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How Do Fishing Reel Sizes Work? (How To Choose The Right Reel)

Using the right fishing reel in the right situation can be the difference between landing a fish or having it get away. Fortunately, figuring out what to use is not difficult, even for those with relatively little experience. The key is understanding the purpose of each kind of reel.

Fishing reel sizes work by matching them to the type of fishing you are doing. The type and size of the reel you choose needs to match the size and type of the fish you are targeting. Your reel should feel natural on the rod and accommodate your fishing style.

There are tools, tricks, and methods you can use to help you figure out the right reel for what you want to do. You should start by gaining an understanding of how various fishing reels work. The following is information every angler needs to know about what reels work best in different scenarios.

History Of Fishing Reels

The earliest record of fishing reels is a painting of a Chinese fisher titled “Angler on a Wintry Lake” by Ma Yuan in 1195 CE. It is obvious from the painting that the reel’s function was little more than a way to store extra line and keep it somewhat organized. Nearly every culture has some iteration of the reel in that painting.

Over the course of time, fishing reels have become more advanced and sophisticated, but they have never lost their core purpose – to aid in catching fish. In fact, no matter the advancement, the basic design of fishing reels has not changed. In fact, it is fair to say that the person in that painting, if they existed, could use a reel today with little additional training.

That cannot be said for every other tool, equipment, or material used in fishing. Lures have improved dramatically over time. Fishing line today is nothing like it was, even 50 years ago. Fishing rods have probably changed the most in their composition, alignment, components, and structure from when the top-of-the-line rod was a bamboo shaft with wire eyelets.

Because the basics of the reel are the same, the task of mastering what to use when is much easier than it is to match the right lure with the right fishing situation. It all starts with understanding the basic types of fishing reels and how they work.

Different Types Of Fishing Reels

For the sake of brevity, this guide will cover the basic types of fishing reels because covering every variation of each type of reel could take volumes. For example, there are at least seven different types of baitcasting reels and at least five types of spincast reels.

Centerpin Reels

Centerpin reels are as beautiful as they are basic. The spool rests on a set of bearings and the line is managed by hand pressure. These are remarkably similar to flyfishing reels, but the drag is managed by the angler, letting the reel run freely as opposed to relying on a mechanical drag.

Centerpin reels work best when drift fishing, where the bait is suspended under a float and allowed to drift with the current or natural flow of the water. To cast a centerpin reel, the angler uses a “loft” approach and swings the bait outward while letting up on any pressure put on the reel. Once the bait is cast, the water does the work to position the bait.

When the bait has floated into the correct position, the angler activates the reel and manages the slack in the line by letting line out or reeling it in. When a fish bites, the angler lets it take the bait before setting the hook. They then manage the retrieval by applying pressure on the line via the reel.

When a fish runs, the angler lets the reel run freely. They then retrieve the line by cranking the handle, keeping the line taut but not overly tight. This process is played over and over until the fish has tired and the angler can bring them in with little resistance.

Flyfishing Reels

As mentioned, flyfishing reels closely resemble centerpin reels. However, the average flyfishing reel utilizes a mechanical drag to manage landing a fish. In some cases, a flyfishing reel will not have a drag system and will function much like a centerpin reel. Most flyfishing reels, however, will have a basic drag system.

Flyfishing reels are sized based on the thickness of the line they are designed to hold. Line sizes range from 1 to 13, with 13 being the heaviest. The weight of the line and size of the reel is determined by the type of fish being targeted and its average size, as well as the distance the average case will carry. That is broken down as follows:

  • Smaller fish: Reel size 1 – 4 and it may not have a drag system because fish this size do not put up much of a fight
  • Medium fish: Reel size 5 – 8 with a mechanical drag
  • Large fish: Reel size 9 and 10 with a carbon disc drag system to allow long runs while still maintaining pressure

With medium to large fish, drag is mainlined based on three factors. These include how large the fish is, how much the fish is fighting, and leader strength.

Larger fish usually require a drag that has just enough tension to slow it down while allowing it to run if it wants. A spirited fish that fights back, such as a tarpon or small-mouthed bass, will require a looser drag, though the ability to loosen or tighten quickly is vital. A stronger leader can manage higher amounts of tension on the line, whereas a weak leader requires less drag tension.

Spincasting Reel

These reels are the best for beginner anglers. They feature a push-button casting mechanism that lets the fisher get the feel for casting and timing before risking backlash or tangles. Some anglers consider these types of reels to be very beginner level, but the truth is they are just as effective as any other kind of fishing reel, and in some situations are superior.

A spincasting reel’s spool is stationary and open-faced with an internal bail that retrieves the line when the reel is cranked. It has a cover that keeps the line from tangling or twisting. Spincast reels have a drag system that is controlled by a button that is rotated to tighten or loosen drag.

Spincasting reels are the least expensive of all reels because they are the most simplistic. However, if you are just starting out, simple is good. You have enough to think about regarding learning how to fish and should not have to worry about your equipment on top of all that. Spincasting reels are also usually the most prominent reel features in rod and reel combos at a department store.

Apart from simplicity and price, spincasting reels are the best to start fishing with because they are the most versatile. You can fish for just about any fish bottom, medium or topwater and you do not have to worry about tangles, twists, or knotting like you do with other reels.

Spinning Reels

These are the next progression in terms of complexity of machinery and use among fishing reels. A spinning reel often has several features a centerpin, flyfishing, and spincast reel does not. Their complexity demands better hand-eye coordination, dexterity, and skill to operate successfully.

The difference between this and the spincast reel is that the spinning reel has a fixed spool that moves up and down as line is retrieved, to ensure a balanced retrieval on the spool. Line is retrieved with a bail and line roller. Spinning reels also have an adjustable drag nob on the front of the reel, a release that allows the crank to work both ways that sets underneath the fishing rod.

To cast, a spinning reel bail is pulled back with the angler resting the line on the casting arm’s index finger. The lure or bait is then cast, and the lines slide off the finger. This takes practice and timing but allows for longer casts than the other reels.

There are many different sizes of spinning reels. Reel size is usually measured in numbers ranging from lower to higher. The lower the number, the smaller the reel. For an advanced angler, spinning reels are the most versatile in terms of the type of fishing you can do. With the right spinning reel, you can land anything from huge sea fish all the way down to panfish.

Baitcasting Reels

Baitcasting reels are the most complex to cast in terms of form and function. They are popular now because of fishing shows on television, but any beginner had better have patience to master this type. Even advanced anglers must approach a baitcasting reel knowing that the reel will present challenges in the following manner:

  • Casting backlash
  • Overspin bird nests (extremely complicated backlashes)
  • Drag management issues that let a fish throw a hook or prevent suitable retrieval
  • Line twist and tangling (if you fish with mono)

A baitcaster spool sits horizontally in the reel casing. A guide moves back and forth across the reel to retrieve it evenly. It is cast by controlling tension and drag and using your thumb to manage the line as it comes off the spool. The trick is to keep the lure or bait moving forward at a faster speed than the line is coming off the reel, otherwise you get backlash.

A baitcasting reel comes in multiple sizes and styles. Anglers prefer it because it comes off the spool easier and can be cast further. It struggles with lighter lures because it takes weight to get the spool moving off the reel. It is also more effective at working shorter distances and tighter cover once you have mastered how to cast it.

Anatomy Of A Fishing Reel

Every fishing reel, no matter how complicated, is made up of a few basic parts. These parts are what has kept the design of the fishing reel so continuous overtime. Some reels will also have an anti-reverse lever that lets the angler let line out by cranking the handle backwards.

First, is the crank to retrieve the line. This part is essentially the handle,it will have a knob to hold as line is retrieved. It could be single or double-handled and usually has a metal shaft that is attached to the wind mechanism in a reel.

Next, the spool. The spool holds the line before casting and is respooled upon retrieval. This part can sit horizontally across the reel (centerpin, fly reel and baitcaster) or vertically on top of the reel (spincast, spinner.) Spool size determines the thickness of the fishing line and how much will go on the spool.

Another part of every reel is a base to attach it to a pole. This part is sometimes referred to as a “foot.” It attaches to a rod by inserting the foot into the reel seat on the rod and tightening them. The base, or foot, comes in many designs and variations to best fit different types of poles.

There is also a release to let the line come off the spool. This part is a button on centerpin, some fly, spincast and baitcasting reels. It is a bail that you pull back to cast and snap back to retrieve line. It automatically snaps back with a bailing mechanism on most spinning reels.

Last, is the manual or mechanical drag. Fly and centerpin reels have a manual drag that has static tension in most casts. If it has dynamic tension, meaning adjustable, it has very little room to tighten or loosen. Mechanical drag systems are found on spincast, spinning and baitcasting reels. These are managed by manual adjustment, but the drag is managed by tension.

Fishing Reel Sizes Explained

There are two systems that regulate how manufacturers determine reel sizes. They both use numbers and run on the concept of lower being smaller and higher numbers being larger. The only real difference between the two is what numbers are selected and that is usually a marketing decision.

The first system uses numbers in sets of ten. The smaller the number, the smaller the reel. For example, a #10 reel would be small, a #30 reel would be used for moderate sized fish, and a #100 would be a reel used for large fish.

The second system is nearly the same but works with numbers in sets of 500. In this case, a 500 would be used to catch panfish, a 3500 would be used to large fish, and an 8000 would be used for very large fish. The reason this system is used is because it allows a greater diversity of reel sizes.

Both systems work on numbers that are divisible by 10 and are comparable per sets of 10 or 1000. For instance, a #10 reel will be similar in size to a #1000 and a #20 will be similar in size to a #2000. When a reel exists in between 10 and 20, or any numbered increments, a lowercase letter is used. So, a #1500 reel size in one system would be a 10A in the other.

The Exceptions

Occasionally, a reel will have an official “name” that is usually followed by a number, letter, or letters. The following number, letter or letters indicate the reel size. To figure out what type of system a manufacturer uses to indicate reel size, you should look at the entire series. For example:

  • Reel Name followed by I, II or III would mean I is the smallest and III is the larger
  • Reel Name followed by A, B, C would mean A is the smallest and C is the larger
  • Reel Name followed by X, XI, XS would mean X is the smallest and XS is the larger

How Do You Know What Size Of Reel To Get?

The size of reel you should get depends on the type of fishing that you are doing. The type of fishing you will be doing is determined by three factors – the type of fishing, the fish species you’re targeting, and the size of the fish. Each factor affects the reel size you need for optimal fishing.

Fishing Type

Fishing type matters because different types of reels have different thresholds. Using a fly reel to catch tarpon, for example, requires a tailored reel in size and durability to have a chance at landing the fish. Likewise, a spinning reel for panfish can work great, but not if the reel is so heavy it makes your entire ring insensitive to smaller bites.

You want to go with a slightly larger reel when using a centerpin, fly, or spincasting reel and a slightly smaller reel size with spinning and baitcasting reels. This is because the smaller reels are easy to overwhelm with the former and you lose sensitivity with the latter. When saltwater fishing, you want a larger reel that is treated for saltwater, no matter the type of fishing you are doing.

Finally, you want your reel to complement your rod type. It should not disappear on the rod or overwhelm the rod. An easy way to determine if your reel matches your rod is to hold it loosely in the palm of your hand, just above the reel.

If the butt and the reel counterbalance the rod but do not drag it down, it is balanced. If the reel and butt of the rod pull the rod down quickly, the reel is likely too heavy. If you cannot feel the reel or rod butt, the reel is too light for that rod.

Fish Species

Sometimes because of the type of fish a heavier reel is mandatory, even if the rod is lighter. Fish like tarpon, salmon, trout, or bass fall into this category. A heavier reel can better handle the beating that a large, energetic fish will put it through.

Likewise, if the reel is too heavy, it can obscure lighter bites. This means you cannot feel when a fish strikes hesitantly or just nibbles on bait. In addition to reel size, the rod type and thickness of the line make a significant difference in this regard as well.

Fish Size

Larger fish can overwhelm the capabilities of a small reel. If you have a large fish on the line and it is running violently to try and shake a hook, it can strip the drag controls and make the drag less effective. It also can make it impossible to reel in unless you create slack in the line, which gives the fish a better chance of throwing the lure.

What Does Fishing Reel Gear Ratio Mean?

The gear ration is the number of rotations the bail or spool take during one entire turn of the handle. To get the gear ratio, follow the steps below. The result is your gear ratio.

  1. Start with the handle at the topmost position on the reel.
  2. Put a small piece of tape on the spool if using a baitcaster or watch the larger part of the bail as it rotates.
  3. Slowly crank the handle.
  4. Count how many times the tape goes by, or the larger part of the bail rotates around.
  5. Crank the handle one full turn.

What That Means

A fishing reel’s gear ratio is the number of times the spool or bail rotate in one full crank. The reason it matters is the larger the ratio, the more line is taken in during one 360-degree crank. For example, a reel with a 6.3.1 ratio means the bail rotates 6.3 times for every full crank of the bail. Gear ratios matter with spincast, spinning and baitcasting reels.

Your fishing reel gear ratio matters to you because it means you can retrieve more line faster and with less effort. This is important if you are using a fast retrieve such as when you are trying to provoke a reaction strike. Another example is if you are managing your lure’s depth as some lures rise the faster, they are cranked.

There is one aspect of gear ratio that applies to landing a fish. If you have a large fish that is peeling off a lot of line when it runs, a higher gear ration can help you retrieve it quicker. As you raise your rod to pull it in and retrieve the line as you let the rod down, you take up more line with a higher gear ratio.

A higher gear ratio also lets you cover ground more quickly when you are trying to get as much coverage as possible. It also is a big help when you are ripping crankbaits across vegetation or trying to skip buzz baits across the surface.

Fishing Reel Size Charts

Fly Fishing Reel Size Chart

SpeciesLineReelRodFlies
General Freshwater4 – 74 – 7  8’ – 9.5’Dry, Wet
Trout4 – 64 – 68’ – 9’Dry, Wet
Panfish4 – 64 – 68’ – 9’Poppers, Nymphs, Streamers
Bass, Pike7 – 98 – 108.5” – 9’Large Poppers, Specialty, Divers
Salmon, Saltwater10 +11 – 129’ +Large Poppers, Specialty, Divers, Deceivers

Spin And Baitcasting Reel Size Chart

SpeciesGeneral Reel SizeMonoBraidWater Type
Panfish, Small/Medium Bass, Crappie, Pickerel, Small to Medium Catfish, etc.Small 1000/10 – 3500/352 – 10 Lb. Test4 – 15 Lb. TestSlow Moving, Lake, Ponds, Streams, Inlets with Little Current, Harbors
Large Bass, Walleye, Pike, Smaller Salmon, Trout, Large Pickerel, Medium to Large Catfish, etc.Medium 4000/4 – 5500/558 – 1415 – 50Boat, Larger Lakes, Ponds, Streams, Bays, Harbors, Smaller Rivers
Pike, Musky, Large Salmon, Cod, Snapper, Carp, Large Catfish, Striped Bass, etc.Large 6000/60 – 8500/8512 – 4530 – 80Boat, Surf, Larger Rivers, Bays, Inlets with Current, Deepwater, Large Lakes
Large Salmon, Very Large Catfish, Very Large Carp, Marlin, Shark, Tuna, Sturgeon, Halibut, Tarpon, etc.10,000/100 – 35,000/35012 – 6050 – 100Ocean, Bays, Large Rivers, Large Lakes, Deepwater, Surf, Boat, Extreme Depths

General Tips

  • Smaller neighborhood pods, lakes and streams for bass or bluegill, pickerel or small catfish or carp will not need anything larger than a 5500/55 sized reel.
  • Creeks, small to medium rivers, smaller coves or inlets and protected harbors for medium to large bass, trout, crappie, usually need 5500/55 to 8500/85 sized reels.
  • Larger rivers and lakes, bays, unprotected harbors, inlets and larger coves for large fish of any type, fresh or saltwater need a reel larger than 8500/85.
  • When shore fishing, lean towards a larger reel based on the species you are targeting.
  • Follow spooling directions for your reel and do not over-spool.
  • Realize that while you get more line on a reel with braided line, you give up elasticity that can help beginner fishers when landing a fish.
  • Regardless of reel size, make sure your reel foot fits snugly into the reel seat but not so snugly you have to force it to fit.
  • Make sure if you are going to use your reel in saltwater that you get one that is anti-corrosion.
  • Consider the types of lures you will use most often
  • Tailor your reel to your fishing rod as much as possible
  • Balance the money you spend across all equipment

Final Thoughts

Fishing reel sizes optimize use by determining the type of fishing being done. The reel type and size are controlled by fishing type, fish species, and fish size. Understanding how they work and what style of fishing they are made for will help you choose the fishing reel that is best for you.