, they just aren’t designed to power fish to the net.  Drag systems for spinning reels are most often controlled by a knob on the end of the spool.  Twist this knob to tighten or loosen the drag.  A metal bail opens and closes to release line.  Spinning reels cast light lures with ease and the line comes off of a spool that does not turn, so there is no danger of bird nests with spinning reels.  Spinning reels have anti-reverse mechanisms, so line does not come off the reel when fighting a fish. 



Spincast reels can sit on the top or bottom of the rod and are known for their ease of use.  They are a great option for kids because you simply push a button and it disengages the line pick up pin, then swing it forward and it casts out.  The closed face helps prevent line tangles, and the reels are inexpensive.  Spincast reels can have one or several line pick up pins.  Tension must be maintained in order for the pin to grab the line. 


Knowing how the internal components of the reel function, understanding the situations each reel type excels in, and knowing the benefits of each on the water will help you get the most out of your reels. This information can help you evaluate your current reels and make needed adjustments, so they are working their best.  This knowledge and evaluation will help your next purchase fill a gap instead of being a redundant piece of gear.