Are Fishing Reels Universal? (Beginner’s Guide)

Fishing can be intimidating for someone just discovering it. Fishing reels are perhaps the most confusing, because while there are common themes, reels come in different shapes, sizes, and even forms. One question many beginners have is whether or not fishing reels are one-size-fits-all.

Fishing reels are not universal. There are specific rods for multiple uses including, but not limited to, fishing with bait, fly fishing, fishing with lures, beginner reels, saltwater, and freshwater reels. Reels are also designed to work with specific rods, and so are not one-size-fits-all.

There are many different fishing reels, and each has its own purpose. Fortunately, while expansive, fishing reels are not complex. Let’s take a look at a summary of fishing reels, their purpose, characteristics, and how to make sure you have the right reel for the type of fishing you want to do.

Are All Fishing Reels The Same Size?

Fishing reels are not all the same size. To see how varied the sizes of fishing reels are, visit your local sporting goods or box department store. You will see giant spinning reels, tiny spincast reels for kids, and just about every size and type of reel in between.

Freshwater Fishing

As the name implies, this entails fishing in water that is not salty. Freshwater fishing can take place in rivers, streams, brooks, lakes, ponds, canals,and whereverthe salt content is less than one percent and is safely drinkable by humans (pollution notwithstanding).

Freshwater fish tend to range in size from exceedingly small to very large, although not as large as many ocean-oriented fish. The reels and rods used in freshwater fishing tend to be smaller than saltwater rods and reels and are usually more engineered towards casting than saltwater reels.

Saltwater Fishing

Saltwater fishing happens in the ocean, bays, estuaries, rivers, marshes, or wherever salt content in the water exceeds one percent. Fish in an ocean or saltwater environment tend to be bigger and require larger rods, reels, and lures.

A saltwater reel is used for casting, particularly specialty reels like ones used for fly fishing reels. But, they are more acclimated to drop fishing (also called suspended fishing) and trolling.

Additionally, a reel used for saltwater fishing tends to have a larger width and strength line on it, which means the spools on the reel must be larger which, by default, means the reel mechanism and casing must be, too.

Common Terms And Reel Sizes, Explained

The key difference between fresh and saltwater reels is size. Generally, fishing reel sizes are designated by series and a numerically assigned number. Size and series are designated by the manufacturer of the reel and are proprietary.

Reel Basics

No matter the reel, there are some basic equipment and parts you should know:

Seat – This affixes the reel to your fishing rod.

Spool – This holds your line and either spins on a chamber of ball bearings or is controlled by a bale that rotates on a chamber of ball bearings.

Bail – Spinning reels have bails. A bail is a rounded thread of metal that, when activated by the reel handle, retrieves the line evenly. The bail also holds the line in place after a cast and while the retrieval takes place. A bail is best hand managed and not “snapped” into place by cranking the handle as the crank method shortens the lifespan of the reel.

Drag – The drag on a reel manages tension that allows line to be let out when the reel is not in casting mode. Drag can by solely based on tension or, in some rods, it is managed by flipping a switch and reversing the direction of the bail.

Anti-Reverse – This is activated by the switch mentioned above. It allows the bail or spool to freely move in either direction to let out line or reel it in.

Tension – Tension controls how freely a spool is allowed to rotate. It applies to some fly fishing reels and baitcaster reels. On baitcaster reels, the tension helps manage the rate the line comes off the spool to prevent backlashes.

Handle – This is the crank that is used to retrieve a fly, lure or bait, position any of those, and reel in fish.

Backlash – This happens when the reel spins faster than the line comes off it during a cast. The line runs over itself and become ensnarled with line that is still being released. When that happens, the result is a knot or a series of knots (often called a “birdsnest.”)

Those are not all the terms you will learn as you get into fishing and choosing reels, but each is a basic term associated with reels and using them to fish. It is important to know each term and how it functions with the reel in general, as each will play a significant role in helping you select the right reel for your fishing adventures.

Reel Make, Model, Series And Size

Fly fishing reels are usually designated based on the ideal line weight a reel can hold. The line weight is usually designated based on a range of line sizes. For example, an average-sized fly fishing reel that most fishers will use might be designated as a 1w to 4w rated reel. The 1 to 4 designation indicates line sizes.

Non-fly-fishing rods are labeled a bit differently. A Penn spinning rod, series 1,000, for instance, is only applicable to Penn fishing reels marked as part of the 1,000 series. If the Penn series run from 1,000 through 30,000, then 1,000 would be the smallest reel for that series and 30,000 would be a large reel.

Most reel manufacturers have tried to streamline reel options to both provide uniformity as well as to “cross fish” between fresh and saltwater. A Penn spinning reel in a particular series, for example, is the same reel no matter the size.

5 Different Types Of Fishing Reels

1. Centerpin Reels

Centerpin reels are simplicity at its finest. The spools rotate on ball bearings in either direction, and how much to let out, how fast to reel in, how much pressure to use, and whether to let a fish run is entirely up to the angler. Centerpin reels typically do not possess any type of drag.

A centerpin reel works best with fly fishing, drift fishing, and in some cases can be effectively employed with drop or suspended fishing. Sizes are designated by numbers and range from low to high with lower numbers being smaller.

2. Fly Fishing Reels

These are very similar to centerpin reels, but some fly fishing reels also possess drag systems. For smaller fish, no drag is needed, but if you are using a fly fishing kit for saltwater and are fishing for larger fish like salmon, bass or some trout, some drag is not only helpful in landing fish, it is necessary to avoid losing the fish.

Most fly fishing reels with drag are mechanically orchestrated via line tension. Some that are used for larger fish, however, have a carbon disc drag system. This is modified by manipulating the drag knob. The more a knob is turned, the harder it is for the discs to rotate, thus creating a drag system to help control larger fish.

Fly fishing sizes depend on the manufacturer, but almost all of them use line size and weight to indicate the appropriate size. A reel rated for 1 to 4 as mentioned above, would be for a smaller fish. A reel rated 8 or higher would be used for large freshwater fish and most saltwater fish. The highest rating for line size for fly fishing reels is usually 13.

More than most types of fishing, a fly reel is determined by the type of fish you are targeting and its average size. This is because line size is also important to the types of flies you will be using. A fly that is the length of a fingernail will not perform well with line that is an eighth of its size.

3. Spincasting Reels

Spincasting reels are generally known as reels for beginner anglers. That reputation is a bit unfair, because a spincast reel will catch just as many and just as large a fish as any other reel. Spincast reels also have the added benefit of almost never experiencing line tangle, twisted knots, or backlash.

In terms of complexity, these reels are slightly above fly and centerpin reels. A spincast reel has an internal mechanism that aids in casting and usually has an adjustable drag system. Casting a spincasting reel is done by pushing a button and releasing it much like you would throwing a ball.

The spool on a spincast is stationary and open-faced. When line comes off the spool, it coils off through a hole in the front casing of the reel. Spincasting reels are just like every other type of reel, but often are less expensive. That combination has made them enjoy a period of increasing popularity over the last couple of decades.

Spincast reels are manufacturer and number-driven. For example, a Zebco Omega series spincast reel runs from 10 through 30 (three models,) with 30 being the largest. Almost all spincast reels have some sort of number designation that indicates its size.

4. Spinning Reels

A spinning reel is managed by its handle, a spool and a “bail,” which guides line back onto the reel during retrieval. Spinning reels have more function and features than spincast reels. Operating the bail to cast and retrieve requires a bit more skill than a spincast reel.

Spinning reels come in a variety of shapes, sizes and layouts. You can find tiny spinning reels that are used on micro-rods to catch brook trout or panfish. There are also giant spinning reels used to catch ocean sportfish that can weigh hundreds of pounds.

Spinning reels for saltwater fish tend to be larger than reels used for freshwater fish, although there is some overlap. Most spinning reels fall between the numbers of 500 and 30,000. The 500 figure would be used on that micro-rod or a smaller freshwater rod, while a reel designated at 30,000 would be used on extremely large fresh and saltwater fish.

The spinning reel is the most versatile of all fishing reels. It can be used in fresh and saltwater, for ice fishing, and on open water. Spinning reels excel at trolling and casting for distance or accuracy. They are also perfect for top, medium, and bottom fishing. Landing a fish is managed by its built-in drag or by using the anti-reverse lever.

5. Baitcasting Reels

Baitcasting reels are the most complex. There are several types of baitcasters, and the size of the reel is dependent on the type. There are two broad categories in which you can find several different styles of baitcasters.

Low-profile baitcasting reels are the most common baitcaster and are used by most anglers. They’re designed to hold heavier test line and cast heavier tackle. Light tackle is not used with this type of reel, because it takes so much weight to get the spool moving sufficiently to cast. Sizes on this type of reel tend to be limited, and the reels fall within a general sizing framework.

Full-size and offshore baitcasting reels are usually very big, and anglers use them when fishing for larger fish such as saltwater sportfish. They can be used in freshwater for salmon, sturgeon, lake trout, catfish, carp, and more, but are generally reserved for catching giant fish. There are smaller versions of the saltwater models for catching big freshwater fish.

Within these two types of baitcasting rods are different styles patterned after what type of fishing an angler is doing. If the angler is targeting larger bass, a low-profile baitcasting reel on the larger side is in order. If the angler is chasing larger catfish, a smaller full-sized baitcaster is in order. When they’re in the ocean for giant fish, a larger full-sized baitcaster reel is needed.

Are Fishing Reels Interchangeable?

Fishing reels are interchangeable with rods of similar size and type. They are also compatible with rods of a specific size and kind. The factor that will really affect compatibility is the reel seat, which can vary based on manufacturer, reel type, reel model, and rod type.

In addition, there are fishing rods with specific purposes. A rod that can hold a baitcasting reel, for example, may not work with a rod that can hold a spinning reel. A rod designed to hold a spincast reel will probably work with a baitcasting reel as each is seated in the same manner.

Because spinning rods hang below the fishing pole, a specific type of seat might be used that is incompatible with baitcasting or spincasting reels. That is not to say that in a pinch, it could not be made to work, but casting with a mismatched type of reel and rod would be extremely awkward.

Where Reels Are Interchangeable

Some rods are interchangeable with certain series of reels or within manufacturers’ models. A reel used on a micro-rod can usually be changed out to fit another smaller to medium-sized rod, provided the reel fits with the hood mechanism (the part that affixes a reel to the rod.) The size and style of the reel seat determine whether a reel will be able to be tightly affixed to the rod.

Another area that interchangeability covers is within fishing manufacturers and combination rod and reel kits. Except for extreme cases, a reel included on a particular brand’s fishing pole will likely fit all sizes of that fishing pole. If rod and reel manufacturers have a partnership, their rods and reels will usually all work within specific types and models.

If the reel seat will hold a certain type of reel, the only other concern is the rating of the reel regarding line test, and the rating of the rod regarding reel size and line test. A rod’s recommended line test threshold should never be ignored,as to do so risks damaging the rod or having a tough time casting line and reeling it in.

Where Reels Are Absolutely Not Interchangeable

There are a few instances where even jury rigging a reel to fit a rod will not work. Most fly rods will not hold spincast, spinning or baitcasting reels. Extremely small reels will not fit extremely large reel seats, even if they are the same rod, reel make, and model.

In addition, many baitcasting rods are not compatible with any other type of reel because of the way the reel attaches to the rod. Trying to force the issue can damage the rod or the reel seat.

Are Fishing Reel Handles Interchangeable?

Fishing reel handle interchangeability is limited for reels from the same manufacturer, but that is usually model-specific and will not apply with reels from another manufacturer. If a reel handle is damaged or broken, the best bet is to try and get a direct replacement.

How Do You Match A Reel To A Rod?

There are several ways to match a reel to a rod, and a reel’s feel is the biggest factor in doing so. If the reel overwhelms its rod, sensitivity is lost and casting capacity is limited. This is also true if the rod overwhelms the reel.

When either of those two problems occur, an angler can rip lures or bait from a fish’s mouth when trying to set a hook. So make sure to keep the reel’s feel in mind when trying to match a reel to a rod.


Every rod is rated for its optimum line test and its optimum rod type. Similarly, every rod is rated for its optimum line test and its rod type. Matching these within a narrow threshold will ensure that the reel you put on a rod will fit.

For example, a rod that is seven feet long and rates for a line test of 10 to 30 pounds can usually be matched with a reel that tests for holding 10 to 30 pounds. A reel that is rated to hold four to eight pounds can bet on a rod that is rated for the same.

Water Type

Some reels and rods work better in specific kinds of water. The larger the rod, the more robust the water it can manage. Smaller rods work best when used in a finesse situation. The same applies with fishing reels.

A small reel on a micro-rod works best in small ponds and streams. A large rod with a heavy-duty baitcaster running a high pound-test line works best in big, powerful bodies of water. Most bodies of water will require something in between very small and giant in terms of both the rod and the reel that work best.

It might take a little experimentation, but this method ensures a good combo. The best way to determine if your rod and reel match the water type you are fishing is to give a combo a try. Do you have total control the entire time? Is the water working against your rod or forcing your reel to work very hard during routine retrievals?

Final Thoughts

Reels are not universally interchangeable but can be mixed and matched in some circumstances. The most important factor is the balance and feel of a reel on a rod followed by how both play in the water. Match those and no matter what either is, you will have a combo that you can use to catch fish.