Three best fishing reels

Bob Beacham

To prevent backlash, experienced anglers might use their thumb to slow the line down, though not with braided line, which is surprisingly sharp.

Today's best fishing reels can be complicated. Making the right choice means understanding a reel's purpose, capabilities, and features. For some anglers, a low-cost spinner will be ideal. For others, a cheap reel would be a waste of money.

If you're in the market for a new fishing reel, the following guide examines the different types of reels available and outlines what you need to consider when shopping. We've also detailed three of our favorite reels that deliver outstanding performance while still offering great value.

Considerations when choosing

Types of fishing reels

Strictly speaking, reels can be separated into two designs: centerpin (sometimes called mid-arbor) and fixed spool. However, most people would recognize four types: fly fishing reel, baitcasting reel, spincast reel, and spinning reel.

Fly fishing reel: This is a very basic device that, because fly fishing tends to be done over relatively short distances, doesn't carry a lot of line. Casting a fly doesn't rely on the reel at all, but rather the angler's action and the weight of the line. The reel only becomes important when playing and retrieving the fish.

Baitcasting reel: Though a baitcasting reel has the arbor through the middle of a spool like on a fly fishing reel, after that the two reels differ tremendously. Baitcasters can be extremely complicated, feature-laden tools. They are excellent for casting heavy baits and lures, so are often preferred for surf fishing. These are also popular for trolling and big game fishing, where they can be massive.

Baitcasting reels have two negatives: they aren't usually good at casting light weights, and they take a while to learn to use efficiently.

Spincast reel: This reel is similar to the spinning reel, but the spool is enclosed. Line is released using a trigger or button, usually on the rear of the body. Spincast reels are very basic and usually inexpensive, which makes them popular with beginners.

The main drawback is that if the line gets tangled, it can go unnoticed under the spool cover until it jams, by which time it's a huge mess. Drag systems are also widely criticized by experienced anglers. Many people start with a spincast reel, and they're often part of rod/reel combos, but keen anglers soon move on.

Spinning reel: This is the most versatile type of reel, and it's very popular with both freshwater and saltwater anglers. It is easier to cast than a baitcasting reel and is used everywhere people fish: riverbank, lake, pier, or boat. They don't really have any negatives, though baitcasters are usually preferred for heavy lures and high-poundage lines.

Fishing reel features

Gearing: Gears should be made of steel, stainless steel, or bronze alloy. Beware of cheap fishing reels with plastic gears. They won't last.

Reels have different gear ratios, between 4:1 and 9:1. For every turn of the reel handle, the spool winds between 4 and 9 times. It's not about getting the line in as quickly as possible, though. The type of fishing and the bait or lure actually have a bigger impact, so you need to take those into account. A reel with a gear ratio in the 6:1 to 7:1 range is a good all-rounder.

Some manufacturers will also give you the line retrieve per crank. It's a feature of value to the specialist investing in an expensive baitcasting reel, but not of great importance to the average angler.

Drag: Drag is important because it allows a fish to take line without coming to a sudden stop, in which case it will either let go of the bait or break the line. On spinning reels, it's set on the front of the spool. On baitcasters, it's on the right-hand end. Adjustability and smooth action are the important things here.

Bearings: Good bearings ensure everything runs freely and quietly. In general, the more the better. They're almost invariably stainless steel and, on saltwater reels, should be sealed.

Materials: Cheap freshwater reels are often steel, which is durable but heavy. You'll find aluminum and carbon fiber on better-quality models. Saltwater reels made with steel need heavy-duty coatings (usually anodized) to resist corrosion. Graphite and/or aluminum is better. The best are machined from solid blocks.

Markings: Some reels will indicate how much line of a particular poundage the reel will take. It's convenient to refer to if you want to load several spools for quick tackle changes. Spools themselves should have a minimum and maximum loading mark for the amount of line. If you see the minimum mark when you're fighting a fish, you need to work fast -- you're running out of line!

The importance of fishing line

The type of line you put on your reel can have a big impact on performance. Here is some general guidance.

Monofilament: Also called "mono," this is a single strand of nylon or polyester. It's been around since the 1950s and remains popular. It's low cost, easy to cast, and has a degree of stretch, which some anglers like when hooking a fish.

The main drawback is that it's comparatively large in diameter, so you get less on a reel than other types of line. For example, if you're using 30-pound line, the difference between mono and braided can be a couple hundred yards. As poundage increases, that difference becomes even more dramatic.

Braided: This is actually the oldest type of line known; originally, it was made from woven horsehair and other natural materials. Modern versions use multiple thin strands of different types of polyethylene. Braided line is around half the diameter of mono for the same poundage, so you can get much more on your reel. It doesn't stretch, giving it a very direct "feel" and virtually instant hook set. It's also unaffected by UV light, so it lasts longer. It's very sharp -- many anglers wear gloves when working with it. Braided line has very low friction, so knots can come undone if you're not careful. It's also prone to backlash. Braided line is significantly more expensive than monofilament.

Fluorocarbon: Technically, polyvinylidene difluoride, this line has a mono-type construction. Its big advantage is that it's almost invisible in water, so it is often used where fish are easily spooked. It's also very tough. While not as thick as mono, it's still substantial. It's also quite stiff, so not great for casting distance.


Most spinning reels can easily be changed from right- to left-handed by swapping over the winding handle.

Look for a baitcaster reel with a line brake to help prevent backlash. Backlash is when extra line pours out of the reel when you cast. It's also called a bird's nest because that's what the line looks like. It can be a nightmare to unravel and often you end up cutting the line and throwing yards of it away.

Other ways to prevent backlash include correctly filling the spool, setting the drag properly, using monofilament, and casting with the wind.


Q. Is there much difference between freshwater reels and saltwater reels?

A. They do look very similar, though saltwater reels are often larger to accommodate more line of greater poundage. The big difference is the way the reels are built. Saltwater is extremely corrosive, so the best reels for sea anglers are made of materials like graphite and aluminum, which don't rust. They also have sealed gearboxes and bearings to keep the saltwater out. There's nothing to stop you from using a saltwater reel for freshwater fishing. We wouldn't recommend using a freshwater reel for sea fishing because of the damage saltwater can cause.

Q. Do fishing reels need much maintenance?

A. Not really. Give your reel a light rinse under a running tap after every trip. It only takes a few minutes and it clears out saltwater and grime that might otherwise work its way into areas where it could cause problems. Don't use a pressure washer because it might force dirt into moving parts rather than clean it away. Let the reel dry, then lubricate moving parts like the bale arm with a light oil.

On spinning reels, it's also quite a simple job to disassemble and clean the drag mechanism (it's not so necessary on baitcasters because the mechanism isn't so exposed). Manufacturers usually provide comprehensive instructions, which need to be followed closely. Regular maintenance doesn't take long and will maximize your reel's working life.

Fishing reels we recommend

Best of the best: Penn Battle II Series Spinning Reels 

Our take: A range of high-quality spinning reels for serious saltwater fishing, at a price that most can afford.

What we like: Solidly built reels in a variety of sizes so you can choose the line capacity that suits you best. Carbon fiber drag is smooth and efficient. Spool is marked for capacity. Penn is one of the biggest names in fishing, and these reels provide terrific performance at a price that won't break the bank.

What we dislike: Penn makes much of the "full metal" body, and it does have a substantial anodized coating, but we would rather see graphite or aluminum on a saltwater reel.

Best bang for your buck: KastKing Centron Spinning Reels

Our take: A feature-packed, entry-level spinning reel at a remarkably low price.

What we like: A versatile freshwater reel that will withstand modest saltwater use. Has lightweight graphite frame and anodized aluminum spool -- corrosion-resistant components that put many more expensive rivals to shame. Easy to use and should last years. Any beginner would be delighted to own one.

What we dislike: Remarkably little for a low-cost reel. Not a full-time saltwater reel (check other KastKing models). Occasional reports of component failure.

Choice 3: Shimano Curado 2001 Reels

Our take: Superbly made baitcasters for the serious angler. Clever design minimizes backlash.

What we like: Rock-solid construction and super-smooth gearing add up to one of the most versatile baitcasters around. Spool disengages during casting for extra distance, comparable to spinners when using lightweight lures. Great saltwater reels that can be used for freshwater, too.

What we dislike: Not cheap, but they have a tremendous reputation for durability.

Bob is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.

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