Saltwater Reel Buyer's Guide

News & Tips: Saltwater Reel Buyer's Guide

Life is certainly more complicated than it used to be, and saltwater fishing reels are no different. Forty years ago in Texas, my friends and I all used the "red reel" (Ambassadeur 5000 baitcaster) for almost everything, both freshwater and salt. We picked out many a backlash but caught thousands of fish, from big bass in the reservoirs to coastal redfish and trout. Offshore, we battled cobia, mackerel, tripletail and snapper. On our visits to the Florida Keys each summer, it was mangrove and mutton snapper and the occasional tarpon. Except for a cheap but sturdy 4/0 Penn "snapper reel" used on Gulf partyboat trips, that was our entire collection of reels. Reel simplicity, to borrow a pun.  

offshore angler fishing tackleBeing regional kept it simple. 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 reliably cranked up by noon each day (and casting distances are often quite long) would you find spin gear. Folks down there had to use spin tackle for good reason. Ever try casting into a gusting wind with an older baitcasting reel? It's hard, just hard. But the baitcasters were great for accuracy while casting around flooded trees, or muscling fish away from rocky coastal jetties and Gulf oil platforms.

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. Spin gear also maximizes a fight you can savor, if you're hooking fish that won't dash for cover. That would include seatrout on the grassflats near Flamingo in Florida, where my uncle started me as a kid. Many years later, I’m still amazed when a bonefish tries to smoke off a hundred yards of line on a shallow flat. That's classic spin tackle action.
saltwater spin reel

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- or even 65-pound braid line and can pull back 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. Or its drag system, anyway.

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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 fishing line, 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, small spin reels were completely ineffective because structure is always close by and will easily cut line. A number of Gulf fish species would turn-and-burn into these platforms, dragging line over razor-sharp marine growth, and we were often left with nothing. We wanted hard-pulling baitcast reels that could seriously lean on fish and turn them around. 

That meant using the aforementioned Ambassadeur 5000 fishing reel, then the improved 5500 model, which is still around, then the wider 6000 and 6500 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’s a heavy jig — thus the bigger 7000 reel with a long but stout casting rod. You would never work a jig of that size with a smaller baitcasting reel).

baitcasting reels jetty fishing
Baitcasting reels are still popular for jetty fishing, Gulf platforms and Texas bay fishing.

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

During a different summer, a 55-pound king mackerel grabbed on and we swiftly unhooked the boat from an offshore platform (we were using an eight-foot aluminum rig hook). My buddy cranked the engine and we took off after that fish. The ponderous kingfish won the state tournament championship for that year, which yielded a new 21-foot 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 baitcasting tackle certainly makes for a more versatile angler. I started early, thanks to my great uncle, and my muscle memory today is such that I can only use a left-hand spin reel, and a right-hand baitcaster. Like so many years ago, I still keep both in the boat at all times. Doing so enables me to cover virtually all freshwater, along with inshore and offshore fishing. Some anglers own a dozen of each type of reel. Look at the bass tourney pros — they keep 10 baitcaster rods on the boat and within reach, while they cast from the bow and drive their electric motors with foot control. They're very busy people, with lots of options while the clock is ticking.

shimano drag reel
Shimano Triton Lever Drag TLD 15 reel

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 winning kingfish was a lever-drag fishing outfit, a Shimano Triton Lever Drag TLD 15 reel. Such a reel will cast, but our backlashes were fairly common. Our earlier Ambassadeur 7000 reels had the levelwind feature that certainly made for smooth casting. However, for catching true offshore speedsters, you don't want that. After all, the "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 with this type of reel as well, though spin tackle is an option. Twenty-pound line is favored in either reel choice, for that fish. Remember: lever drag reels are extremely smooth and reliable when a big fish hits.

Here’s a mismatch story: We recently hooked a hundred-pound tarpon from the boat, and chased after a fish that was soon jumping on the horizon. We were under-gunned, with 25-pound line on a medium-sized spin rod meant for sailfish but being used that day, with bait, for shoreline redfish. My charter fishing guest kept winding on the spin reel, even when it didn’t gain line, which twists the line. The tarpon towed our light skiff for a half mile but the line finally broke, and more than a hundred feet of twisted line had to be discarded. I made a mental note to use heavier, lever-drag tackle at that shoreline spot in the future, with either my Shimano TLD-15 or -20 reels. If that doesn’t work, I have a TLD-25 filled with 50-pound line. Capable of landing world record tarpon.

If you want to tame a variety of offshore bottom 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 often find dozens of these on any big offshore partyboat. 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 use this reel today, as they’re very reliable under daily punishmen.    

SaltwaterReelBG 2
Thanks to the advent of superlines and high-quality components, modern spin tackle can take on jobs considered impossible only 15 years ago.

Buy four of those Penn 4/0 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 in 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 and sometimes were closer to one hundred pounds. And then tarpon from 80 pounds on up to the scary size (perhaps over 200 pounds) that we fought until hours after dark. And then big stingrays that were locally called "barn doors."  

Out at the inlet we never caught anything small enough to be manageable on casting or spin tackle. We 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. These are 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 under harsh conditions.         

And, if we wanted to run offshore and bottom fish for snapper, we used the very same 4/0 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. Offshore, the sturdy 4/0 reel could just about do it all.

With shallow water, today I carry a brace of spin reels filled with 12-pound line, and mounted on seven-foot rods. With maybe a couple of baitcaster outfits. Also, one slightly heavier spin rod with 25-pound line, capable of casting a live bait or artificial if a cobia appears. It’s a pretty simple arrangement. If I go offshore on a bigger boat, you can bet one of my baitcaster rods is on board with a bucktail fishing jig attached—able to cast at surface fish, or jig deep.

Today’s choice of fishing reels is simply amazing and affordable to anyone. But whatever style and size you choose, make sure it's appropriate for your intended target fish.