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Saltwater Reel Buyer's Guide

Posted by 
May 6, 2013
Published in News & Tips > Fishing > Saltwater
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Life is certainly more complicated than it used to be, and fishing reels are no different. Thirty years ago in Texas, my friends and I all used the "red reel" (an Ambassadeur 5000 baitcaster) for almost everything, both fresh and salt. We picked out many a backlash but caught thousands of fish, from reservoir big bass, to coastal redfish and trout, to offshore cobia, mackerel and snapper. Except for a cheap but sturdy Penn "snapper reel" for partyboat trips, that was our sum total of reels. Period.  

Being regional kept it simple. After all, back then, any Texan using spin tackle was regarded with suspicion. It was only in far South Texas on the Laguna Madre, where the wind cranked up by 11 a.m. each day (and casting distances are quite long) would you find spin tackle. Folks down there had to use spinning tackle for good reason. Ever try a 40-yard cast into a gusting wind with an older baitcasting reel? It's hard, just hard.
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Spinning reels are better than baitcast reels when it comes to long casts that don't require pinpoint accuracy. If you pack the reel correctly with line, you'll rarely experience backlash or a tangle. Spinning gear also maximizes a fight you can savor, if you're hooking fish that won't dash into cover. That would include seatrout on the grassflats near Flamingo, where I started. Years later I was amazed to have a bonefish smoke off more than 100 yards of line on a shallow flat. That's classic spinning tackle action.

On the other hand, we wouldn't use our older spin gear in serious mangrove tree country, where snook grab on and then ducked behind fallen trees and roots. We needed stronger baitcasting reels for that. Today it's changed in that some anglers are using oversize spinning reels for this same job. They load spin reels with 30- or 50-pound braid line and pull hard, which can wear out a smaller reel's drag system. (There's a joke about a new spin reel picked off the shelf in a tackle store, talking silently to the angler/buyer as he cruises over to the fishing line section. The reel says, "Don't pick braid...don't pick braid...Doh!")   

You see, lighter monofilament line is easier on a spin reel, probably adding years to its life.

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Sailfish crew using baitcast reels with high line capacity, normally used under fishing kites.

Baitcasters, on the other hand, are precise casters in experienced hands. They're quite accurate at brush-busting or pinpoint casting at shoreline targets. Using topwater plugs in tree-choked reservoirs? No problem. All it takes is casting practice for dropping lures within inches of fishy structure. Mangrove tree shorelines are notorious for stealing lures, but with the right reel you can toss a plug way back under the branches, into the shadows. If a big snook grabs on you can stick him, get seriously mean with him, before he turns and lunges for cover.  

Before superlines and braid, it was the baitcaster that horsed fish away from mangrove trees, dock, jetty rocks and production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Offshore at the oil rigs, spin reels were pretty much useless, even for catching big blue runners. Those pesky critters would turn-and-burn into the platform, dragging line over razor-sharp marine growth, and you were left with nothing. The same happened with cobia and red snapper. You needed hard-pulling baitcast reels to seriously lean on those fish, to turn them around.  

That meant using the aforementioned Ambassadeur 5000 reel, then the improved 5500 model, which is still around, then the wider 6000 and then the bigger 7000 reel. We've won tournaments with all of these reels, ranging from seatrout to cobia to kingfish. Biggest fish was a 66-pound wahoo on my 7000 reel, a fish caught while casting and working a 3-ounce jig. (That was a heavy jig — thus the bigger 7000 reel with a long but stout rod. You would never work a jig of that size with a smaller 5000 reel). 

We were drift-fishing, which was fortunate, because that blue torpedo of a wahoo ran at least 300 yards and probably more. There wasn't that much 30-pound line on the reel, but we cranked up the boat and chased after the fish, finally subduing it.

During a different summer, a 55-pound king mackerel grabbed on and we swiftly unhooked the boat from the oil rig (using an 8-foot rig hook), cranked up the boat's engine and took off after that fish. It was landed on 40-pound line a fairly good distance from the oil rig, using a lever-drag reel that we will get to in a moment. That kingfish won the state championship for that year, which yielded a new boat, motor and trailer.    

We will cover more of the heavier reels used for bigger fish, but keep in mind that becoming proficient with both spin and baitcaster reels certainly makes for a better angler. Buy at least one of each and fill it with quality line of the right caliber. Doing so enables one to cover virtually all freshwater, inshore and coastal fishing. Some anglers keep a dozen of each. Look at the bass pros — they carry perhaps 10 rod outfits on deck and within reach, while they cast from the bow (and drive the electric motor). They're busy people with lots of options, under pressure.

If you're looking at bigger fish — from Alaska's halibut to Florida's tarpon — you'll likely need something more robust. The reel used on my big kingfish was a lever-drag outfit, a Shimano TLD 15 reel. Such a reel will cast, but backlashes were fairly common. Our earlier Ambassadeur 7000 reels had the levelwind feature, which certainly made for better casting. However, for catching true offshore speedsters, you don't want a levelwind reel at all. After all, the poor "worm gear" that controls the levelwind has to rotate and keep up with the fish, and sometimes that's not possible.  

So the open-face, lever-drag reels, with their smooth feed compared to star-drag systems, are filled with 20- to 80-pound line, and used for taming speedy marlin and other offshore pelagic fish. (Atlantic sailfish, which average around 50 pounds, are caught on these reels too, but anglers may use 20-pound spin tackle as an option.) Remember: lever drags mean smooth and reliable.

If you don't plan on trolling blue water, but want to tame a variety of heavier fish, then an open face reel with a star drag, with 40- or 50-pound line is a great general-purpose reel system. Take the Penn 4/0 reel; it's been around forever, has a star drag, and you can find dozens of copies on any big offshore partyboat today. This is a workhorse reel (though, admittedly, not as sturdy as the earlier models, which could only be described as bullet-proof). Countless smaller charterboats also use this reel today, as they've proved reliable under daily punishment.    

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Thanks to the advent of superlines and high-quality components, modern spin tackle can take on jobs considered impossible only 15 years ago.

Buy a four-pack of these reels, mount them on sturdy boat rods, and you're good to go on one slugfest after another, such as inlet fishing. In Texas, we would anchor up at an inlet or jetty and set out four of these rods, baited with a big mullet head or a 6-inch live bait of some sort, including menhaden or croakers.  

When a rod bent double and line was ripping off the reel, it meant a big circle hook had bitten into something big down there. We caught countless redfish from 37 to 44 inches, crevalle jacks that were typically 18 to 24 pounds, blacktip sharks that averaged 40 pounds, tarpon from 80 pounds ranging on up into the scary size (over 200 pounds) that fought until hours after dark, and also stingrays that were locally called "barn doors."   

Out at the inlet we never caught anything that was really manageable on standard casting or spin tackle. You needed sturdy reels that could survive constant salt and big fish. We wore out the drag systems on several TLD reels out there, by using 40-pound line all the time. These were finesse reels, not meant for brute force and constantly dragging up big fish in fast tides. The cheaper Penns (these were the older models with the purple finish) worked well and survived much longer under harsh conditions.      

And, if we wanted to run offshore and bottom fish for snapper, we used the very same gear. We could troll lures, drift-fish while using 2-ounce jigs, or tie up and drop big weights and baits 80 feet to the bottom. If a cobia showed up on the surface, we had him covered. If the crew wanted kingfish, we tied on short wire leaders and simply fed line and baits out behind the boat, into the chum line. That sturdy 4/0 reel did it all, once we left the bays behind.     

Before going offshore, check out a variety of saltwater reels. Whatever style and size you choose, make sure it's appropriate for your intended application.  


Tagged under Read 13505 times Last modified on May 27, 2016
Capt. Joe Richard

Joe Richard has fished the Gulf since 1967, starting out of Port Arthur, Texas, but his adventures have taken him up and down the entire Gulf Coast. He was the editor of Tide magazine for eight years, and later Florida Sportsman's book and assistant magazine editor. He began guiding out of Port O'Connor, Texas, in 1994, and later on in Florida. His specialty is big kingfish, and his latest book is "The Kingfish Bible, New Revelations", due for publication in 2013. His website,, includes a large collection of his outdoor photography.

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