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How To Set-Up a Baitcasting Reel: Easy Step-by Step Instructions

While setting up a baitcasting reel is a lot more complicated than simply tying your line to the spool and setting the drag, there’s no high-mystery to it.

We’d like to help you optimize the performance of your baitcasting reel, and whether you’re an old-hand or a new angler, the tips and techniques we’ve assembled will help you get the most from your baitcasting reel.

Keep reading to learn how to set up a baitcasting reel!

Baitcasting Basics

baitcasting basics

Baitcasting reels use a free-spinning spool that delivers line in the direction of travel. This cuts down on memory, especially with larger lines. Additionally, it allows them to cast further with less line on the spool.

They also sport excellent drag systems, which are typically controlled via a large, star-shaped wheel behind the handle. Designed as they are for heavier lines and larger fish, expect robust drag weights.

To cast a baitcasting reel, you place your thumb directly on the spool, free the spool to turn by depressing the thumb bar, and load the road. When you release your thumb, the spool will spin, feeding line down the guides. Before your lure hits the water, you want to slow and then stop the spool through direct contact--again, with your thumb--to prevent a bird’s nest from forming as the spool feeds line that has nowhere to run.

Simple enough, right?

Unfortunately, no! As you’ll see when you start, it takes some practice to train your thumb and reflexes. But just a few hours on the water will have you casting with confidence.

Let’s go through the steps to setting up your new reel. Don't forget to check out our top picks for the best baitcasting rods!

Step 1 - Feed Line to the Spool

The first step to setting up a baitcasting reel is to run your line from the rod through the line guide. The idea is to feed line to the spool, essentially reversing what happens when you cast.

I prefer to run the line through the guides and down to the reel, simplifying Step 3.

feeding line to baitcasting spool

Step 2 - Secure Line to the Spool

The second step is simple but essential: you need to tie the line to the spool with a good knot. I prefer the Uni knot, as it’s very secure and cinches down nicely.

Many reels feature a series of holes in the spool. If you’re having a hard time getting the line around, just pass it through and into the spool and give the handle a crank. It’ll carry the tag end back to you.

Once you’ve got your knot in place, trim the tag end down to about half an inch.

Step 3 - Load Line onto the Spool

How To Line A Baitcaster

The third step is to wind your line onto the spool. I like to do this through the guides, and I like to ask a friend to provide just a touch of tension as the line unwinds from the factory spool. If I’m by myself, I’ll fold the factory spool with my feet to accomplish the same goal.

Just grip the factory spool between your feet, running the spool in the direction of your rod.

It’s important to fill your reel properly. According to some pros like Jordan Lee, two-time winner of the GEICO Bassmaster Classic, many anglers mistakenly leave too much room on the spool. He insists that this isn’t necessary, and that improperly filling your spool steals a bit of your reel’s full potential.

Instead, he recommends that you load them pretty full. “Casting reels should be between an eighth of an inch from the top and all the way to the top,” he says.

If you load too much line, you’ll hear a strange sound as you cast, but just a hair under completely full works fine, especially if you’re running backing line to cut costs on expensive braid.

But not everyone agrees. Unlike spinning reels, a baitcasting spool casts well, irrespective of how little line it holds. For some anglers, especially those who don’t want to run backing line, that means loading less line on the spool is the best choice.

Jason Sealock doesn’t think full spools are the way to go. As he asks, “Are you casting 60 yards? That's 180 feet. That would be a long, healthy cast. So I've started spooling my reels with less line. Because of this, I don't use backing and now a 250-yard filler spool of line will fill 4 reels instead of 2 1/2. Which in turn, saves me money.”

There’s no right or wrong answer here--do what you think is best.

Step 4 - Set the Spool Tension

Baitcasters have a free-spinning spool, and the more friction you apply to it, either with your thumb or by tightening the spool tensioning knob, the less trouble you’ll have with backlashes when casting into the wind. It’s also wise to set this tension relatively high when you’re first learning to cast.

Generally, (with the braking system set as light as possible; Step 5) you should set the tension so that the lure you plan to cast will slowly fall to the floor when you release the spool. Think two to three seconds.

But if you’re a true beginner, you might want the lure to fall even more slowly than that. When it hits the ground, the spool should stop on its own. With that tension, you won’t be casting very far, but it will dramatically reduce backlashes and bird’s nests.

The caveat here is that the tighter the tension, the shorter the cast--so as you improve your technique and thumb-savvy, I’d back off that setting. For experienced anglers, a two-second fall should be about right.

Every time you change your lure weight, you’ll need to adjust this setting!

This video is a great place to start for anglers new to baitcasting reels:

Step 5 - Set the Brakes

Baitcasting reels are designed with a variety of braking systems, and depending on the model and brand, they may be centrifugal or magnetic, and they may be actuated internally, externally, or both.

That sounds confusing, but it’s not as bad as it seems!

Centrifugal brakes: Shimano

Some Shimano reels, for instance, use a centrifugal braking system with two controls. These SVS Infinity brakes apply differential pressure to reduce backlashes, and on models like the popular Curado K, they allow nearly infinite settings.

svs infinity breaking system

As you can see from the picture above, there are two points to adjust. First, via a side plate, you access the brakes themselves.

Shimano color codes these brakes. “Shimano makes two different break weights; Heavy (Black, Grey, or Green in color) and Light (Red, Blue, and Clear in color). Most of the new reels are shipped with the light break weights on the reel, and the heavy break weights in packaging in the box. If the light break weights don’t provide adequate spool stopping power, change them simply by pulling them off of the spool and replace them with the heavier weights.”

To adjust the brakes themselves, apply light pressure toward the center (to disengage) or toward the outside (to engage).

I recommend that new anglers start with all four brakes on. As you improve, you can turn one or more of them off, and true experts sometimes turn them all off.

With the internal brakes set, you can adjust their power via an external dial. The combination of brake and dial setting gives you incredible control over backlashes--but the higher the settings, the shorter the cast!

Shimano also uses a VBS braking system.

vbs braking system

It works in much the same way, with the colored pins moving in (on) or out (off).

Here’s an excellent tutorial on this braking system:

Basically, whoever the manufacturer, all centrifugal braking systems work this way.

Magnetic brakes: Daiwa

Daiwa uses a magnetic braking system that applies more magnetically applied friction as you dial-up the numbers on your knob.

It’s as simple as that!

Step 6 - Set the Drag

Setting your drag is as important as it is easy. The best method is to use a scale and set your drag to a measured ¼ to ⅓ of the line’s rated test.

You do this simply by tying your line to the scale, and slowly increasing the drag setting until you get to the correct weight.

Tom Schlichter shows new anglers how it’s done in this video:

Final Thoughts

At this point, your baitcasting reel is ready to go!

And as you gain experience with it, you can fine-tune these settings to give you greater casting distance. As I mentioned above, some anglers eventually use minimal brake settings, relying on very experienced thumbs to control backlashing.

But whatever your experience level, don’t be afraid to give baitcasters a try!

Check out our guide for choosing a fishing reel for any situation!

About The Author
Pete Danylewycz