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How to choose a fishing reel

Looking to buy a new reel? Here's everything you need to know to make the right choice

When should you use a spinning reel instead of a baitcasting outfit? What are the key things to look for in a reel? Are gear ratios and front-and rear-drag systems vital features? Why are ball bearings important? Such are the questions anglers often ask when they’re about to buy a new fishing reel, and who better to provide the answers than the guru of all things reel-related, Steve Sherman?

As the national sales manager for Shimano Canada, Sherman certainly knows his stuff-and that choosing the correct equipment goes a long way to ensuring success. First, the issue of spinning versus baitcasting reels. “If you fish with light line between four- and 10-pound test, a spinning reel will cast farther and the drag will perform more smoothly,” he says. “But if you use line between 10- and 20-pound test and cast heavier lures, then a baitcasting reel will work better.”

Sherman points out that more anglers today are fishing with strong, no-stretch braided lines that put tremendous strain on reels. When choosing a spinning reel, he stresses, it’s therefore important to look for a model with three to five stainless-steel bearings, which keep the gears and driveshaft aligned. And an infinite anti-reverse means the reel won’t slip when you set the hook, while smooth drag washers will help prevent the line from breaking when you’re fighting a fish.

Other key spinning-reel features include a slow oscillation that tightly stacks on braided line, and a cold-forged spool, which prevents warping and isn’t as likely to get nicks in the lip that could damage the line.

As for choosing between a front- and rear-drag spinning reel, it’s often a matter of personal preference, says Sherman. All else being equal, though, front-drag reels can be manufactured with larger washers, which dissipate heat faster and keep the drag working smoothly. Rear-drag reels are still fine for most freshwater species, but front-drag reels are superior for bigger fish such as salmon, steelhead, muskies and most salt­water species.

Also engineered for larger, stronger fish are the baitcasting reels, which can be cast much more accurately. Sherman says to look for many of the same features on a baitcaster as you would on a spinning reel: three to five stainless-steel bearings, infinite anti-reverse, a smooth drag and precision-cut gears (plus a stainless-steel reel seat and main frame to support the gears and driveshaft). A low-mass aluminum spool with ball bearings on both sides, meanwhile, increases spool speed and makes casting effortless.

And when it comes to the ball bearings, it’s important that the reel has good, stainless-steel bearings to keep everything in place and running smoothly. “A quality bearing costs about $5,” advises Sherman, “so a reel with 10 ball bearings that sells for $50 either has very cheap parts-frame, spool and handle-or the bearings are inferior.”

With respect to understanding the gear ratios of baitcasting reels, Sherman says to think of a truck: if it’s stuck in the mud, you’re more likely to get traction in a lower gear. Similarly, a reel with a lower gear ratio rotates more slowly and provides more leverage to move a big fish from cover, or to get a crankbait down deeper.

So, how much should you budget for a new reel? According to Sherman, $60 to $150 for a spinning reel and $125 to $250 for a baitcaster will generally get you a quality reel that will last a lifetime. “The key,” he concludes, “is buying a quality reel to begin with and then keeping it clean and lubricated on a regular basis.”

What to look for

What features should you be looking for in a new reel? Here’s a handy checklist.

For both spinning and baitcasting reels:

  • three to five steel ball bearings
  • precision cut, stainless-steel gears
  • smooth, consistent drag washers
  • infinite anti-reverse

For spinning reels:

  • anti-twist line roller
  • slow oscillation speed
  • rear drag for small- and moderate-sized freshwater species
  • front drag for big fish and saltwater species

For baitcasting reels:

  • stainless-steel reel seats
  • aluminum frame
  • stainless-steel bearings on both sides of the spool
  • low gear ratio where power is needed
  • high gear ratio where speed is needed

Gord Pyzer

Gord Pyzer

Fishing Editor Gord Pyzer is widely regarded as Canada's most scientific angler. Known in fishing circles as Doctor Pyzer, he worked for 30 years as a senior manager with Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources before devoting all his energies to fishing. A member of the Canadian Angler Hall of Fame, the award-winning writer is also an internationally sought out speaker, tournament angler and field editor with In-Fisherman Magazine and Television. As well, he co-hosts the Real Fishing Radio Show with Bob Izumi. Catch Gord on the Outdoor Journal Radio Show live every Saturday morning 8:05AM EST. If you're in southern Ontario, tune your radio to Sportsnet 590 The FAN AM or visit www.fan590.com and listen live online.

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