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For those looking to target a larger class of fish, no fishing arsenal is complete without a selection of conventional reels.
In some respects, conventional reels require a more advanced skill level. However, it’s important to understand that these skills can be learned, and learned quickly.
Conventional reels allow you to target a larger class of fish from all locations.
There are countless anglers with years of experience that have never so much as touched a conventional reel.
These days, there’s a conventional reel to suit your applications and budget.
In this article, we’re going to look at five of the best, and no doubt I’ll include the perfect model for you.
Let’s check out conventional reels in some more detail.
What is a Conventional Reel Used For?
Conventional reels are used for chasing a larger class of fish. From grouper to GTs, tuna, sharks, sailfish, marlin, and other such monsters.
It’s the reel that sits between a game reel and a round-shaped baitcaster and was the first choice before the introduction of the spin reel and low-profile baitcasters.
The conventional reel has been with us for a very long time.
A conventional reel is used from piers, in the surf, nearshore, offshore the ocean rocks, and any other location where large fish dwell.
They are incredibly versatile. They can be trolled and cast. Capacious spools make them a great choice for bottom bouncing.
They’re also the master reels for all types of jigging.
While reasonably straightforward to use, they can be difficult to cast to their peak potential.
For those who learn to master casting conventional reels, it’s possible to achieve prodigious casting distances.
Ultimately, your motivation for going conventional is you want the strength and power for battling big fish using a variety of techniques.
How Do I Choose the Best Conventional Reel?
Choosing a conventional reel is like choosing any other piece of fishing gear. We start with budget and application.
How much money do you want to spend, where do you want to fish it, and what species will you target?
Now that you know this, you can prepare yourself for an overwhelming array of choices.
I strongly recommend you handle one before you purchase.
Better still, try and get some experience with a conventional reel by borrowing your fishing buddy’s reel – even for only a few casts.
Next, you need to research and read articles such as this one. Then get talking to a seasoned professional or two. The more you can tell them about what you intend, the better.
Let’s have a closer look at choosing the best conventional reel in a little detail.
Like any reel, they have features, technologies, and inclusions you are going to need to understand.
Conventional reels are made from graphite, steel, and lightweight alloys. Internal components are constructed from stainless steel, lightweight alloys, brass, plastics, nylons, and other such polymers.
Generally speaking, the more you spend, the stronger and lighter things get, and the power-to-weight ratio improves.
These reels are heavy. Gears are bulkier, bearings are bulkier, and there are generally more materials.
Graphite comes to the rescue in cheaper models, cutting down the weight load a little.
In more expensive models, full metal frames and sideplates are lightweight alloys that also take out a little of the weight burden.
The average, lower entry to mid-priced conventional reel will generally be quite robust.
Check for good sealing, especially around the clutch, and look for corrosion-resistant materials for level wind systems, which are often subject to corrosion issues.
Like baitcasting reels, conventional reels have brakes to manage overrun/backlash.
You will have an option of centrifugal or magnetic, with both types offering great breaking depending on the model.
Brake type is often a personal preference. For me, it makes little difference – I’ll not make a purchase decision based on the type of brake system a conventional reel has.
A good brake system, whichever the type, can be a significant advantage. However, the sure path to avoiding overrun is in the angler’s hands.
An experienced angler with good touch can manage without a brake system.
To maximize casting distance, you’ll always be pushing the boundaries of your brakes anyway.
My advice is to practice casting, get the feel of your reel using different rigs, weights, and baits, and test it in different wind conditions.
I’ve used these reels for years, but I’m still astonished at the distance that experienced conventional reel users can get from their gear.
The first thing you’ll notice on many conventional reels is that there are many models available with lever drag systems.
Some anglers like levers, and some like traditional star drag systems. Many will tell you that lever or star drag has no impact on drag performance.
They’re partially correct.
In terms of the drag washers, the activation methods, lever, or star, don’t impact the action or performance.
However, a lever or star mechanism will impact reel ergonomics, and therefore impact the key performance criteria such as power, smoothness, and heat dissipation.
I like both levers and stars. However, there are some arrangements on a host of reels that I find awkward.
If you’re unsure what will work for you, I suggest you get out and feel the difference before you make a decision.
Drag power varies from as little as 4kg up to 22kg and more. It’s by and large commensurate with reel size, and the choice you’ll make based on the size of the species you wish to target.
Like spin reels, the number of bearings in a conventional reel is often commensurate with the price.
Entry-level reels can have as few as one, with four or five popular in mid-priced reels, and up to 8 in high-performance models.
Look for a dedicated anti-reverse bearing, and shielded bearings are a bonus.
High-quality bearings are almost a given in the big brands from the lower mid-price point.
Having more bearings is better for strength, performance, and durability, but I don’t find them to be as critical in conventional reels as in spin reels.
Conventional reels don’t have the same issues of flex and twist as spin reels do. This is why they are often the first choice for big fish hunters.
Whether or not you get a conventional reel with a level wind can be a very tough decision. I love a quality level wind, as they make a conventional reel so much easier to use.
A level wind ensures the line is packed on the spool evenly and consistently. Without a level wind, it’s a manual process that takes some practice and skill to do well.
A level wind, while awesome, can be a failure point and often is.
I’d bet that anybody taking a conventional reel in for repair is doing so because their level wind has failed.
Some manufacturers do level winds better than others, but failure is not uncommon across all manufacturers.
The biggest issue is the lack of strength due to design limitations.
It seems manufacturers can’t build them strong enough to cope with the fish size the reel is designed to target.
They are also prone to corrosion and gunk build-up, which often gets them to the point of failure.
In my opinion, if you’re chasing mid-sized pelagics offshore, then a level wind can be great. If you’re chasing dog tooth and yellowfin, forget the level wind.
A level wind can also add friction to the line which can translate into casting distance issues.
If you’re looking for prodigious distances for surf applications, it can be better to avoid level winds.
I know it sounds like I’m criticizing level winds – I’m not, I love them. I just need you to be aware of their inherent issues.
Getting a conventional reel without a level wind does away with the problem altogether.
However, some anglers unfamiliar with guiding lines onto the reel with their fingers often find this task a pain.
Yes, I find it a pain too. But it’s by no means a deal breaker for me. With a little practice, using your fingers to spool up evenly becomes second nature.
Retrieve Rates and Gear Ratios
Like any reel, retrieve rates can vary significantly. A retrieve rate is determined by the spool size and gear ratio, and the amount of line you have on the spool.
For big fish, we often like low gear ratios for cranking power. However, this often will strip off a heap of speed, making the reel inappropriate for retrieving many lure types.
There are a number of conventional reels that have split gears or two speeds. With the flick of a switch, you can change from a ratio of approx. 4.5 to a ratio of 2.2.
I do a lot of cast and retrieve, so my preference is for a faster reel. I like a ratio of around 6.2.
Of course, the actual retrieve rate will vary depending on the spool size and the amount of line I have on board.
Try not to overthink it if you don’t quite know which way to go.
Speak to a local tackle expert, tell them as much as you can about your technique and target, and they’ll advise you of your options.
Short of that, check the manufacturer’s specs for the retrieve rates of the reel you have an eye on.
Look for faster speeds if you want to use lures, look for slower speeds for heavy cranking at big heavy fish.
How do Conventional Reel Sizes Work?
Effectively, there are no industry standards for reel sizes. And when it comes to conventional reels, it’s totally ridiculous.
Different brands have different methods for sizing their conventional reels. By and large, they’re totally meaningless, with some exceptions.
A good example of unique takes on sizing is Penn’s system of numbering model numbers to correspond with line capacity.
There’s a reason for a lack of size standards, and it’s a good reason.
Manufacturers can’t lock themselves into industry-standard dimensions and specifications as it would completely limit design flexibility.
The best way to understand what size is appropriate for your needs is to check spool capacities, weight, and max drag.
It’s also very handy to see if the manufacturer recommends a rod or two for which the reel is perfectly balanced.
If you’re unsure about the size of a reel, the best way to remove any doubt is to eyeball it and handle it.
Top 5 Best Conventional Reels
As far as fishing reels are concerned, it can be a bold call to stand out any reel as being the best.
Even household names like Stella and Saltiga need qualifications when stating their pedigree.
“Best” is often subjective and circumstantial.
The reels listed below might be the best, that’s up for argument. What I can say, however, is they’re certainly worth your consideration.
1. Daiwa Saltiga Lever Drag 2-Speed Reel
I’ve highlighted this 2 speed model from Daiwa because it’s awesome. But this entire series is awesome, and if you’re feeling cashed up and looking for a conventional reel from the top shelf, this is a must-see.
Whatever fishing technique you’re looking at, this series has it covered. Having said that, this is a reel the offshore anglers will appreciate above all else.
There are 15 models from which to choose, so you can refine your selection to get the perfect jigging reel, trolling, or casting reel.
The standout feature is its superb construction. However, it’s the variety of options that make it a standout.
Versatility is also a feature, with each model capable of covering a multitude of fishing applications.
I like the Daiwa Saltiga for chasing massive tuna. It’s built to handle the ocean’s toughest species.
2. Shimano Ocea Jigger
Offshore jigging is huge, and the technique is perfect for tackling the biggest species swimming.
For those anglers looking for one of the best jigging experiences available, the Shimano Ocea Jigger delivers – at a price.
There are three sizes from which to choose with each size offering 2 speeds.
Supported by 8 bearings (6 in the 4000), and sporting Shimano’s Micromodule gears, the Shimano Jigger is a force to be reckoned with.
Spool capacities are phenomenal with the top size holding 900 yards of PE4. With 18 kg of drag, you have plenty of sport and powerful stopping power.
The 2000 and 4000 models have phenomenal speed cranking jigs home at a pace of over I meter per turn of the handle.
While the big sizes are pretty heavy, this is still a jigger’s delight with incredible durability and power to burn.
Even though the Jigger is relatively heavy, the crank feels particularly light, taking a little of the effort from fishing deeper in the water column.
The Jigger isn’t cheap, but treat it well and it’ll last you a lifetime of prize monster fishing from countless blue water adventures.
3. DAIWA Saltist Levelwind Casting Reel
This is definitely one of my favorites and a strong recommendation for any angler looking for a level wind with excellent casting properties.
While not the first choice for monsters, it’s still a big fish reel and exceptionally capable of chasing bluewater pelagics.
This is one of the more versatile conventional reels and it’s suitable for a wide range of angling skills.
Those new to conventional reels will find it ideal for learning conventional reel techniques while the most experienced anglers will still be impressed by all the Saltist has to offer.
The build quality is fantastic, as you would expect with any reel sporting the Daiwa label and pedigree.
While great outside the heads, this is an option for land-based anglers also. I like it for the rocks, big fish work from piers, and chasing beachside freight trains with live baits.
As long as you keep it clean, the level wind mechanism will last you for countless sessions before you need to do more focused maintenance.
The mid-priced Saltist does a little damage to the wallet, but the value and longevity are there. You’ll forget about the price tag the moment you cast.
4. Shimano TR200G
The Shimano TR has been around for decades now and it’s one of my recommendations for conventional reel beginners and those on extra tight budgets.
This is a non-frills no bells and whistles conventional reel that’s ideal for chasing a wide range of mid-size fish from a variety of locations.
- Strong, one-piece graphite body that is lightweight and resists corrosion
- Stainless Steel Reel Foot
- Stainless Steel Pinion Ge and Main Shaft
- Stainless Steel Drive Ge
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I like it for casting big poppers and for setting live baits. It can be trolled or jigged and has a level wind for convenience.
With only 6kg of drag, one might think it’s a little underpowered.
However, a generous spool holding 555 yards of 40-pound braid gives you plenty of fighting time should you hook up big.
The graphite frame delivers a reasonable level of corrosion resistance and also manages to keep the weight down.
The level wind mechanism is sturdy enough and shouldn’t cause any issues if it’s cleaned well following every session.
Ergonomics are good, with the lever perfectly sized and well-calibrated for minimum hand movements.
While it’s unlikely to appeal to the cashed-up more discerning conventional reel fan, it’s an ideal choice for the beginner or budget-driven angler looking for quality and value for money.
5. Penn Fathom Lever Drag
The PENN Fathom lever drag is a very popular conventional reel. It’s one of the more versatile reels with great features and it’s constructed from robust materials.
The all-metal frame and side plates are diecast aluminum. The reel is especially rigid while the overall weight is kept to a minimum.
The stainless steel main and pinion gear are designed for tackling large fish. This gives a smooth, lightweight feel throughout fierce battles.
There are 6 models from which to choose and 5 sizes. The 2-speed gearbox allows you to switch from cranking power to speed, with Dura Drag delivering plenty of stopping power.
The handle is made for hard cranking and the drag lever is perfectly placed for refined drag control while under pressure.
This is a great reel for trolling, jigging, casting, and live baiting, and brilliant for most fishing skill levels.
I like the big 60 for trolling and live baiting outside the heads and in the blue water, whereas the 25 with its narrow body will be perfect for casting from the beach and ocean rocks.
The 30 and 60 will appeal to those anglers who like chasing big grouper from piers.
Pricing starts at the lower mid-point and they offer exceptional value for money. A great option for those wanting great performance while avoiding top-shelf price tags.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Conventional Reels Better than Spinning?
No. Neither is better than the other. You might have a personal preference, and arguably big conventional reels are better placed for fighting the ocean’s biggest.
However, they are completely different designs and shouldn’t be compared in such a way. A good fishing reel arsenal will have both types of reels.
Are Conventional Reels Hard to Use?
Conventional reels do take some practice to master if you intend to cast them long distances with heavy lures and baits.
With guidance and experimentation, a competent angler will learn to master the necessary techniques relatively quickly.
Can Conventional Reels Cast?
Yes, you can cast most conventional reels. Like the baitcaster, it will take some practice as overrun/backlash is a constant consideration.
It’s important to understand that the casting capabilities of conventional reels vary to some degree.
Some do it better than others, however, a lot comes down to the skill of the angler casting.
Can You Surf Fish With a Conventional Reel?
The conventional reel is the original surf fishing reel. They’re excellent for surf fishing but the angler must be good at casting a conventional reel.
How Much Line Should I Put on a Conventional Reel?
Always fill any reel type with the maximum line possible according to the manufacturer’s specifications.