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Equipment basics: Taking the confusion out of fishing reels, rods

Oct 16, 2023Oct 16, 2023

Every angler needs a rod and reel, but knowing what to get can be daunting.

Sporting goods stores have vast selections of rods and reels. There are baitcasting reels bearing a dizzying array of numbers that have specific and important meanings. Rods come in all sizes and flavors. Do you need a 7-foot, medium-heavy, carbon-fiber with a fast tip, or do you need a medium-action fiberglass matrix with a slow tip. Does it even matter?

It does matter depending on the application and how you apply it.

Spincast Combos

For casual anglers, a spincast reel like the Zebco 33 and its many offshoots are suitable. A spincast reel is often packaged with a very limber, low-quality rod. You can catch panfish and channel catfish with these rigs, but for more specialized fishing you'll want to skip that step and go directly to a spinning rig or a baitcasting rig.

Spinning rigs

Dedicated bass fishermen associate spinning reels with finesse fishing. They use them mostly for fishing Senko type soft plastic baits or for presenting drop shots to suspending fish on light line.

Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico taught me that spinning tackle is suitable for heavier, harder-fighting fish than you will ever encounter in Arkansas except, possibly, for big striped bass. I have caught big snook, big redfish, big speckled sea trout, big tripletail and big sharks on spinning tackle. I have also caught big largemouth and smallmouth bass, and big stripers and blue catfish with it in Arkansas.

The important thing is to match the size of the gear to the size of fish you expect to catch. A 1000- or 1500-series spinning reel is best suited to line no heavier than 8-pound test line. They are best with 6-pound test line. That is perfectly suitable for any kind of creek fishing and for most trout fishing. The biggest fish I have landed on 6-pound line was a 19-pound striped bass on the Ouachita River. That was no fluke. I landed a 14-pound striper below Remmel Dam at Lake Catherine.

To do that requires strong, high-quality fishing line, a knot that can withstand a lot of shock and hold together under stress.

Overlooked in this equation is the reel's drag system. Fighting and landing big fish requires a smooth, consistent drag with accessible controls that are easy to adjust on the fly. Many anglers set their drag once and don't bother with it again. The first setting must be strong enough to hold tight at the hookset. Once hooked, a big fish will exert extreme, abrupt stress on your line with quick surges, especially if it takes the line at an extreme acute angle like happens when it runs under a boat. You will have a better chance of landing that fish if you adjust the drag during the battle.

With experience, you will feel it when your line nears its break point. You need to loosen drag in a hurry and tighten it in a hurry during the ebb and flow of a ferocious fight. A proper drag will have a big knob that's easy to find blind with one hand and that's easy to move.

The drag on most spinning reels is on the front of the spool. Move the knob clockwise to tighten the drag. Move it counterclockwise to loosen it.

Some reels have drag controls on the rear. The same clockwise/counterclockwise orientation applies.

To use heavier line and heavier lures, use a bigger reel. When fishing for big bass in waters that have heavy cover or when fishing for big saltwater fish, a 4000 or 5000 series reel will handle anything. Spool it with heavy-test braided backing and tie as heavy a leader on the end as you want. A double uni knot or an Alberto knot are great for joining monofilament or flourocarbon leaders to braid.

Baitcasting rigs

A baitcasting reel feeds out line parallel with the rod. A spinning reel feeds line perpendicular to the rod.

As with spinning reels, there are light-duty baitcasters, medium-duty baitcasters and heavy-duty baitcasters. They differ in the diameter of line they can handle and the amount of line they can handle. Again, braided backing line mitigates reel size to a large degree. You can spool a light duty baitcaster with 8-pound monofilament diameter line with 30-pound or heavier test strength.

If you want to use 20-pound or heavier monofilament line, you need a heavy-duty baitcaster with a spool large enough to accommodate a sufficient amount of that line.

Unlike spinning reels, drag control is not as essential to fighting and landing big fish with a baitcaster. That's because most baitcasting devotees use heavy line and heavy-action rods. This allows them to set the hook on a big bass in heavy cover and yank them into open water as if operating a winch and crane.

For the way I use baitcasters, drag control is essential. The drag is a star-shaped knob between the handle and the frame. However, the orientation is reversed. Turn clockwise to loosen drag and counterclockwise to tighten.

Baitcasting reel performance is expressed in a ratio. It represents the number of spool revolutions occur with one complete turn of the handle. A 5.2:1 reel, for example, turns the spool 5.2 times for each complete turn of the handle. The higher the number, the "faster" the reel. Fast reels are best for big fish. I consider a 6.4:1 ratio to be minimum. Reels in the 7:1 range are best. They come 8:1 and faster, but that's too fast for many applications. Reels in the 5:0 range are good for crankbaits and swimbaits.

Fast is good because big fish, especially largemouth bass, often run at an angler. If a fish jumps and shakes its head on a slack line, it will likely throw the bait. To keep the line taut and the lure engaged, your reel must be fast enough to keep up with the fish.


Rods basically come in ultralight, light, medium, medium-heavy and actions. Ultralight is very good for panfish and crappie. Light action is good for trout and for smallmouth bass in creeks.

Medium action is good for anything, from big largemouth bass to snook, redfish, speckled trout and flounder.

Medium-heavy rods flex in the first quarter of a rod's length and then stiffen. They are really good for fishing jigs and worms in deep water where you need a lot of power to pull the stretch out of line during a hookset. A fast-action tip provides the sensitivity you need to feel the bottom while working bottom-contact baits.

A heavy action rod is suited for throwing heavy lures with heavy line, and yanking fish from heavy cover. A fast action heavy bends mostly at the tip. Stiffer actions bend farther down the spine.

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