All reel manufacturers like to talk in code. The marketing departments invent terms to describe their reels features. Some of the terms that I will explain for individual brands are Penn’s HT-100 drag system, Shimano’s Hagane gears, and Daiwa’s Digigear System. I will try to explain how different features affect reels performance. Hopefully, this will help you make a more informed decision on which reel is best for you.
Reels housing are made from aluminum or graphite. Aluminum is stronger and more rigid but heavier. Aluminum can corrode in saltwater whereas graphite will not. Graphite is lighter but may introduce flex when fighting a large fish. Flex is when the whole reel deforms slightly under load. It is not good because the gears inside will misalign. This means the gears will not turn properly and certainly will wear more quickly. Graphite is more prone to damage if dropped. A word on corrosion. Aluminum reels of higher quality are mostly corrosion-free because they use better (more expensive) alloys and coatings. Cheap reals may use stamped or molded aluminum but most midrange reels use machined aluminum because it is stronger. So which one is better? Aluminum is the better choice. Sealed housings help to keep water out of the main gears. Most reels don’t have a seal housing but the tolerances are tight enough to keep water out except if the reel is submerged.
Stainless steel is the preferred type of bearing for all reels. Shielded bearings help to keep water away from these delicate parts. Cheaper reels come with chrome steel bearing. The problem with chrome bearing is that as the surface experiences friction the chrome bracks down. This leaves the steel exposed and results in rust and rust will kill a reel. You may have heard of the ceramic bearing. They are not used by any manufacturer that we could find. They do reduce friction but are not really helpful for spinning reels. They are mostly used in casting reels to gain distance. The odd thing about ceramic bearings is they are noisy. Highend reels come with sealed bearings.
Number of Bearings
The number of bearings is not as important as the quality of the bearings. You need a minimum of four, one at each end of the pinion gear and one on each side of the main gear. The bail should have a roller bearing in the line roller for a total of five. Any more than this is cosmetic but will make the reel smoother if they are of good quality. Many cheap reels advertise large numbers of bearings. Don’t be fooled it doesn’t make them better.
A note about drags. Your drag should be set at about 25% of the line strength. If you are using a 10-pound line that is only 2½ pounds of drag. Most of us have been setting our drags too high for years. Forget rear drag systems. They have less surface area and are therefore not as durable as a front drag system. Drags are made of felt pads soaked in oil or disks made of graphite, ceramic, carbon fiber, or a combination of materials. The drag is designed like a disk brake that slips. It must be smooth to prevent the line from breaking during a sudden surge. If a really large fish is on the line and pulls drag for an extended period heat will build up in the drag. This is what separates the good from the bad. The heat will kill a cheap drag system. Some high-end models come with sealed drag systems to prevent water intrusion.
Gears are made from stainless steel, brass, or aluminum. Many reels have brass pinion gears and aluminum main gears. Advantages of the different metals. Stainless steel is the strongest and longest-lasting gear material. It is corrosion-resistant. and lighter than brass. But stainless steel is the most expensive gear material used in reels. Brass is more durable than aluminum but it is the heaviest of the three. It is also corrosion-resistant. Aluminum is by far the lightest material. It is not as durable as brass or stainless steel but it will still last a long time. It is also corrosion resistance. Brass is frequently used for the pinion gear while aluminum is used for the main gear.
The aluminum vs graphite questions arrises again. Spools made from graphite will also flex under stress. Many graphite framed reels come with aluminum spools. That should say something. What you do want from a spool is a rubber insert to hold the braided line. If you spool braid directly on a normal all-metal spool the whole mass of the line will turn on the spool. This is why mono is used as backing for braid on reels without the rubber insert. With the rubber insert, there is no need for mono backing as the braid will grip the insert.
Spool shape will impact the performance of a reel. Spools that are a little longer are designated as long cast models. When cast the line comes off the spool in loops. The longer spool reduces the number of loops for a given length of the line. The loops hit the first-rod guide which causes friction and reduces the cast distance. A normal-sized spool produces more loops during a cast and therefore more friction and a shorter cast.
All reels have some form of anti-reverse that prevents the reel from turning backward. Most have a switch that can be turned off so you can easily pull line off the reel. This is mostly used when rigging or getting ready to cast. Some reels don’t have this switch and will not turn backward at all. This takes some getting used to. All anti-reverse systems must be rock solid to not allow any movement in the handle or spool when locked. This makes for solid hooksets and no slackline during a fight.
That depends on what you are fishing for. Remember that the drag should be set at about 25% of the breaking strength of the line. If you are using a 20-pound braid as many inshore fishermen do, then the drag should be set a about 5 pounds. How large a fish can you catch with 5 pounds of drag? For inshore fish, I have a rule of thumb formula. I believe a redfish can pull drag pretty easily at about 1/2 its body weight for a brief time before tiring. So a 10-pound redfish can pull 5 pounds of drag for maybe 30 to 40 seconds. How far can a redfish go while pulling 5 pounds of drag? Let say that they swim at 15 mph at top speed but can only swim at 7 mph pulling 5 pounds of drag. That is about 100 to 150 yards in 30 to 40 seconds. Any subsequent runs will not last as long. So a reserve of 150 yards of line for the run. When you cast from shore you may cast 100 yards if you are an expert and have a tailwind. But what if you hook the fish of a lifetime You may need another 100 yards or more. So in total, you are looking at 300 to 400 yards of line. Most inshore fish don’t have the strength or endurance that redfish have so this rig will work for most situations. If you think you may catch a bigger fish you will need a heavier line and a larger reel to quickly land a fish.