If you’re just getting into fishing and picking out your equipment, you might be surprised by just how many fishing reel options there are. Spincast or baitcast…. Abu garcia or Penn… Reel Retrieve Rates… ball bearings? What could it all mean? And what’s actually important to look at?
Thankfully, this article contains everything you need to know to pick the right fishing reel for you. Because there is no one size fits all answer! But the one fishing reel that I always recommend beginner’s buy is the Daiwa Crossfire LT. So if you’re in a rush and just want to know which to buy, that’s what I recommend.
But if you want to know why and everything else that goes into picking the right fishing reel – then keep reading!
The Different Types of Fishing Reels
To begin, we have to talk about the different types of fishing reels. There are many different types available but you generally see three mainstays in any fishing store – the spincast, spinning, and baitcast reel. Line counters, saltwater and power assist also exist but are ignored for the purpose of this article as they are specialty reels – not for beginners.
Pros of Spincast Reel
This cover helps keep the line protected from the fingers of children and any elements, such as the water or mud should you happen to drop it. But it also is very simple to use.
To cast a spincast, all you do is press a button on the bottom of the reel to let the line move freely. Then you can throw it out into the lake and when you reel, the line will be tight again.
It doesn’t just cast easily, but reels in easily too. With other reels you have to consistently make sure the line isn’t looping, knotting, or wrapping improperly. A spincast just works without this hassle. With light use, it is unlikely a good spincast will have many times where you have to adjust the line on the reel.
In addition to simplicity, you have the additional benefit of spincast reels being the cheapest fishing reel type. You can find a variety of Zebco reels, the most popular brand of spincast reels, for under $20 and as low as $10 such as this Zebco 202 at Bass Pro Shops. So if you are on a very tight budget but want to start fishing – this is the cheapest option.
Unlike other reels, spincasts are also able to be used with either hand. So if you are sharing a reel among many or don’t have a dominant arm for whatever reason – that’s a benefit. You can cast a spincast with either arm. Reels are made in right retrieves for naturally right handed anglers and left retrieves for naturally left handed fishermen.
Cons of Spincast Reels
But spincasts have some big downsides that might make you turn away despite their simplicity and affordability. Chief among these is you cannot throw a spincast nearly as far as other fishing reel options.
Remember that all you have to do is press a button to get the spincast ready to cast. Well this is easy, but works because the line doesn’t go completely slack when you press the button. If it let go of all tension on the line, it just fall out on the ground. You need some tension to keep it off the ground to let you cast.
This tension that the spincast reel always has makes it difficult to cast far. You always have the force of the reel pulling back on the line throughout the cast. With other reels, you have completely (or mostly) free tension which allows for much longer casts. For example, I can generally cast a spinning reel almost twice as far as a spincast. It’s that noticeable.
While distance is important to some, the real issue with spincasts for me is that they are hard to fix when they do mess up. I mentioned that spincasts just work without any line adjusting better than other models. But when they mess up, you can have a real handful to deal with.
This is because the line is hidden under the protective cover which makes any adjustments more difficult. Plus, since you can’t see it, you can have several knots before you really notice it. And then they are harder to get out than other reels too. As long as a spincast is working, it’s great. But as soon as it doesn’t (which all reels eventually error) it’s a real pain.
Spincasts are also generally more cheaply made, meaning they don’t last as long. They also have poor drag systems (due to the casting mechanism) which makes it poor for reeling in any large fish.
- Easy to cast
- Hard to cast far
- Difficult to fix tangles and knots
- Poor drag system for fighting big fish
Pros for a Spinning Reel
You can cast a spinning reel farther than any other type of fishing reel, even the baitcasting fishing reel which most “professional” fisherman use. This is because there is absolutely no tension on a spinning reel when you get ready to cast it.
All spinning reels have a semi-circular arm over the area the fishing line sits. This is called the bailiff. When you lift this arm in a circular fashion, it clicks at a certain point and locks in. This makes all tension fall, so the line will just start falling off the reel.
So to cast a spinning reel, you hold the line with your finger to prevent it from falling. Then when you cast it, you remove your finger and fling it into the water. This flicking motion creates tons of distance unparalleled by any other type of fishing reel. Then when it hits the water, you can reel or click the bailiff over again by hand. This returns the tension and you are ready to catch a fish.
Additionally, spinning reels are great because you can see the line. This allows you to easily spot knots, loops, or other issues so that you can fix them. Generally small knots or loops are easy to “cast out”, or cast as far as you can and then run the finger between two of your fingers to make sure it gets re-seated properly.
Even if they don’t cast out easily, you can click the bailiff over and let the line out completely for you to work on. If you can’t get it untangled, then you can also let out as much line as you want, cut behind the tangles, and then re-tie. So it’s always easy to fix any tangles.
While they aren’t as cheap as spincasts, they aren’t really that expensive either. Even a great spinning reel can be had for under $100. I always recommend fisherman use the Pflueger President, even if they are advanced fisherman well into their hobby, and it comes in around $60 when not on sale. Compared to other types, this is pretty affordable.
Finally, because they don’t hold tension at all you can cast extremely light lures with them. Anything under ⅛ of an ounce has to be fished on a spinning reel. Spincast and baitcast reels simply can’t fish them effectively. Really anything under ¼ of an ounce I prefer a spinning reel. It’s just the best option for any light line and lure situation.
Cons for Spinning Reels
A spinning reel isn’t all great though. Their major deficiency is that they loop and tangle pretty often. Because there is no tension when the bailiff is open, and the line loops onto itself creating a fishing line that comes out in circles, it leaves a lot of room for knots to appear.
If you pay attention to your line on every cast you can usually prevent any knots from developing. But it is something that you have to constantly pay attention to. And if your line is old, or it’s really windy, it can be a real pain to try and keep the line from looping every cast. That alone can make the frustration not worth the extra casting distance.
The casting motion for a spinning reel is also harder than a spincast. If you don’t release the line at the right time, you may rocket it into the ground or skyrocket it into the air. If you catch your finger wrong, you can even cut yourself on the line. And a flick too strong can be very damaging to the fishing line and make you break off while casting.
Even once you get good at casting with a spinning reel, accuracy can still be a little difficult when compared to other types of reels as well. Because the line flies off after you release pressure, you lose a lot of control once you cast. So you either let it go where it wants, or put a finger on the line to stop it immediately. No in between like some other reels.
- Best casting distances
- Good for any type of fishing
- Easy to fix loops and knots
- Best for use with light lures
- Knots often
- Takes some time to learn
- Not the most accurate casts
Pros of a Baitcast Reel
Baitcast reels give a level of control and precision to the experienced angler that no other reel can provide. Almost similar to a spincast, the baitcast reel works by pressing a button which releases the line and makes it ready for casting. Unlike a spincast, however, it doesn’t keep so much tension that the lure doesn’t fall on it’s own. Instead, anglers keep their thumb on the open line to keep it from dropping.
Then they cast the line out, usually keeping their thumb on the line to control it, and right before the lure hits the water, they press their thumb down to not let any additional line come out. Then once you reel, the tension is reset and you can fish normally.
This level of control that you get is unmatched. You can slow a lure down mid-air, feather it into the water, or stop it immediately if you’re really headed for trouble. Anytime you see a professional fisherman putting baits in the smallest of holes – they’re using a baitcast reel to get it in there without question.
But that’s not the only benefit of baitcast reels. While they are hard to learn, once you do they are the easiest to cast again and again. When you get comfortable you’ll almost always be reeling or casting. You don’t have the bailiff to manually click over like a spinning reel which makes casting much quicker.
They also can be cast side-arm, underhand, pitched, flipped, the list goes on. Once you get good with them you’ll find many techniques that just work perfectly in a variety of situations. And they actually will lead to more fish in the boat. With spincasters and spinning reels, you are very limited with how you can cast and don’t get these advantages.
Cons of a Baitcast Reel
It’s really difficult to cast a baitcaster at first. You will create what fishermen call a “backlash” or when too much line goes out of the reel when casting and knots. These are often so bad you have to completely cut it out of your line and start again. And it can happen anytime you don’t keep your thumb on the line.
If you do want to learn more about preventing backlashes and how to cast baitcast reels correctly, read this article.
Good baitcast reels have fixed this somewhat by having anti-brake mechanisms and adjustable drags. My favorite baitcast reel, the Daiwa Tatula CT, does this so phenomenally that I don’t have to keep a thumb at all times and rarely get backlashes. But they still can occur and if you want to get the best casting distance, you’ll turn off those mechanisms and use your thumb solely.
If you clicked on the link to the Tatula you’ll also see that baitcast reels can get pretty expensive. That one is actually more on the budget side of baitcasters. Many can get in the $200 to $300 range and even above for top of the line models. You’ll have to decide if having a little more control is worth that jump in price.
You’ll have to put some care into keeping up with baitcast reels as well because they have so many mechanisms to help with tension, braking, and drag. This makes them customizable, and if you like taking apart little things even fun, but require time and effort other reels don’t require as often.
Finally, you have to have a certain weight of lure to use baitcasters. Anything lighter than ¼ of an ounce isn’t really meant for baitcasters and will cause issues. You can’t generate enough weight or momentum to get good distance, especially if you’re combating anti-braking mechanisms in upgraded reels.
- Best for casting accuracy
- You can cast more quickly
- Allows for different styles of casting like pitching and flipping
- More customizable
- Difficult to learn
- Backlashes are hard to fix
- Requires maintenance
- Can’t use light lures
What's the best for the beginner fisherman?
So now that we have went over all of the options, I think you might know that baitcasters probably aren’t for beginners. Casting with them is difficult and they are very expensive. So not only do they require investment a beginner angler could spend more wisely on something like more lures, but they take time to learn for even an adept fishermen. And you probably want to go out fishing now!
So I don’t recommend a baitcaster for any true beginner fisherman. They are the best reel you can use in a lot of situations – but only try and learn them when you’ve decided fishing is a real passion and something you want to become great at. That’s when they’re worth the investment.
Spincast vs. Spinning Reel
So spincast or spinning? A short answer is that either one will work but you should start with a spinning reel. Here’s why.
Spinning reels are something that you can and will use throughout your fishing career should you keep with it. Even professionals use spinning reels for certain techniques or species, including anything lightweight. So if you take the time to learn it now, you will have something you can use into longevity.
They also are generally affordable, and the option that I recommend only comes in at $30. All things considered, this is a minimal investment for the beginner fisherman that may not stick with the sport long-term.
Spinning reels also work with a lot of lure types and fishing techniques. Of all fishing reels, you’ll see it used most often for multi-species setups. They can hold more line than spincasts and changing out line is also simpler. And they’ll teach you good habits that you’ll keep on into your fishing career later – like watching a line for loops and knots. You’ll cast it farther too. Which can help you reach fish other anglers can’t reach.
So it may take a little while to learn how to cast, when to remove your thumb, and how to keep loops out. But I think you’ll find you get through that stage quickly and become a better fisherman for it. And it will be well worth it for the upgraded control, distance, and headaches that come with a spincast reel when it errors.
What to look for in a fishing reel?
I recommend the Daiwa Crossfire because it is from a reputable brand and works right out of the box. It isn’t the best by far – but it’s a good reel that will let you determine if you want to stick with fishing long term and upgrade (maybe to a baitcaster) down the line. And they’re dirt cheap for what you get at just $30.
But what makes one fishing reel better than another? And what are all the differences to make sure you get the best one for you? Let’s look at that next.
I’m no mechanic, so if you’re really interested in the details of how ball bearings work make sure to read this website. But put simply – ball bearings reduce the amount of friction on a fishing reel when put to action.
Think about gears with just hard edges moving against each other. They catch, are clunky, and wear over time. Now think about adding in spheres that smoothly move against each other. More smooth, more consistent, and just feel better to use. Basically – that’s what ball bearings are doing in your reel.
So since ball bearings are good for increasing smoothness – which leads to better casting distance and better reeling – you want your reel to have as many of them as possible. One of the biggest differences between a cheap fishing reel and an expensive one is that cheap reels will have one or two ball bearings, and expensive ones will have 9 or more.
This is usually shown in the description or on the side of the box as one number followed by “+1”. The first number before the +1 is the number of ball bearings actually in the reel. The one itself just refers to the necessary roller for the mechanism to work.
But number of ball bearing isn't everything
Of course, it can’t just be that simple. Look at this very highly rated, $200 reel from Shimano, the Stradic. It has 6 ball bearings. Another great reel, The Pflueger President has 9 ball bearings. But it’s only $70! What gives?
The answer is that not all ball bearings are made equally. 5 great quality ball bearings are better than 10 cheap ones. And unfortunately, reading through the branding and “latest and greatest” technology jargon can make finding it out which is which really difficult. If you do your research you might find out – but just looking at packaging there is no real way to tell.
Recommendation on ball bearings for fishing reels
So my recommendation is just put them in your hands and test them. Most every large fishing store will have a version of the reel out for you to put your hands on. Click the bailiff over and see how smooth it is. And most importantly, reel the reel and feel for any bumps. If you get any stickiness or unevenness – move to another reel. You’ll see some reels with 10 ball bearings stick and others with 7 don’t at all.
But I can’t recommend even looking at a reel with less than 5 ball bearings for long-term use. This is the normal breaking point for where price and performance meet – anything more than 5 isn’t super noticeable but less than 5 definitely is.
If you’re just getting into fishing though? You can really get anything that has at least one to smooth the rough edges out. You might not cast as far, you might not reel quite as smoothly, but it’ll work just fine for you to learn on. It won’t really limit you in any way either.
Unlike ball bearings, the numbers listed for gear ratio do not determine how good a fishing reel is. Instead each gear ratio is meant for its own specific purpose.
Gear ratios are listed in a form like “5.2:1” or “7.1:1”. What those numbers really mean are the amount of times the spool will rotate during one full reel. So each time you make a reel on a 5.2:1 gear ratio reel, the spool has turned 5.2 times. Meaning a lower number means less line is pulled in where a higher number means more line is pulled in with each turn.
This is relevant because many baits need to be reeled in quickly. Think about fishing something like a texas rigged worm in a big brush pile. There are many branches and limbs a fish can pull you into very quickly once it’s hooked. So you need to pull the fish out as quickly as possible. A high ratio reel is going to help you do that because you have to do less work to get in more line.
Or vice versa – you could be fishing open water with a crankbait that needs to be reeled slowly to work. If you’re using a high ratio reel you might make uneven reeling to try and slow everything down. It’s better to use a lower ratio reel which will keep your retrieve steady and let you go slow. So each works in certain situations.
Gear Ratio Recommendation
Gear ratios are usually only useful to look at with baitcast reels as they come in many different options. For spinning reels – you very rarely see anything that is not a 5.2:1 gear ratio. For a beginner then, it’s not extremely important to consider gear ratio as likely all options are same anyways.
You will find spinning reels in different sizes – which has a similar impact as gear ratios. But we will get into that a little bit more below.
Fishing Reel Size
One unique aspect of spinning reels is that you can find many brands in a variety of different sizes. These can be represented by a variety of different numbers but usually vary from 2500 to 4000 (can be 25 to 40 or other, depending on manufacturer) for freshwater fishing options. While they can be signified by different numbers, you will always find lower numbers are smaller and larger number are bigger.
There is no one best size for fishing – but again depends on what you’re doing. A bigger reel usually means three things – more weight, more drag, and more line.
Weight of a reel can largely be personal preference, but lighter is generally considered better. It gives slightly more sensitivity throughout the pole, relaxes the hand, and allows for easier or less awkward movement of the pole. But are you likely to really notice an ounce or two? Not likely.
Drag refers to the power of the reel before it starts letting line out when pulled against. Many spinning reels have maximum drag around 12 to 15 pounds – which means when that level of force is exerted it will not be able to hold the line tight. It will start letting some line out no matter what you do.
This isn’t always a bad thing – letting some line out when a fish pulls is a great way to keep your line from breaking. But at the same time – you sometimes need the ability to horse a fish out of a bad situation like a brush pile they and get tied up in or a boat motor that could cut the line. So generally if you’re fishing for very large fish like catfish or carp you want a high max drag. If you’re fishing for smaller species – bluegill, panfish, or bass – it’s not really a concern at all.
Finally – a bigger size reel means that the spool is also bigger. So when you make one turn, you’re naturally going to be taking in more line as well. This is why gear ratio in spinning reels is almost always the same – you instead control the amount of line per rotation by the size of the spool and entire reel itself.
Fishing Reel Size Recommendation
Size is one area that does actually matter even, or maybe especially, for beginner fishermen. A reel that’s too big will be too heavy, take in too much line, and require more or heavier line to fill the spool completely. Which also can impact your budget if you have to buy double the line to fill your reel up.
But get one too small and it won’t be able to handle any type of fish that you could catch. So you’re looking for a good middle ground which is usually the size 35/3500 or 40/4000 fishing reels. These will handle any large fish you catch but still be ample for little bluegill you’re likely catching when you just begin.
Generally they can be filled with 8 to 12 pound test line which is right where you want to begin as well and won’t take more than one spool of fishing line so you aren’t buying extra. They are light enough to use anywhere. Usually have a drag good enough for anything that isn’t a giant. They’re just good all around reels that even today almost all of my reels are.
Left vs. Right Handed Fishing Reels
The final consideration you should put into buying your fishing reel is if you want one that is left or right handed. Which can be really confusing for a lot of people because if you use a spinning reel, you hold the rod in your dominant hand. If you are using a baitcasting or spincast reel, you hold the rod in your non-dominant hand.
So when buying spinning reels many people think they have a left-handed reel because they physically reel with their left hand. However, that is actually normal and is how basically all spinning reels are made. This is because a spinning reel requires your dominant hand to cast – so reeling is left for the other.
Usually people just learn to use spinning reels with their non-dominant hand or turn the rod upside down when fishing with it – though this is not technically correct or recommended. You can find specialty spinning reels with the reel on the right side, but they are very few and far between.
Baitcasters and spincast reels you can find with different options and largely come down to personal preference. Because I used a spinning reel so long, and got comfortable reeling with my left hand, I get all my baitcast reels as left-handed even if I am technically right-handed. So personal preference is all that matters – try out both and see what feels most natural to you.
We’ve discussed a lot about all the different kinds of fishing reels and what you need to look for in each. But let’s review quickly.
There are three kinds of reels and they all have advantages. As you get further into fishing – you will probably find you want to use baitcasters because they provide great accuracy when you learn how to use them. For a beginner though, I recommend a spinning reel with gives the greatest distance, good accuracy, and can be learned within a few times out on the lake.
But even once you know your type, you have more decisions to make. Size, ball bearing amounts, cost, and gear ratio are all aspects to consider. But generally – look for a reel that has at least 5 ball bearing as they should promote a very smooth cast at a usually good price. Gear ratio is important if you want to really control how much line you pull in but not necessary for spinning reels. And remember to always go test out the reels you’re looking for in person.
But if you don’t have that ability and just want my recommendation for the best starting fishing reel for the beginner – it’s the Daiwa Crossfire LT. The bang for the buck you’ll get with this reel is just too high to go anywhere else. There are better options, but not for just $30. And if you don’t know yet how long you’ll be into the sport, or even want to upgrade to baitcasters quickly after trying – it’ll work just fine until you get further into your fishing career. Then you can upgrade to better models.