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How to Choose a Saltwater Fishing Reel?

Selecting the right fishing reel is not all that difficult. There are basically 4 reel types you can choose from.

  • Spinning Reel
  • Baitcasting Reel
  • Trolling Reel
  • Fly-fishing Reel

Matching Reel and Rod

Your reel and rod are a team. If you have the wrong reel on a rod, you may not even be able to cast!

Spinning reels go with spinning rods. Baitcasting reels go with baitcasting rods. Fly-fishing reels go with fly-fishing rods.

Learn more about how to tell what is what, below.

Spinning Reels

Spinning reel and rod. The handle is interchangeable (left or right side).
Spinning reel and rod.

Most anglers use spinning reels because they’re simple and efficient and don’t take any real skill to learn. You can learn how to cast and use a spinning reel in a few minutes. No big learning curve here!

Spinning reels have an open reel face that is surrounded by a strong metal wire-like guide that flips up and down to grab your line and let it go. When the bail is up, you can cast. When it is down, you can turn the handle to reel in your line.

Spinning reels have drag you can tighten or loosen to take some of the work out of fishing and to make the reel more efficient in catching fish. The drag works by putting some tension on the reel so it cannot spin freely when a fish grabs your bait or lure. If the fish was able to run freely right after grabbing its meal, it may run straight down into a hole or behind coral or other sharp structure. Fishing line, even strong braided line, can break quickly from abrasion.

So your spinning reel is set with a tension or drag on the reel that is considerably less than the strength of your line. For instance, if your line is 30 lb. test braided, you might set the drag around 10 lb. of pull.

How do you figure out what 10 lbs. of pull is? You guess. Set the drag and pull on it to see if you think that is 10 lbs. Simple! 😛 Do be careful that your rod is set in a holder that can handle 10 lbs. of drag or your entire rig may launch off the boat and straight to the bottom of the bay with a good strike.

Spinning Reel Advantages

  • Very easy to learn how it works.
  • Easy to learn how to cast semi-accurately in an hour or so.
  • Can be used for a wide variety of fish sizes. I’ve seen people catch small trout and bass and big amberjack and tuna on the same spinning reel.

Spinning Reel Disadvantages

  • Fishing line memory can destroy casting ability. This occurs when the line has been on the spool for a while (weeks/months) and it stays in a curved position when leaving the spool. This adds friction when it passes through the guides – and makes casting less accurate.
  • Cannot be cast as far (typically).
  • You may need to wrap massive amounts of line onto the spool in order to get it to unspool smoothly. If too little line is too tight on the spool, casting distance and accuracy will suffer.

Spinning Rod Requirements

A spinning rod needs to have the guides (the circles that guide the fishing line along the pole) on the bottom of the rod because that’s where the reel sits. The rod flings the bait/lure out on the line from the position of the reel on the bottom near the ground.

The guides on spinning rods are large at the bottom of the rod near the reel and get obviously smaller closer to the tip.

Baitcasting Reels

Baitcasting reel and rod.
Baitcasting reel and rod.

When casting accuracy is paramount, I go straight for my Penn or Abu Garcia baitcasting reels. These reels sit perpendicular to the orientation spinning reels sit on the rod. The spool spins as line is taken off.

Baitcasting Reel Advantages

  • Very accurate casting once you master it.
  • Longer casts possible because the weighted spool spins on its own, feeding out line far smoother than spinning rigs.
  • Smoother drag. This may be all in my head, and maybe it’s just because I’ve never spent the money for a very expensive spinning rod, but my Abu Garcia baitcaster had the smoothest drag ever. Setting it was a joy, not a chore, as I find spinning rod drag settings to be.
  • You only need to put as much line on the spool as you need, not over-wrap it like a spinning reel.

Baitcasting Reel Disadvantages

  • Difficult to learn and master. It may take a few days to get really competent and skilled using these reels. Once you do, their accuracy is unparalleled – especially with braided line which doesn’t have the line memory effect.
  • Ratnest! The line on these reels can foul (become entangled) quickly if you do something wrong like casting without your thumb lightly riding the line as it is unspools. The reason is, the spool is weighted and continues spinning even when the lure/bait hit the water. That means excess line is unspooling and there’s nowhere for it to go, so it just makes a mess of your reel. Not fun!

Baitcasting Rod Requirements

Baitcasting rods have smaller guides – much smaller. The reason is because the line unspools straight off the reel and can go straight into a small guide. With a spinning reel, it isn’t possible, larger guides at the bottom are needed.

Baitcasting rods are cast overhead by clicking the button with your thumb and then holding the spool tightly until casting, then just feathering the touch of your thumb off the spool to control where the bait/lure lands.

Trolling Reels

Trolling reels are very strong to handle large fish.
Trolling reel in action off the back of a boat. Notice the guides are not just circular non-moving holes, they are round wheels which reduce abrasion and friction even more!

Trolling reels are like bigger and stronger baitcasting reels. Trolling is of course when you let bait or a lure behind your boat as you’re moving. The drag is set to scream loudly when something takes your lure/bait and the rod and reel are strong enough to handle even sailfish and other very large fish.

Fly-fishing Reels

Fly fishing reel and rod.
Fly Fishing Reel and Rod.

Many people like fly fishing because the skill is in using your floating line to present your bait or lure to a fish in the most natural way possible. Well, you could drop a line in with your hands and that would be even more minimalistic, but for some reason, fly-fishing has caught on and many people love it.

Which Reel and Rod Should You Buy?

If you’re a new angler and you are not sure which fish you’ll be specializing in, just go buy a strong spinning reel and rod because you can use it to catch all kinds of fish. The learning curve is small, and you’ll be catching fish with it in no time. You can fish off a pier, a boat, the shore, wade-fishing, or any sort of fishing you want except trolling for big marlin or kingfish!


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Florida Saltwater Fishing Guides

AmberjackBlack DrumBluefishCobiaDorado (Dolphin, Mahi-mahi), Speckled TroutGrouperGulf FlounderJack CrevalleLobsterPermitPompanoRed-bellied PacuRedfishRedfish IndexShark FishingSheepsheadSnapperSnookTarponTarponTripletail. Don’t miss our new SHARK Fishing Guide.

Florida Fishing Style Guides

Deep Sea FishingShore FishingInshore Boat FishingKayak FishingPier FishingWade-fishing

Fishing Tacklebox Essentials

Florida Fish Regulation Ruler (Belt)

Florida fish legal limits – make sure you get for the year you will be fishing.
Durable and waterproof, this essential fish ruler will keep you out of trouble on the water! Get yours HERE.

Fish Scale (Digital and up to 110 lbs.)

Fish scale to weigh your fish. Also has measuring tape.
Know how much your fish weighs immediately. Buy this handy scale HERE.

Florida Fishing Identification Booklet – 5×7″ Laminated (Waterproof)

Florida Saltwater Fish ID guide for helping you identify legal fish caught in Florida.
Some fish are difficult to identify. Make sure you know 100% which fish you have before you keep it. Florida fishing regulations are strictly enforced. Buy this little 5 inch by 7 inch booklet HERE.