Bearings are a critical component in any fishing reel, and a product with lots of them typically touts that as a virtue.
Of course, “lots” is relative, and maybe seven counts as a “lot” for me, while 15 is the high end for you.
But numbers don’t always mean quality, and there’s a lot of myth, advertising hype, and misinformation out there.
And we know you’ve got questions:
What do bearings really do?
Are more better?
What differentiates a high-quality bearing from one that’s just OK?
In short, what should an educated reel buyer be looking for?
If you want answers to these questions, keep reading!
Table of Contents (clickable)
Related: What is the best fishing reel
Fishing Reel Bearing 101: Races, Cages, and Shields
Thanks to physics, anytime two surfaces rub against one another, they produce friction (and heat). There’s no realistic way around that.
But engineers can reduce friction by providing sliding surfaces at points of contact like the ends of a main and pinion gears in your reel.
As Ben Joyce, an expert from Penn, explains, “When you have pressure on the reel as you’re fighting a fish, there’s a whole bunch of metal-on-metal components that are touching each other as you turn the handle. Bearings help them slide over each other smoothly and provide better performance than bushings.”
That’s what a bearing is: a friction-reducer that allows two surfaces to turn more easily on one another.
These simple round balls of (typically) stainless steel need to be contained and held in place to do their job, so they come packed in a stainless frame. These frames are called “races” by engineers, and there are two on each bearing assembly: an inner race and an outer race.
Most of these “races” wear a shield, but one doesn’t. Can you tell which is unshielded?
Together, they hold the bearings in place and provide a track on which the bearings run - thus their name.
Within those races, you’ll find the bearings inside a “cage,” essentially a structure that keeps each bearing where it should be, maintaining a carefully determined spacing between them for optimal performance.
A bearing “cage” keeps each stainless ball in a carefully determined position relative to the others.
Engineers can add a shield to those races, enclosing the bearings to further protect them from sand, dust, and grit that can affect their performance.
Now, you can already tell that a shield is probably a good thing on a fishing reel. Given their exposure to fine particles like sand and dirt, a shielded bearing is going to last longer and feel better than an unshielded bearing, all other things being equal.
And when was the last time you heard a reel manufacturer advertise that their bearings were shielded?
Bearing Composition: Corrosion Resistance
The vast majority of bearings are made from stainless steel, and that makes a lot of sense for applications in which water is involved, as the additions that make stainless from carbon steel typically increase corrosion resistance (and improve hardenability and wear resistance).
Chromium is the chief addition that reduces corrosion in stainless steel, and the final alloy is at least 10.5% chromium if it’s called “stainless.” But there are many varieties of stainless steel, and some are more corrosion resistant than others.
Keep this in mind: a reel made with highly corrosion-resistant stainless will have less trouble over the long run than one made with steel that’s only “mildly” stainless.
But whatever the stainless composition of the bearings in your reel, maintenance is essential, especially for saltwater anglers.
Tony DuBeck, Penn’s reel services supervisor, says that saltwater corrosion is the biggest problem most bearings face.
Corrosion will ruin your bearings - take care of them!
“That’s probably the number-one reason reels come in for service: Salt water enters the reel,” he says.
Take a look at the best saltwater fishing reels
Rinsing your reels in fresh water and applying proper lubrication are the keys to long reel life.
DuBeck offers some advice about that last step.
“You have grease and oil inside to prevent corrosion, but over time, the grease wears away, as does the oil, and that’s really when the salt attacks the ball bearings. Grease the gears and oil the ball bearings, then put a light coating of grease on top of that, which helps give it an extra shield.”
“Grease is going to protect better against salt water, and it lasts longer. Oil is going to reel better. A lot of people don’t like a really heavy reel. If you pack an International with grease, most guys won’t notice it, but a 4000-size reel will have a really sluggish feeling.”
He also recommends a gentle mist of water to clean your reel, as opposed to a forceful spray or thorough dunking.
And never use WD-40 as a lubricant: it’s a water displacer (that’s what the “WD” stands for, after all), not a lubricating oil, and it’ll actually degrade the oil and grease left in your bearings.
Bearing Hardness: Wear Resistance
A stainless bearing begins its life as a length of wire. From that, balls are machined and polished, and then the bearing undergoes heat treatment to harden it.
Hardening increases the wear resistance, making the steel as resistant to damage in use as it can be. And since impact isn’t a concern, bearing manufacturers can make these balls super hard without worrying about whether they’ll become brittle.
Excessive wear has deformed the surface of these once-smooth bearings.
That heat treat, in combination with the precise alloyed additions, increases a steel bearing’s wear resistance, making it less prone to scratches and chips over its service life.
If you’ve ever had a reel start off smooth and then end up feeling like you were cranking a meat grinder full of marbles, that was probably due to worn bearings.
High-quality bearings are very hard and made from wear-resistant stainless steel alloys.
That said, even the hardest steels can wear when exposed to enough use.
Bearing Failure: Friction, Wear, and Heat
You already have a sense of what can go wrong in a bearing assembly.
First off, corrosion can affect the bearings, rusting and pitting them, which increases friction (and heat) and decreases that smooth feel all anglers are looking for.
Second, bearings can wear over time, getting scratched or flattened, which also increases friction (and heat) and creates a rough feel.
And finally, when you’re working a reel really hard in a long fight, all that extra friction and heat can micro-weld the bearings to their races, freezing the reel in the worst possible moment.
Fights with fish like this are going to put your reel’s bearings to the test.
“Apart from corrosion, the most common breakdown in bearings is microwelding between a ball and the race,” Cory Oliver of Boca Bearings says. “They weld together and snap off, and the reel seizes or blows apart.”
Really good reels use very corrosion-resistant stainless steel and harden it properly to reduce wear. Even then, you need to keep these bearings properly lubricated to reduce friction and prevent particle intrusion.
Alternative Bearing Materials: Ceramic and Ceramic Hybrids
Engineers have access to ceramics as well, and they can make exceptional bearings.
Ceramics, like the coffee mug you used this morning, are very, very hard materials, easily harder than any steel. That’s why, in the old days, people sharpened knives on the bottom of places or cups, and now, ceramics are commonly used in knife sharpeners.
Ceramic bearings offer superior performance.
That ultra-hardness translates into superb wear resistance, and one advantage ceramic bearings offer is that they’re almost impossible to scratch or flatten.
Ceramic is also naturally corrosion-proof, so rusting is simply not an issue.
And because ceramics can be made extremely smooth, they offer even less friction than polished stainless steel, demanding no lubrication to provide low-friction, low-heat performance. Indeed, replacing stainless bearings with ceramics will increase casting distances by a huge margin.
If that’s not enough, they’re also as much as 60% lighter than steel, too!
That all adds up to superior performance.
Hybrid bearings have a stainless core that’s coated in ceramic, offering similar performance to a full ceramic bearing but with less weight savings.
In either case, these alternative bearings offer increased performance, longer life, and almost no chance of failure.
What This All Means for You
As you can see, bearings vary in quality, not just in number. So it’s not a good rule of thumb to say “buy the reel with more bearings,” or “buy whichever reel feels smoother in the store.”
Clearly, “more bearings” doesn’t mean better performance, and initial smoothness tells you next to nothing about how a reel will feel after seasons of hard use.
Instead, the only real guideline is price.
Companies like Abu Garcia, Shimano, Penn, Daiwa, Pflueger, and the like are going to build reels with excellent bearings, and they’ll dependably perform if you do your part. One bearing more or less won’t make any difference because it’s quality over quantity every time.
So what’s the rule?
As in most things, you get what you pay for. Pay top dollar for your reels, and you’ll get top-dollar bearings.
That said, even the best stainless bearings aren’t going to last if you work your reel hard, especially in saltwater applications where the fights really put a strain on your tackle.
These hard use situations will inevitably wear stainless bearings, and for pros, tournament anglers, and serious amateurs, replacing the stock bearings with ceramic alternatives is worth the money.
$20 for a new set, the performance increase over even new bearings is remarkable.
And the good news is that we can tell you that Boca Bearings manufactures replacement bearings for pretty much any high-end reel.