All-metal design for excellent durability. Drag is both powerful and smooth. Very good gear ratio of 6.2 to 1. Design prevents any slippage in the line. Excellent price for the performance.
Potentially some binding in line after several uses. Clunky feel when trying to cast long distances.
Very light reel works well for all-day fishing. Nice-looking reel with bright colors. Excellent drag performance for a low-priced reel. Construction materials help resist corrosion.
Only a gear ratio of 5.2 to 1. Questionable build quality; reel might break down quickly.
Extremely durable, as the reel features stainless steel. Smooth drag performance. Works as good as it looks. Offers multiple-use cases for fishing in different locations.
Line may start to tangle after several casts. Questions about reel's longevity.
Limited friction on spool shaft, resulting in minimal vibration. You'll receive 26 inches per crank. Excellent 6.3 to 1 gear ratio. Works well in a variety of fishing situations with different sizes of fish.
Some reels make odd noise when in use. Works better for experienced fishers.
Design allows for either right- or left-handed setup and operation. Good reel for beginners to learn how to cast. You'll have success with mid- to long-distance casts. Smooth reeling performance.
Drag adjustment knob may get in the way while fishing. Longevity is questionable.
The right reel is an essential part of a good day of fishing, and whether you fish for trout or marlin, you have an enormous amount of choice.
But fishing reels can be complex devices, and making the right decision isn't easy. Do you go for the big name – the one the pros use? Or would a budget fishing reel serve you just as well, leaving you more money to spend on the rest of your gear?
The shortlisted fishing reels were selected based on merit. Each offers a combination of performance and value that makes it the right choice for a particular angler. If you'd like to know more about the criteria we used to choose the best fishing reels, please read our shopping guide.
At first glance, there appear to be lots of different types of fishing reels, but essentially there are two:
Fixed spool reels have their line wound on a spool at the front of the reel. This is your classic spinning reel arrangement. The spool doesn't move. To wind line in, a "bale" or "bale arm" rotates around it. To let line out when casting, the bale arm is released.
The free spool reel is a variation on this that has an extra drag system. The spool isn't completely free; a small amount of force must be exerted on the line to drag it from the reel – when a fish takes your bait, for example. Turn the handle, and it reverts to a fixed spool.
A spincast reel (also called a closed-face reel) is another variation. This has a shroud over the spool, and the line comes out the center. These reels are popular with beginners because they're very easy to cast.
The classic centerpin reel is the type used for fly fishing. The line is carried on a central spool that is free to rotate. Line is stopped by the thumb of the angler. The free motion of the spool is stopped by rotating the handle to retrieve the fly.
Although a baitcaster reel looks quite different and is far more versatile, the basic construction and principle are the same. They're often called mid-arbor reels, but it amounts to the same thing. The spool is free to turn during casting, but it engages again when the handle is turned. A set of gears multiplies the turning effect of the handle, so a single turn of the handle will actually rotate the spool several times.
Deep-sea and game-fishing reels are large versions of the centerpin reel.
Drag is a feature that allows a powerful fish to pull line from the spool during the fight. Without drag, it's likely the line would break. Drag is variable and set by the angler. Better-quality reels usually have smoother drag systems.
You generally want a reel to be as light as possible. On baitcasters and spinning reels, graphite and aluminum bodies are common for this reason. Saltwater reels need to be more robust, so more metal is used in the construction of those types.
Most fishing reels have anti-reverse to prevent the handle from banging you on the knuckles.
Spools should have indicator marks for line capacity – to signify both when they're full and when you're getting near the end!
Ball bearings keep everything running smoothly, so the more of them your reel has, the better. They should be stainless steel for greater corrosion resistance. The best are sealed units.
Baitcasters have one of two braking systems: magnetic or centrifugal. In testing, both perform equally well, so we have no preference.
Some cheap fishing reels have plastic gears to keep costs down. Metal gears are much more durable.
Gear ratio determines the speed at which you can reel the line in.
A ratio of 5:1 means that every time you turn the handle, the spool goes around five times. In fact, 5:1 is about the slowest, with 9.1:1 the fastest we found. The ratios of 6.2:1 and 6.3:1 are common and very manageable, suiting both beginners and more experienced anglers.
A faster reel gives greater retrieval speed but is difficult to use with slow and mid-range lures. Highly experienced and professional fishermen can benefit from fast reels.
Line guides can be steel, ceramic, or titanium. Titanium would be our top pick, ceramic second.
Closely related to gear ratio is the length of line recovered each time you wind the handle, often referred to as “retrieve per crank.” This length depends on ratio and spool diameter. One expert we consulted recommended 21 inches as a minimum. It's probably a figure that's more important for the competitive angler than the hobbyist who fishes solely for pleasure.
How much line capacity the reel has (of a particular poundage) can make a big difference. Line gets thicker as poundage rises. For example, a reel that takes 150 yards of eight-pound line will only take about 90 yards of 20-pound line – so you can't expect to use the same reel for river fishing one weekend and deep-sea fishing the next!
Low-Cost Fishing Reels
We usually caution against buying cheap products because of quality and durability issues. However, if you're the kind of angler that just goes out occasionally for fun, you can find a perfectly good spinning reel for between $20 and $30. Add another $10 for an equivalent baitcaster.
Moderately Priced Fishing Reels
If you're more committed to fishing, you'll want to spend a bit beyond budget level. However, it's an extremely competitive market, and top-quality freshwater fishing reels remain surprisingly affordable. There's an enormous choice between $50 and $100, and even the priciest baitcasters are unlikely to top $200.
Some of these reels can be used for light saltwater fishing, though it's important to check. Many are marked freshwater only. While some dedicated saltwater reels can be found for the same prices as freshwater reels, they tend to be 10% to 20% more expensive.
Expensive Fishing Reels
Big game reels are a different kettle of fish. They are much larger, offer greater capacity, and are built for a tougher environment. The most expensive fishing reel that came up in our research was an electric saltwater reel that can carry 1,500 feet of 120-pound line. The asking price: $3,500.
For a baitcaster reel, a monofilament line of 10 pounds or greater is recommended. They don't come off the reel too fast, and they're much easier to untangle if you get the dreaded backlash.
Braided line is recommended for spinning reels. Pound for pound, it's much thinner than monofilament, and more durable. It is visible in water, which can disturb some fish, so many experienced anglers use a fluorocarbon leader line that can't be seen.
It's important to fill your fishing reel with the right amount of line. Too little, and you'll reduce your casting distance. Too much, and it will keep overflowing and tangling. Most experts recommend filling to within 1/8-inch full for both baitcasters and spinners.
"Line memory" is the tendency fishing line has to retain the curl it has when wound on the reel. Monofilament is the worst, fluorocarbon less so, and braided lines hardly suffer from line memory at all.
Make sure you understand how each part of your reel works before you go fishing, particularly the drag and tension. Learning at home will save you time and frustration when you get out on the water.
Q. Which is best, a baitcaster or a spinning reel?
A. If you're learning to fish, a spinning reel has an easier learning curve. However, beginners soon discover they want more control than a spinning reel offers.
Learning to cast takes a little practice, but a spinning reel seldom gives beginners any problems. Baitcasters are great reels. They allow you to cast heavier lures or baits over longer distances, and with more accuracy – but there's a knack to using them. Many experienced anglers prefer a baitcaster, but they do take time to master.
Some anglers buy both: a spinning reel when going for fish under 10 pounds and a baitcaster for catching fish over that size. There are always exceptions, and debate certainly occurs between one angler and another. Much of the fun of angling is trying different rigs. As you gain experience, you'll develop your own preferences.
Q. What is backlash?
A. Backlash happens when the bait stops moving forward, but line still flows off the reel. With nowhere to go, you get a big tangle, often called a bird’s nest. It can happen with any reel – particularly if you're casting into the wind – but mostly it's a problem for those new to baitcaster reels. Their action demands more control. Lot's of fishing books and websites offer good advice, but the bottom line is, get plenty of practice!
Q. What's the difference between front drag and rear drag?
A. Both do the same job, allowing a fish to take the line rather than break it. The distinction between front and rear drag has to do with where on the reel the adjustment is set. Front drag adjustment is right on the spool, so it tends to give more precise feedback.
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