The Perfect First Baitcasting Reel (Buyers Guide)

closeup photo of person holding a baitcasting reel on rod with water in background

Buying your first baitcasting reel is a daunting task. This is because there are many reels on the market. Plus these days reel manufacturers make baitcasting reels with tons of internal features. Most beginners aren’t sure where to start which increases their confusion. Whereas intermediate and experts relish the debate of which reel is best.

To gain experience you need to take vital steps to move from a newbie to an enthusiast angler. The first step to make is to lean about mastering the baitcasting reel.

For newbies, I wrote this guide all about buying a baitcaster reels. Read on to learn first what a baitcasting reel is and the method to cast with one. Following this is a complete guide about the vital factors in selecting your first baitcast reel.

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Related: The Best Baitcasting Reels From Shimano For 2023

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Table of Contents

What Is A Baitcast Reel?

A baitcasting reel is a device that unlike spinning reels sits on top of a fishing rod. It consists of line that’s fixed onto a bearing-supported revolving spool. This spool has gears set up in such a way that with one turn of the handle, the spool revolves multiple times. It differs from a spinning reel by allowing the angler to control the spool revolution via their thumb.

The bait casting reel dates from at least the mid-17th century. Today it’s the choice for both finesse fishing enthusiasts and professional anglers.

Closeup photo of a man palming a baitcasting reel with their thumb on top

Casting With Your First Baitcasting Reel

To cast, you first turn the fishing rod/reel on its side and engage the free spool. Next you place your thumb on the spool, this will keep the lure in position.

Second, to perform a cast, you snap the rod backward at a 2 o’clock position, followed by pitching it forward in a fluid motion. Ensure your thumb is grazing the line as the lure pulls the line out of the reel.

You use thumb contact on the line to moderate the revolutions of the spool. Another use of your thumb is to brake the lure as it reaches the desired distance, finishing the cast.

One confusing feature for newbies are modern centrifugal braking systems in baitcast reels. These are to help control backlash of fishing line. Backlash is a tangled mess of line that results if the lure slows down after casting, but the spool doesn’t.

Keep in mind, a bait cast reel will only deliver good results if you have a lot of experience with finesse fishing. As with every hobby, practice makes perfect.

First Step: Set Your Budget

The first step you need to take is to set in your mind what your budget is going to be. Make sure to allow enough money to get the most reel for that dollar amount. Do your best to avoid buying super cheap reels from unknown brands because most aren’t equipped with good, durable features. Look to spend at least $100 on your first baitcasting reel.

Choose The “Where and What” You Want To Fish

The area you fish and what you are fishing for are the top determining factors of what style and size reel you need.

Freshwater Versus Saltwater?

Whenever you are selecting a reel consider the area you plan to fish. Keep in mind that in freshwater the internal parts of the reel won’t corrode as fast as in saltwater. This means freshwater rated reels don’t need special anti corrosion parts like saltwater reel need.

While some anglers profess that some freshwater reel work fine in saltwater, understand the salt will damage parts. Saltwater will corrode bearings and gears creating a rough feel if it isn’t rated for saltwater use. If you plan on fishing in saltwater, look for baitcast reel models with shielded anti-rust ball bearings.

Types of Fish

Baitcasting reels are best used if you want to fish inshore saltwater species and large freshwater species. For example, inshore species like pike, salmon, muskie and steel head. Or freshwater species such as large/small mouth bass or crappie.

Although you can buy a baitcasting reel with anti-rust bearings for light saltwater fishing, they aren’t intended for offshore fishing like trolling for tuna.

Decide On A Reel Shape

This is important because the shape depends on the type of finesse fishing you want to do and what you are targeting.

Round vs Low Profile

Photo of a black and silver round baitcasting reel

Round: This shape holds more line and used for heavier line. With this type of baitcasting reel you can toss larger baits and attempt long runs during the fight. All round shaped reels are a good choice for inshore saltwater.

Photo of a dark grey and black low profile baitcasting reel

Low-Profile: For beginners and enthusiasts alike, this is the most popular reel shape. It’s more comfortable to fish with and used for palming with easy wrist-action. The best choice for freshwater, although some high-end models are capable for inshore saltwater.

Factor In The “Heart” Or Parts Of A Reel

Photo of a baitcasting reel with numbers explaining each part of the reel

Pick A Gear Ratio

All fishing reels have a gear ratio. Stated as a numeric ratio, it describes how many times the spool rotates per one rotation of the handle. Another way to talk about gear ratio is that it’s the speed of the reel.

For Example: A 6.3:1 gear ratio means the spool rotates 6.3 times for every one crank of the handle.

Lower gear ratios like 4.7:1 or 5.0:1 bring in line slower but provide higher torque for fighting larger fish. A low gear baitcaster is great for working a crank bait.

Whereas a high speed gear ratio like 7:1 or 8.2:1 brings the line in quick, to deliver finesse fishing of small species. These speeds are great for burning a spinner bait. Higher gear ratios are for fishing in areas with small strike zones.

Most popular baitcasting reels for novices will have a number 6 at the start of the gear ratio. This will allow you to work both fast moving presentations and slower ones.

Consider Line Speed

To explain line speed, this means for each rotation of the handle the line retrieves a certain length. Stated as “line retrieve per inch” it relies on both the gear ratio and the diameter of the spool. In fact a slow 5.0:1 reel with a full and large spool is faster than a fast 7.2:1 reel with a small spool. So be careful when reading ratings, try to choose a med-fast ratio of 6.0:1 and a medium spool to be safe.

Braking System For The Spool

Remember, the braking system moderates spool speed during a cast. Its purpose is to prevent backlash, which looks like a “birds’ nest” of tangled line. Although the brakes help reduce backlash, don’t expect them to do all the work for you. To make a proper cast it’s still up to you to control the spool rotation with your thumb. Don’t get discouraged, this is an acquired skill learned over hundreds of casts.

The braking systems are available in two basic types: Centrifugal or magnetic.

  • Centrifugal brakes: Are like drum brakes in a car. This type of brake uses the centrifugal force generated during the first part of the cast. Inside the system, sliding plastic tabs (pins) get flung out while the spool is spinning at a high speed. These tabs rub against a brake ring, and this slows the spool down. With this system you need to open up the reel to make changes. Once opened, you move each of the six braking pins to raise or lower brake force. Centrifugal brakes slow the spool at the start of the cast.
Photo showing the red and white centrifugal brakes system of a baitcasting reel
  • Magnetic brakes: Use distances between magnets and steel rings to slow the spool down. This brake system has an exterior dial which controls the distance between a set of magnets and the spool. The closer the magnets are to the spool the more the magnets will slow the spool down. Magnetic brakes slow the spool the end of the cast. Due to magnetic pull having more stopping force on a slower moving spool.

Innovative reel manufacturers build both centrifugal and magnetic brakes into their reels. They do this for their high-end reel models to deliver the best control throughout a cast.

What’s Line Capacity For Fishing Reels?

The line capacity of any reel is the largest length of line the spool can hold without overloading it. Reels express line capacity as a rating on the box or on the actual reel. Shown as “length in yards/strength” or some companies reverse it. For example, Shimano brand reels state line capacity as “#test (strength)/ yards.”

The rating “#test (pound symbol test) refers to the strength of the fishing line. Strength means how much weight (pounds) a line will support before it snaps. Box or reel markings are either in kilograms or pounds, as test weight, line weight or pound test (#test). For example: #10 or 5 kg (10lbs). Plus line diameter increases with strength, so a higher line weight takes up more space on the spool. Line strength should match the weight of the species you are fishing. (like using 4-pound test for trout in the 4-pound range).

Most reel brands list line capacities for both mono-filament and braided line. In general braided line capacity is higher than mono-filament. This is because braided line is stronger in smaller diameters compared to mono. Due to it using a combination of strong materials over just nylon.

The line capacity you choose needs to be able to serve you for the species and environment you will face. Think about the length of line you can spool without overloading it. Next, match the weight of the species you are fishing. (like using 4-pound test for trout in the 4-pound range). As for type, I suggest you start with mono-filament, it’s cheaper to practice with.

Level Wind System

Baitcasting reels use a level wind system to ensure even fishing line wraps onto the spool as you reel in. It’s a little cylinder in front of the spool that moves from side to side. Moving like this prevents the line from building up in a single spot on the spool. Don’t buy a reel without one if you are a beginner. Reels without them need to need the angler to use their thumb to guide the line side to side when reeling in.

Closeup photo of baitcasting reel showing where star drag and level wind is.

Drag Systems

A drag moderates how much force to place against the line before the spool slips and let’s out more line. If a fighting fish pulls on the line hard enough, friction slips. Resulting in spool rotation backwards, letting line out and preventing the line snaps.

Typical drag systems consist of an exterior adjusting knob and metal drag washers. Between the metal washers are carbon fiber or felt washers to help reduce friction.

A general rule of thumb is to set the drag at 20 to 30 percent of line breaking strength. This is to avoid line snaps after hooking a fish. For example, if using #10 line, you set the drag between “2 and 3 pounds.” It’s best to set you drag setting before you start fishing. Since baitcasting reels use a star shaped knob which is hard to use when playing with fish.

Ball Bearings

In general, more ball bearings equal smoother reel performance. But it’s important to realize that the quality of the bearing matters most. Especially in saltwater, due to corrosion so choose a reel that uses shielded or anti-rust bearings.

Baitcasting Anti-reverse

The anti-reverse is a combination system that allows an angler to reel line in but won’t allow line to slip back out. For example: a fish is on the line, so you engage the anti-reverse. This stops the crank from spinning except for reeling the line in.

Baitcasting Reel Exterior Considerations

Along with the internal parts of a baitcasting reel, look for quality exterior reel parts. Below are basic consideration to look for in a novice reel.

Reel Body: Come in a variety of materials, graphite is cheap, but won’t last as long as aluminum. The latter material is medium light and durable. Whereas brands make high-end reels from high-quality aluminum or carbon fiber.

Spool: Most big brand baitcast reels have an aluminum spool. Inexpensive reels use die-cast aluminum to limit costs. While mid to high range reels use forged aluminum for its strength to lightweight ratio. Most spools today have drilled out sections to aid in weight savings and low startup inertia.

Handle: Like body construction, cheap reels use die-cast or plastic for handles. Whereas high-end reels, use forged aluminum with drilled out sections to reduce weight.

Paddle(s): Look for a reel that uses EVA type rubber for their paddles and thumb pad. These are soft to the touch and don’t get slippery when wet.

Buy A “Do-It-All” Reel

Your first baitcaster should be a multi-use reel in the mid-price range with a medium fast gear ratio. Look for something with a 6:1 to 7:1. A reel in the mid-speed gear ratio range will handle most light to medium fish. This is because you can adjust the reeling speed from low to high-speed reels.

Perfect First Baitcasting Reel

A 6.3:1 gear ratio baitcaster reel is a good start for any newbie. Say you want to use a buzz bait for hunting bass, this reel will cast far and reel-in quick. Or if you are slow rolling a spinner bait it will reel in slow enough to not overwork the lure. Next, look for a medium spool, most reels from trusted brands costing around a hundred dollars have medium-sized spools. For reel body, choose one that has at least a graphite body. The exterior features excluding reel body material are a personal choice.

To Finish Up:

To finish up, you now have the important factors to consider for selecting a beginners’ first baitcasting reel. Remember to set a reasonable budget around $100 and buy the best quality you can in this range. Once you make your choice, practice with some mono-filament line and perfect your thumb technique. Soon you will leave your newbie status behind and excel into enthusiast status.

As always, thanks for allowing Outdoors Informed to help you in your research. Until next time.

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