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The Best Reels for Kayak Fishing: 2022 Reviews and Buying Guide

Written by: Pete D
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In many ways, kayak fishing isn’t too different from working a lure from the bank, a bridge, or a boat.

In other respects, it can be more demanding.

For instance, the relatively low seating position can force some changes to casting, and a rod long enough to reach around the bow or stern sure can come in handy since you can’t walk a fish around like you can on a bass boat.

Of course, once you’ve picked out a rod, your reel needs to match, which may leave you scratching your head a bit.

If you’re new to fishing, or just new to fishing from a kayak, tackle choice may be something that has you confused. 

What’s the best kayak fishing reel for bass? What about inshore, where you’ll be fishing snook, specks, or reds?

We’re here to help, and in this article, we’ll review some of our favorites, explain what to look for in a kayak fishing reel, how to match it to your rod, and dive deep into your options.

Quick glance at the best kayak fishing reels:

Related:

Best Kayak Fishing Reels Reviewed

Pflueger President Underspin 6 - Best Underspin Reel

Reels Spinning Pflueger PRES6USCX President Sizeunder Spin Reel, 5 BRG. 3.4: 1 Ratio, 6

Amazon 

Drag: 6 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 3.4:1 (14.5” per turn)

Capacity: 90/6 

Bearings: 5

Weight: 9 oz.

Pflueger has earned an enviable reputation, and their President spinning reel has more fans than apple pie and ice cream. This underspin reel wears that trusted name, and you can count on performance that justifies that moniker.

Underspin reels like this Pflueger are ideal for new anglers as they’re very easy to use and very resistant to problems like wind and knotting. This reel must be paired with spinning tackle as it’s designed to ride under the rod.

Casting is simple: just pull the lever with your forefinger, cast, and release. The reel will do most of the work for you. That shortens the learning curve considerably if you’re new to the sport.

Casting is typically pretty good, but you can’t expect the distance you’d get from a spinning reel with this design. What you can expect, however, is few to no problems on windy days.

The drag on the Pflueger Underspin is adjusted via a dial on the left-hand side of the body. It’s easy to set and change on the fly, and its overall performance is smooth and consistent, as it should be.

With a maximum setting of 6 pounds, you can reliably run line as heavy as 15-pound test, but to do so and maintain capacity, I’d switch to a quality braid like Power Pro or Sufix 832.

This reel is built with a gear ratio of 3.4:1, meaning that each turn of the handle spins the interior spool 3.4 times. That’s the middle of the pack for underspin reels.

For small fish like trout or bluegill, as well as croaker and flounder, that’s fine. Larger, faster fish like bass or bluefish will be able to outrun this reel if they head straight for you, easing tension on the line and possibly throwing the hook as a result.

That’s no real demerit; small reels are going to share that problem.

Unlike many of Plueger’s competitors in the underspin market, the pick-up pins that allow you to release or retrieve line are made from titanium. They’ll outlast the competition, and this is a reel that should function reliably for years with proper maintenance.

For bluegill, crappie, trout, croaker, small bass, perch, and other fish of this general size, the Pfluger President Underspin 6 is an excellent choice for kayak anglers.

Pros:

  • Excellent build quality
  • Very good drag
  • Hassle-free casting
  • Reasonable gear ratio
  • Good capacity for its size
  • Durable titanium pick-up pins

Cons:

  • Not fast enough for larger fish

Pflueger President

Pflueger PRESSP30X President Spinning Fishing Reel

Amazon 

PRESSP20X

Drag: 6 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 5.2:1 (20.7” per turn)

Line capacity: 200/2, 100/4, 80/6

Bearings: 6 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 6.2 oz.

PRESSP25X

Drag: 6 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 5.2:1 (22.4” per turn)

Line capacity: 220/2, 110/4, 90/6

Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 7.5 oz.

PRESSP30X

Drag: 10 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 5.2:1 (25.3” per turn)

Line capacity: 255/4, 145/6, 130/8

Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 8.8 oz.

PRESSP35X

Drag: 12 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 5.2:1 (28.1” per turn)

Line capacity: 230/6, 185/8, 155/10

Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 10.7 oz.

PRESSP40X

Drag: 12 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 5.2:1 (31.6” per turn)

Line capacity: 285/8, 230/10, 195/12

Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 11.5 oz.

Pfleuger’s President is often considered the spinning reel to beat for freshwater applications, setting the bar its competitors try to match at this price point. And while you can get Shimano reels that might edge out the President in absolute performance, for the price, the President still reigns supreme.

The President isn’t showy, and it doesn’t feature bleeding-edge tech. Instead, it’s quietly and consistently competent, performing day in and day out, season after season. As veteran anglers know, that’s far from faint praise!

For instance, Pflueger equips the President with an old-style sealed felt drag system. It’s smooth and reliable but not the equal of the carbon fiber discs you’ll find on more expensive competitors.

That said, you can expect fight-winning, line-cushioning performance from the President across the size ranges of this lineup.

For panfish, I wouldn't hesitate to pick up a size-20 or -25 reel, pairing it with an ultralight to light power spinning rod. Every fat crappie or croaker will feel like a whale, and with some finesse, you can land nice bass with this combination.

As is to be expected, stepping up in size increases line capacity and the maximum drag setting.

The 30, 35, and 40 are more than capable of winning fights with the baddest smallmouth out there, as well as perch, largemouth, monster flounder, bluefish, and other species of that general size and weight.

Yes, the Penn Battle II is superior in the salt: size for size and ounce for ounce, it’s much faster, allowing you to keep up with bigger, quicker fish. But in freshwater, it’s very hard to beat the President, as legions of fishermen will let you know.

Kayak anglers looking for a reliable, high-quality spinning reel for freshwater applications (and perhaps smaller species in the salt) can do a lot worse than Pflueger’s President.

Pros:

  • Nice build quality 
  • Strong gearing punches above its price-point
  • Good drag
  • Nice casting
  • Performs like a more expensive reel

Cons:

  • Not the newest tech out there

Penn Battle II- Best Inshore Spinning Reel

PENN 1338219 Battle II 4000 Spinning Fishing Reel

Amazon 

BTLII2500

Drag: 12 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (33” per turn)

Line capacity: 255/6, 175/8, 140/10

Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 10.3 oz.

BTLII3000

Drag: 15 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (35” per turn)

Line capacity: 200/8, 165/10, 120/12

Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 12.3 oz.

BTLII4000

Drag: 15 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (37” per turn)

Line capacity: 270/8, 220/10, 165/12

Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 12.8 oz.

BTLII5000

Drag: 25 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 5.6.:1 (36” per turn)

Line capacity: 225/12, 200/15, 135/20

Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 19.8 oz.

BTLII6000

Drag: 25 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 5.6:1 (41” per turn)

Line capacity: 335/15, 230/20, 210/25

Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 22.10 oz.

BTLII8000

Drag: 30 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 5.3:1 (44” per turn)

Line capacity: 340/20, 310/25, 230/30

Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 30.2 oz.

Penn is a dominant name in saltwater fishing, and their Battle II is a time-tested veteran of many a hard fight. For kayak anglers who’ll be fishing for walleye, salmon, muskie, redfish, snook, stripers, specks, and pretty much anything else you might find in tidal estuaries, salt flats, inshore shallows, or the Great Lakes, look no further for your spinning reel.

While eight reels are available in this lineup, I wouldn’t drop below the 2500 in the salt. Ideal for species like flounder or specks, the 2500, 3000, and 4000 will cover most of your bases, while the 5000- and 6000-size reels allow you to tackle big reds and other common inshore species that demand strong lines.

Spinning reels have a place inshore that simply can’t be denied: in windy conditions, they cast better than baitcasters, tangle a lot less, and can throw lighter lures, too. That’s performance that makes them as essential as bug repellant in salt marsh.

Casting with the Battle II lineup is reliably excellent in terms of both distance and ease, especially when the weather gets gusty. Keep in mind that physics won’t allow high-diameter, heavy-weight mono to slip past the spool edge with no friction, and as you move up in test, casting will suffer.

That can’t be helped unless you switch to braid.

Penn’s Battle II runs an excellent carbon fiber disc drag system that combines predictable, smooth release with size-appropriate maximum settings. The 5000, 6000, and 8000 feature maximums that enable you to run braid in the neighborhood of 75 pounds, should you wish, and these reels have the tough, solid metal gears to produce the torque to match that.

When you tie into a big red or snook, you’ll want that fight-winning power and awesome drag, and you can count on the Battle II to tilt the odds in your favor.

Penn equips these reels with nicely-sized spools that offer plenty of capacity. Of course, those numbers simply soar if you switch to braid.

And as a really nice touch, the sides of the arbor are marked with line counters, keeping you in the know with just a glance.

The Battle II’s instant anti-reverse bearing locks up in a flash, encouraging solid hooksets.

Great capacity, excellent drag, instant anti-reverse, and sizes that cover all your bases: Penn’s Battle II is the way to go for kayak anglers who live for inshore fishing.

Pros:

  • Excellent drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Fantastic casting with appropriate diameter lines
  • Silky-smooth operation
  • Awesome anti-reverse

Cons:

  • ???

Shimano Curado DC - Best Baitcasting Reel for Kayak Fishing

Shimano Fishing Curado Dc 150 Low Profile Reels [CUDC150]

Amazon 

CUDC150

Drag: 11 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (26” per turn)

Line capacity: 10/120, 12/110, 14/90

Bearings: 6 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 7.8 oz.

CUDC150HG

Drag: 11 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 7.4:1 (31” per turn)

Line capacity: 10/120, 12/110, 14/90

Bearings: 6 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 7.8 oz.

CUDC150XG

Drag: 11 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 8.5:1 (36” per turn)

Line capacity: 10/120, 12/110, 14/90

Bearings: 6 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 7.8 oz.

In many ways, Shimano is the industry leader in reel manufacturing. From tech that humbles the competition to gearing that’s the envy of the field, Shimano knows how to deliver.

Shimano’s Curado DC is no exception, and if you’re looking for a superbly capable baitcasting reel that simplifies casting and won’t break the bank, look no further.

For novice anglers, baitcasting reels can be a bit of a challenge. The design, their free-spinning spools, allow much longer casts with heavy lines. But the price is skill: until you master a baitcaster, you can’t set the brake that controls over-run and prevents bird nesting light enough to really strut its stuff.

Shimano has a solution. A tiny microprocessor measures spin rate and adjusts the brake in 1/1000 of a second intervals, dramatically increasing casting performance for all but the most experienced anglers.

That’s a HUGE step forward, and even fishermen who regularly use baitcasting tackle will notice a difference on windy days.

This braking system is manually controlled by selecting your line type, including a special setting for trick casting like skipping and shooting.

Smooth, long, reliable casts are the result.

As you’d expect from Shimano, the carbon fiber drag system on the Curado DC is excellent, producing a silky-smooth feel at all settings. The 11-pound maximum puts big bass and mean reds in their place, and there’s just nothing to criticize here.

Capacity is pretty good, too, especially if you choose to run braid rather than mono.

Shimano offers the Curado DC in three gearings: 6.2, 7.4, and 8.5. The slowest of the three still retrieves 26 inches of line per turn, but as you step up to the high-gear and extra-high gear, you’ll race through 31 and 36 inches of line, respectively.

All of this makes this a great reel for the salt as well as the bass pond, and for inshore fishing, where wind is always an issue, the Curado DC is nearly impossible to beat.

Pros:

  • Excellent drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Fantastic casting with microprocessor-controlled braking
  • Three speeds available

Cons:

  • ???

Avet 5.3:1 SX Lever Drag Conventional Reel - Best Conventional Reel for Kayak Fishing

AVET SX 5.3 Casting Reel, Right-Hand, SX, Gold (SX5.3G)

Amazon 

Drag: 9 lbs. (strike maximum); 14 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 5.3:1 (30” per turn)

Line capacity: 15/320, 20/220, 25/200

Bearings: 7 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 14 oz.

For kayak anglers who ply inshore waters for species like tarpon or shark, a reel with unbreakable rigidity, an instantly adjustable drag, and capacity to spare is essential.

And while there are many good options, Avet’s 5.3 SX is simply superb.

Avet machines the body of this reel from 6061 T-6 marine-grade aluminum. Both corrosion-proof and as stiff as a shot of warm whisky, this is an ideal choice given the fish you’ll be fighting. You don’t want flex or give when a monster is trying to tear the spool out of your reel, and the 5.3 SX just won’t say quit, no matter what’s on the other end of the line.

The Avet’s lever drag allows you to switch instantly between a free spool, a bait setting, a strike setting, and a fight setting. Independently, you adjust the drag’s weight with a knob on the end of the lever (while in the free position).

This lever also allows you to increase or decrease the drag’s pressure while engaged, a fight-winning advantage.

The Avet 5.3 SX has capacity to spare for kayakers, and if you switch to heavy braid, you’ll have more than enough to fight anything but a submarine.

Finally, geared for 5.3:1, this reel provides plenty of speed and mountains of torque via a long, wobble-fighting handle with a soft-touch knob. For anything less than tarpon or fish of that size, this Avet is overkill, but for big, mean fish that can pull your ‘yak around, it’s just perfect.

Pros:

  • Ideal for large species like tarpon
  • Excellent lever drag 
  • Awesome capacity
  • Super-rigid body
  • Fast, with loads of torque

Cons:

  • Overkill for most inshore species

What To Consider When Buying A Kayak Fishing Reel

The things that kayak anglers look for in a reel are pretty much the same thing every fisherman wants.

Which reel type is right for you?

There are several different types of reels on the market, and each has advantages and disadvantages that you need to understand.

Check out our in-depth review on the best fishing reels for all types of fishing

Underspin and spincasting reels 

With identical tech, the only meaningful difference between these reels is the rods they’re designed to be paired with. Spincasters ride above the rod, thus necessitating casting tackle. By contrast, underspin reels ride below the rod and are designed for spinning tackle.

spincast reel underspin reel

We recommend underspin reels because the spinning rods they’re designed for are better for casting light lures and lines than casting rods. And while there are exceptions to this, you’ll be better served with an underspin reel when you go to select a matching rod.

The advantages of an underspin reel are easy to understand.

Because the line and spool are shielded, they’re less subject to the wind. And rather than manually opening and closing the bail to cast and retrieve, you simply depress a lever with your forefinger, releasing to cast, and turn the crank to start retrieving.

That simplicity makes these reels easy to use, and their ideal for novice or occasional anglers who don’t want or need more complicated setups.

One disadvantage of these reels is that they’re not typically built to the same standards as other designs, making liberal use of plastic gears and cheaper drag materials. That’s not always true, however.

But there’s a challenge no underspin reel can overcome. The shroud that hides the spool creates friction as line leaves it, decreasing casting distance. This isn’t really as big of a deal, and especially for anglers struggling with basic technique, the advantages far outweigh any issues with casting distance.

Spinning reels

Spinning reels use a fixed spool around which a bail turns, winding and unwinding line.

It’s an excellent system for casting light lines and lures, and it works remarkably well in the wind. It’s also relatively easy to operate and available in sizes that allow you to catch anything from trout to tarpon.

spinning reel spool

At their best with lines of less than 10-pound mono diameter, the only true disadvantage of spinning reels is that the friction created as line passes over the lip of the fixed spool starts to cause problems when you step up to heavier-diameter lines.

You can switch to a thinner line - braid - and watch these problems disappear.

But as lines and lures get heavier, baitcasting reels will generally outcast spinning reels, and often sport more effective drag systems for fighting really big fish.

Baitcasting and conventional reels

Baitcasters and conventional reels use essentially the same tech and function very similarly.

They’re designed with a free-spinning spool that works wonders with heavier lines, and they can cast into the next county with anything over about ½ ounce in weight.

The spool is freed to cast by depressing a thumb button and then releasing it in time with the cast. 

Technique is essential: not only must the braking system that slows the spool be set properly for the weight of your terminal tackle, you need to stop the spinning (or slow it down) before your lure hits the water.

If you don’t overrun it, your line will reward you with an awesome tangle!

tangled baitcasting reel

This can also happen in any condition that slows your terminal tackle while the spool is still spinning freely, for instance when the wind starts gusting.

The skill to cast baitcasters takes time to develop, and practice definitely makes perfect.

That free-spinning spool, even when made by the best manufacturers, develops too much friction to cast light lines and light lures. Below about 10-pound mono, and below roughly ½-ounce weights, most anglers cast further and with more accuracy using a spinning reel.

As you can see, the right choice for you depends on your level of experience, your skill, and the lines and lures you plan to cast.

Drag

Whichever reel style you choose, its drag system is perhaps the most important component.

A drag does two things.

First, it softens the sudden shocks that happen when a fish surges, changes direction, or jumps. When set to roughly 1/3rd the test strength of your line, it will release smoothly, providing a cushion that can prevent your line from breaking.

Second, it makes a fish work harder for the line it takes in a long fight, helping to tire large species like tarpon so that you can work them back toward your kayak.

Drag systems work by applying direct pressure to the spool, creating friction. Of course, friction generates heat and wear, and the latest drag tech uses carbon fiber disks because they can take the extreme conditions that a long, hard fight creates.

Older tech like oiled felt still works well, however, and on smaller reels is perfectly adequate, albeit not as long-lasting.

The important thing to look for in a drag system is smooth, reliable release across a range of settings. You don’t want any sudden starts and stops, just steady, constant release.

Capacity

Capacity is a function of spool size, and the measurements on our shortlist are given in yards of mono. 

Greater capacity is typically only won by increasing a reel’s size and weight, and thus, more isn’t always better. But generally, capacity matters because you’ll need plenty of line for casting, as well as excess for cutting as you re-tie throughout the day.

For larger species, capacity matters for fights, too.

You won’t just reel a tarpon in. Instead, you’ll need to fight it with your drag, reel, and rod, winning line when you can and watching the fish take line when you can’t.

If you get spooled, angling talk for running out of line, it’s game over!

Gearing

Reels run gears in their guts that provide torque and spin the spool or bail, allowing you to retrieve line.

Quality gears are designed to generate lots of power and take quite a bit of force with deforming or losing teeth. They’re also typically made from materials that resist corrosion.

A gear ratio measures how many turns of the spool (or bail) one turn of the handle creates. Thus, a gear ratio of 3.5:1 means that each turn of the crank turns the spool 3.5 times.

All other things being equal, which they are most certainly not, a faster gear ratio allows you to pick up more line more quickly.

That matters when you're fighting a fast fish that can run back toward you. If the fish can outrun your reel, it will create slack in your line, giving it a better chance of throwing your hook.

It’s easy to see, then, why some species demand fast reels.

But reel speed is a product of more than gearing, and larger spools and bails pick up more line per turn than smaller alternatives. Gearing works with spool or bail size to generate a real-world reliable metric of speed: inches per turn.

That number, which we report for every reel on our shortlist, is an apples-to-apples comparison that tells you how fast a reel really is.

Casting

In some situations, long casts are essential - for instance, if you’re working a shallow spawning bed and need to stay back to avoid spooking the fish.

But in many instances, absolute casting distance isn’t important for anything more than bragging rights.

A good friend of mine once told me that if you wait for perfect weather, you won’t be fishing much - and over the course of my career as an angler, that’s turned out to be absolutely true.

Wind is an omnipresent reality on the water, and many anglers value a reel that casts well in gusts just as much - maybe even more - than one that can cast into the next lake.

Final Thoughts

Kayak anglers need to put some careful thought into reel selection, matching their choice to their needs and to the rods and tackle they plan to use.

We can’t tell you which reel is the best for you; only you can do that. But we hope that we've got you on the right track to the best choice for your needs and budget, and as always, we’d love to hear from you!

Please leave a comment below.

About The Author
Pete D
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Pete grew up fishing on the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.
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