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Best Saltwater Fishing Reels: Inshore and Offshore 2020 Buying Guide

Last Updated: November 21st, 2020
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Saltwater anglers need reels they can rely on to take a beating and deliver the goods in a hard fight. And whether you fish inshore for reds and specks or chase sailfish and sharks in the blue water, a good reel is essential.

If you’re looking for a quality saltwater fishing reel, we’ve got you covered.

Below, you’ll find a complete buying guide as well as in-depth reviews of some of the best saltwater fishing reels:

Inshore Fishing Reels

Offshore Fishing Reels

Related: Best Inshore Spinning Reels, Best Saltwater Fishing Rods, Best Saltwater Rod & Reel Combo

Best Saltwater Reels Reviewed

Inshore Fishing Reels

Penn Battle II - Saltwater Spinning Reel For Inshore Fishing

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’s reels are legendary among saltwater anglers, and you probably can’t find a better reel for surfcasting or inshore fishing. Indeed, given the general advantages of spinning reels in the wind, this reel is an excellent choice for anglers who plan to cast all day.

While eight reels are available in this line-up, 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.

The heart of any good reel is its drag system, and the Penn Battle II won’t let you down. The excellent carbon fiber discs provide resistance that’s predictable and smooth, while also delivering size-appropriate maximum settings that give you plenty to work with should you decide to spool on heavyweight braid.

Even with mono, the spools of each model hold quite a bit of line, and of course, as you turn to the larger sizes, that only gets better. You’ll find the spool marked with concentric circles, letting you know at a glance how much line you have left. 

That’s a nice touch when you tie into a fish that’s going to demand a long fight.

Above 10-pound test diameters, expect casting distance to suffer as the line creates friction with the retaining lip on the spool. That’s not Penn’s fault: blame simply physics. But with strong, slender braid, that shouldn’t be an issue.

The Battle II runs time-tested metal gears, and while not the equal of Shimano’s Stradic in terms of smoothness, there’s simply no questioning their torque or strength. You will be able to fight big, powerful fish with this reel--no doubt--and it’s as durable as they come.

Equipped with an instant anti-reverse bearing, the Battle II lineup locks up fast, encouraging strong hooksets, too.

Overall, the Battle II is a very hard spinning reel to beat for the salt, and whether you’re casting for blues from the beach, chasing reds over a muddy flat as the tide moves, or fighting specks just offshore, you won’t be disappointed by its performance.

Pros:

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

Cons:

  • ???

Shimano Stradic Ci4+

Shimano Stradic CI4 2500FB HG Freshwater Spinning Reel

Amazon 

2500FB

Drag: 18 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 5:1 (35” per turn)

Line capacity: 200/6, 140/8, 120/10

Bearings: 6 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 6.7 oz.

3000FB

Drag: 18 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 5:1 (35” per turn)

Line capacity: 230/6, 170/8, 140/10

Bearings: 6 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 6.7 oz.

4000XGFB

Drag: 22 lbs. maximum

Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (39” per turn)

Line capacity: 240/6, 200/8, 160/10

Bearings: 6 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 8.11 oz.

Shimano has earned an enviable reputation among anglers in both fresh and saltwater, and their stellar Stradic Ci4+ shows why. Among the very best spinning reels on the market, it’s a worthy competitor for the Penn--at about twice the price!

Only you can decide if the Stradic delivers twice the performance, but there’s simply no questioning that it’s an excellent inshore reel.

Anglers who find the Battle II heavy over the course of a day’s fishing will appreciate the high-end materials that keep the Stradic Ci4+ a featherweight in comparison. Size for size, you’ll notice an appreciable weight difference.

Each model runs Shimano’s legendary Hagane gearing at a 5:1 gear ratio, with spool sizes allowing impressive retrieval rates. At least as fast as the Penn, and sometimes quicker, these gears are as smooth as they come, but in my opinion, not quite as sturdy as Penn’s because Shimano relies on a bit more plastic.

However, the drag systems on the Stradic lineup are ridiculously smooth, offering maximum settings that allow for very heavy braided lines when necessary.

Capacity is good, but not great, as the spools are relatively small. If there’s a true drawback to the Stradic, it’s here. 

Pros:

  • Unrivaled build quality 
  • Hagane gearing is probably the smoothest on the market
  • Probably the best drag on the market
  • Really nice casting
  • Super lightweight

Cons:

  • To keep weight down, capacity and retrieval speed suffer (small spools)
  • Expensive! 

Daiwa Tatula CT Type-R TACT-R100 - Top Inshore Baitcasting Reel

Daiwa Tatula CT Type-R 100HSL 7.3:1 High Speed Left Hand Baitcast - TACT-R100HSL

Amazon 

Max drag: 13.2 lbs.

Gear ratio: 7.3:1 (30.5” per turn)

Capacity: 14/120; 16/100

Bearings: 8

Weight: 7.2 oz.

Plenty of inshore anglers prefer to run a baitcasting reel, and as bass fanatics can attest, Daiwa’s Tatula CT Type-R is as good as they come.

An upgrade from the Tatula CT of old, the Type-R cuts weight and increases performance, delivering a baitcasting reel that’s as much at home in the salt as it is on your local bass pond.

Due to upgraded materials, the Type-R weighs-in at a svelte 7.2 ounces, with comfortable curves and a palmable size that promises less fatigue when you’re casting all day. That puts it solidly ahead of the spinning competition, and you really will notice a difference in just a few hours.

Capacity is excellent for a baitcasting reel, roughly equaling the largest Stradic Ci4+. It does fall behind the larger Battle IIs, however, and if you’re really thinking about pushing an inshore reel to its limits, I’d give the nod to the Penn.

In terms of casting, Daiwa’s proprietary “T-wing” design really works to reduce friction, and with their excellent magnetic braking system, overrun is minimized, as is its attending backlash. That gives me a bit more confidence with long casts, and I’d rate performance as top-notch as long as the wind is light.

Daiwa builds a great carbon fiber drag system into this reel, delivering smooth performance down low and a max drag of 13.2 pounds. That maximum lets you spool on some heavy braid and still have the power for a fierce fight.

Where baitcasting reels just can’t keep up is speed, and that’s true of the Daiwa, as you’d expect. Fast enough for big bass, it’s a bit slow for large reds or anything of that size. Specks, flounder, and other small inshore game fish should be no trouble, though.

Overall, while there are many good baitcasting reels, I think the Daiwa Tatula CT Type-R is the best among this design for inshore angling, offering a real challenge to Penn’s spinning dominance there. If you prefer a baitcasting reel, this is the one to try first.

Pros:

  • Awesome casting
  • Excellent drag
  • Light and comfortable
  • Good capacity

Cons:

  • Not as good in the wind as a spinning reel
  • Not as fast as inshore spinning reels
  • Capacity suffers in comparison to the larger Battle II models

Offshore Fishing Reels

Daiwa Saltist Levelwind Line Counter - Best Offshore Reel for Precision Trolling

Daiwa STTLW20LCHA 6.1:1 Saltist Levelwind Line Counter High Speed Reel

Amazon 

Maximum drag: 20 and 30 (15.4 lbs.); 40 and 50 (24 lbs.)

Gear ratio: (20 and 30) 6.1:1; (40 and 50) 6.4:1

RPT: 20 and 30 (35”); 40 and 50 (47.2”)

Capacity: 20 -- 12/420, 14/350, 20/210

30 -- 14/490, 20/295, 25/230

40 -- 25/400, 30/270, 40/240

50 -- 30/350, 40/310, 50/220

Bearings: 4 + 1

Weight: 20 -- 18.5 oz.

30 -- 19.4 oz.

40 -- 23.1 oz.

50 -- 24 oz.

Daiwa’s no stranger to offshore angling, and the Saltist Levelwind is a very, very good reel for this purpose. Initially designed as an answer to anglers’ prayers for a smaller reel with high-speed gearing and a level wind, it’s a great choice for precision trolling.

Daiwa knows that only an all-metal body can provide the stiffness and durability big fish demand, and they’ve made the Saltist from solid aluminum. Offering season after season of durability, this reel is as solid as they come, and I wouldn’t feel under gunned if I’ve tied into a monster tarpon or hard-fighting shark.

These aren’t large reels, even in the biggest sizes, and they’re lighter than you might expect. That’s not really a virtue for a conventional reel, as casting isn’t the order of the day. Moreover, that smaller size does diminish capacity a bit. That said, I think there’s plenty of space on these reels, but the competition offers a bit more.

Expect two drag settings in the Saltist line-up: 15.4 pounds and 24 pounds. That’s more than enough for kingfish, Mahi, and monster stripers, as well as sailfish, tuna, or shark. 

The Saltist offers solid brass gearing that packs on the torque, turning the odds in your favor once the fish starts to fatigue. And while neither 6.1:1 nor 6.4:1 are shockingly high gear ratios, 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 when you need to keep a tight line in a hard fight, you’ll be glad you’ve chosen the Saltist.

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.

Pros:

  • Available in a range of sizes
  • Small, compact body
  • Very stiff and durable
  • Extremely fast retrieval rates!!!
  • Great drag
  • Equipped with a level wind
  • Equipped with a line counter

Cons:

  • Not as capacious as similarly-sized reels
  • Lighter drag options than the Squall

Penn Squall LevelWind - Best Offshore Reel for the Money

Penn SQL20LWLC Squall LevelWind

Amazon 

Maximum drag: 15 and 20 (15 lbs.); 30 and 50 (20 lbs.)

Gear ratio: (15, 20, and 30) 4.9:1; (50) 4.0:1

RPT: 15 and 20 (28”); 30 (35”); 50 (32”)

Capacity: 15 -- 15/320, 17/280, 20/220

20 -- 17/415, 20/315, 25/290

30 -- 25/455, 30/370, 40/285

50 -- 40/435, 50/320, 60/285

Bearings: 2 + 1

Weight: 15 -- 16.2 oz.

20/20LC -- 16.9/17.8 oz.

30 -- 20.9 oz.

50 -- 24.6 oz.

Penn’s Squall LevelWind series is an excellent conventional reel with legions of fans. Offered in a wide range of sizes, the 20 is available with the option of a line counter, making it a good choice for precision trolling, especially if the higher-priced Daiwa is just a bit too spendy for your budget.

The Squall’s body is graphite, which simply can’t deliver the stiffness of metals like aluminum, and I’m not sure that the weight savings are truly justified for a conventional reel. What I am sure of, however, is that the Squall has been proving its ability to turn fights in anglers’ favors for years, and its durability is simply unquestionable.

I’d still give the nod to the Daiwa Saltist and the Avet below.

Available in four sizes, expect capacious spools across the range. Size to size, ounce for ounce, Penn’s Squall is almost impossible to beat on this metric, and if you’re worried about tough fights and long runs, this reel is downright reassuring.

It also sports concentric rings on the spool, allowing you to know how much line you have left at a glance.

Its solid brass gears are plenty smooth, and they provide massive torque with each crank. Each turn of the crank spins these big spools quite a bit, allowing them to pick up an impressive amount of line, though the larger sizes fall behind the big Daiwa’s.

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 solid option for bottom fishing as well.

The drag system on the Squall lineup is every bit as good as that on the Daiwa’s, and you can expect smooth, consistent pressure with maximum capacities that will tire pretty much anything you hook.

Overall, the Squall LevelWind series is a great option for anglers who are looking for a reasonably priced reel that delivers high-end performance.

Pros:

  • Available in a wide range of sizes
  • Light body that’s plenty stiff
  • Smooth cranking, good gear ratio, and nice retrieval rates
  • Great drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Equipped with a level wind
  • Size 20 offers a line counter

Cons:

  • Not as stiff or durable as an all-metal body
  • Larger sizes offer less capacity than the big Daiwas

Avet LX 6.0 - Premium Offshore Reel

Avet 6.0:1 Lever Drag Conventional Reel, Silver, 280 yd/30 lb

Amazon 

Maximum drag: 20 lbs.

Gear ratio: 6.0:1

RPT: 46”

Capacity: 25/350, 30/300, 40/220

Bearings: 6

Weight: 22 oz.

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 is as probably more solid and stiff than any other reel you’ll ever fish, no doubt because it’s machined from a single piece of aluminum. There’s simply no competition on this front, and dollar for dollar, this is probably the best body on the market.

It’s that good!

Avet runs stainless gears, and as you’d expect, they’re amazingly tough while providing unrivaled torque. If I were fighting a real trophy, this is the reel I’d want to be turning.

Don’t expect massive capacity, however. Available in a single size that’s roughly equivalent to a Daiwa 40, the larger Saltists will simply hold more line. I wouldn’t worry too much about that: 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 a huge testament to the capabilities of this reel.

The drag on the Avet is actuated by a thumb lever, making it very easy to adjust on the fly. You’ll find it to be the model all others follow, and there’s plenty of fish-tiring power there for sailfish, shark, or tarpon.

There’s no need to worry about a big fish creating slack either. Picking up 46 inches of line per crank, nothing is going to be too quick for you to keep your line tight.

That’s truly impressive performance across the board, and it’s clear why pros love the Avet.

Be aware, however, that this is an old-school reel with no level wind. You’ll need to learn to smooth your line with your thumb, but the advantage here is that there’s very little that can go wrong or break.

In short, the Avet is very, very hard to beat.

Pros:

  • Superb body--probably the best in the business
  • Smooth cranking, great gear ratio, and excellent retrieval rates
  • Awesome drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Outstanding durability

Cons:

  • No level wind means more work with mono
  • No line counter makes precision trolling tough

What We Consider When Selecting a Reel for Saltwater

Saltwater angling is demanding, and the range of species and conditions means that “saltwater reel” can have many different definitions.

For instance, you’re not looking for the same things in a surfcasting reel that you are in a reel for fishing sailfish.

And if you’re new to angling, that can be confusing, so let’s break it down a bit.

Inshore

Inshore fishing happens close to land, whether that’s in an interior saltmarsh protected by barrier islands, right along the coast in shallow water, or from the beach. 

Nice specks like this are common inshore fish.

As experts describe it, “The biggest difference between inshore and offshore fishing is the depth of the water, with 30 meters of water being an accepted line-in-the-sand acting as the border between the two. When you’re fishing inshore, you’ll usually be within a few miles of shore and, more often than not, within casting distance of it working popular spots like beaches, rocky shorelines, piers, jetties, flats, mangroves and islands with light tackle.”

Now, “light” saltwater tackle is reasonably heavy for freshwater, so don’t be misled!

Typical inshore reels run the gamut from surfcasting models to the same baitcasting reels you might use for largemouth bass.

Offshore

By contrast, “Offshore trips … will take you anywhere from 30 to 130 miles away from the coast. This kind of water warrants larger sportfishing boats equipped with heavier gear and technology like sonar and radio. The techniques used out here are less hands on – until a marlin is trying to steal all of your line – and you may only catch one or two, but hookups can last hours,” these same experts explain.

Offshore angling provides unique excitement--and challenges.

There, where you’ll be fighting fish like your life depends on it, you’ll be using conventional reels, essentially baitcasting tackle on steroids.

Drag

Wherever you find yourself in the salt, the first thing to look for on a good reel is a great drag system.

The drag places resistance on your line, helping to protect the line from breakage under strain as well as working to tire the fish.

It’s essential for a drag system to provide smooth, consistent pressure with no binding or sudden releases.

For inshore reels, you’ll be setting the drag at roughly 30% of your line’s breaking strength, and you’re looking for a silky smooth release. For the most part, you’re trying to protect your line from sudden runs, using the drag as a “cushion.”

The drag system does that on conventional reels, but it also doubles as a device to fatigue a hard-fighting fish. Without it, you simply can’t wear a big tuna, shark, or sailfish down enough to bring it in. For that reason, it’s important to keep an eye on the maximum settings.

Two common drag systems on conventional reels are the star and lever.

Drag controls vary from simple knobs at the tip of the spool on spinning reels, to star-shaped dials in baitcasters, to thumb-actuated levers on some conventional reels. And especially when fishing offshore, easy-to-use controls are essential.

When considering inshore reels, head-to-head, the baitcasters are typically going to offer better drag systems than the spinning reels. And while perhaps not a hard and fast rule, it’s common enough that you can expect it.

Gear ratio and retrieval rates

Gear ratio describes the relationship between turns of the crank and turns of the spool, with higher ratios indicating that a reel picks up more line per turn. 

But retrieval rates are also affected by spool size, with larger spools picking up more line, too.

That means that a reel with a big spool can retrieve more line than a comparable reel with higher gear ratio--so retrieval rates are often more important metrics than simple gear ratios--especially in the salt.

For the most part, this matters when a strong, fast fish decides to make a run straight at your boat. As it does, your line will want to go slack, relaxing pressure on the hook.

That’s obviously not what you want!

So to compensate, you’ll need to keep a tight line by cranking up all that slack. The higher the retrieval rate of your reel, the easier that is to do.

Capacity

In freshwater and for most inshore fishing, capacity isn’t critical, but high numbers are nice to have.

A capacious reel provides two advantages there: it allows you to cut line as needed and still have plenty left to fish with, and it lets you run heavy (for your reel) monofilament and still have enough length for long casts.

Offshore, capacity is critical.

A big conventional reel is equipped to handle lots of high-diameter line.

When you first tie into a big fish, it’ll have more than enough strength to run like mad, and whether it heads for the bottom or rushes off just beneath the surface, you’ll watch it take line--and take, and take, and take…

The inside of this spool is marked to tell you instantly how much line you have left.
You get the idea!

Construction

For inshore reels, you’re looking for strong, dependable construction that will stand up to the salt. Sealed drag systems that prevent saltwater intrusion are a good idea, as they’ll extend service life and increase durability.

Ditto on all-metal gearing rather than the less sturdy plastic you’ll find in many less expensive spinning reels. That’s not to say that plastic is always a poor choice, but rather that metal is almost always better.

But for offshore angling, you need to be thinking about frame strength as well as gearing and seals. Good conventional reels will limit saltwater intrusion and sport tough metal gearing, providing the utmost in torque and power.

And they should have frames that are stiff and durable, which typically means all metal, but can include space-age materials like graphite. But even graphite gives up a bit of stiffness in return for weight savings.

Line Counter

For offshore angling, where precision trolling is often essential, a line counter can be critical.

I’d skip this feature for inshore tackle.

Level wind

Spinning and baitcasting reels will spool line more or less evenly as you crank them, but conventional reels without a level wind won’t. Instead, you’ll need to use your thumb to guide the line back onto your reel.

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 preferred 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.”

Final Thoughts

We hope that this article has helped you pick out your next saltwater reel, but obviously, we couldn’t cover every good option in these reviews.

Did we leave out one of your favorites?

We’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below!

About The Author
John B
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.
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