Types of Fishing Reels: The Complete Guide
Mar 12, 2021 | 7 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 7 minutes

If you’re new to angling, the various types of fishing reels on offer can be confusing. But don’t be surprised – choosing the right reel is a dilemma as old as the hills. As any angler will tell you, knowing the pros and cons of each type of reel can make or break your day on the water. Thankfully, things are a lot easier than they might seem, and today, you’re going to learn how to choose your own.

two most common types of fishing reels on a couple of fishing rods: a spinning reel on the left, and a baitcasting reel on the right

A few questions come into play when choosing the right fishing reel. Number one, what style of fishing is it best suited for? Two, how easy is it to operate? How long will it last? And what’s the price?  

As we cover the most important types of fishing reels, we’ll cover all of these questions and more. By the time you’re finished reading, you’ll know exactly what you need to bring ‘em in!

Spincast Reel

The spincast is by far the simplest modern fishing reel out there. With it’s basic design, this guy is ideal for beginners or anglers on a budget. You don’t see them a lot these days, but a few decades ago, spincast reels used to be all the rage.

a closeup of a spincast fishing reel

Features and Design

Spincasters feature a metal nose cone, which hides all the important components of the reel. On the back, there’s a button which serves to toggle the line between free-spool and locked.

Last but not least, spincast reels have a drag adjustment mechanism. This mechanism essentially allows you to adjust how much resistance a fish feels when pulling on your line. On a spincast, the “drag” is usually on the side of the reel, or next to the reel handle.

Casting

Casting with a spincast reel couldn’t be simpler. All you need to do is press the spool control button, take your swing, and release. Once you release the button, the line will fly out to where your rod tip is pointing. When you’re ready to stop the line, just press the button one more time. Easy-peasy.

an angler holding a rod with his hand on the spincast fishing reel, and a river in the background

Pros & Cons

Two main advantages to using a spincast reel is that they’re dead simple to operate and that they rarely cause line tangles. On top of that, they’re the cheapest type of fishing reel out there. You can pick up a spincast reel for as little as $20 nowadays.

Spincasters have something of an “x-factor”, too. These reels are probably what your average middle-aged angler used to start their fishing career on, so you can bet it holds a dear spot in their hearts!

Spincast reels might be cheap and simple to operate, but they do come with a few downsides.

Number one, their closed-face design tends to keep water and debris inside the reel, which can damage it over time. Number two, most spincasters aren’t that well-made, and will rarely last you longer than a single season. Three, and probably most important, spincasters have limited casting range, and aren’t as precise as other reel types.

Spinning Reel

The spinning reel is arguably the most popular type of fishing reel in existence. It’s a tad more complicated to use than the spincast, but a lot more efficient and durable. Beginners have no trouble using it, and there’s a whole army of experienced anglers that won’t fish without it.

a closeup of a spinning reel on a fishing rod with a river in the background

Features and Design

Unlike the spincast reel, the spinning reel boasts an open-face design, with the drag adjustment on top. It comes with a metal bail, whose purpose is to lock the line and prevent it from unspooling. The bail is also important because it guides the line back evenly onto the spool. But more on that in a second.

Spinning reels are unique in that they attach to the rod from below. This not only provides a natural holding position, it also gives you a nice balance when casting. Speaking of, casting with a spinning reel is super easy!

Casting 

To cast with a spinning reel, you just disengage the bail, and squeeze the line against the rod with your index finger to prevent it from unspooling. Next, swing your rod from the side or overhead. As you do, release your index finger around halfway through the motion. Aim the tip of the rod where you want the bait to land, and voila!

One thing a lot of people get wrong with the spinning reel is reengaging the bail after the cast. Most spinning reels close the bail automatically after you start reeling. Thing is, that first spin can often cause the line to miss the spool, resulting in a tangle. When you throw the line out, always make sure to put the bail back in its starting position by hand. 

a closeup of a spinning reel on a fishing rod

Pros & Cons

Spinning reels are an immensely capable piece of fishing equipment. They work equally well with lures and smaller baits, and are a good choice for a number of species and habitats. Combined with thin, powerful braided lines, they can produce some serious pulling power, too.

Once you get the hang of them, spinning reels will allow you to achieve impressive casting distances. With prices ranging from $50 to $150 for a quality model, they are the golden middle for most anglers.

Spinners may be a great all-around option, but they’re not all sunshine and rainbows. If you’re not careful with handling the bail, you can easily get nasty line twists and tangles. The other drawback is that you’re limited to lighter gear. And once you start loading spinners with heavier lures and lines, their performance starts to drop pretty noticeably.

Baitcasting Reel

The baitcaster is arguably the most advanced type of fishing reel. Often used by experienced anglers and fishing pros, this reel is unmatched in both power and precision. 

Baitcasting reels have a lot more moving parts than the spincast or the spinning reel. As a result, they come with a learning curve, but mastering them ultimately takes your fishing game to the next level.

types of fishing reels: a baitcasting reel in the hand of an angler

Features and Design

The first thing you’ll notice on a baitcaster is that it sits on top of the rod handle. It features a semi-enclosed design, and a much sturdier build. On top of the drag mechanism, which sits next to the reel handle, the baitcaster has two additional components that allow for extra performance and customization.

These are the spool tension knob, and the braking system. In essence, both mechanisms are used to adjust how fast the line is going out of the reel. 

Why is this important? Well, first, you get to throw the line exactly as far as you need to. Second, you can prevent the spool from turning faster than the line is going out. If this does happen, you get what’s called a bird’s nest. And yes, that looks exactly like it sounds.

Casting 

Baitcasting reels don’t have a bail, so to stop the line from spooling, you actually press your thumb against the spool. You can do this as the line is in mid-flight if you need to, and that allows for more precise casts. Once the bait hits the spot, you just press a clip to lock the line, and you’re good to go.

a closeup of a baitcaster, the most advanced type of fishing reel

Nerd fact: Baitcaster rod guides are a lot smaller than the ones on a spinning setup. This is because baitcasting reels release the line in a straight path. On a spinning reel, the line goes out in a circular motion, and that requires more space.

Pros & Cons

Baitcasting reels are the most powerful fishing reels, hands down. They can handle heavy lines and produce a lot of pulling power, making them a great option when you’re chasing larger fish. Baitcasters also allow you to feel the line as it’s going out, so you can stop it exactly when you need to. 

Last but not least, baitcasters are highly customizable. Whether you’re pulling out bottomfish from heavy cover, or doing dropshots for Bass, this reel can do it all.

One tricky thing about using the baitcaster is that different weights of lures demand different settings for the spool tension and braking system. That means that you have to adjust the settings every time you change your lure. They take a little time to get used to, so they’re not the best option if you’re just starting out.

Another drawback is the price. Ranging anywhere from $100 to $500 for a quality setup, baitcasters are the most expensive fishing reels you’ll find. They make up for it in performance, though – you just need to know if they’re the right choice for you.

Which fishing reel is right for you?

The three types of fishing reels we covered might serve a similar purpose, but as you just saw, they are very different. In case you’re still unsure which of these is the best choice for you, we’ve digested all this info into one simple infographic.

An infographic comparing the most common types of fishing reels

Reel ‘Em In!

Fishing reels come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Each of the three reel types we explored offers its own set of models and designs, leaving you almost spoiled for choice. One reel won’t catch you all the fish in the sea, however. 

Depending on the type of angler you are, what kind of fishing you’re into, and your budget, choosing the right type of fishing reel is up to you. Hopefully, this guide has made the decision a little easier.

And now, let’s hear it from you. What’s your favorite type of fishing reel? Any other reels you think we should have mentioned? Let us know in the comments below.

Comments (28)
  • Luke

    Jun 20, 2021

    hi i realy loved the article and it was really great at teaching me about reels in a simple yet somewhat thorough way. My main question though is for me, who likes to fish lots of kinda like pumpkinseed, bluegill, smallmouth, largemouth, or even blue catfish, ive been using a spincast reel but im not sure what I want to by next because ive been debating about gettin a baitcaster, but im not sure if it is worth it completely, because spincasts have worked well with me, but i want another backup rod thats different then my other rods. I just want to know if i should, and also if a baitcaster can go on a rod that is a bit wider holes (pretty much one for a spincast)

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      Sean

      Jun 21, 2021

      Hi Luke,

      Thanks for reading.

      It’s always good to have a backup when you’re fishing. Since your spincast reel is serving you well, perhaps you don’t need to spend as much on a baitcaster. You can get a nice spinning reel instead. You mentioned that you’re catching smaller fish, so perhaps you don’t need the power of a baitcaster. A good baitcaster will undoubtedly get you more fish than a spincast reel, but it’s just a matter of whether it’s worth it for you.

      As far as putting a baitcaster on one of your rods is concerned, this mostly depends on the size of the reel and the reel seat. These can vary, so it’s best that measure the reel seat you’ve got and then consult your salesman on whether the reel will fit.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Tight lines!

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  • Adam

    Jun 13, 2021

    Hello I want to start rainbow trout fishing in the future and I was wondering on what reel and what equipment I would need like the rod type the reel type the bait type etc. If anyone seems to know then let me know.

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      Katie

      Jun 14, 2021

      Hi Adam,

      Thanks for your question! We’re not surprised you want to start Rainbow Trout fishing – this species is plenty of fun to target. There’s a whole variety of ways to cast a line for them, depending on where and when you go fishing, but here’s some general advice to get you started. Keep in mind here that we’re focusing on Rainbow Trout fishing in rivers and streams. Let us know if you’re planning on fishing somewhere more specific, or want to try out a certain technique like fly fishing!

      If you’re going to be using conventional spinning gear, then there’s one rule of thumb to follow – the lighter, the better. You’ll want to choose an ultra-light rod, usually between 6–8 foot in length. Opt for a model with a soft tip, too. Rainbow Trout shake their heads when caught, and a soft tip can stop the hook from coming loose.

      Pair this rod with a smaller-sized spinning reel, usually around the 1500 mark. Anything above 2500 will be too heavy. Finally, you’ll want a light line between 2–8 pounds. If you’re planning on targeting trophy-sized Trout, you can go up to a 10 lb line.

      When it comes to the best bait to use, this really differs depending on where you go. If you’re fishing a river or stream, a bobber and hook paired with PowerBait (a putty-like substance) or nightcrawlers works well if the water is slow-moving. If it’s fast-moving, you’ll want to implement a “cast and retrieve” type of bait, such as spinners, spoons, and imitation-style lures. If you’d rather use live bait, crayfish, worms, smelt, shiners, and minnows are all popular choices.

      We hope this information helps you get started on your Rainbow Trout fishing adventure. Make sure you come back and let us know how it goes!

      Tight lines,

      Katie

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  • Nikhil

    Jun 10, 2021

    Hi, If I use a baitcasting reel for bluefin tuna how much line could it store and what line capacity would it have, considering the reel size to be 17,000 or large?

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      Sean

      Jun 10, 2021

      Hi Nikhil,

      Thanks for reading.

      Your baitcaster’s line capacity should be listed on the packaging.

      I really couldn’t tell you how much line you can have based on the reel size, because manufacturers use different spools for their reels. One thing you should know is that the capacity will depend on the type of line you’re using. If you’re using braided line, you should be able to fit more of it on a spool, because braid has a smaller diameter compared to mono of the same strenght.

      It would be best to consult the packaging of your reel to see what the exact capacity is. Some manufacturers even include information for different line materials. If you can only see a capacity number for mono for example, there are online line capacity calculators which you can use to learn how much line you can have if you’re using braid.

      I hope this helps.

      Have a good one!

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  • Naveen

    Mar 29, 2021

    Thanks for this useful article, the article is so detailed yet simple enough for a beginner (like me) to understand.
    I am yet to own a tackle and reading through all your article to educate myself before i step into a store. I have a doubt around the numbers against a reel like 4000,5000,8000 so on, can u give some info around that, similar to your fishing rod article which had info on how to read the numbers in a fishing rod and what they mean. ?

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      Sean

      Mar 29, 2021

      Hi Naveen,

      Thanks for reading, that’s an excellent question.

      Since you’re a beginner, I’m going to assume that you’ll be going with a spinning reel. The numbers you mentioned refer to the size of the reel you’re looking at.

      Smaller reels typically work with lighter rods, and are used to catch smaller fish. These are your size 1000-3500 reels (or 10 to 35, depending on the manufacturer). Size 1000 reels work well in combination with ligther pound-test lines (4-8 lbs), and are great for catching small fish like Crappie or Bluegill. As you start moving up to larger fish like Bass or Catfish, you’re going to need a bigger reel, closer to 3000.

      Mid-sized reels between 4000 and 6000 are typically used to target species like Striped Bass, Salmon or Redfish.

      Offshore fishing for really big fish requires even bigger reels. For species like Mahi Mahi, Wahoo or Barracuda, reels sized 8000 and over are recommended. For Billfish, Tuna and Sharks, you’re looking at sizes of 16000 and over. This obviously requires heavier rods and stronger fishing line.

      You often hear people say that a rod “has good balance”. What this means is that it’s essentially well paired up with the reel, so that it gives a good amount of sensitivity. One way of testing this is supporting the rod/reel combo with your index finger at the tip of the rod handle. If well balanced, the rod will easily stay horizontal. If the reel is too heavy, it will likely tip backwards.

      It’s always good to try a few variations at the store. Your rod salesperson should also be able to give you a few pointers on combos.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Tight lines!

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  • Mason

    Mar 16, 2021

    Thanks so much I loved the article. I’m 14 and huge into fishing. My girlfriend 😍 says if I’m not camping or fishing in dead😂😂😂.
    I’m so glad we can do something together. Do you think you could do one over fly rod. They are so much fun to use!

    Thanks

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      Sean

      Mar 19, 2021

      Hi Mason,

      Thanks for reading, I’m glad you liked the article!

      Hey, if there are two activities that go hand in hand, those are fishing and camping. And it’s awesome that you and your girlfriend can enjoy them together.

      Fly rods would definitely be something we could cover – thanks for the suggestion! In the meantime, feel free to read some of the other articles we wrote.

      Thanks for sharing, Mason.

      Have a great day!

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  • Tom Nelson

    Mar 13, 2021

    Loved your article. I am not a novice fisherman and I always use spincasters. Most articles almost always cut down those who use spincasters. Always saying that they are just for beginners. I say to use whatever you enjoy and just get out and fish.

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      Sean

      Mar 15, 2021

      Hi Tom,

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked the article.

      Spincasters wouldn’t be go-to type of reel for so many anglers just because of nostalgia. The fact is that they do get the job done. So I completely agree, every angler should use what they’re most comfortable with.

      Thanks for sharing, and have a great day!

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  • abcmanblah

    Feb 18, 2021

    question: I have just picked up a pinnacle baitcasting reel don’t most baitcasting reels have saltwater resistance? if so, how do I know if mine is resistant?

    ps. my Roblox name is abcmanblah. friend me.

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      Sean

      Feb 23, 2021

      Hi fellow angler,

      Thanks for reading.

      While many baitcasting reels are saltwater resistant these days, this is not the case with all of them.

      The best way to check if your baitcasting reel is saltwater resistant is to look at the packaging. If your reel is made from aluminum or an aluminum alloy, it’s probably saltwater resistant. Your reel package should also have information on any protective anti-corrosion coatings.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Tight lines!

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  • William Nolen

    Feb 13, 2021

    Very detailed and informative review. I’m a new angler and confused about what should I chose to get started with. I was suffering on the internet and found your article, as you mentioned above, spinning reels have been using by a number of people and quite easy to cast as well. Also, I think if we with the spinning reel we can catch almost all types of average fishes.
    I decided to buy a spinning reel for myself. found this website with good reviews about spinning reels and help me to buy one. hopefully will help others.
    I have a question; I have bought a general spinning reel. Now I’m curious should I use this in saltwater or not. What if it’s not meant for saltwater and I use in it. Is this goanna create some mess?

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      Sean

      Feb 15, 2021

      Hi William,

      Thanks for sharing.

      Unless your reel has some sort of protection for saltwater, I’d suggest not to use it in saltwater. Unprotected reels get “eaten” by saltwater pretty quickly. You might not even notice it, but an occasional splash can get into the internal components of your reel and cause some serious damage.

      If you’re fishing in saltwater, my suggestion is to get yourself a well protected reel. Saltwater reels are typically made of corrosion-proof materials (like aluminum alloys) and/or feature anti-corrosion coatings. Manufacturers usually mention this in their product descriptions.

      Saltwater reels may have anti-corrosion features, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t corrode when not maintained. It’s recommended that you rinse and clean your reel after every saltwater outing.

      I hope this helps.

      Have a good one!

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  • Craig

    Feb 1, 2021

    Question: I’m wanting to step up to a baitcast reel, which “hand” do I order?
    I cast with my right and reel with my left.

    Thanks, Craig

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      Sean

      Feb 2, 2021

      Hi Craig,

      Thanks for reading.

      If you’re casting with your right hand and reeling with your left, you need a left-handed baitcaster.

      Tight lines!

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      gongingong

      Feb 18, 2021

      I got a baitcast rod and reel from my neighbor who was throwing it out. I had never used a baitcast before and I am pretty good at it a day later I reel with my right hand and don’t know what it is called but it is pretty easy to get used to.

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      Sean

      Feb 22, 2021

      Hi there,

      Thanks for sharing.

      Kudos for getting used to a baitcaster so quickly!

      Some people just find baitcasters naturally easy to get used to. I’m glad that you’re one of them.

      If you’re using your left hand to cast and your right to reel, you”re using a right-handed baitcaster.

      I hope you catch loads of fish with it.

      Tight lines!

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  • Paul Hay

    Sep 1, 2020

    Bait casting reels were almost the end of me lol. I had such a hard time getting the feel for them as only a sporadic fisherman. Then a buddy of mine told me something that should have been common sense. Quit trying to fish with them.

    He told me to go and find a field or on empty school parking lot. Set up some targets at different distances and grab a bunch of different weights. Go out and learn how to use it before you get to the water. That way you can learn without adding the stress of missing out on the fishing.

    It worked wonders in helping the learning curve and made actual fishing with them a much more pleasurable experience.

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      Sean

      Sep 1, 2020

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for sharing, that’s a really useful piece of advice! Your point about being able to learn and not miss out on the fishing is spot on.

      Tight lines!

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  • Bob McCabe

    Aug 6, 2020

    Hi, my first reel was a Zebco spincast. We called them closed face here in Canada at the time. I would love to find one for my granddaughters. Bring back memories, is Zebco still around or could you please advise on another brand.
    Cheers Bob McCabe

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      Sean

      Aug 6, 2020

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks for reading.

      For sure, spincast reels used to be the go-to option back in the day.

      You can find some nice Zebco spincasts through their website. Hope your granddaughters will like them.

      Tight lines!

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      Jessica keys

      Oct 23, 2020

      The zebco bullet is the way to go it’s by far the best one they make hands down !!!!!

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      Sean

      Oct 23, 2020

      Hi Jessica,

      We’ve heard anglers say that the Bullet is their favorite reel overall, so we definitely won’t argue with that.

      Seems like these aren’t just relics of the past or cheap beginners’ reels, doesn’t it?

      Thanks for sharing, and have a great day!

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  • william foeers

    Jul 25, 2020

    In the early 1950s when I bought my first spinning reel, an Ambidex, it was
    it was known as a thread line reel. I have been trying to get information on
    the web’ as to what thread line actually means and have not found one
    good explanation. Most answers mention bait casters and level wind but
    fail to give a definite answer. I suppose the first reel that I owned as a boy
    in the 1930s was a true thread line reel. A Nottingham type wooden reel
    with brass fittings spooled up with moms sewing thread. But I would like a
    correct answer. If only to satisfy a young grandson.

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      Sean

      Jul 28, 2020

      Hello William,

      Thank you for reading.

      A Nottingham reel is a true piece of angling history: it must’ve been some feeling to handle it back in the day. Those reels are said to have been a giant leap forward, because they allowed the angler to cast from the reel itself. This style of reel contrasted the “Thames” style of reel, where anglers would unwind the line first, and then cast, similarly to how modern fly anglers cast nowadays.

      Nottingham reels weren’t called threadlines, however. The first threadline reels came about in the early 1900s, when Albert Illingworth patented the his first fixed-spool fishing reel. The fixed spool meant that that there was much less resistance on the line. Anglers were able to cast the lightest woven silk lines, which were barely thicker than threads. And that’s how the reels got their name.

      The Nottingham and Ambidex reels are true collectables, by the way. If you still happen to own yours, you should know that you’ve got a small fortune in your hands.

      I hope I was able to answer your question, William.

      Have a great day!

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