Understanding Different Types of Fishing Reels

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The fishing reel is one of the oldest inventions in human history. These days, there are specialized fishing reels for every application you can imagine. But you don’t need a fancy reel to catch lots of fish.

types of fishing reels

To understand all the different types of fishing reels, I started my research at the beginning. What I’ve discovered is that fishing reels have been nearly perfected over the years, and it is incredible how far technology has come.

Today, fishing reels come in all shapes and sizes. The big brands make everything from cheap reels to high-quality luxury reels, and everything in between. To fully understand how each reel is different, and what reels work best in different situations, continue reading this guide. I’ve included some of my favorites, which are among the best fishing reels you can find for the money.

A Brief History of Fishing Reels

Reels started to resemble your grandpa’s old baitcaster during the 1800s as baitcasting reels gained popularity. Some of the biggest players in the fishing business got their start in the early 20th century. Shimano started making fishing reels in 1921. Abu Garcia also started as a company in 1921 but didn’t start making reels until the 1950s. Daiwa manufactured its first fishing reel in 1955.

A man named George Snyder is credited with creating the first baitcasting reel which was developed in 1810. By 1874, the first fly-reel was invented by Charles F. Orvis. Around the same time, people started using spinning reels, or “fixed-spool” reels. The spinning reel was developed to get rid of backlash which is common in baitcasting reels.

It wasn’t until 1948 that a company began to mass-produce spinning reels. A year later, Zebco manufactured the first spincast reel. Like the spinning reel, spincast reels were developed to cut out the backlash caused by baitcasting reels.

The four most commonly used fishing reels today are the following:

  • Baitcasting Reels
  • Spinning Reels
  • Spincast Reels
  • Fly Fishing Reels

Baitcasting Reels

The granddaddy of them all, baitcasting reels have come a long way in the past 200 years. These days, baitcasting reels can go toe-to-toe with spinning reels in most areas. Baitcasting reels also hold advantages over other spinning-variety reels. With a baitcaster, you can cast further and with more accuracy.

Yet, there are some drawbacks of baitcasting reels. As we mentioned earlier, baitcasting reels are prone to backlashes, which is when your line gets into a tangled mess on the spool. On a baitcaster, the spool sits on top of the reel, and the line flows straight from the spool to the guides on your rod. With the spool on the top of the reel rather than hanging from the bottom, your wrist uses extra energy to keep the reel in place.

The braking system is one of many aspects you’ll want to become familiar with when buying a new baitcaster. (Many of these also apply to spinning reels). The following are aspects of a baitcasting reel you should know:

Ball Bearings

Ball bearings help protect the inner mechanisms of your reel by keeping them lubricated. They also prevent gears from rubbing against each other. Having high-quality ball bearings helps to ensure that your reel continues working for many years to come. Generally speaking, more is better when it comes to ball bearings. But besides quantity, the material and quality of the ball bearings matter just as much when it comes to longevity.

Gear Ratio

Gear ratio is one of the most common specifications you’ll see when in the market for a new fishing reel. The gear ratio looks confusing on paper but is very easy to understand.

An example of what gear ratio looks like is 6.4:1 and what this is describing is how many times the spool rotates per turn of the handle. In this example, the spool will turn 6.4 times for each turn of the handle. If the gear ratio were 5:1 the spool would rotate 5 times for each rotation of the handle. So, the gear ratio describes how quickly a reel can retrieve a line.


The drag on a reel is adjusted by turning a dial. If you turn the drag up, there is pressure applied to your line that doesn’t let it run out as fast as if you had the drag turned all the way down. The drag is often adjusted up when going after bigger fish and adjusted down when little guys are the targets. Beginners on a baitcasting reel will want the drag higher than experienced anglers. Baitcasting experts will often turn the drag all the way down and instead will manually add and subtract pressure with their thumb on the spool.


The spool is what holds your line and feeds it through the rod. Pay attention to the material used to make the spool, because the lifespan of your spool is directly related to the material it was made from.

Braking System

On a baitcasting reel, think of the braking system as if you were driving a car. The braking system is what prevents backlashes from occurring, by matching the speed of your spool to the speed that the lure is traveling.

When you cast with a baitcaster, your spool actively rotates. When the lure is losing speed as it approaches the water, your spool is still spinning fast. If the spool spins faster than the line coming out of it, that’s when the tangle occurs. What the brakes do is slow down the spool at the end of your cast to match the speed of your bait and prevent those nasty backlashes.

Spinning Reels

Spinning reels can be used interchangeably with baitcasting reels for most applications. But the way the two reels work is much different. Spinning reels are more versatile than baitcasting reels because they’re lighter, easier to use, and put less stress on your wrist.

A spinning reel hangs from the bottom of your rod, rather than on top like a baitcaster, and this alone makes it easier to operate. With the reel underneath the rod, gravity takes its natural course rather than causing extra stress on the wrist as a baitcasting reel does.

Your reel will be held in your dominant hand, while your other hand is used to retrieve the line. To operate a spinning reel, you first flip open the bail to free the line. Then, using the index finger of your dominant hand, hold down the line against the rod as you cast, and release your finger when you want to release the lure.

What Size Spinning Reel Should I Buy?

An important aspect to understand when researching a new spinning reel to buy is knowing what size to use. Size is referred to either with a two-digit or a four-digit number, starting as small as 1000 (10) and ranging up to as high as 9500 (95).

For freshwater, you can get it by using a 1000-size reel, but the spool capacity will be smaller for a reel this small. The most versatile size for spinning reels is the 2500 size. This is small enough that it’s still a lightweight reel but large enough to handle all your freshwater fishing needs. On saltwater, you’ll want to go with a 4000 size or higher, depending on the size of your line, your bait, and the fish you’re targeting.

Spincast Reels

Spincast reels are the easiest reels to use on the market. It’s no surprise then that spincast reels are ideal for children, or beginners just getting started with fishing. With that said, there is no shame in a seasoned angler using a spincast reel. Spincast reels are reliable, inexpensive, and most importantly, catch fish.

As a reel primarily used by kids, spincasters are mostly misunderstood from the outside. There are high-quality spincast reels being made these days, and after using one, you may never go back to a spinning or baitcasting reel again.

Zebco is the name to know in the spincast game. Makers of the original spincast reel, Zebco has more experience than any other manufacturer for this type of rig. The best spincast reel that Zebco makes is the Bullet.

The Zebco Bullet comes packed full of features, and here is a quick summary:

  • All metal construction for the longest possible lifespan.
  • 1:1 gear ratio with 29.6 inches of line retrieval per handle turn.
  • Tangle-free ZeroFriction dual bearing pickup pin.
  • Precision-machined brass gears.
  • 8 ball bearings + 1 roller bearing ensure the gears will last for a lifetime’s worth of casts.
  • Comes with an oil-resistant neoprene reel cover.
  • Pre-spooled with 10-pound monofilament line.
  • Comes with a spare Quick-Change spool.
Zebco Bullet Spincast Fishing Reel, Size 30 Reel, Fast 29.6...
  • EASY-TO-USE: The Bullet reel picks up an...
  • ULTRA-DURABLE PERFORMANCE: This reel features 8...
  • SUPERIOR CONSTRUCTION: The Bullet uses premium...

For half the price, you can try out an Abu Garcia spincast reel. The Abumatic 170 is the perfect choice if you’re looking to fish for bass. The Abumatic 170 features a carbon matrix drag system, which will automatically adjust the drag for you. This is perfect when you’re fishing for bass and are catching both small and large fish.

The Abumatic 170 has a drag rated for 10 pounds and features four brass ball bearings. It also comes pre-spooled with quality Berkley Trilene XL line.

Fly Fishing Reels

Fly fishing reels are the one type of fishing reel that has changed the least amount over the years. But while fly fishing reels may closely resemble their older ancestors, modern technology has come a long way in upgrading the current crop of reels.

Now, modern fly reels are made from much lighter and stronger materials than those made over 100 years ago. The biggest change between old and new fly reels is advanced drag systems. The ability to fine tune your drag becomes even more necessary when using finesse fly fishing techniques.

What is the Best Fly-Fishing Reel?

As the original inventor of the modern fly reel, Orvis is the first company we’ll start with. Orvis is the cream of the crop if you’re in the market for fly fishing gear. And while Orvis is one of the best fly-fishing companies in the world, you’re going to pay a price for the right to own Orvis gear.

Starting at just under $200 you can buy the Orvis Hydros SL. The Hydros SL features the best combination of power and durability you can find in a fly reel while maintaining a featherweight, flawless design.

  • Gorgeous black nickel finish.
  • Large arbor for quick line retrieval.
  • Sealed carbon drag with clutch bearing fully sealed for ultimate durability and lifespan.
  • Drag is three-times stronger due to zero start-up inertia.
  • Ergonomically designed asymmetrical drag knob.
Orvis Fly Fishing - Hydros SL Fly Reels
  • 12% increase in line retrieval thanks to our super...
  • Fully sealed drag-clutch bearing
  • Narrow spool for less line stacking and increased...

What is the Best Fly-Fishing Reel for the Money?

Or, you can spend just over half of that money on a high-quality Redington Behemoth Fly Reel. The Behemoth goes by one motto: bigger is better. Its features include:

  • Carbon fiber drag with an oversized drag knob, allowing for quick adjustments on the fly.
  • The large arbor allows for fast retrieval and reduces memory from building up in your line.
  • Unique die-cast construction makes the Behemoth as durable as any reel.
Redington Behemoth Fly Fishing Reel, Multipurpose Fly Reel...
  • BEHEMOTH FLY REEL: Combines the most powerful drag...
  • QUALITY DESIGN: The unique, un-machinable,...
  • HEAVY DUTY DRAG: A super-heavy duty carbon fiber...

What is the Lightest Fly-Fishing Reel?

On the other end of the fly, reel spectrum is the Redington Zero Fly Reel, the lightest fly reel in its class. Coming in three colors, if you’re willing to settle for boring old black, it’ll cost you less than $70. For a fantastic color like teal green below, you’ll have to fork over close to $100.

Like the Behemoth, the Zero features an unmachinable die-cast construction. Meaning, these reels are formed from a one-piece die, rather than from separate parts combined together. This creates a much stronger and more durable reel than machined varieties.

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