Are All Fishing Reels the Same? What’s the Difference?


Fishing is a hobby that many people partake in all experience levels, and deciding on what hardware to buy is a bit trickier than many people realize. Fishing rods themselves can differ pretty substantially, but what about fishing reels? Are they all the same, or do you have to know which type is best for you?

There are multiple types of fishing reels: spinning, spin-cast, bait cast and fly. Each has its pros and cons, depending on your needs and experience level at different price points. Choosing the right one can make all the difference in your fishing experience. 

In this article, we will be going over the different types of fishing reels and which one is best for your needs. We will also be going over different fishing rods that will pair well with each reel; if you would like to learn more, we encourage you to keep reading!

Are Fishing Reels Universal?

If you are brand new to fishing, you suddenly decided that you want to dabble into the hobby and see what hardware you will need to get started. There is a little bit of a learning curve and research to do on that part, but it isn’t too bad, and generally, you will be able to get a sense of what will work best for you to get started out on. 

Choosing a fishing rod in itself can make all the difference, but a fishing reel can be considered just as important. A fishing reel allows you to cast and retract a line at its core, and there are multiple things you need to consider in order depending on the type of fishing you want to do and your experience level. 

Below, we will be diving into each type of fishing reel, starting with the simplest: the spincast reel. This type of reel is the simplest of the bunch and is the easiest to understand regarding how reels work in general. 

Spincast Reel

Spincast reels are the simplest of all and are great for beginners or those who do not do complex fishing in general. It is also the least expensive, making for a good start for aspiring fishermen who don’t know yet if they want to invest a lot of money into a new hobby. 

There isn’t much to operating a spin-cast wheel. To cast, you simply press a button on the reel, and the line will unspool. Furthermore, you’ll experience fewer headaches when it comes to line tangling since it is covered in plastic. 

Speaking of plastic, spin-cast reels have a plastic cover that houses the spool, parallel to the rod axis. The purpose of this cover is to mitigate the line tangling, which can be a problem with reels where the line spool is exposed. For this reason and the simple operation, spin-cast reels are great for beginners. 

Pros and Cons

Overall, spin-cast reels are great, depending on your needs. They are easy to operate and are affordable – attributes that can make anything appealing to a lot of people. But there are some things you should keep in mind before buying one over other options. 

For one, the fact that spin-cast reels incorporate a closed-faced design is a double-edged sword. It makes lines less likely to tangle, but it also allows debris and water to become trapped inside, which is quite a headache.

Furthermore, many spin-cast reels aren’t made well since they are designed to be affordable. This means that you might be paying a lower price now, but it is unlikely that a spin-cast reel will last you a long time. They usually last only a single fishing season. It is fine if you are trying out fishing to see if you will enjoy it or not. But if you are looking for long-term hardware, it pays to search for quality. There are good spin-cast reels out there, such as the Zebco 33.

Lastly, they have a limited casting range, which can make catching a fish more challenging, depending on the body of water you are fishing in. They are also not as accurate as other reels, which can also be a problem if you need to aim for a specific area. 

Overall, spincasts are functional and will allow you to catch fish, but just be aware of the limitations. 

Who Should Choose a Spincast Reel?

Different people have different reasons for wanting to fish; some people enjoy being outdoors, relaxing by the lake, and enjoying life in general. They want hardware that works, rarely malfunctions, and is relatively easy to pick up and understand.

Others want to take their fishing more seriously, not to say that the first group isn’t serious about wanting to fish, but for those who just want to get from A to B, so to speak, when it comes to fishing, a spin-cast reel will be less daunting to a new fisherman than other options. And as we previously mentioned, it will provide a lower starting cost. 

If you are unsure if you will enjoy fishing long-term or just want a less complicated fishing experience, a spin-cast reel will be great for your needs. However, if you are still unsure, the next option will be a good fit for most anglers out there. 

Spinning Reel

This is currently the most popular fishing reel right now. It is the “middle of the road” option for price, ease of use, and functionality. It surpassed the spin-cast wheel in popularity a few decades ago as fishing hardware had begun improving. 

The main difference between a spin-cast and a spinning reel, to put it simply, is the fact the spinning reel is open-faced and relies on the weight that is on the end of the line for casting. 

On a spinning reel, you’ll find a metal ball that locks the line and prevents it from unspooling. It also guides the line back.

Casting with this reel requires a bit more knowledge and learning, but overall it is pretty easy, and almost anyone can pick up on it relatively quickly. To cast the line, you disengage the bail and press on the line with your index finger. The next step is just swinging the rod forward and let go of the line in the middle of the swinging motion. 

It’s a simple operation, not as simple as a spin-caster, but simple enough for anyone to pick up on. Hence, it is the most popular type of reel. 

It’s not just easy to operate, but it also provides enough accuracy and casting distance that experienced anglers can appreciate. It truly is a reel for almost anyone, whether you are young, old, new, or a fishing veteran. This is particularly why spincasts have lost the popularity that they once had. 

Pros & Cons

As we went over, spinning reels are incredibly versatile and are an easy recommendation to the question of “what type of reel should I choose?”. But there are a few things you should know before making the final decision. 

Spinning reels are easy to operate, not too much more expensive than a spin-caster (depending on the model), and many of them are of decent quality. Still, you are more likely to run into some frustrations than you would with a spin-caster, namely when it comes to tangling. 

It is easy to tangle your line if you don’t put the bait back into its original starting position, which new anglers are prone to do. The problem is that the first spin can miss the spool entirely, causing a tangle resulting in a frustrating experience. This is why a spin-caster can still be in the picture when discussing the best reel for beginners and kids.

Another thing to note is that spinning reels don’t work well with heavier gear, which holds it back if you want to use heavier lines and lures. 

Who Should Choose a Spinning Reel 

A quality spinning reel will last you throughout your beginner phase until you become more experienced and comfortable. This makes this particular type of reel a good option for those who expect to grow into better anglers over time. 

It’s also great for folks who know that fishing is a hobby they want to invest time and money. Spinning reels can get relatively expensive (high-end reels can go for as much as $150), and as we mentioned earlier, there is a little bit of a learning curve for beginners.

If you know that you enjoy fishing and want more out of it, we recommend a spinning reel. And after you become experienced, you might even want to move to the next type of reel. 

Baitcasting Reel 

This is the most advanced of all the reels and is used by professional and experienced anglers due to the unrivaled accuracy and control it gives you. 

So, what makes a baitcaster more advanced over something like a spinner? For one, it is a bit more involved than a spinner. The design is semi-enclosed and has a drag mechanism next to the reel handle, but a couple of other tricks up its sleeve make it truly special. 

Baitcasters feature a spool tension knob and a braking system to allow you to adjust how fast the line is going out. This matters because it allows you to control exactly how far the line will go, which is important when talking about higher-level fishing. 

Casting a line is more involved than a spinner. Instead of bail to stop the line from spooling, you press your thumb against the spool. This allows for more precision on how far and where you want your bait to land, and once it lands, you press a clip to lock the line. 

It sounds simple enough, but there are a few things that can make baitcaster unappealing to beginners. If you would like to see a demonstration of how to use one, this video is a good watch.

Pros & Cons

Baitcasters are excellent when you master them. They provide the accuracy that seasoned anglers demand and are the most suitable for catching heavier fish due to their massive pulling power and capacity for heavy lines. They are also customizable, meaning they can handle pretty much any type of fishing you want to do. 

But what can put off beginners is that things can get a little complicated if you are just starting out. Namely, the fact that you need to adjust the braking and spool tension system every time you change a lure. You have to know what you are doing to get optimal results out of a baitcaster.

Pricing is also a problem for newcomers (or anyone who can’t spend a ton of money on gear). It’s fair to say that baitcasters are enthusiast-level gear. They are generally built very well due to who they are targeted at, and as a result, they typically start at $100 and can go as high as $500+. 

We aren’t even talking about pairing the reel with a quality fishing rod; this is just for the reel itself! You have to know you enjoy fishing before dropping that kind of money on gear, hence why experienced anglers are the ones to use baitcasters usually. 

Who Should Choose a Baitcaster

Technically, anyone can pick up a baitcaster if they want to. No fishing law stops a complete beginner from diving into the deep end in terms of hardware, but it is generally best to work your way up the ladder unless you are really committed to learning the ins and outs of your gear from the get-go and don’t mind the cost.

As we previously stated, most bait cast users have plenty of experience under their belt and so picking up that type of reel isn’t going to overwhelm them. When it comes to fishing, many beginners get frustrated when they aren’t catching any fish or when they are having trouble casting a line, the latter part being an issue with an inexperienced bait cast user. 

With this in mind, baitcasters are best for anglers who become accustomed to fishing and want more control and accuracy out of their rod. Plus, they know they enjoy fishing and so dropping $100+ on a reel isn’t going to be a risky investment, unlike a beginner buying high-end gear. It’s generally not a good idea to go all-in on any hobby that you aren’t 100% sure you’ll enjoy.

What to Look for in a Good Fishing Reel 

Understanding what to look for in a good fishing reel is just as important as knowing what type you want. There are many brands and models out there in each category, making it daunting for a beginner to select their gear, but we are here today to help with this! Here is what you need to know when buying a reel.

Materials

The number one thing that can indicate the overall quality of a fishing reel is its materials. If you intend to use a reel for an extended time, we recommend skipping reels that use plastic material. Generally, this will be found on less expensive reels, especially spin casters, which have an emphasis on targeting beginners, kids, or people who don’t want to spend a lot of money on gear. 

Build Quality

Both the reel and fishing rod needs to be of decent quality if you need them to last. They take a decent amount of abuse throughout their life and so if you don’t want to deal with frequently replacing your hardware, it is important to go with a brand known for providing decent build quality. 

Brands such as Penn, Shimano, and Daiwa are some of the top brands when it comes to fishing reels and gear in general; you should also read reviews for what you are buying to see if the reel has the features you want and it is as good as the company claims. 

Furthermore, certain price points for each of the reel types that you generally shouldn’t fall under since the quality severely diminishes past a certain point.

  • Spincast – $20
  • Spinner – $50
  • Baitcast – $100

These aren’t hard numbers; if you find a sale or a deal on a reel that you want, then snatch it up! But in general, you shouldn’t go for something that is suspiciously cheap. You’ll only end up needing to replace it soon, leading to more money spent overall and the hassle of being without a fishing reel. 

Size

Not all fishing reels are of equal size because different ones are designed to hold more line capacity than others. 

Depending on the type of fishing you intend to do, you’ll need a heavier line and a larger reel, and possibly a certain type of reel in general. An example would be if you want to catch smallmouth bass, an 8-pound (3.6 kg) test fishing line and a medium-sized reel rated for a 6 (2.7 kg) and 8 pounds (3.6 kg) line would be what you should look for.

To check to see if the reel you are buying can hold the line you intend to use; you can check the reel’s spool or the product chart online. 

When it comes to online charts, it can be a bit confusing. Instead of listing the maximum line capacity, they will list the middle one. For example, if you see “8/225”, the capacity would be good for a 10-pound line. 

Spool

The spool is responsible for holding the line and the casting distance, and how smooth that casting is. It makes all the difference when a manufacturer uses a well-made spool, and it is a good thing to prioritize when deciding on a reel. 

There are technically two types of reels: skirted and internal, but internal spools have been largely phased out due to them being prone to entangle the line, which is no fun for anyone. The solution to this was to use a skirted spool instead, which is what eventually caught on. 

There is also the “long cast” spool, which is designed to hold more line. It is shallower, allowing for the spool to take up less space while having increased line capacity. It also has less friction allowing for a longer casting distance. 

Another variation of the skirted spool incorporates Mag Spool Technically, which has the benefits of a long cast. They are still flatter and wider, allowing for faster retrieves, longer casts, and reduced line twist and pickup.

Reels featuring this technology are more expensive than average, but they do make the overall experience of casting, controlling, and retrieving better. 

Anti-Reverse Handles and Comfortable Handles

Another thing we strongly recommend to look for in a reel is an anti-reverse handle. Why is this so important? They prevent the handle from spinning backward, which is a big help when fighting tougher fish.

Next, a larger handle and knob will be helpful when it comes to how comfortable using a reel is. A larger handle is easier to grab in the heat of the moment and easier to hold on to for prolonged periods. It shouldn’t “hurt” to use a handle, or should it be difficult to hold on to. Most reputable reel brands and models take this into account, but it is worth noting!

Drag System

The last thing you want is your gear failing on you when fighting a tougher fish. The drag system in a reel is incredibly important and not something to cheap out on. It is responsible for letting out line when a fish is hooked and applying pressure. A drag system that isn’t smooth risks a line breaking due to the line’s inability to let out when a fish is pulling. 

In spinning reels, there are two types of drag systems: front and rear drag. The main differences are where the drag controls are located, but there is also another thing to consider: durability. Front drag systems are generally superior when it comes to durability and performance when fighting larger fish. 

This doesn’t mean you have to discount rear drag systems, they are easier to use overall due to the more convenient location of the controls, but there are multiple factors to consider when choosing a drag system that works for you. 

What to Look for in a Fishing Rod

A reel isn’t all you need to consider when choosing your gear. You also have to consider what rod to buy, and so we wanted to briefly go over how to pair the right rod and reel for your needs. 

Length

The length of the rod plays a crucial factor in fishing performance. There are different lengths for a reason, and that is longer rods are suited for further casting and long-distance fishing. In contrast, shorter ones are suited for close-range fishing. These lengths range anywhere from 6-12 feet (1.8-3.6 meters), making for a wide range of choices in this department. 

A shorter rod will be more accurate and maneuverable at close-ranges making it more likely to be a better fit for spin cast reels as they don’t typically have a very long casting distance.

It will depend on what kind of fishing you are doing for other rod types such as spinner or bait cast. If you know you will be casting pretty far, get a longer rod of anywhere between 10-12 feet (3-3.6 meters). While less than that will be suitable for medium to short-range fishing. 

Materials and Build Quality

Like choosing a reel, materials, and build quality matters a lot with a fishing rod. A poorly built rod will break on you very quickly, and so it is generally worth it to spend more on a mid-tier option and have it last for years. 

Quality fishing rods can be made of either fiberglass or graphite. There are advantages to each making its preference rather than an objective answer, which is better. 

Graphite is great for advanced fishing since they are lighter, allowing anglers to feel small nudges allowing them to react accordingly. The downside to graphite, however, is the fact they are brittle and break easier. Still, that doesn’t stop many professionals and advanced anglers from using them!

Fiberglass, on the other hand, is sturdier and easier to maintain but is heavier. We would say fiberglass is especially great for people who want a good rod that will last them for years. They offer a lot of value for consumers who want their gear not to let them down. 

Not to say graphite will snap easily, quality graphite rods are sturdy, but they just aren’t as sturdy as fiberglass. 

Conclusion

Fishing reels can differ quite greatly even though they are all designed to do the same thing at their core. Each type is suited for different audiences:

  • Spin-cast: Beginners, kids, and people who want a simple fishing solution.
  • Spinner: The widest appeal. Beginners, experts, and anyone in between.
  • Bait Cast: Experienced anglers and people who do advanced fishing.

No matter what you choose, the most important thing to remember is to have fun!

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