No fishing bow is complete without a reel, and from simple drums to high-end retrievers, reel choice is critical to a successful hunt.
Three options are common - retrievers, spincasters, and drums - and each has strengths and weaknesses.
If you’re not sure where to start, we’re here to help. Below, you’ll find reviews of some of our favorites, as well as a complete buying guide.
Quick glance at the best bowfishing reels:
Table of Contents (clickable)
There is no more trusted name in bowfishing reels than AMS, and if you watch what the pros shoot, you’ll see that they’re big fans as well.
The reasons are easy to explain. AMS retriever reels shoot well, work pretty much flawlessly, and take a real beating with no complaint.
Like all retriever-style reels, the AMS Retriever Pro is always ready to shoot. Without a button to depress, they’re just a second or so faster than a spincast reel, and there’s never any fish-fever induced forgetfulness that ruins a shot.
And because the line is packed into the metal “bottle” rather than wound onto a spool, there’s very little friction on the shot, improving accuracy and range.
Line is retrieved via a large crank that picks up 17 inches per turn. That’s fast for bowfishing, and the internal mechanism works well.
If we have a criticism of this otherwise excellent product, it’s that very large fish can test the holding power of the gearing, causing it to slip. That’s not a deal-breaker in our minds, as big carp are going to introduce huge stress on any bowfishing reel.
Available in both right- and left-handed options, the AMS Bowfishing Retriever Pro is well worth the money you’ll spend. Trust me; once you try this awesome reel, you’ll never look back!
For tournament bow anglers or hardcore enthusiasts who like what AMS has to offer - and really, who doesn’t? - but want an extra edge, there’s the Retriever TNT.
If you take the already super-capable Retriever Pro and turn everything up a notch, you get the TNT.
The TNT features a wider mouth on the canister, offering even less friction on your shot. It may not be game-changing when compared to the Pro, but you will notice a difference.
You’ll also notice that the crank handle is a touch longer, powering faster gears (4.3:1), allowing this reel to really race: it picks up an incredible 27 inches of line per turn! For big, mean fish, that’s nice to have, and when you inevitably miss, that speed gets you back shooting faster than the competition.
I think - but can’t confirm - that the TNT runs stronger gearing than the Retriever. In the real world, that means you won’t experience slippage on really big fish, making this the better of the two AMS reels for monsters by a large margin.
And of course, like the AMS Retriever, the TNT is always ready to shoot, with no buttons to depress to release line. It’s darn tough, too, as you’d expect, and a few hard knocks aren’t going to throw it off its game.
If you love smooth shooting and fast cranking, the TNT is a must-have.
Cajun (owned by the archery giant Bear) is a leading manufacturer of bowfishing equipment, and though they’ve built a following, we’re not sold on the Winch Pro.
Let’s explain why and let you be the judge.
Like all retriever-style reels, there’s no spool to create friction on the shot, and the engineers at Cajun have even taken the extra step of lining the mouth of the canister with ceramic. Like a good guide on a rod, that reduces friction even further, protecting your line.
We like that a lot.
And like all retriever-style reels, there’s no push-button to forget to activate when you’re in a hurry, and the Winch Pro is always ready to shoot.
But that’s where things start to fall down.
For whatever reason, the Cajun Winch Pro just can’t begin to match the durability of AMS’s reels. Some bowfisherman experience trouble right away: the crank has a habit of breaking under load, for instance.
For others, it’s failures in the bearings that drive the internal gears, resulting in grinding and freezing. For still others, there’s trouble with the way in which line is deposited in the canister.
Now, we’re not saying every reel and every angler will experience issues.
But there are enough people having problems that we’d shy away until Cajun gets a handle on its durability issues.
Cajun declined to publish the gear ratio or retrieval rate for this reel. That’s not damning, but if they were proud of these numbers, you’d expect to see them front and center, right?
Also, be aware that this is a right hand only reel.
If there’s a more storied name in spincasting than Zebco, you need to let me know.
Zebco knows spincasting reels - it’s as simple as that - and when they turn that experience toward bowfishing, you can expect excellent results.
Zebco’s 808 Bowfisher Direct Mount skips the reel seat and allows you to attach it directly to your bow. It’s a clean, simple design that we’d like to see other companies adopt.
As with all spincasters, the spool is freed to shoot by depressing a thumb button. But Zebco is familiar with the issues this can cause when the pressure’s on, and they offer a proprietary “safe shoot” visual indicator that lets you know if you're good to go.
Green means ready; red means don't shoot.
When you hit your fish, you’ll find the anti-reverse kicks in quickly. The crank is plenty strong, and the gearing (2.6:1) and spool provide sufficient speed.
As you’d expect, the drag system is controlled via the typical dial on the top of the reel, and Zebco gets this important detail right.
For a reasonably-priced option, the 808 Bowfisher Direct Mount is everything you’re looking for. And while it won’t compete with AMS’s lineup of retriever reels, this budget-friendly spincaster is well worth a second look.
Muzzy clearly knows bowfishing, and they’ve got a solid lineup of spincasting reels that are hunt-ready. They’ve listened carefully to archers who’ve wrestled with big fish, and the 1097 XD is the result.
The first thing you’ll notice is that this is a beefy spincasting reel.
It’s made ready to shoot by depressing a thumb button on the back, just like an ordinary spincaster. The spool is freed by an internal mechanism, allowing it to spin and reduce line on the shot.
Now, to be fair, this system will always produce greater friction than a retriever-style reel, simply by virtue of the friction between the spool and pin on which it turns. But Muzzy has gone a long way to reduce that drag, and with an improved hood that offers less friction at the mouth, performance is pretty good.
The crank is strong and easy to use, driving 3.4:1 ratio gears. Of course, retrieval speed is dependent on the combination of gearing and spool size, and Muzzy’s not providing any hard numbers.
Drag is set via the usual roller found on the top of the reel, and while not amazingly smooth, performance is as expected on the Muzzy 1097 XD.
Durability is so-so. The 1097 XD’s gears can grind and slip under heavy loads, and you can overwork this spincaster on real monsters.
Is that a deal-breaker?
Only you can decide.
As with all spincasting reels, this unit is ambidextrous.
Drum reels aren’t as easy to find as they once were, and they’re falling by the wayside now that retriever-style reels are taking over.
In some sense, that's a real shame (see what I did there?) because a good drum reel is durable and inexpensive.
Fin-Finder knows that, and their aptly named Heavy Duty reel is nothing more complicated than a solid aluminum drum.
Simple to attach to your bow, it’s always ready to shoot.
Moving parts? Nah - who needs ‘em?
Instead, you hand reel your line back on the drum, fighting your fish with raw muscle.
That may not sound like the way to go, but consider the failure rate and durability issues common to affordable reels, and you just might start reconsidering that view. Add to that the absence of a push-button and relatively little friction, and a strong case can be made that with the exception of the high-end AMS retrieving reels, you’d be better off with a simple drum.
Bowfishing reels come in three styles, and over the last few decades, as tech has improved and the sport has broadened its appeal, the popularity of retriever reels has really skyrocketed.
That doesn’t mean that spincast and drum reels are obsolete, but it does make good alternatives harder and harder to find each year.
Retriever reels use a large metal canister to hold your line, doing away with a spool. This system has advantages that are clear and evident.
Because your line is held in the canister rather than on a spool, when you shoot, the only friction involved is the contact your line makes with the mouth of the bottle.
In the real world, that means greater accuracy and distance, as well as smoother shooting overall.
Line is retrieved via the typical crank handle and internal gearing, and models like the AMS TNT are very fast by bowfishing standards, setting you up for your next shot quickly or helping you fight big fish.
By dint of their design, retriever-style reels are always ready for a shot, and there’s nothing you need to do before you draw and loose.
For snap shooting and high-pressure situations, that’s ideal, because I can promise you that at some point you will forget to depress the release button on a spincast reel!
Don’t take my word for it: ask any bowfisherman, and they’ll tell you about a snapped line, lost arrow, or dangerous near-miss with their own projectile.
About the only downside to retriever reels is that they’re quite a bit more expensive than other options, and setting up a good bowfishing bow is already going to set you back a bit.
Spincast reels for bowfishing are essentially identical to the spincast reels you’ll find on a rod. They house a spool beneath a shroud, and you release the spool to shoot by depressing a thumb button at the rear.
That’s a design that virtually every angler is familiar with, and for some people, that’s a real selling point. They’re also reasonably priced, running about what a standard spincast reel costs.
The problem with these reels is that - no matter how good the design and manufacturing - physics works against them.
There are two points of friction to contend with: the spool and the mouth. And no matter how free-spinning the spool, you will have some drag produced by contact, slowing your arrow and decreasing accuracy.
A second problem is that these reels, by design, require that the push-button be depressed to shoot, and if you forget to do this, really, really bad things can happen.
About the best you can hope for is a ruined shot. But your line can snap, or worse still not snap, and send your arrow flying back in your direction!
Does that make these reels a bad choice?
I wouldn’t say so, but if you can afford the more expensive retriever-style reels, you’ll never go back to spincasters.
Drum reels were the original bowfishing solution, and this simple, robust design has a lot going for it.
Without moving parts, there’s very little to go wrong or break, and keeping it simple is never a bad idea.
They’re also dirt cheap, a rarity in the archery world.
But you do all the work with a drum reel, and after each and every shot, you've got to wind your line back on the reel by hand. That’s time-consuming, and when you want to get back in the action in a hurry, you’ll feel those seconds drag into minutes with every missed shot.
Once common, retriever reel tech has gotten so good that drum reels are harder and harder to find. But as a budget alternative to spincast reels, they’ve got a lot to offer.
Bowfishing can really eat up a reel.
Shooting a big carp and then fighting that monster back to your boat is going to test any reel, and from stout gears to firm attachments, you want a reel that can give as good as it gets.
And you’ll also find that bumps and knocks are, unfortunately, common.
That’s why durability is critical on bowfishing reels, and we assessed each of the products on our shortlist to let you know exactly where they stand.
In conventional fishing, reel speed matters when a fast fish makes a run back toward you. Without a tight line, pressure on the hook is minimal, and a strong, quick fish can throw your hook in these situations.
But bowfishing arrows sport barbs that make this all but impossible, and the chief use of a fast reel is to retrieve your arrow on a missed shot.
The faster you get that arrow back in hand, the sooner you can shoot again.
On conventional reels, speed is a function of two things: gear ratio and spool size. The faster your gearing and the larger your spool, the more line you’ll retrieve per turn of the handle.
That’s true on the spincasting reels used for bowfishing, too. So you can’t just look at a reel’s reported gear ratio and conclude that the faster-geared reel is the faster reel overall.
Retriever reels are a different beast altogether, depending entirely on gearing to retrieve line as there’s no spool involved. For this system, faster gearing really does tell the whole tail.