what is a spinning reel

Spinning Fishing Reel Guide – Size, Trigger, Bearings & More

Choosing a Spinning Reel – Ultimate Guide

Spinning your head trying to choose the right spinning reel for your next fishing outing?

Many a fisherman (or woman) has come before you with the same look of confusion as they stroll the electronic aisles of fishing reels online.

The Versatile Spinning Reel – You (almost) Can’t Go Wrong

When buying a new fishing reel, none are more popular, versatile or readily available than the spinning reel. An almost limitless range of sizes, brands, features, and prices allow you to tailor your new reel to your next fishing trip.

When shopping for your reel, you will want to start narrowing down your options based on the type of fish you plan on catching and the types of waters you are going to fish. You may be buying a new fishing reel for all-around use, or it might be for a specific fishing trip. Spinning reels are versatile tools that can catch multiple species of fish and be used on many types of waters.

Before you start shopping, you need to know the species of fish you are trying to catch and where you will be fishing, as well as the rod, rig and bait/lures you plan on working with. This information will help you choose the style and type of reel you need, and even help determine whether a spinning reel would be good for you.

Size Matters – Sorry, it Does

One of the first things to look for when purchasing a new spinning reel is the size that you need. Many times, the size of the reel will depend on the fish you would like to catch and the waters that you are fishing. You don’t want to go after Channel Catfish with a small reel using 4-pound test line…unless you like heartbreak and struggle, trust us on that.

spinning reel size matters
spinning reel size matters

On the other hand, it would probably be overkill to use 50-pound test line to fish for bluegill or crappie when a smaller, lighter rod and reel combination would be more practical.

When choosing a reel, you will need to know the likely size of the fish you are trying to catch. This can take a lot of guesswork and a little bit of research to know the general size of the fish population in the body of water you will be fishing.

When you’re planning a fishing trip for walleye on a nearby river, you might know that the size range of the fish currently being caught are 2-4 lbs. In this case, 6-8-pound test line would be enough for the fish you are expecting to catch. If you know that the fish tend to be a little bigger in the waters that you’re fishing, you can use a little heavier rod and reel combo.

Suggested line weights for freshwater fish

  • Bluegill/Crappie: 2-4 lb. test
  • Trout: 4-6 lb. test
  • Walleye: 6-10 lb. test
  • Catfish (lake): 10-20 lb. test
  • Catfish (river): 25-50 lb. test
  • Largemouth Bass: 10-20 lb. test
  • Northern Pike: 12-25 lb. test

Become familiar with the weights of the line that you will need for the types of fish that you are hoping to catch. At first, the size of the line may seem “too small”. However, fishing line has become incredibly durable with new technologies. You are also able to mitigate the risk of purchasing line that is too light by setting the drag on your reel. The drag is a device that allows the reel to unspool line if a certain amount of tension is put on the line. This allows a large, heavier fish to take out some additional line, instead of breaking the line due to the amount of tension that is applied.

Setting the drag could help you utilize a smaller, lighter line that will generally perform better than the heavier line in the same class. If possible, try to buy the lightest line that will hold the size of the fish you are planning to catch.

spinning reel braided line
spinning reel with heavy braided line

The weight of the line needed is important when it’s time to buy a reel because the weight of the line and the rod being used will ultimately decide the size of reel you get. The heavier the line you need, the larger reel you need to hold the line. For example, your new reel may hold 200 yards of 12-lb test line, but 230 yards of 10-lb test line. Be sure to a buy a reel large enough to hold enough line to get you through the fishing season.

Bearings – Smooth Operator

If you are a regular fisherman or woman, you have probably noticed that some reels just feel different when you’re using them. Certain reels might require more work to reel and have a slight jerky action while others are smooth and effortless.

What are Bearings Used For in a Reel?

Bearings are used in a fishing reel to reduce friction between the gears and other moving parts. A fishing reel includes several moving parts from the spool that holds the line, to the handle that is turned. The bearing itself is introduced to reduce friction and facilitate the action of the reel to make the retrieval smooth and comfortable for the user.

The main ball bearings on a spinning reel will be contained in the spool that winds the line as you operate the reel. This helps ensure the reel does not tangle the line upon retrieval and is ready to cast smoothly each time.

The bearings for the operating handle you physically turn will help ensure that the reel operates with the smoothness that you expect from the higher quality reels on the market.

More Bearings: Smoother Action

Each reel has bearings that facilitate this action and the feel of the reel when on the water. The general rule is that the higher the number of bearings in a reel, the smoother the action will be when the reel is in use. This can have some big implications, not only on the effectiveness of the reel when fishing but also on the experience for the fisherman.

multi-bearing spinning reel
multi-bearing spinning reel

Other Factors

While the number of bearings will generally lead to a smoother acting reel, there are a lot of mechanics at work inside the reel itself. The placement of the bearings, size and the materials used to make the bearings may also affect the quality and action of the reel. While this topic could cover an entire article on its own, we’ll try to keep it simple and look at the number of bearings in a new reel as a deciding factor. You may decide to do additional research about other factors affecting the bearings in a reel for further information.

When shopping for a new reel, the manufacturer will generally advertise the number of bearings in each reel. While the higher quality reels may have around 8 or 9 bearings, the magical number to look for is around 5 bearings in a new reel to ensure high performance.


Some spinning reels will have a trigger attached to the bail. This offers ease of use and one-hand casting. A trigger may be useful if you are fishing with a lure that requires constant casting and retrieval.

Without a trigger on your reel, you will need two hands to hands to cast. One hand holds the pole and the line, while the other flips the bail to cast. This trigger allows you to flip the bail with the same hand holding the line.

Whether or not this is a feature that you would like should be considered when choosing your next reel. If your fishing strategy requires a lot of casting or fishing with crankbaits, then you may want to consider purchasing a reel with a trigger.

However, some fishermen prefer a reel without this feature, even when they are fishing with artificial bait. One thing to keep in mind is that triggers can function improperly over time on some of the lesser quality reels, causing the user to revert to using two hands to cast.

Gear Ratio

Another important thing to look at when purchasing a new reel will be the gear ratio. This information is generally provided in the product description and can be important based on the type of fishing that you would like to do.

The gear ratio for a reel is the number of times the spool turns for each crank of the reel’s handle. This leads to a faster or slower retrieval of the line as you are reeling. The higher the gear ratio of the reel, the faster your reel will retrieve your line.

This is important based on the type of fish you are planning to catch and the water that you are fishing in. Generally, you can retrieve your bait faster if you are fishing in warmer waters than cold waters. If you plan on fishing on a lake in the southern United States, you may want a higher gear ratio than if you are fishing for trout in a cold-water stream.

Some fish will respond to faster moving bait, while others respond more aggressively to a slower moving bait. The gear ratio will also determine the amount of reeling you have to do when hauling in the fish you just caught.

Price / Budget

When you begin to shop for your new reel, you will see an exhaustingly wide variety to choose from. It is important to know how much you would like to spend. Spinning reels range in price from about $10 to $200 or more for the top-of-the-line models. Determining your budget will be one for the first steps in purchasing your new reel.

best beginner fishing reels
best beginner fishing reels

Just like with anything else, it is easy to expand our budgets more than we originally intended when we see a product that we like. Knowing the price that you are looking to pay upfront will allow you to focus your search on reels in that price range.

What to Look For in the Store or Online…

Once you have researched the possible reels that you are looking at online, it might be a good idea to browse reels in a sporting store before making a purchase. We have all heard of the old battle regarding baitcasters and spinning reels right? You will be able to get hands-on with your reel if it’s in stock.

Get Hands-On

When shopping for reels in a store, you will want to hold the reel to ensure it feels comfortable in your hand. Spinning reels come in a variety of models and while the size of the reel you purchase will be based mostly on the type of fishing that you want to do, comfort needs to be considered as well.

Remember, you could be using this reel for hours at a time. You want to know that it will feel right in your hands when you are using it.

Demonstrations Can Help

Most stores have a demonstration with the reel mounted on a small rod. This will give you a chance to see how the reel feels and works when you pick it up. The first thing after picking up your reel is to turn the crank to ensure that it has a smooth action. It should feel light and effortless to turn the handle and spin the line spool.

Right Handed or a Lefty?

Make sure that the handle is reversible. If you are left-handed, you will want to make sure that you move the handle to the other side of the reel so that you can operate it properly. Not every reel is reversible, but most of the premium reels can be turned to the left-hand side.

Backspin / Stop

Finally, after you have tested the action on the reel, try to move the handle backward. There should be no backward movement when reversing the direction of the handle. If the handle moves even a fraction of an inch, this can create problems when setting your hook. No one wants to lose their fish because the reel lets out some slack at the worst possible moment.

Finding a Fishing Rod to Match Your New Reel

If you have your eye on a new fishing reel, you will likely also need to purchase a rod to go with it. To the untrained eye, a fishing rod may just look like a stick. However, the variety and types available are almost endless.

spinning rod reel combo
spinning rod reel combo

Appropriate Size

Generally, you would want to start with the size of the reel you are purchasing for the types of fish that you hope to catch. If you are fishing for trout in a small stream, then an ultra-light action fishing rod will most likely suit your needs when paired with a small reel that allows you to string 2-4-pound test line.

Accuracy, Control, and Action

The smaller and lighter the rod and reel you use, the more accuracy and control you will have while fishing. Fishing in small streams involves a lot of precision to position your bait where the fish are. Plus, catching even small fish on an ultra-light rod and reel set up is a lot of fun because you feel a lot more of the action!

A larger, heavy action rod and reel combination used for river or saltwater fishing will not allow this accuracy; but will allow for the heavier weights needed to fish in a current and heavier line for the fish that you can expect to catch.

Price Points

Just like shopping for your new spinning reel, you will see a variety of fishing rods at multiple price points. Once you have an idea of the size class of your rod and reel, you will want to choose a rod that matches your reel in performance and price.

Learning to Use a Spinning Reel

I remember the day I got my first spinning reel. It was my 10th birthday. Until this point, I had gotten proficient from a young age using the classic spin casting reels. You know these, they have a button on the bottom and were probably the first rod and reel set up that we all had as children.

When I unwrapped my first spinning reel, my dad explained that when he finally learned how to use one, he finally felt like a “real” fisherman. Now, I would be a real fisherman too! I was excited. What I did not expect was that it was a little different than using the spin casting reels I was used to and had used pretty much since I learned to walk.

If you are using your first spinning reel, having used spin casting reels exclusively, plan on taking some time getting used to it. The principles behind casting are the same, but there are some differences that you will need to master. I recommend trying a weight on the line and practicing in the backyard (best to steer clear of any windows to start). Don’t worry though, it isn’t as difficult as learning to use a fly reel.

When using a spin casting reel, you push down a button on the reel and hold it while you complete the action of swinging the pole in the direction that you would like to cast. At the precise moment, you let go of the button to release the line where you want to cast.

A spinning reel uses a similar process to cast the line where the fish are. You will start out by holding the rod ‘backwards”, so the reel is facing down and away from you.

If the reel that you are using does not have a trigger, use the pointer finger of the hand you are using to hold the rod to hold the line down while the other hand flips the bail. This is comparable to pushing the button and holding it before casting your line.

From there, the motion will be familiar as you swing the pole back and then thrust it forward before releasing your hold on the line to cast the bait where you would like it to go.

While it takes some getting used to, practice makes perfect. The first several times you cast with a spinning reel, it will feel awkward and the accuracy will take time to learn. You will probably even get your finger caught on the line when trying to release it.

Don’t give up! Eventually, you will be able to cast your spinning reel with the same accuracy that you’ve become accustomed to seeing with your spin casting reel. Soon, you too will feel like a “real fisherman”.

spinning reels in holder
spinning reels in holder

Caring For Your New Reel

Your new fishing reel is complex and has a lot of moving parts. It is also made to use outdoors where dirt and water can get inside the mechanical parts of the reel. To ensure that you new reel is operating correctly, you will need to perform maintenance so that is cleaned and properly lubricated.

Cleaning Your Reel

A few things that you will need are some reel grease, reel oil, some small screwdrivers, and a soft cloth. Be sure that you do not disassemble your reel any further than you are comfortable you can put it back together.

As you open your reel, you will see several gears and other moving parts. As you remove each of these, you, be sure to use the cloth to wipe any moisture and dirt from each part. Apply the grease and the oil to the parts as needed before re-assembling the reel.

Storing Your Rod and Reel

Unfortunately, we are unable to fish year-round in most of the country. You will need to store your reel for the offseason. Try to find a place that is both dry and clean. Many people will store their reels in the garage during the winter. Dust and dirt can work its way inside your reel. If you decide to store your reels in the garage, be sure to disassemble the reel and clean it before its first use of the year.

When you are preparing for the fishing season ahead, you will not only want to clean the dirt and water away from your reel, you will also want to change the fishing line before your first trip. Over time, the line can be degraded and weakened. This will impact the integrity of the line and could cause you to lose a fish if the line breaks.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re looking to purchase a new reel, you can rarely go wrong with purchasing a new spinning reel. Few things are more fun to use and more reliable than a great spinning reel and rod combination. When you do your research and buy a good reel, it can provide many years of fishing fun and success. The proper use and care of your reel ensure that your investment will pay off with countless hours of fun and a freezer full of fish!