Fishing Spinning Reel Buyer's Guide

Spinning reels are a favorite of both serious and casual anglers, popular for both their ease of use and flexibility. If you’re wondering what features are the most important to consider when stepping into the spinning arena for the first time, or upgrading the reel you own, this buyer’s guide will help you sort out the facts.

Spinning reels are designed with a fixed, open-faced spool positioned in line with the rod. The spool is stationary and a rotor/line guide revolves or spins around the fixed spool. This type of reel is designed to mount below the rod, and held in the right hand while the reel's crank is turned by the left hand, although most models come with the ability to reverse the handle.

Spinning reels are ideal for light line and live bait presentations where you need to cast either a very light lure or don't want to harm live bait trying to get a little extra distance. Spinning reels are used for all types of techniques by anglers that simply prefer this type of reel because of its easy casting ability and simplicity of operation.

A casual review of the wide variety of spinning reels carried by Cabela's leaves the average fisherman scratching their head, wondering just what is the difference, and which one to buy. With so many ambiguous terms like Gyro Spin®, Aero-Wrap® and Hydrothermal Drag, it's hard to know just what features are what, and how they compare to other brands and equally ambiguous terms.

I sat down with Cabela's reel experts, Kim Norton and Tom Rolls to ferret out the facts and sort out the difference as it relates to actual use. No matter what the intended use, from bluegills to bill fish, an angler wants to be confident they have the tackle that will do the job without driving a tack with a sledge hammer.

If money isn't an issue, just select the Shimano Stella ($489.99 to $699.99 depending on the model) and you'll have the finest reel that has ever been cradled by fish-slimed fingers. Should you be among the masses that are constrained by reality, there's still good news. The quality of reels has risen dramatically in the past decade, and for most types of reels, competition has held the cost increase to a reasonable rate.

Rolls explained that in the most general terms, features are price point driven and at any given price point reels will have very comparable features. So, to some extent, selecting a reel is as much about dollars and personal preference as it is about the technical aspects.

The major factors in selecting a spinning reel can be broken down into environment, targeted species (which dictates line capacity), method of release and construction.

Water Factor
Norton pointed out that the first consideration is not what species you're targeting, but where are you going to be fishing, although in many cases the species will dictate the latter. "If you're going to be fishing in either brackish or saltwater, you need a reel that is built to withstand this harsh environment. Top quality reels, including our Prodigy spinning line, use rust resistant ball bearings. Dollar for dollar, you won't find a reel that compares to the features and quality of our Prodigy line. The Prodigy is designed to tackle all but the bigger saltwater species, and has the quality bearings to stand up to saltwater. It's got the best features, for a lot less money than comparable reels," he said.

Targeted Species
The species you are targeting will dictate a lot of the questions you need to answer. Specifically, the amount and size of line you need to land the intended fish is a key factor. If you're going after large freshwater species such as muskie or aggressive offshore species such as tarpon or sailfish you need a reel with enough line capacity to allow for long runs and a drag system that will handle the heat. Conversely, how much line can a bluegill take, even with two-pound-test line on an ultralight rig?

No matter what species you're targeting you want a reel that will be a pleasure to use, and one that will stand the test of that unexpected lunker. Noise and vibration are not only a sign of poor quality, they're also irritating on a long day of casting. I've fished with some reels that sounded like a treadle sewing machine and felt more like I was turning a hand coffee grinder. The solution is simple.

According to Norton, quality in a spinning reel is all about the bearings, and he added, "More is not necessarily better, it's also a quality issue." In general terms, the more bearings a reel has, the smoother the retrieves will be and bearings also reduce the amount of noise and vibration, however, a reel with four quality bearings will perform better than a reel with 10 poor bearings.

For saltwater applications, buying a reel with top quality ball bearings is mandatory, and well worth them money when you consider the result of salt corrosion and its reel-killing power.

The difference in ordinary bearings and top quality bearings is a combination of the materials they are made of and the process used to make them. Different alloys make bearings harder, smoother and more rust resistant. Chromium added to stainless steel is the most common alloy used for corrosion resistance. Daiwa calls their high-end bearings CRBB (Corrosion Resistant Ball Bearings) and Shimano calls their top quality bearings A-RBs (Anti Rust Bearings). Top quality reels also have a higher grade of lubricant that extends the life of the bearings as well as making them smoother during the retrieve.

The next important aspect of reel selection is construction. Designers have always been faced with the challenge of making reels that were light enough for long days of casting, but strong enough to withstand the torque produced by big fish. The toughest, most durable reels use all-metal components, and high-end reels use sophisticated alloys that provide strength to light weight metals. Other manufacturers use airframe techniques and drill or machine out portions of the body and parts to eliminate weight.

There are three basic frame types. Broken down into a good, better best scenario, graphite or copolymer would be good, a hybrid of copolymer or graphite with a metal faceplate would be better and the best option is all metal construction. While it is an improvement in design to have bearings and shafts supported by metal components, you won't find anything but metal in reels that have to be rugged and dependable day in and day out.

To save weight and keep the cost down, many reels for smaller species have plastic or graphite components that just won't hold up to the strain of battling bigger fish. For panfish up to bass it's not much of an issue, but when you start going after big catfish, northerns or muskie and offshore species you have to go with all-metal construction. Even if a poor quality reel doesn't come apart during a heavy battle, the torque created on the reel's body will cause the bearings to become misaligned, overheat and wear excessively.

Quality Machining
Another factor in the price and quality of reels is the machine work, and it's one of the most telling phases of reel construction for bearing related surfaces. Tighter tolerances produce better quality bearing seats, less wobble, smoother cranking and longer life for both bearings and the surfaces they travel on. If you pick up a reel and find that the spool or handle moves slightly when pressure is applied to the shaft, then you don't need a micrometer to know that it's not that finely machined. For the average angler, who fishes half a dozen times a year, the cost of stepping up to the next level may not be justifiable. However, for the angler who fishes every weekend and a few times in between, it's a no-brainer.

Bails are simply a mechanism that releases and then wraps the line around a spinning reel's spool. Consider the various methods of line release. There's the basic manual system of grasping the line with your forefinger and opening the bail with your free hand, compared to designs with a trigger release that is attached to the bail; and then there's the Quantum Hypercast Ultra. The Hypercast's unique design features a trigger that enables an angler to cast without touching the line, which appeals to someone who has trouble casting in the traditional manner. With the Hypercast the trigger engages a mechanism that holds the line until you release the trigger.

One important note: A common complaint of anglers with large hands is that the trigger releases attached to the bail reduce the amount of clearance and the spinning trigger can bang your knuckles if you're not careful.

Chubby Checker made the twist popular, but it never caught on with fishermen. There are many positive aspects to fishing with a spinning reel, but one of the frustrating things is line twist. Line twist is created by the bail as it wraps the line around the spool, giving it a little twist that is magnified after repeated casts until you open the bail and the line starts ejecting itself or becomes tangled during a cast. Swivels help reduce this problem, but if you don't want to use a swivel, what's an angler to do?

That's a quandary that reel designers have attacked in a number of innovative ways, both from the physical design to using various materials in the construction of the bail and line roller. A line roller is the portion of the bail that the line rides on as it is wrapped around the spool. Lower end reels use a slick surface to allow line to pass over the bail to reduce twist, but the more effective systems use ball bearings.

The Twist Buster™ design, used on Cabela's Prodigy, Tournament ZX and numerous Daiwa models is very effective for reducing line twist. Other models of reels use Titanium or similar hard, slick materials to reduce line turn over. The effectiveness of all of these innovations will vary depending on the type and weight of line being used. Regardless of the type of reel you have, it's a good idea to take your lure off, put a small weight on the line and let it pay out as you move slowly through the water. After a few yards being pulled behind the boat, wind it up and you should be problem free.

You'll also find some reels with larger spools, which can mitigate line related problems, especially with memory problems resulting from tight spooling.

Speed vs. Power
The gear ratio of a reel will determine how fast you will be able to retrieve line, and how much cranking power you have. Gear ratio can be an issue, depending on target species as well, but it's more an issue of your style of fishing. Reels with a ratio of 5.5:1 to 6.3:1 are fast retrieve reels. If you need more cranking power, choose a reel with a lower ratio, like 4.1:1. The numbers are simple to understand. The first number indicates how many times the spool will turn for every crank of the reel's handle. Therefore, the spool of a reel with a 6.3:1 ratio will turn around 6.3 times for every turn of the reel's handle. A lower gear ratio like 4.1:1 is indicative of a main gear that is smaller, which relates to the first gear of your standard transmission truck.

The word "drag" has a negative connotation, unless you've got a fast car or you're trying to stop a departing fish. Two major categories separate drags in spinning reels, front and rear adjustment. With only a few exceptions, front drags are more effective for really big fish. The increased effectiveness of front adjusted drags has a lot to do with the way the drag is tightened but mostly it's the size of the drag surface. You wouldn't want to try and stop a large truck with brake shoes off a compact car. Larger "shoes" and more compressing power are critical for big fish and larger disks also dissipate heat better.

The main advantage of a rear adjustable drag is that they are easier to tweak while you're in the middle of a tussle with a big fish, or when using light lines in an ultra-light situation.

On either end, look for a drag that is smooth to adjust, and is tight enough to stay where it's adjusted. Another factor to consider is how easy the adjustment knob is to grasp, especially if you fish when it's cold when fingers are numb or inside gloves.

Line Capacity
Spinning reels can handle line weights as low as 2-pound test, and can cast very light lures, when matched with the proper rod. Larger models, designed for bigger fresh and saltwater species can handle the heaviest weights of line. All reel spools have a line capacity indication, which will help you decide on which reel to select. Typically, this information is found on the spool, but you'll also find it listed in the technical data in Cabela's convenient comparison charts or at the bottom of pods.

A reel's capacity might mean that the spool's diameter is too small for heavier lines, due to their inherent diameter and stiffness. Avoid going outside a reel's recommended line size and capacity in either direction. Trying to use a reel with small diameter lines on a larger spool can lead to problems with tangles inside the reel, and putting heavy line on a reel designed for light line can result in problems due to stiffness and much reduced capacity.

Match the line with your rod's capabilities and reel capacity with the targeted species. Lighter weight lines will generally give better lure performance and casting distances. Don't forget to take into consideration the cover you'll be fishing in or around. Heavy cover and abrasive rocks require a heavier, abrasive-resistant line. For freshwater, ultra-light fishing tackle is limited to line with a lower pound test, matched to light action rods and small reels. For spinning tackle, this would be limited to line weights below 4-pound test. For saltwater fishing, lines testing less than 10 pound might be considered ultra-light. Rods used in these weight classes tend to have a softer action to flex and cushion the line; matching reels will be smaller to better balance with the rod size and weight.

Matching Rods
The reel seats on spinning rods are positioned on the bottom on the reel handle, and the guides are on the bottom of the rod as well. Guides are larger, up close to the face of the reel, where the line is gyrating wider as it pays out of the reel, tapering to smaller sizes moving toward the tip.

Care should be taken to match the right reel with the right rod for specific applications. Rods are designed to work best within a specified range of line weights. You will find the recommended line range and lure weight recommendations printed on the shaft of every rod, near the handle, along with the designated action. The term action refers to the way that the rod bends under load. Rods with a slow or parabolic action curves all the way to the butt section when loaded with a cast or fighting a fish. This action is a good choice for casting soft or live baits and serves as an excellent shock absorber for light lines.

Trying to cast light jigs or small crankbaits with a stiff rod, intended for catfish or larger species, can be futile - especially when casting into the wind. Generally, you will want a soft to moderate action rod for lighter weight lures and stiffer rods for larger lures and spunkier species.

In comparison, a moderate or medium action would have a stiffer butt section and would bend primarily in the upper half of the rod. Fast action models bend mostly in the upper third of the rod. This action works well with artificial lures such as plastic worms and spinnerbaits. Extra-fast designs have an ultra-sensitive tip section to transmit the feel of light bites quickly.

Anglers who spend a lot of time holding and cranking on a reel's handle will also want to consider the left-hand/right-hand issue. Unless you like casting with one hand and changing it over to the other to reel, it's an important decision. Most of the reels today are changeable from side to side, and it's a simple process.

As a matter of fact, most of fishing is a simple process. It's only when you do it over and over again that the little things become more important. No angler that I have ever known has regretted buying a better quality reel, but I know quite a few that have boxes of reels that they no longer use. The collective value of those reels would have added up to one fine quality reel, and for some even a Shimano Stella.