Best Fishing Reels for Any Situation – Reviews and Buying Guide

Need a good reel but don’t know where to start?

We’ve got you covered!

Below, you’ll find an exhaustive list of the best fishing reels for any situation, freshwater or saltwater. After careful research, field testing, and detailed comparison, we’ve put together an unbeatable resource to help you make the best choice for your needs.

Best Freshwater Fishing Reels

Best Saltwater Fishing Reels

Best Specialty Fishing Reels

Best Freshwater Fishing Reels

Best Spinning Reel

Spinning reels offer easy casting, especially in the wind. Popular with anglers chasing everything from panfish to pike, they’re good for novices and experts alike.

Cadence CS8-3000

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
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Maximum drag: 19 lbs.

Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (35” per turn)

Line capacity: 10/150

Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing

Weight: 7.4 oz.

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 drag on the CS8-3000 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 lets you fight anything from largemouth and walleye–and for experts, even pike and muskie when running strong braided lines.

And a 6.2:1 gear ratio that picks up 35 inches of line per crank means that even big fish can’t outrun your retrieve. That’s important for keeping a tight line, and a good reason to choose the CS8-3000.

Pros:

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

Cons:

  • N/A

Check out our buying guide and reviews of our favorites:
Best Spinning Reels

Best Ultralight Spinning Reel

Ultralight fishing increases the excitement and challenge of catching small fish, but it demands very, very light lines. And only spinning reels can reliably cast 2- to 4-pound mono without amassing tangles.

Cadence CS8-1000

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
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Maximum drag: 11 lb.

Gear ratio: 5.2:1

Line capacity: 6 lb./110 yds.

Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing

Cadence’s is one of the few reels that make our list more than once, and that should tell you something!

The CS8-1000 is incredibly smooth, and its build quality is impressive. That Cadence has packed this ultralight with high-quality components is obvious. For the price, it’s a real contender with even the most expensive alternatives. Indeed, it fishes like a much, much pricier reel, easily offering the performance of high-dollar options.

The drag is awesome, employing a carbon fiber braking system that’s reliably smooth and effective, even at the lower end of its settings. Casting is reliably excellent as well, and for a medium-priced reel, the CS-8 is extremely hard to beat.

Pros:

  • Excellent value for the price
  • Super-smooth operation
  • Great capacity
  • Excellent drag system, very high quality
  • Great casting

Cons:

  • N/A

Check out our buying guide and reviews of our favorites:
Best Ultralight Spinning Reels

Best Baitcasting Reel

Baitcasting reels are especially for lines heavier than 10-pound diameter mono, allowing precise, powerful casting. They also sport very strong, very sensitive drag systems, making them an ideal choice for fish like largemouth bass.

Shimano Curado K CU200HGK

Shimano Curado 200K XG Lowprofile Freshwater Fishing Reel
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Maximum drag: 11 lbs.

Gear ratio: 7.4:1(31” RPT)

Capacity: 8/180, 10/155, 14/110 (mono)

Material: graphite

Weight: 7.6 oz.

Bearings: 7

Shimano’s reels are legendary, and the Curado K Series is among the best of the bunch. I know anglers who’ve dumped Chronarchs for the Curado K–it’s that good!

Much of Shimano’s reputation on the water can be attributed to just how buttery smooth each and every one of their reels are. But the Curado K is a step-up in this department, and with fine-grained adjustments on the spool control knob, it’s pretty much in a class all its own. I’m not exaggerating–its performance is that good.

That translates into some of the best casting I’ve ever had, and it packs-on a lot of line. The Curado K’s drag is excellent, too, making full use of the SVS Infinity system that allows precise micro-adjustments.

It comes as no surprise that the Curado K will really last, and you can expect many years of service from this reel.

Pros:

  • Awesome casting
  • Exceptional drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Incredible durability

Cons:

  • Not particularly light

Check out our buying guide and reviews of our favorites:
Best Baitcasting Reels

Best Spincasting Reel

Spincasting reels protect your line with a shroud, and while they don’t cast quite as well as their alternatives, they offer a lot less trouble when the weather’s foul. They’re also a great choice for new anglers as they’re very, very easy to use.

Zebco Bullet

Zebco ZB310BX3 Bullet Spincast Reel
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Maximum drag: 10 lbs.

Gear Ratio: 5.1:1 (29.6” RPT)

Capacity: (yards/test) 90/10

Material: aluminum

Weight: 13.9 oz.

Bearings: 9 (8 + clutch)

If there’s one reasonable complaint about spincasting reels, it’s that their retrieval rate can be sluggish. That may not sound like a problem, but if you ever have a monster run right at your boat, you’ll find that keeping a tight line can be tough!

Zebco’s Bullet is an exception. Geared to 5.1:1, and sporting a big spool, it retrieves as quickly as many high-end spinning and baitcasting reels.

The Bullet offers an aluminum cover and very nice build quality. It feels solid in the hand, and everything from the crank to the knobs on its tips feels top-notch. The drag is easy to set and works well, and we’d fish this for bass in a heartbeat.

Casting is fantastic, especially with quality line, and with nine–that’s right, nine–bearings, this is a smooth, smooth reel. Durability is also awesome, and the gears are cut from solid brass. And like spinning reels, the Bullet’s spool oscillates, improving how the line lays, which leads to better casting and fewer problems.

Pros:

  • Excellent build quality
  • Blistering speed
  • Very, very smooth
  • Nice drag
  • Casts well
  • Awesome durability
  • Oscillating spool
  • Instant anti-reverse

Cons:

  • Expensive for a spincasting reel

Check out our buying guide and reviews of our favorites:
Best Spincasting Reels

Best Trolling Reel for Freshwater

Trolling for walleye demands a precise, powerful reel that can deliver excellent capacity and a reliable drag.

Shimano Tekota 300LC

Shimano Tekota 700 Saltwater Star Drag Fishing Reel
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Maximum drag: 18 lbs.

Gear ratio: 4.2:1 25” per turn

Capacity: 12/275,14/220,16/185

Material: aluminum and graphite

Weight: 14.3 oz.

Bearings: 3 + 1

If you spend a day on the Great Lakes, trolling for walleye, there’s a good chance you’ll see Shimano’s Tekota in action. A popular choice among serious anglers, the Tekota delivers the performance modern trolling demands.

Capacity is excellent, dwarfing comparable spinning reels. You’ll be able to run more than 500 yards of 6-pound line with the Tekota 300LC.

For fans of mono–and many fishermen who troll are–that’s good news. Stepping up to 8-pound test will still leave you with massive lengths of line, and the level wind on the Tekota will help to distribute your mono across the spool.

The 300LC features an accurate, easy-to-use line counter, allowing anglers to control their depth precisely. That’s a big deal if trolling is your go-to technique.

And the Tekota is geared to 4.2:1. Featuring solid bronze gears, it’s got power to spare, allowing you to turn the head of even the biggest walleye and keep her where you want her. A 25-inch per turn retrieve is nothing to write home about, but it’s enough to keep a tight line.

For walleye anglers, this is a tough reel to beat!

Pros:

  • Excellent, lightweight body
  • Massive capacity for walleye
  • Smooth, powerful cranking
  • All-metal gearing
  • Effective level wind
  • Accurate line counter
  • Nice drag

Cons:

  • The 4.2:1 gear ratio is a touch on the slow end, but still plenty for walleye

Best Rod and Reel Combo for Freshwater

If you want to get on the water quickly, but just aren’t sure which reel to choose, it might be worth exploring a combo. At their best, they offer a great rod and reel, leaving the hassle of selecting the right paring to the experts.

Cadence CC4 Spinning Combo

Cadence CC4 Spinning Combo Lightweight with 24-Ton 2-Piece Graphite Rod Strong Carbon Composite Frame & Side Plates Ergonomic EVA Handle Knob Reel & Rod Combo
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Maximum drag: 13 lbs.

Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (32” RPT)

Capacity: 6/160

Material: carbon composite

Weight: 8.3 oz.

Bearings: 7 + 1

Cadence’s C4 reels are an outstanding option for the price, and in this combo, one comes paired with a rod that’ll put a smile on your face!

We recommend the 2000 series on a medium-light rod, as it’s ideal for panfish, trout, walleye, and finesse techniques for bass.

Cadence offers a really nice drag system in this reel, and with a maximum setting of 13 pounds, it’ll handle walleye and bass while still working really well for panfish of all kinds.

It holds plenty of line as well, and there’s really nothing not to like about this affordable combo.

Pros:

  • Great all-arounder for freshwater
  • Nice rod
  • Good drag
  • Great capacity

Cons:

  • Not as smooth as more expensive options

Best Saltwater Fishing Reels

Best Conventional Reel

Conventional reels are built around the demands of massive fish like marlin, tarpon, grouper, and shark. Primarily used for offshore fishing, they’re generally larger and more powerful than other styles of reel.

Penn Fathom Lever Drag Size 30

PENN Fathom Lever Drag
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Maximum drag: 33 lbs.

Gear ratio: 5.3:1 (36” RPT)

Capacity: 20/435, 30/325, 40/250

Material: aluminum

Weight: 19.8 oz.

Bearings: 5

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 sports 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 bearing 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 outstanding, 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 exceptional, extremely durable drag system with power to spare in a hard fight. Expect no slipping or binding, even at high settings.

Count me as impressed!

Pros:

  • Awesome body–very strong and stiff
  • Smooth cranking, great gear ratio, and outstanding retrieval rates
  • Awesome drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Excellent durability

Cons:

  • N/A

Check out our buying guide and reviews of our favorites:
Best Conventional Reels

Best Surf Fishing Reel

Surf fishing demands a reel that can cast a country mile, deliver a sharp hookset, and muscle a nice-sized redfish, striper, or shark. You’ll find that the best of the bunch combine great capacity with strong drags.

Penn Battle II 3000

Penn 1338219 Battle II 4000 Spinning Fishing Reel
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Maximum drag: 15 lbs.

Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (35” per turn)

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

Material: aluminum

Weight: 12.3 oz.

Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing

Penn’s reels are legendary among saltwater anglers, and the Battle II is a testament to their attention to fishermen who need a big spinning reel for surf-casting.

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, and it holds and releases superbly. Indeed, were I looking for a large spinning reel to tackle the salt, this Penn would be my first choice.

The spool holds quite a bit of line, and cranking is nice and smooth.

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

Pros:

  • Excellent drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Superb casting
  • Silky-smooth operation
  • Awesome anti-reverse

Cons:

  • N/A

Best Inshore Baitcasting Reel

For anglers who prefer heavy lines, nothing beats a baitcasting reel for inshore fishing.

Shimano Curado K CU200HGK

Shimano Curado 200K XG Lowprofile Freshwater Fishing Reel
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Maximum drag: 11 lbs.

Gear ratio: 7.4:1(31” RPT)

Capacity: 8/180, 10/155, 14/110 (mono)

Material: graphite

Weight: 7.6 oz.

Bearings: 7

The amazing Curado K finds a second spot on our list if you’re looking for an inshore baitcasting reel.

For reds, specks, snook, and strippers, this reel is simply exceptional. Combining phenomenal casting with a great drag system and plenty of line, it’s just all-around murder for inshore fishing.

The drag is buttery-smooth and plenty strong enough for big fish. Typically, I run 12- to 14-pound mono with this reel in the salt, and heavier braid when that’s called for. The drag provides plenty of tension for big fish, and it’s easy to adjust on the fly.

Capacity is superior, too, and there’s just nothing not to like about this reel.

Pros:

  • Awesome casting
  • Excellent drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Incredible durability

Cons:

  • Not particularly light

Best Inshore Spinning Reel

If you just can’t stomach a baitcasting reel, or you know you’ll be casting in heavy wind, a large spinning reel might be just the right pick for inshore fishing.

Shimano Ultegra ULT4000XGFB

SHIMANO ULTEGRA Freshwater Spinning Fishing Reel
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Maximum drag: 24 lbs.

Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (39” per turn)

Line capacity: 8/240, 10/200, 12/160

Material:

Weight: N/A

Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing

Plenty of anglers fish a spinning reel inshore for its superior casting in the wind.

The Ultegra’s drag is stout and smooth–just what you’re looking for when you hook a big red or snook. 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 concerned about corrosion.

Line capacity is fantastic, and if I were looking for a spinning reel for salt marshes and mudflats, this would be my first choice.

Pros:

  • Excellent drag
  • Fantastic capacity
  • Excellent casting in the wind
  • Silky-smooth operation

Cons:

  • N/A

Check out our buying guide and reviews of our favorites:
Best Inshore Spinning Reels

Best Rod and Reel Combo for Saltwater

If you’d rather hit the water than worry about which reel to choose, a combo offering a rod and reel together might be the right choice for you.

Penn Battle II Spinning Fishing Rod and Reel Combo

Penn BTLII4000701M Battle II 4000 Spinning Reel Combo, Inshore, 7 Feet, Medium Power
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Maximum drag: 15 lbs.

Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (37” per turn)

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

Material: aluminum

Weight: 12.8 oz.

Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing

Penn’s Battle II reels are an excellent spinning option for saltwater species like striper and redfish, and in this case, a 4000-size reel comes with a superb Penn medium-power rod to match.

Penn offers an exemplary carbon fiber drag in the Battle II, and it’s smooth and strong enough for real brutes. Capacity is awesome, too, and in concert with this nice rod, it has you prepared for bruising fights and long runs.

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

Pros:

  • Excellent drag
  • Awesome capacity
  • Excellent casting
  • Silky-smooth operation
  • Awesome anti-reverse

Cons:

  • The rod can come damaged from transit

Best Specialty Fishing Reels

Best Fly Fishing Reel

Fly anglers use very specialized in-line reels that need to be tough and capacious. A strong, highly-adjustable drag is essential, as well, to help them fight trout, bass, and even reds with light tackle.

Galvan Torque #5

Galvan Fly Reels Torque Fly Reel (Clear 3)
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Spool width: .9”

Capacity: 5wt./125, 6wt./100

Material: aluminum

Weight: 4.8 oz.

Galvan’s Torque series of fly reels are among the most celebrated out there, and they’re perennial favorites in any head-to-head competition.

This reel’s drag knob spins a full four times before cranking down, allowing very fine adjustments. It’s also unbelievably smooth, consistent, and reliable. Sealed against the elements, it’s fine in the salt, too!

While not the lightest fly reel out there, it’s one of the most durable, and with a very deep spool, capacity is excellent.

Given my pick, this is the reel I’d fish on my #5 rod.

Pros:

  • Very durable
  • Sealed drag
  • Awesome drag
  • Deep spool and excellent capacity
  • Super-high build quality

Cons:

  • N/A

Check out our buying guide and reviews of our favorites:
Best Fly Fishing Reels

Best Ice Fishing Reel

Ice reels offer an in-line spool that needs to hold enough line for deep jigging. Strong drags aren’t usually necessary, as cold water means the fish will be sluggish.

13 Fishing Black Betty 6061

13 Fishing 2015 Black Betty Fishing Reels, Left
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Maximum drag: N/A

Gear ratio: 2.7:1 (18” RPT)

Capacity (approximate): (mono) 2#/270 yards, 4#/190 yards, 6#/120 yards

Material: aluminum

Weight: N/A

Bearings: 5

13 Fishing’s Black Betty is the talk of the ice fishing community, and the general consensus is that this is the best straight-line reel available. We chose the 6061 as our model to review, and we think you’ll be as impressed as we were.

Machined from aluminum, the 6061 is plenty tough. It can hold more line for jigging than you’ll ever need, accommodating everything from 2-pound monofilament on up. And similar to the Eagle Claw, it, too, offers a free spool button to assist your jigs’ descents. We’re impressed by the bearings and smoothness of the spool–it’ll drop 1/32 ounce jigs with no trouble.

Pros:

  • Good gear ratio for deep jigging
  • Free spool button helps you drop jigs
  • Excellent capacity

Cons:

  • Not cheap

Check out our buying guide and reviews of our favorites:
Best Ice Fishing Reels

Best Rod and Reel Combo for Kids

Many kids combos are little more than toys designed to catch the eye of young anglers. But if you’re looking for an actual rod and reel sized for your child, we know just what you need.

Shakespeare Ugly Stik Dock Runner Spinning Combo

Shakespeare UGLYDR36PDQ Ugly Stik Dock Runner Spinning Combo
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Maximum drag: N/A

Gear ratio: N/A

Line capacity: 4/190, 6/140, 8/110

Material: N/A

Weight: N/A

Bearings: 1

Shakespeare’s Ugly Stick Dock Runner is a real rod–not a toy. For young anglers who are serious about fishing, and for parents who are serious as well, this is a great choice.

They pair this nice rod with a decent reel for the price, and kids won’t have any trouble casting or fighting panfish like bluegill, crappie, or perch with this combo.

Reasonably smooth for the price, Shakespeare’s not talking a lot about the specifics.

Pros:

  • Good capacity
  • The drag is strong enough for panfish
  • Reasonably smooth

Cons:

  • Overall quality–as you’d expect at this price-point–is just acceptable

Check out our buying guide and reviews of our favorites:
Best Fishing Rod and Reel Combo For Kids

What We Consider When Selecting an Excellent 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!

What We Look For When Selecting an Excellent Baitcasting Reel

Durability

Baitcasting reels tend to be pricey, and nothing is more frustrating on the water than an expensive piece of tackle that stops working after a single season.

The reels we’ll recommend have a well-earned reputation for durability, making the most of your money. And while we’re not beholden to any manufacturers–we tell the truth, good or bad, about every product–three names are worth remembering: Daiwa, Shimano, and Lews.

These three manufacturers are producing some of the best reels I’ve ever used, and if you stop and have a chat on the water with your fellow anglers, chances are, you’ll see these reels on their rods.

Great drag

When you’re fighting a real monster, an awesome drag is your best friend. And from cushioning hooksets when running a crankbait, to assisting your line with a fish that would otherwise break it, you want smooth and strong to be your watchwords.

For instance, when fishing crankbaits, you may want your drag at a modest 3 to 4 pounds. You’re looking for smooth performance–just a touch of give to prevent you from ripping treble hooks free, especially if you’re not using a glass rod.

But if you’re trying to ensure long-distance hooksets, or dragging bass out of heavy cover, you’ll want to increase your drag settings. No slippage is the name of the game in these situations, though opinions are divided about how much drag is enough.

Many anglers advise that the ⅓ rule always applies: set your drag to ⅓ of the breaking strength of your line. That gives you plenty of power to torque big fish while still protecting your line and rod.

But others don’t agree. Essentially, they argue that they bought high-dollar superlines to use them to their capacity, and when fishing heavy cover, they’ll set the drag to the maximum. At that point, they’re relying on the line, knot, and rod as a solid connection, and the idea is to drag bass from the nasty stuff.

Who’s right?

Well, both camps have solid reasons for what they’re doing. But generally, you won’t need more than 6 to 10 pounds of drag.

But do you need all the torque your truck can deliver?

Awesome casting

A good baitcasting reel has a spool that tries to defy physics. It should spin as freely as mechanically possible, and be paired with slick surfaces for the line to run through, as well. In fact, the proper design of the level wind (the piece that guides the line on and off the spool) is essential to long casts.

Daiwa’s “T-wing” is famous in fishing circles for its smooth function, but other top manufacturers have their own proprietary designs.

But long casts are useless if they end in bird’s nesting backlash. To help prevent this, many higher-end rods feature magnetic braking systems that apply more pressure as the spool slows, keeping the reel from feeding more line than needed.

When designed and executed by the best, these systems help you cast light lures, work in the wind, and launch your crankbaits into the next county.

Gear ratio

Gear ratio describes how many revolutions of the spool one crank of the handle generates. For instance, a gear ratio of 7.5:1 indicates that one turn of the handle spins the spool 7.5 times. The higher the ratio, the faster the retrieve. This speed is also represented by the number of inches per turn (IPT), for example, 31”. In this case, that would mean that every turn of the handle picks up 31 inches of line!

Fast isn’t always better than slow, but it does offer a bit more versatility. It’s easier to slow your retrieve than to speed it up, and with a little practice, you can ease your natural cadence to match the needs of slower presentations.

The reels we’ve selected are available in a range of ratios, but we’ve chosen to highlight what we think is the sweet spot a 7-speed offers. While probably a little hot for crankbaits and deep divers, it lets you pick up a lot of slack quickly and is pretty much ideal for soft plastics and jigs.

Capacity

Capacity isn’t something to sneer at, especially if you need to strip and cut line while you’re fishing.

The reels we’ve selected are fairly even on this front, though there are standouts. Of course, a larger spool typically translates into a bigger reel, so there are trade-offs.

The capacities we list, for example, 12/120, are measured in mono diameter equivalents and feet.

Weight and “Palmability”

Weight and comfort are critical elements of a good reel. Ideally, your reel pretty much disappears on your rod and in your hand, and a few ounces count.

We’ll note weight and discuss comfort in each of our reviews.

Bearings

Bearing count matters with baitcasting reels, though the standard is just one roller bearing for the spool. The rest are in the innards, making retrieves as slick as icy stairs.

While not an iron-clad rule, more is better. There are exceptions, of course, and the 13 Fishing Concept A demonstrates that less can be more.

What We Consider When Selecting an Excellent 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.

Drag

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.

Capacity

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.

Construction

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.

Line Counter

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.

Level wind

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.”

Should you use a level wind reel?

If you regularly run mono main-line, it just might be worth it.

Final Thoughts

We hope this article gets you on the water and onto the fish, and if it’s helped you or left you with questions, please let us know.

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

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