Designed for massive fish and ferocious fights, you can think of conventional reels as baitcasters on steroids. With easy-to-access drag levers, capacious spools, and tough gearing, they’re built for the big stuff.
Not sure what makes a conventional reel superior for offshore fishing or trolling on the Great Lakes? Curious about which models are the best options for you? Keep reading!
Here’s a quick glance at the best conventional reels:
- Penn Fathom Lever Drag — Our Pick!
- Daiwa Saltist Levelwind Line Counter
- Penn Squall LevelWind
- Piscifun Salis X
- Shimano Tekota
Table of Contents
- 1 Best Conventional Reel Reviews
- 2 Conventional Reel Basics
- 3 What We Consider When Selecting a Conventional Reel
- 4 Our Pick — the Penn Fathom Lever Drag!
Best Conventional Reel Reviews
Penn Fathom Lever Drag — Our Pick!
Gear ratio: (15, 25, and 30) 5.3:1; (40) 4.8:1; (40HS and 60) 7.1:1
Penn is perhaps the most trusted name in offshore angling, and the Fathom Lever Drag series is everything you’d expect in a top-flight reel.
The Fathom series sport a solid-metal body and stainless steel gearing, providing the durability big fish and tough conditions demand. All that metal comes at a cost, of course, and these reels are by no means featherweights.
That said, expect bomb-proof durability and unrivaled stiffness, as well as cranking power to spare. Indeed, the Fathom’s stainless gears and bearings, available in three gear ratios, produce excellent retrieval rates. You’ll have no trouble keeping your line tight, which is always an important consideration, but absolutely essential in places where the law requires a barbless hook.
Capacity is excellent in all sizes, too, and you’ll find the spool marked with line capacity rings that keep you in the know at a glance.
The Fathom series is equipped with an excellent, extremely durable drag system. Ranging from 20 pounds in the smallest size, to fully 40 pounds on the 40 and 60 series, there’s power to spare in a hard fight, with no slipping or binding, even at high settings. Drag adjustments are made via a thumb lever near the crank, making this system very easy to adjust on the fly.
Count me as impressed!
Penn knows that you can’t always control what bites what you’re throwing, and to help ensure you catch what you hook, they’ve built in a dog-paw anti-reverse–essentially a ratcheting clutch that locks-up quickly.
Cranking power is excellent, as I mentioned above, and the Fathom is admirably smooth, too.
There’s no level wind on this reel–a plus for durability–but an extra chore if you’re fishing mono rather than braid. The Fathom features a clicker, but no line counter, so I’d look elsewhere if I needed precision trolling.
Overall, the Penn Fathom Lever Drag is an excellent choice of offshore fishing with braid, where the absence of a level wind and line counter simply won’t come into play.
Available at: Amazon
Gear ratio: 6.0:1
No list of conventional reels would be complete without an Avet. And while this reel can be had in a lower 4.6:1 gear ratio, that’s simply too slow for most anglers’ needs. Instead, it’s the beefy LX 6.0 that gets everyone’s attention, and just one look can tell you why.
The Avet features a solid, machined-aluminum body. A one-piece unit, there’s no competition on this front, and dollar for dollar, this is probably the best on the market. Very, very strong and unbelievably stiff, there’s no room for improvement.
As in Penn’s Fathom, Avet has chosen to run stainless steel gears. And like the Fathom, expect acceptable smoothness and fantastic power. On this front, I’d say that the Avet is as good as the Fathom, a virtual tie.
In terms of capacity, the Avet is about middle-of-the-pack. Available in a single size that’s roughly equivalent to a Penn 30, the Fathom has it beat in this department, as do larger Daiwa Saltists. That said, this is perhaps the most respected reel among sailfish enthusiasts, and plenty of pros rely on the Avet to keep them in the money.
That’s saying something right there.
The Avet’s drag is on the lighter end, probably a nod to its reputation on sailfish rather than as a reel designed for anything and everything. It’s easy to set, easy to adjust after a strike, and provides admirable grip.
And for the size of the reel, the LX 6.0 is smoking! Picking up an incredible 46 inches per turn, it’s nearly on par with the blazing Saltist.
That’s truly impressive performance, and there’s a lot to like about this reel. I think the Penn Fathom edges it out with a wide range of sizes, faster options, and larger capacities, but you definitely won’t feel poorly served if you choose the Avet!
- Superb body–probably the best in the business
- Smooth cranking, great gear ratio, and excellent retrieval rates
- Awesome, though relatively light, drag
- Excellent capacity
- Outstanding durability
- No level wind means more work with mono
- No line counter makes precision trolling tough
- No size options
Gear ratio: (20 and 30) 6.1:1; (40 and 50) 6.4:1
Daiwa’s conventional reels are solid performers, but only the best of the bunch makes our list: the Saltist Levelwind. Initially designed as an answer to anglers’ prayers for a smaller reel with high-speed gearing and a level wind, it’s a solid performer when you need precision trolling and casting for smaller fish.
Daiwa knows reels, and the Saltist has the body to prove that. Made from solid aluminum, it’s an all-metal nod to the need for stiffness and durability. These reels have proven that they can take what the salt dishes out, season after season, and you just don’t get stiffer than solid metal.
These aren’t large reels, even in the biggest sizes, and the biggest of the bunch is about mid-range for a Penn Fathom. As such, don’t expect miles of line even on the most capacious spools. That said, I think there’s plenty of space on these reels for all but the biggest, farthest running fish.
And that’s not really what the Saltist was made for. Instead, think bull reds, monster blues, lake trout, wahoo, and the like.
As a result, don’t expect monstrous drag settings, either, and like Penn’s Squall, you’ll find two options in the series: 15.4 pounds and 24 pounds. Those numbers make sense in light of this reel’s capacity, and you wouldn’t want to push the Daiwa to 60 or 80-pound mono in any case, as the drag just isn’t designed to keep up.
Clearly, heavier braid is not an ideal choice, just as with the Squall, as the drag will quickly fall behind.
The Saltist’s solid brass gearing is plenty powerful, but where it really stands out is its retrieval rate. While neither 6.1:1 nor 6.4:1 are shockingly high numbers, 35 and 47.2 inches are jaw-dropping, especially in a reel this size.
I’m sure that speed goes a long way toward explaining the fan base for this reel, and if you need to burn lures, snatch jigs from the bottom, or keep a tight line when in a hard fight, the Saltist is a great option to reach for.
Be aware that the spool release must be re-engaged manually; simply turning the crank will not engage the spool!
Equipped with a level wind, line counter, and (somewhat fragile) clicker, this is an excellent reel for casting applications as well as precision trolling for all but the largest fish.
Gear ratio: (15, 20, and 30) 4.9:1; (50) 4.0:1
Penn’s Squall LevelWind series is an excellent conventional reel for anglers who run monofilament or those who plan on casting. Available in a wide range of sizes, the 20 is available with the option of line counter, making it a good choice for precision trolling.
The Squall’s body is graphite–but don’t shy away just yet! Yes, graphite isn’t as stiff as aluminum, but it will stand up to years of abuse. And what it lacks in pure rigidity it makes up for in weight-savings, allowing a level wind reel to come in a relatively svelte on the scale.
In the real world, the Squall has been proving that graphite works as body material for conventional reels, and if weight matters to you, you’ll be glad to have it.
Available in four sizes, expect capacious spools on all of them. Size to size, the Squall holds more line than the Penn Fathom and simply dwarfs the capacity of the Shimano Tekota. Ounce for ounce, then, you get a ton of line from that graphite body and aluminum spool, and its line capacity rings allow at-a-glance assessments when a fight is on.
Its solid brass gears are plenty smooth, and they provide reassuring torque with each crank. Retrieval rates are great in each size, and though they pale in comparison to the big (or fast) Fathoms, they’re more than enough to keep a tight line. Moreover, the Squall LevelWind sports an instant anti-reverse bearing that works well and holds strong.
But where this Squall stands out from the Fathom is casting, running monofilament main line, and precision trolling.
The Squall LevelWind, as its name suggests, comes equipped with one, helping to distribute line across the spool. Especially for anglers who prefer to run mono, this is a big help, and you’ll really notice the difference if you plan on casting with this reel.
The 20 series can be had with a line counter, too, making it an excellent choice for precision trolling. The clicker is loud and reliable, making this a good choice for bottom fishing as well.
The drag system on this Squall is controlled via the typical star-shaped knob behind the crank. Not as powerful as the awesome system on the Fathom, it’s still plenty for most anglers and holds its own at any setting without slipping or binding. That said, it’s designed for “lighter” lines (and clearly built around mono), so running heavy braid isn’t the best idea as you’ll quickly outstrip the power of its drag.
If you’re after real monsters, though, and can accept the absence of the level wind and line counter on the Fathom, I think it’s the better option.
Overall, the Squall LevelWind is an excellent reel that’s an ideal choice for anglers who cast or precision troll.
Available at: Amazon
Gear ratio: 6.2:1
Conventional reels tend to be pricey–that’s an unpleasant offshore reality. And many of the budget-priced options just aren’t up to snuff–we’re looking at you, KastKing Rover! With pathetic capacities, light drags, and questionable components, they’re just not built to work or last.
The Piscifun Salis X series is an exception, though the question you should be asking isn’t “is this as good as the Shimano, Penn, or Daiwa?” Instead, the right question is, “How well does it close the gap with the more expensive reels in terms of performance?”
Let’s find out.
Like Penn Squall, the Salis X offers anglers a graphite frame. Not as rigid as aluminum or steel, you may eventually end up with a bit of play in the body, but that’ll take time and some hard fights! Almost certainly, Piscifun was pushed into this material by the overall weight of these reels, which despite the savings of graphite, still come in at a hefty 25.7 and 35.6 ounces.
Clearly, these aren’t really lightweight reels.
Expect solid brass gearing that’s reliably smooth and plenty powerful. I don’t have any complaints here, and the Hamai teeth really hold under strain.
And if you’re looking for a fast reel at a reasonable price, you’ve found it. Retrieval rates per size are simply awesome. The Salis X 3000 is roughly the same size as the Squall 20 (though it’s a disappointing 10 ounces heavier!), but it picks up 39 inches of line per turn to the Penn’s 28.
That’s impressive by any standard–and closing the gap with the lightning-fast Daiwa at a fraction of the cost!
The drag on the Salis X isn’t its best feature, but it’s plenty strong. Just don’t ask for the refinement and precision of reels that cost three or four times as much. Maxing out at 26 and 37 pounds, respectively, there’s enough power there for big fish if you do your job.
That’s in part due to the excellent capacity these reels offer, which is roughly in the same league as the Penn Fathom!
Equipped with a level wind and clicker, but no line counter, I’d skip precision trolling with this reel.
So what’s the verdict?
Surprisingly, the Salis X delivers a lot of performance for the price, ably keeping up with more expensive rivals. So if you’re looking for a budget-priced conventional reel that won’t let you down, look no further.
Gear ratio: 4.2:1
Shimano’s Tekota series is impressive, helping to explain the company’s popularity in the fishing world. And the wide range of sizes make this a versatile option for anglers from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.
Unlike some of Shimano’s higher-end reels, the Tekota’s body is understated, combining graphite and aluminum to keep weight down, while skipping the bright gold trim that’s a hallmark of the company.
Yes, the dreaded “g-word.” The Tekota doesn’t come with an all-metal body, using graphite reinforced with aluminum on the side plate opposite the crank (the rest is solid metal).
That might not be ideal, but it cuts weight considerably, and in the real world, the Tekota has proven itself to be as stiff as a shot of Jim Beam. Expect no flex even when you’ve got a brute on the other end–making it clear that Shimano knows what it’s doing with that graphite addition.
Indeed, the Tekota series are incredibly light-for-size, and if that matters to you, these reels deserve a second look.
The Tekota is available in five sizes, all geared to the same 4.2:1 ratio. On the smaller models, that translates into a 25 inch-per-turn retrieve; on the 700 and 800, you’ll find 33 inches of line gathered on the spool with each crank. A level wind keeps your line evenly distributed on the spool, and on the off chance you cast, works in reverse as well.
Unfortunately, though Shimano has delivered a reel that’s smaller and lighter than some competitors, capacity suffers. With the 600 series holding just 300 yards of 20-pound mono, it’s far behind alternatives like Penn. I’m not sure that’s a deal-breaker, but it’s something to think about.
Those are hardly numbers to write home about, but they’re enough to keep a tight line. I’m not sure why Shimano doesn’t run a higher gear ratio on these reels, but I suppose that’s because good enough is…well…good enough.
Despite just four bearings–one dedicated to anti-reverse–the Tekota is plenty smooth. The crank, while not silky, spins easily and transmits torque with the best of them. You’ll find plenty of power in the Tekota’s gearing, allowing you to muscle massive fish when the situation calls for it.
The Tekota’s drag system is excellent, too. Available in two weights–corresponding to the size of the reel, of course–it’s confidence-inspiring, smooth, and reliable. Controlled via the usual star-shaped knob, it’s easy to set, too.
This series of reels features a loud clicker, as well as a fantastic mechanical line counter. It’s accurate and easy-to-use, a must-have for accurate trolling.
Overall, if you can live with the gear ratio, the Tekota series is an excellent option for anglers who demand accurate trolling.
Conventional Reel Basics
Conventional reels have the mechanical heart similar to baitcasters.
That is, they use a similar basic mechanism, allowing a free-spinning spool to travel in the direction of the line. This allows more direct, powerful gearing and drag systems, just as on baitcasters. And you’ll find the same basic controls you’ve come to expect from a baitcaster; a spool tensioning knob, a spool release, a drag knob, and a crank.
The inside of this spool is marked to tell you instantly how much line you have left.
But that’s effectively where the similarities end.
Conventional reels really aren’t designed for casting, and ounce for ounce, foot for foot, they’ll fall well behind a comparable spinning or baitcasting reel on that front. Instead, their focus is on power, drag, and capacity.
That’s because they’re built around fighting.
This design imperative starts with a spool that can hold an incredible amount of line for the size of the reel. And some offer marks that can tell you at a glance how much line you have left–a testament to just how bad the fights can be!
Many also feature two-speed gearing, allowing ultra-fast retrieves from the bottom.
And you’ll find a “clicker” on most of them that sounds-off when a fish starts taking line from the spool. That’s essential for detecting a bite on the bottom or when you have yard after yard of line in the water.
Finally, these reels wear one of two kinds of drag control: either the standard star-shaped knob behind the crank, or a thumb lever on the body.
This reel wears a drag lever. That’s not the spool release!
This reel uses the traditional star-shaped drag control, and the lever you see here is the spool release.
What We Consider When Selecting a Conventional Reel
Conventional reels are a different beast than spinning and baitcasting alternatives. And because they’ll be pitted against potentially massive fish, they’re built a bit differently and demand a few things you might not expect.
Gear ratio and RPT
The gear ratio and RPT (retrieve per turn) on a conventional reel is more important than you might think.
Yes, the baitcasting reels you use for bass need gear ratios that are matched to their application, and big surf-casting reels can always use speed.
That’s all true.
But when you hook a big tuna, for instance, a “fast” baitcasting or spinning reel just won’t get it done. Tuna can swim an incredible 47 miles per hour, and if a fish like this turns toward your boat and makes a hard run, you’ll struggle to keep a tight line unless you’re retrieving nearly a yard per turn.
The best conventional reels have gear ratios and spool sizes that work to deliver incredible speed for their size, and “too fast” really isn’t something you need to worry about.
On smaller reels, I like to see no less than 24” RPT. A good mid-sized reel should pick up about 36” per crank, and the largest reels will be in the neighborhood of 45” or so.
Offshore fishing means serious fights.
When you tie into an 8-foot shark, a 400-pound grouper, or a 300-pound tarpon, you need a drag that can reliably help your heavy line hold. Finesse is less important than strength and durability, and you’ll never be setting these drag systems down into the single digits.
Instead, you need to think about reasonable maximums as well as how well the drag holds and releases at 50% to 80% of that number.
You also want to consider the drag control.
Two options are available, a thumb lever and the usual star-shaped knob. Which one is better for you is largely a matter of preference, though the thumb levers are a bit easier to use when the fight’s on.
If you’re fishing specks all day in 20 feet of water just off the Intercoastal, there’s no need for a big conventional reel. But if you’re trolling off Grand Isle, and you hook a 300-pound tarpon, you’re going to need a lot of line to give him room to run!
Otherwise, prepare for your heart to drop as you watch the last few feet of line whirl off your spool!
For serious offshore fishing, you’ll want the biggest, toughest reels on this list, and you’ll want them carrying yard after yard of high-strength braid to give you the most line your reel can hold. And while you always want to size your reel to the fish you’re after, you generally need much more line offshore than you do inshore.
The important thing to understand is that absolute numbers don’t tell the whole tale.
Instead, you need to compare reel to reel, size to size, looking for which brands and models pack the most punch.
Note: All reviews list monofilament capacities in yards per weight.
Monster tuna, grouper, shark, and lake trout put an enormous amount of stress on a reel.
Keep in mind that the reel acts as your line’s anchor to your rod, and though mitigated by the rod’s action and power, line stretch, and your drag, each big fight is a test of every component comprising your reel, from the teeth on the gears to the discs in the drag to the frame that holds everything together.
Most offshore anglers prefer a solid metal body. It’s simply stronger, stiffer, and more durable than graphite. Graphite cuts weight as effectively as a college wrestler, but it just can’t offer the absolute stiffness or durability of machined aluminum.
Plastic gears have no place in conventional reels either. Their teeth will deform and break under the loads you’ll ask them to hold. Instead, solid brass and stainless steel are the best options.
And every reel on our list offers some sort of sealed module to protect the gears and bearings from saltwater intrusion. While these are nice features on rods for freshwater, they’re essential for offshore applications.
Modern precision trolling requires that you know exactly how much line you’re dragging, and the proper use of a downrigger demands a careful accounting of every foot.
Reels that are purpose-built for this technique may offer a line counter that keeps track of every foot that leaves the reel.
Of course, you can run metered line as a stop-gap, and plenty of anglers do. But you’ll appreciate a line counter if precision trolling is your go-to technique.
As Garry Brummett explains, “Level wind reels feature a moving line guide that sports a pawl which runs back and forth across the front of the reel upon a worm shaft. As line is retrieved back onto the reel, the moving line guide ensures that the line is evenly distributed onto the spool, from side to side, without any large build-ups of line in any one spot on the spool. Open style conventional reels have no line guide and the distribution of the line back onto the spool is the responsibility of the angler.”
Mono is particularly prone to bunching on the reel, and care must be taken to avoid this. You’ll need to direct the line with your thumb as you retrieve, helping to disperse it along the full length of the spool.
If you don’t, bunching will impair casting–which may not matter, depending on your application–but in extreme cases, it can lock the spool via direct contact with the body.
Braid tends to lay flat, self-distributing well, so if this is your prefered main line, a level wind may not be something you need.
Finally, level winds are a fragile component and often break. As Brummett warns, “On a final note, as a repair shop owner, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the level wind feature is at the top of the repair parade of reels we see each year. This is exclusive of manufacturer. All level winds from all manufacturers are susceptible to failure. It’s just the nature of the designs. A very small pawl runs across an equally small worm gear. When fighting a large fish with 15-20 pounds of drag, the line guide system is under a tremendous amount of pressure. Then we throw in some salt and some sand, and maybe we don’t clean and lube the reel like we know we should. All of these factors can increase the potential for a failure. Open faced conventional reels know no such failure.”
Should you use a level wind reel?
If you regularly run mono main-line, it just might be worth it.
Our Pick — the Penn Fathom Lever Drag!
To my mind, Penn still manufactures the best conventional reels on the market, though Daiwa and Avet are close on its heels.
The Fathom demonstrates why it’s our top pick and a perennial favorite of offshore anglers. Available in a range of sizes to suit the fish you’re chasing, whichever model you select offers outstanding capacity, blazing speed, a strong drag, and tough, confidence-inspiring gears. United in a rigid, durable body, it’s easy to see why this reel is so often the choice of charter captains who need to give their clients every advantage.
Dedicated precision trollers may want to look elsewhere, or simply run metered line and take adequate care with trolling depths. And if you really like mono main line, it may be better to choose an option with a level wind, like the outstanding Penn Squall LevelWind.
It’s also worth noting the outstanding Avet LX 6.0. If you can live with a single size and slightly slower retrieves than the Fathom 40 HS, the Avet delivers tournament-tested performance for sailfish, and it just might be the best overall reel for its size.
Whatever your choice, any of the reels on our list will help you keep tight lines in a fight, delivering the performance offshore anglers demand to deliver their adrenaline.