Best Spinning Reels to Cover All Your Bases: Our Favorite Ultralight, Light, and Medium Reels Reviewed

Share on facebook
Share on pinterest
Share on reddit

Whether you’re after bluegill or crappie, sunfish or perch, chasing panfish on a sunny morning is about as good as it gets. I know I’ve spent quite a few happy hours with slip floats and worms, tiny poppers, and fluttering miniature spinners pulling redbreast sunfish out of lakes in Virginia–and I’ll bet you have similar stories to tell.

And I have plenty of buddies who use a large spinning reel for specks and reds, and they’re willing to trade casting distance for ease-of-operation, especially in the wind. Fished within their limitations, they’re an outstanding choice for fishermen who want hassle-free casting for pike and walleye as well.

Looking for a spinning reel that can help you slay slabs? Or do you need a bigger reel for bigger fish? There are a few options that can cover all your bases in a single line-up, and today, we’ll be discussing them.

And as always, we’re here to help you make the best choice for your needs and budget. Below, you’ll find a full explanation of what we look for in a good spinning reel, as well as reviews of some of our favorites that cover a good range of sizes.

Quick glance at the best spinning reels:

If you’re just look for ultralight tackle check out our guide for the best ultralight spinning reels!

Best Spinning Reel Reviews

Cadence CS8

Cadence CS8 Spinning Reel, Ultralight Fast Speed Premium Magnesium Frame Fishing Reel with 10 Low Torque Bearings Super Smooth Powerful Fishing Reel with 36 LBs Max Drag & 6.2:1 Spinning Reel
Amazon 

CS8-1000

Drag: 11 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 5.2:1 (25” per turn)
Line capacity: 6/110
Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 6.3 oz.

CS8-2000

Drag: 16 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (32” per turn)
Line capacity: 6/160
Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 7.3 oz.

CS8-3000

Drag: 19 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (35” per turn)
Line capacity: 10/150
Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 7.4 oz.

CS8-4000

Drag: 20 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (38” per turn)
Line capacity: 10/220
Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 8.5 oz.

I’ve reviewed Cadence’s CS8-1000 before, noting then as I will now that the lightest of the CS8 series is an awesome ultralight reel, ideal for crappie and other panfish.

Indeed, the CS8 series is a welcome addition to the angling market, offering high-end performance at a price-point lower than you’d expect. Serious competitors for established names like Shimano and Penn, these reels are an option no fisherman should ignore.

The CS8 series is available in four sizes, and though essentially the same reel, the spool gets larger as you step up, and all but the CS8-1000 offer a 6.2:1 drag ratio. That larger spool translates into increased line capacity, and the larger two can even accommodate plenty of 10-pound line–though I’d recommend stepping down to 8 for maximum casting performance.

The drag on the CS8-series is excellent, and it uses a series of carbon fiber discs to create line tension. Actuated by a knob on the end of the spool, its maximum setting scales-up as you go larger. In all cases, it’s silky smooth, providing reassuring control with zero slippage.

The crank is no less impressive, and the bail opens and closes flawlessly. And for left-handed anglers, be aware that the crank position is reversible.

There’s no questioning the quality of these reels, and just a few casts will leave you impressed.

For my money, the CS8-1000, 2000, and 3000 are the best buys. If I want to step-up to heavier line, a baitcasting reel will outperform even the best spinning alternatives, but the 3000 can accept a lot of 6- to 8-pound line for those of you who like to run miles of string! And for ultralight and light rods, the 1000 and 2000 are more than capable.

Pros:

  • Excellent value for the price
  • Excellent drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Excellent casting
  • Silky-smooth operation

Cons:

  • N/A

Penn Battle II

Penn 1338219 Battle II 4000 Spinning Fishing Reel
Amazon 

BTLII1000

Drag: 9 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 5.2:1 (22” per turn)
Line capacity: 275/2, 135/4, 105/6
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 8.1 oz.

BTLII2000

Drag: 10 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (30” per turn)
Line capacity: 240/4, 180/6, 125/8
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 9.8 oz.

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, both in- and off-shore. And the Battle II series is a testament to the quality you can expect, as well as Penn’s attention to fishermen who prefer a big spinning reel to a baitcaster.

Eight reels are available in this line-up, covering all the fishing bases. For ultralight and light tackle, the BTLII1000 is a very good choice, and each step-up in size delivers the same quality–with a heavier maximum drag and larger spool.

There’s a lot to like about these reels. The drag is, as you’d expect, actuated with the usual knob on the end of the spool. The heart of this system is carbon fiber, as is the case on the Cadence CS8 series, and it holds and releases excellently. Indeed, were I looking for a large spinning reel to tackle the salt, this Penn would be my first choice.

The spools of each model hold quite a bit of line, and of course, as you turn to the larger models, they’re designed for heavy line. Yes–casting will suffer with heavy monofilament (or anything of that diameter), but for some anglers, that’s a trade they’re willing to make for the ease-of-use a spinning reel offers.

Cranking is smooth with all these reels, and though the gear-ratio varies, expect each larger size to pick up more line than the next smallest.

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

If you’ve never really liked baitcasting reels, or if you’re looking for a very slick light reel, Penn’s Battle II series is a very good choice.

Pros:

  • Excellent drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Excellent casting with the BTLII1000, 2000, and 2500
  • Silky-smooth operation
  • Awesome anti-reverse

Cons:

  • Expect casting to suffer with the larger reels (but that’s not Penn’s fault: blame physics!)

Pflueger President

Pflueger PRESSP30X President Spinning Fishing Reel
Amazon 

PRESSP20X

Drag: 6 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 5.2:1 (20.2” per turn)
Line capacity: 200/2, 100/4, 80/6
Bearings: 6 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 6.2 oz.

PRESSP25X

Drag: 8 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: 14 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.

Pflueger has a hard-won reputation for excellent reels, and it’s not hard at all to find a fellow angler fishing one from the President line-up. Redesigned in 2011 to reduce body weight, these inexpensive reels aren’t going to be true competition for the best of the bunch–but they will provide respectable performance at a very reasonable price.

Not every angler–myself included–can afford to spend hundreds on a reel, and Pfleuger has kept that in mind.

One thing that sets the President series apart from the other reels on this list is a very small incremental increase in maximum drag and capacity. Each step-up is very small, affecting retrieval rate more than anything else, though it’s worth noting that each step offers an increase in maximum drag of two pounds.

The smallest of the bunch, the PRESSP20X, offers fewer bearings than the rest.

Performance is very nice. The bail opens and closes well, and casting with light lines is excellent. Of course, stepping up to larger diameters will create more spool friction, but that’s not necessarily a bad trade for hassle-free casting on windy days.

The drag on these reels is quite nice, as well. At their highest settings, they hold tight, and set to lower weights, they release line smoothly.

Pfleuger’s spools don’t hold quite as much line as the competitors’, and if that bothers you, you might want to look elsewhere.

Cranking the handle is satisfyingly smooth, but not as silky as more expensive reels–something to be expected at this price-point.

That said, the President series delivers in spades for the money, and for anglers on a tight budget, they’re excellent options to consider.

Pros:

  • Great value for the price
  • Great drag
  • Excellent casting

Cons:

  • Spool capacity suffers a bit in side-to-side comparison
  • Not as smooth as more expensive options
  • Expect casting to suffer with line over 10-pound mono diameter (blame physics, not Pfeuger!)

Shimano Ultegra

SHIMANO ULTEGRA Freshwater Spinning Fishing Reel
Amazon 

ULT1000HGFB

Drag: 7 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.0:1 (31” per turn)
Line capacity: 2/270, 4/140, 6/110
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: N/A

ULT2500HGFB

Drag: 20 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.0:1 (35” per turn)
Line capacity: 6/200, 8/140, 10/120
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: N/A

ULT4000XGFB

Drag: 24 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (39” per turn)
Line capacity: 8/240, 10/200, 12/160
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: N/A

ULTC3000HGFB

Drag: 20 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.0:1 (35” per turn)
Line capacity: 6/230, 8/170, 10/140
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: N/A

ULTC5000XGFB

Drag: 24 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (41” per turn)
Line capacity: 10/240, 12/195, 14/120
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: N/A

Shimano’s name is essentially a synonym for quality, and though not every reel they’ve produced is a winner (I’m looking at you, Sedona), the Ultegra sets the bar pretty high.

The Ultegra series, like the Penn Battle II, provides the angling world with the option of a spinning reel to match pretty much any situation, and if you just can’t stomach a baitcasting reel, these are excellent alternatives if you’re willing to sacrifice some casting distance.

The smallest of this series, the ULT1000HGFB, is an excellent ultralight reel. As you move up in size, you generally (but not always) increase the amount of line retrieved per crank, though the gear ratios hover around the same 6.0:1 mark (with two exceptions).

Shimano’s drag systems are typically very, very smooth, and the Ultegra series is just what you’d expect. From light to heavy settings, drag performance is reliable and tight. Cranking is smooth, too, no doubt due to Shimano’s Hagane all-metal gearing. They also have included a waterproofing seal around the gearing, a nod to saltwater anglers.

Line capacity is excellent with every model, though, of course, stepping up to larger diameters will increase friction with the spool; expect casting to suffer.

Head-to-head, it’d be hard to decide whether the Ultegra beats the Penn Battle II. Typically, Penn reels are heavier but hold more line, and usually, Shimano just edges Penn in smooth operation. In this case, that’s not true, however, and the Shimano holds a few feet more.

Which reel is better is probably a question only you can answer, but for my money, I’d probably try the less expensive Penn.

Pros:

  • Excellent drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Excellent casting with the smaller reels
  • Silky-smooth operation

Cons:

  • Expect casting to suffer with the larger reels (but that’s not Shimano’s fault: blame physics!)
  • The most expensive reel on our list

Spinning Reel Basics

It pays to know a bit about spinning reels before you pull the trigger on one.

Designed for lines of less than 10-pound monofilament diameter, spinning reels are a great choice for catching panfish, trout, bass, specks, and redfish–pretty much anything but the largest species.

Their mechanism is deceptively simple: a fixed spool and a spinning bail capture and release line. All but fool-proof, this combination makes them very easy to use, and they’re a great choice for novice anglers.

To cast, you grab the line with your index finger, open the bail, and toss your lure, releasing your finger in time with the cast. To retrieve, you close the bail with your hand (doing so with the crank will wear the mechanism) and begin retrieving.

That simplicity offers real advantages in poor conditions: gusting winds really don’t affect the performance of a spinning reel, and wind-blown knots are not a problem. Moreover, unlike the more complicated baitcasting reel, they cast well into the wind and with light lures, and they don’t require re-adjustment when you change lure weights.

That’s a solid reason to choose a big spinning reel for in-shore fishing, where conditions are often breezy.

They do have a disadvantage, though.

That fixed spool retains line with a large forward lip. If you try to cast heavy-diameter line, or if you don’t have enough line on the spool, that’ll create quite a bit of friction as the line tries to slip past. In both cases, expect casting distance to suffer.

That’s why it’s important to obey two rules with a spinning reel:

  • Always try to run line that’s less than 10-pound monofilament diameter.
  • Always keep your line within ⅛ of an inch or closer to the lip of the spool. You want your spool to be full.

What We Consider When Buying a Spinning Reel

Drag

The first thing I look at on any reel is the drag.

First, I assess where it is. The best drag systems are located directly over where they’ll be working, and as a result, the drag knobs are usually located on the end of the spool.

Some spinning reels have dials positioned elsewhere, but these rely on a more complicated mechanism and tend not to work as well or last as long.

Second, I take a hard look at the maximum setting and assess whether or not it slips at that weight. For spinning reels, I’m looking for a maximum setting that matches the size and weight of the species I’m after, and by stringing some strong line on and testing the drag with a weight, I can get a sense of whether the drag can hold.

This is more about assessing the quality of the drag than testing that maximum: I’m never going to set the drag that high!

Finally, I like to spool-up some medium-weight line for that reel, set the drag to roughly a third of that, and then see how smoothly it allows me to take line. What I want to feel is a constant, smooth release–no jerking, catching, or slipping.

Gear ratio

A reel’s gear ratio describes the relationship between the crank and the spool: how many turns of the spool does one revolution of the crank create? For instance, a gear ratio of 5.2:1 means that one turn of the crank spins the spool 5.2 times.

This matters for two reasons.

For some lures, a slow, medium, or fast retrieve is ideal, and matching a reel’s gear ratio to its intended use can improve action. For instance, shallow crankbaits and topwater lures tend to work best with a fast reel, defined by a gear ratio higher than 5.2:1.

The second reason you care about gear ratio is that it tells you how quickly it picks up line. And whether you’re jigging deep or casting far to cover water, you’ll appreciate a medium to fast gear ratio.

Smooth operation

On any quality reel, the bail should close firmly, the crank should spin freely, and the drag knob should reliably adjust the setting. The anti-reverse system, too, should lock-up quickly to encourage solid hooksets.

Capacity

Line capacity matters.

On a properly filled spool, you won’t outcast the line on your reel. But over a day’s fishing, you might need to cut line–whether to mitigate abrasion, recover from a really poor cast, or release a deep snag.

Your reel needs to hold enough line to see you through the day without needing to re-spool.

I’ll be reporting line capacity in monofilament weights. Keep in mind that you can switch to braid and either get far more line on the reel or step-up in weight to a 4- or 6-pound mono equivalent diameter.

I’ve done just that when I decided to use my ultralight for big bass!

Final Thoughts

The Shimano, Penn, and Cadence reels are pretty much in a dead-heat in terms of performance. And given that the Cadence CS8 series is less expensive than its rivals, that’s saying something. I’d probably give the nod to Cadence, but the Penn and Shimano ranges just provide more options at the bigger end, offering more choices if you want to spin for pike, walleye, red, or blues.

For anglers on a tight budget, Pfleuger’s President line-up is a great option, and in the larger sizes, they will treat you pretty well if you’re after big fish. But keep in mind that size-to-size, these reels surrender a bit of line capacity to their rivals. To me, that’s not a deal-breaker: after all, you only get efficient casting with the first 20% of your line anyway, so we’re not talking about more than a few feet of practical difference.

At the smaller end, each of these reels is an excellent choice for panfish and perch, and if you want to step-up in size for bigger species, all four brands offer great options for anglers who want to skip baitcasters.

Have we forgotten one of your favorites? Have a suggestion, thought, or criticism?

Please leave a comment below!

Share on facebook
Share on pinterest
Share on reddit

Leave a Comment