Understanding the Different Types of Fishing Reels

We’re all aware that there are different types of fishing reels for different fishing applications. We don’t tackle marlin with the same reels as we use to tackle trout. 

While there are application-specific reels such as fly and game reels, there’s certainly plenty of application crossover between the reel styles, and often a reel choice comes down to personal preference.

Modern design, materials, and technology have had a lot to do with increased application crossover. 

It wasn’t that long ago that you would never chase marlin or dogtooth tuna with a spin reel – it was game and traditional casting reel territory only.

These days, spin reels like the big Saltigas are cast at the biggest fish in the ocean. The average angler can also cast lightly weighted rigs on baitcaster reels without spending the day fuming at bird’s nests. 

These days, center pin reels are made with space-age metals, seemingly more at home in a rocket ship than a babbling brook in a forest somewhere.

With the exception of digital and electronic reels, basic reel concepts and shapes have remained the same for years. 

Let’s have a look at the main reel styles and where and why you might use them.

The Spinning Reel

Often referred to as the eggbeater, the origins of the spin reel can be traced as far back as the late 19th century. 

The concept for the spin reel was born of a desire to cast lighter flies and lures – a difficult prospect with traditional rotating spool and center pin reels.

A small niche of angling historians will know the name, Holden Illingworth. But to the rest of the modern angling community, the name will ring no bells. It should. 

Essentially, US businessman, Illingworth, is closely associated with the early days of the now ubiquitous spin reel.

It’s not until the mid-20th century that the spin reel gained a broader market acceptance. 

While Illingworth draws a blank for most anglers, the brand Mitchell will ring plenty of bells. Few will know Mitchell was a French brand, but most anglers over 50 will remember the distinct Mitchell reel shape.

Now owned by mega-corporation Pure Fishing, Mitchell still produces good spin reels. Mitchell was the brand that launched the phenomenal growth in spin reels. 

The spin reel is now the dominant reel on the angling market with two-thirds of all reels sold in the US being spin.

The spin reel’s basic operational concept, stationary spool, and orientation have remained the same throughout its history. 

However, technological advances have ensured incredible refinements that have ensured the spin reel remains the fishing market’s leading reel in terms of ease-of-use, versatility, variety, and accessibility.

Traditionally considered inferior to the casting reel and baitcaster, and perhaps true many decades ago, this assertion no longer holds water. The notion that the spin is inferior to casting reels does remain in certain sectors of the angling community. 

However, it’s purely based on snobbery and has no basis in reality.

The spin reel is perfect for the smallest of targetable fish species and is now a formidable weapon when cast at the ocean’s biggest predatory fish. Of course, it covers every fish and fishing location in between. 

From the most remote babbling brook to the deepest blue water; from the surf to the ocean rocks, to the pond a couple of streets from your house, the spin reel is the ideal choice, and will likely have your fishing application well and truly covered.

Ease of operation is the best feature of the spin reel. So too is the speed at which a novice can master the skills required to achieve peak performance. 

The main reason for the ease of use is because the stationary spool of a spin reel is not subject to backlash. On occasion, the line might loop off a spin reel too rapidly causing a casting problem, but this is often due to an overfull spool and can be rectified very easily.

The spin reel can be used very effectively by the youngest of hands. And in the grip of a pro, it’s a precision weapon.

As we age into our dotage, the seniors among us, racked with the hallmarks of an active life, can still extract every bit of the joy of fishing using a spin reel. 

For the average angler, there is no easier, more effective fishing reel for just about every angling application there is.

Pros

  • The most versatile of all reel type
  • The easiest fishing reel to use of all the reel types
  • The greatest variety of models, brands, and reel sizes on the market
  • Covers just about every fishing application there is

Cons

  • Can be limited with rapid casting, one hand casting applications

The Spincast Reel or Closed Face Reel

The Spincast reel can be thought of as a casting/spin reel hybrid. The Spincast hit the market a year after the original Mitchell 300 hit the shelves. 

Designed by US fishing company ZEBCO, the motivation behind its creation was similar to that of the spin reel.

The main reason for creating the spincast was to make a reel that negated the scourge of backlash. It was also designed to combat line twist and line catch issues common with early spin reels. 

But like the spin reel, it was also about casting lighter weights more effectively than casting reels. The design was a great success from the outset. 

The simple push-button casting mechanism proved a hit with anglers. It was the kids, in particular, who really benefited from the easy to operate casting mechanism.

All one needed to do to launch a bait was to push the button, cast, push the button again, and the spool was engaged. Simple.

The spincast gained a loyal following and covered a family fishing niche. The lightweight construction and easy to master function ensured occasional anglers and kids could fish easily without having to develop special skills.

The biggest issue with the spincast reel is its limitations. Spool capacities are very small, with spools holding only a small amount of a lighter class of fishing line. Drag capacities are also less light-on, with 10 pounds of drag being very generous.

This ensured that the spincast reel remained an inshore reel only and limited to chasing panfish. In the hands of a skilled angler, the spincast will tackle a moderate size largemouth, for example. But larger fish aren’t really in the spincast brief.

The comparison between spin reels and spincast reels is interesting. Both hit the market at a similar time, both were well accepted, but only one, the spin reel, has come to dominate all parts of the angling market right across the world.

The spincast reel still has a niche in the beginners and kids angling market. There is also a portion of older anglers who cut their fishing teeth on the spincast. 

These anglers remain attached to the spincast and appreciate the nostalgia wrapped in modern materials.

Apart from materials development, little has changed with the spincast from the early days. The underspin reel was an offshoot of the spincast and is a spincast reel concept that sits under the rod, where the spincast sits on top of the rod.

The mechanics are nigh on identical, however. The reason behind its design is comfort. It is understood that a reel that hangs under the rod, is less fatiguing and more comfortable to manage than a reel that sits on top of the rod.

Relative to spin reels and casting reels, there are few spincast models from which to choose, with very few manufacturers offering much at all in terms of options and model variety.

In many respects, it is surprising that the reel style remains viable in the fishing market. 

Nonetheless, it does, and considering the dominance of its competitors, the spincast should be commended for staying relevant, if only in a niche part of the fishing market.

Pros

  • Easy to use. Easy to cast
  • Highly affordable
  • Great for the kids and beginners

Cons

  • Very limited versatility. Generally good for inshore panfish only

Centrepin reels

The centrepin reel is the oldest fishing reel style there is. Many of you will have seen the old school centrepins of yesteryear, some may even have one in their kit, or presented on a shelf in the den. 

They were crafted by artisans by using timber, and yes, they look great on a shelf in the den. With the centrepin, the name explains the design. 

The handle is connected directly to the spool, and it is, by far, the simplest fishing reel design there is. 

It’s definitely a specialist reel, with limited application, and takes some time and expert instruction to learn how to use it properly and extract peak performance.

Despite them being niche, they’re still widely available but usually sold by specialist sport and hunting stores, which target a more dedicated hunting and fishing market.

Your great-great-grandfather would no doubt be surprised to see a modern centrepin. While the concept remains the same, the construction materials have changed dramatically.

Standard model centrepin reels are reasonably common and accessibly priced. 

There are those marketed to the true enthusiast that are constructed from lightweight alloys and polymers, which makes the old timber models look even more ancient.

Those unfamiliar with centrepins may confuse them for fly reels. You’d be forgiven for making the error, as on the surface, there seems to be very little difference.

In many ways, there isn’t but there is a crucial difference in that a centrepin has no mechanical drag system. Fighting a fish with a centrepin reel is all about hand pressure. 

During a fish battle, you manage its run by altering the pressure on the reel with your hand. 

While casting takes some time to master, learning how to battle fish, with hand pressure only, takes some time and quite a few successes and failures before you get the ‘feel’.

Centre pin anglers are generally not chasing big fish, and they are nearly always fishing with a float. Popular with coarse fishing, the centrepin reel is usually fixed on a very long flexible rod with a perfect parabolic action, designed for facilitating the use of very small hooks.

The centrepin reel won’t be for every angler and has limited application.

However, fishing a centrepin reel and hooking up is an amazing fishing experience that every dedicated angler should try at least once.

Pros

  • A specialized style of fishing reel that gives a totally hands-on unique feel when battling a fish

Cons

  • Very specialized reel with very limited fishing applications
  • Requires acquired skills to master. The techniques and feel takes practice and instruction

The Fly Reel

In many respects, fly fishing is to angling, as the landed gentry is to society. With its traditions associated with kings, queens, the aristocracy and the landed gentry, there was an exclusiveness to flyfishing that we have now, fortunately, left to history.

You could argue that some fly fishing fraternity snobbery still remains, but it’s increasingly isolated. The vast majority of fly anglers can wait to share the finer arts of fly fishing with anybody prepared to listen.

Fly kit is now more affordable than ever. You can purchase a good alloy fly reel for well under 50 bucks. Having said that, you can also pay as much as $2000 or more.

Like the exclusiveness mentioned above, there is still a strong tradition of prestige attached to fly fishing and the fly reel. In 2017 a limited edition Hardy Hotspur Cascapedia Fly Reel was sold at auction for 55,000 British pounds.

Most fly reels have a one-to-one crank ratio. The drag of a fly reel prevents overrun (backlash) when casting and also works to slow the fish during the battle. In that regard, a fly reel drag serves a dual purpose.

Modern fly reels have 2 main differences. There are fly reels for saltwater and fly reels for freshwater. The key differences are line weight capacity, arbor size, backing capacity, and drag system.

Fly reels have two different types of drag systems, the spring-and-pawl drag systems, and disc drag system. Spring and pawl drag systems are generally for small arbor reels. Saltwater reels will have both disc and Spring and pawl.

The material from which a fly reel is crafted will designate the price tag – that and the brand, of course. Interestingly, the materials will have a lot to do with weight and durability, but aesthetics is often the big driver behind materials.

You can catch just as many fish with a cheap composite fly reel costing 25 bucks, as you can with a CMC machined aircraft alloy fly reel costing a couple of grand. Yes, that’s $2000.

There are two size considerations with a fly reel. The spool diameter and the arbor size. 

The size of the reel you choose will be determined by where you are fishing, the rod on which you will mount it, and the target species. It will also depend to some degree on your skills and experience.

Fly fishing, both salt and fresh, is an amazing fishing experience.

These days, a fly kit is very affordable and you can get excellent entry-level gear for a modest outlay. Buy a kit and get some lessons. You may well find a brand new fishing passion.

Pros

  • Steeped in tradition and fishing legend, the fly reel delivers magnificent fishing in salt and freshwater

Cons

  • Very specialized reel
  • Requires acquired skills to master. The techniques and feel takes practice and instruction

The Side Cast Reel

Many US, British and European anglers won’t be familiar with the side cast reel, but it is definitely worth a look-in. 

Looking somewhat like a centrepin, it is far more robust and designed for casting big on the rocks and surf, and suitable for tackling a pretty large class of fish.

The Side cast reel is Australian and was made famous by Aussie reel manufacturer Charles Alvey.

Punching through a hundred years of reel manufacturing, Alvey reels crafted reels from timber, Bakelite, and fiberglass. Now Alvey reels are constructed with carbon composites, polymers, and plastics.

The reel was designed to be simple. You should be able to drop it in the saltwater, fill it with sand and be able to give it a quick rinse, and all good. Repairs are also very straightforward and can be done on the run in between casts.

The Alvey side cast hangs underneath your rod with a crank action and orientation like a centrepin. A 1 to 1 gear ratio and a rudimentary star drag complete the picture.

Casting is done by turning the spool on its hinged bracket so it faces the target, then casting as you would any cast. 

Once cast, you return the spool to its original orientation and away you go. Line peels off the spool, not unlike it does a standard round handline spool.

The side cast reel can cast prodigious distances. Apart from the robust build, this is another reason why it’s preferred by rock and surf anglers.

There are models designed for inshore boat fishing as well as blue water bottom bouncing. But it’s fame and popular use came via its awesome performance on the beach and rocks. 

It was designed to be man-handled, and cope with tough conditions. It does.

The biggest issues with an Alvey side cast are problematic line twist and the absence of a level wind. An Alvey can be hard work. 

The rudimentary design has few bells and whistles, but that is its beauty. There is very little that can go wrong.

A side cast is best connected to a rod designed for a side cast. A side cast rod will have its reel seat close to the end of the butt assembly.

Pros

  • One of the most robust reels available
  • Easy to repair and maintain. Probably the easiest reel to maintain
  • Can cast phenomenal distances
  • Able to handle a huge range of fish sizes from panfish to monsters

Cons

  • Line twist needs to be managed and can be a pain
  • Uniform line lay is difficult to achieve and takes some skill to master
  • Larger models can be quite heavy

Overhead Reels. Game and Casting Reels and Baitcaster reels

There’s a very good reason for grouping these reels together. We’ll look at each individually, under their own headings, but they’re grouped because of their construction, identical operating principles, and rotating spool. 

There are some differences which we’ll deal with shortly, however, we’ll save a little time by discussing their operation here.

Game, casting, and baitcaster reels are all overhead reels. Some will dispute this categorization, but the reason they are all overhead reels is that they sit on top of the fishing rod. 

There is some argument to suggest the overhead label is regional. While there is truth to this, there is still a broad understanding in global fishing circles that a reel that sits atop the rod is an overhead reel.

Except for the spincast, which according to this notion, is also an overhead reel, game reels, casting reels and baitcaster reels have an identical operational mechanism, perpendicular revolving spool, and multiplying gearing.

They have the same drag principles with a few variations, and there are also differences in application, and sizes. There are also shape variations on the same basic form.

The Game Reel

The game reel is iconic. It is designed specifically for catching the ocean’s biggest species. Game reels are designed for trolling for marlin, sharks, tuna, and the toughest sports fish we can hunt.

Games reels are often big and heavy. Some have anchors so they can be strapped to your body. Game reels come in different sizes and line capacities so anglers can refine outfits to suit target species, target size, and conditions.

These days, many game reels have a two-speed gear system. The larger reels can hold over 3000 yards of 150-pound braids. Interestingly, the star drag of old is being left behind for the ergonomics of the now popular lever drag system. 

The biggest of game reels can pack a whopping drag power of 45kg and more.

Game reels are usually used from boats and trolled. Occasionally, they’re set behind a stationary boat with massive live and dead baits, usually for the likes of sharks and massive tuna.

Modern times have seen land-based surf anglers chase massive sharks using huge game reels. Baits are taken out past the last line of breakers via a kayak or inflatable boat. 

The battle takes part on the sand. You will even see surf game anglers with game chairs mounted to the pack of 4wd pick-ups.

Even entry-level game reels are expensive. It stands to reason, it’s a precision tool that also must be built tough because a game reel is subject to incredible forces over a sustained period. 

The heat generated by a running 1000 pound shark has to be felt to be believed. Game reels are a simple concept yet have refined engineering that delivers an angler some hope of winning in a very uneven battle.

Traditionally large and cumbersome, many models of modern game reels have lightened up and dropped in size significantly. They still have all the power required, however, to turn the heads of the ocean’s largest fish.

The Casting Reel

The casting reel looks very much like a miniaturized game reel. Interestingly, they share many of the same features, and there’s even a level of crossover into game reel applications.

The biggest difference between a game and casting reel is the size and weight. Other differences include excellent casting credentials, faster gear ratios, and the fact that many modern casting reels have level winds.

The level wind has become a popular inclusion, but many anglers looking for maximum casting distance prefer to go without the level wind. 

Without a level wind, it is up to the angler’s clever finger action to achieve a uniform line lay. It’s an interesting trade-off because if you don’t achieve a uniform line lay you will compromise casting distance anyway.

Manufacturers are going all-in with lever drag too. While the cheaper casting reel models will often have a star drag, the lever drag is becoming increasingly popular, as many casting reel anglers enjoy the ergonomics for quick mid-battle drag setting changes.

Casting reels are pretty versatile. By and large, however, they’re designed for chasing a much larger class of fish. There is quite a variety of sizes, but big spool capacities are definitely a feature. 

So are large handles designed for aggressive cranking. You will also find some hefty drag power, with 40 plus pounds not uncommon.

In skilled hands, a good casting reel can cast a long way. They’re a favorite for blue water and reef anglers chasing big tuna, big mackerel, sailfish, and the like.

They perform brilliantly trolled, they’re excellent for a variety of jigging techniques, and they’re ideal for casting huge poppers and stickbaits at massive tuna. 

Given the hefty spool capacities, casting reels are often used for bottom bouncing and fishing deep.

Often referred to as a conventional reel, they have an exceptionally long history. In that regard, they have traditionally been the first reel of choice for rock and surf anglers, particularly for those chasing big fish.

A good entry-level casting reel will cost a little over a hundred dollars. The top models can exceed $1000. 

More than anything, a casting reel is chosen for its strength, rigidity, and power. Hence its big fish applications.

Pros

  • Super-strong and rigid
  • Huge spool capacities
  • While generally a big fish reel, it has plenty of application versatility
  • Great casting manners in the right hands

Cons

  • Good ones are pretty expensive
  • Not really designed for a smaller class of fish
  • Despite massive weight reductions due to modern alloys and graphite, they’re still pretty heavy

Baitcaster Reels

The baitcaster has always been seen as the pros reel. The baitcaster is the precision horse in the reel stable. 

The low profile, high tech designs available now, only increase the sense of the baitcaster being an aspirational addition to a young angler’s kit. There’s something compelling about the modern baitcaster. We all want one.

For all intent and purpose, the baitcaster is exactly the same as the casting/conventional fishing reel. If you consider the barrel or round shape baitcaster, it can be difficult to tell any difference between casting and baitcasting reels.

Except for extreme sport lightweight fishing, the baitcaster is an inshore reel. However, one should not underestimate the power contained in their diminutive size. 

Their design ensures that they are incredibly strong and rigid. For this reason, a baitcaster can punch well above its size and weight.

The small size is a feature. You often hear baitcaster fans refer to a palmable size – that is, it fits in the palm of your hand.

Their performance strength is the result of their tech, accuracy, and speed. With ratios of 6 plus common, they are also widely available with ratios well above 7 and more.

This combination has seen them explode in popularity in pace with the massive boom in lure fishing over the last decade or so. 

The baitcaster is the perfect weapon for flipping and pitching in a variety of settings, where a level of casting flexibility is required to get in and under structure with pinpoint accuracy and speed.

The baitcaster takes some practice and skills development to become proficient. 

While backlash mitigation has come along in leaps and bounds with brake developments, manufacturers are still no closer to the complete elimination of overrun. Unfortunately, the physics of overrun is a very difficult problem to overcome.

Nonetheless, recent brake developments have allowed many anglers to embrace the baitcaster, achieving proficiency much faster than the old technologies allowed.

Choosing a round baitcaster or a low profile baitcaster can be a tough choice. There are awesome options in both shapes. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference. 

However, there are ergonomic differences between shapes that will speak to the manual dexterity of anglers and inform choice.

For the most part, a baitcaster is a close-quarters fishing reel. While significant casting length is possible, most choose a baitcaster for shorter, one-handed casts.

In the hands of a skilled operator, a baitcaster can land a reasonably light soft plastic on the smallest of lily pads. 

However, once rigs get to ultra-light status, the baitcaster loses a lot of its appeal, as backlash becomes very difficult to manage. Ultra-light finesse fishing is usually better with a small spin reel.

Modern baitcaster reels are far easier to use than the baitcasters of old. Learning the techniques of baitcasting reels should be encouraged. Once you have these skills, you unlock target access you never believed possible.

Pros

  • No reel is faster and more accurate once baitcaster skills are honed
  • Lightweight ergonomic feel
  • One hand rapid casting
  • Power to weight ratio is phenomenal. These tiny reels can target sizable fish

Cons

  • Limited to inshore fishing. (with a few exceptions)
  • Takes longer to learn how to extract peak performance
  • Backlash is an ever-present possibility
  • Not ideal for ultra-lightweight applications

Reel Type Final Notes

Most of us tend to gravitate to a particular type of fishing. For this reason, our reel arsenals say a lot about the sort of anglers we are.

There’s nothing like a diverse reel arsenal to inspire a diverse array of fishing skills. 

Using different types of reels and targeting different fish in new locations, teaches us skills that we can apply to our regular fishing exploits.

A good reel arsenal is a diverse reel arsenal. It helps us stick to the principle of using the right tool for a particular job.

Expand your reel kit. Get familiar with different styles of reels by using them. You never know, you may find that you take to a fishing technique that becomes your new passion.

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