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Best Fishing Reels

Updated November 2018
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
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How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

  • 16 Models Considered
  • 68 Hours Researched
  • 1 Experts Interviewed
  • 83 Consumers Consulted
  • Zero products received from manufacturers.

    We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

    Why trust BestReviews?
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.

    Shopping guide for best fishing reels

    Last Updated November 2018

    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.

    Who invented the fishing reel? We don't really know. The first are recorded in Chinese paintings from the 12th century. Reels didn’t appear in Europe and the U.S. until hundreds of years later. George Snyder of Kentucky introduced the reel as we recognize it today in 1820.

    Fishing reel basics

    At first glance, there appear to be lots of different types of fishing reels, but essentially there are two:

    • Fixed spools

    • Centerpins

    Fixed spool reels

    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.

    Centerpin reels

    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.

    EXPERT TIP

    When you practicing casting, use a bright, heavy lure. It gives you better control and is easier to see.


    Staff  | BestReviews

    Fishing reel essentials

    Drag

    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.

    Light weight

    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.

    Anti-reverse

    Most fishing reels have anti-reverse to prevent the handle from banging you on the knuckles.

    Indicator marks

    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

    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.

    EXPERT TIP

    If you're left-handed, make sure the handle on your fishing reel is interchangeable so you’ll be able to use it comfortably.


    Staff  | BestReviews

    Other considerations

    Braking system

    Baitcasters have one of two braking systems: magnetic or centrifugal. In testing, both perform equally well, so we have no preference.

    Gear material

    Some cheap fishing reels have plastic gears to keep costs down. Metal gears are much more durable.

    Gear ratio

    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.

    Low gear ratios aren't always a bad thing. If you use lures with slow retrieval rates, a 5:1 ratio is better than a 6.2:1 ratio.

    Line guide

    Line guides can be steel, ceramic, or titanium. Titanium would be our top pick, ceramic second.

    Retrieve per crank

    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.

    Line capacity

    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!

    CAUTION

    Never leave discarded line behind. It's lethal to birds and wildlife. Take it home, and put it in the trash.

    Fishing reel prices

    • 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.

    EXPERT TIP

    Keep a few rubber bands or some tape with your fishing gear to secure the line before packing away, changing spool, or servicing your reel.


    Staff  | BestReviews

    Tips

    • 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.

    It's easier to learn with heavy gear – line and lure – and then go lighter as you gain experience.

    FAQ

    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.

    The team that worked on this review
    • Amos
      Amos
      Director of Photography
    • Bob
      Bob
      Writer
    • Branson
      Branson
      Videographer
    • Devangana
      Devangana
      Web Producer
    • Eliza
      Eliza
      Production Manager
    • Katie
      Katie
      Editorial Director
    • Kyle
      Kyle
      Writer
    • Melissa
      Melissa
      Senior Editor

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