The Ins and Outs of Fishing Reels By Hannah Pennebaker

The Ins and Outs of Fishing Reels By Hannah Pennebaker


The salesman asked, “spinning or casting?” As we looked at the case full of shiny new fishing reels, I remembered what it was like to be a beginner fisherman who had no idea which reel was right for me. It can be a truly overwhelming, confusing mess if you don’t know what you’re looking for. My neighbors said they had been interested in fishing for years, but had no idea how to get started. Rather than getting a dozen different rods and reels, they wanted a setup that would handle most of the types of fishing in the northwest. Intrigued by the challenge, I volunteered to take them to the local sporting goods store to pick out rods and reels. They had given me an idea of their budget, but that was it. They had no idea what type, brand, or size of reel they wanted. I walked them through the basics and let them test out several different reels within their budget. They made their choices, and a week later we tested their setups out on surf perch in Ocean Shores. Not everyone has the luxury of an experienced fisherman to walk them through the ins and outs of fishing reels at the local sporting goods store. I’ll do my best to provide an in-depth guide to each reel type and their uses. We’ll talk about spinning reels, baitcasters, conventional reels, spincast reels, and mooching reels. Even experienced fishermen might find a new reel type to try out!

Spinning Reels

Spinning reels are probably the most common reel out there, and for good reason. They are extremely versatile, easy to take apart for maintenance, and often inexpensive. You can use spinning reels for just about any kind of fishing you can imagine. They are great for ultralight fishing tiny jigs for crappie as well as fighting giant tuna. If you intend to use them for saltwater fishing, make sure they are sealed, however. Saltwater is hard on reels, and you want to make sure it stays out of the inner workings of the reel. There’s no need to find a left- or right-handed spinning reel, most have interchangeable handle sides. As I mentioned, spinning reels are extremely diverse. You can get heavy ones made out of metal that can withstand getting banged up on jetties, or you can get light, smooth ones that are perfect for finesse fishing, such as drop shotting. Do your research and compare reels at the store to find out your preference. Higher end reels are going to generally have better drag systems and be constructed of more sturdy and lightweight materials such as aluminum. Consider the size of reel you need as well. 1000 is suited for crappie and other panfish. 2000 to 3000 is perfect for trout. 3000 to 5000 is great for salmon. 6000 to 10000 are used for crab snaring and tuna fishing. Spinning reels are a great all-around option with no major downsides. They are great for beginners and experts alike.



The choice of many avid bass anglers, baitcasters are a bit more complicated to use than spinning reels, but offer many advantages to the serious angler. Your choice in reels is most likely going to come down to spinning or casting. With a baitcaster, you can precisely dial in your casts, since you can easily brake the spool with your thumb. This is handy for bass fishing, when you need to cast extremely accurately. It’s also easier to use topwater lures, since you can slow down the lure and make it hit the water with less force. Baitcasters also excel at casting lures with little to no weight, such as wacky rigged senkos. Baitcasters also have a larger line capacity and tend to be lighter than comparable spinning reels. They are a popular choice for these reasons. The major downside to baitcasters is that if you don’t have the drag or barrel brake set properly, you can get a huge knot, or bird’s nest, while casting. This happens when the spool spins faster than the line goes out, creating a bunch of slack in the line, which tangles and prevents you from letting line out. Make sure to get a few practice casts in and dial in your drag and barrel brake. You’ll need to do this any time you change the weight of your lure. Baitcasters also tend to be on the more expensive side. They are not a great choice for beginners, since they require dialing in some settings and can cause annoying backlashes, but baitcasters are still a great option for experienced anglers. You can use them for trolling for trout, salmon, and walleye, as well as casting for bass, surf perch, and bottomfish. If you intend to use them for trolling, baitcasters with line counters are key!

Conventional Reels

The difference between conventional reels and baitcasters isn’t always clear. Some argue that they’re one and the same, others say the difference is that one has a button and the other does not. Typically, baitcasters will engage the drag and start reeling when you reel the handle after casting, but a conventional reel will not, and must be manually flipped to start reeling in line. Conventional reels are a type of open-face reel that is simple, reliable, and tough. They may or may not have a levelwind. Some fishermen use them for casting, but most Northwesterners use them for trolling. They have a powerful drag system and can handle heavy weights, but they’re often heavier than spinning or casting reels. 

Spincast Reels

If you grew up fishing with a Barbie or Spiderman pole, chances are it had a spincast reel on it. These reels are similar to baitcasters in that you simply push a button to free spool and cast your line, but the spool is encased in a cover. This can be both a blessing and a curse, because if your kid tangles their line, it’s difficult to fix. However, spincast reels are very light and simple. Drag systems involve simply adjusting a dial above the button. Spincast reels can help kids learn to cast, since all they have to do is press and release a button. This is why they’re commonly called “buttoncasters”. They are affordable and easy to find at your local sporting goods store. 



Mooching Reels

Mooching reels are a very niche type of reel, but they’re a ton of fun to use! They are typically used for salmon fishing in saltwater. You can either use them for mooching, as their name suggests, or for trolling. You can definitely get away with using a spinning reel, baitcaster, or conventional reel for mooching or trolling, but there’s something special about using a mooching reel. When you’re on a big fish that’s pulling drag, the handles will spin backwards and rap you on the knuckles if you don’t get your hand off them quickly enough! They are commonly referred to as “knucklebusters” for this reason. Don’t let that scare you, though. They have a 1:1 gear ratio, so you’ll truly feel the fight of the fish. You’ll feel every headshake and run as you battle the fish to your net. Knucklebusters have a small but devoted following in the Pacific Northwest. Match them with a 9 to 10 ft rod with moderate to heavy action, and you’re in business. Give them a try and you’ll be hooked!



Whether you pick up a spinning reel, baitcaster, conventional reel, spincast, or mooching reel, having fun out on the water is the most important thing! May is a great time to try out most fisheries in the northwest. Get out there and enjoy the water!

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