Reels Buyer's Guide

Reels Buyer's Guide

Overhead or spin? Light or heavy? Baitcaster or traditional? Find out the best reel-type for your style of fishing in this buyer's guide.
Lines Buyer's Guide Reading Reels Buyer's Guide 11 minutes


The name ‘spin reel’ refers to what might otherwise be known as a threadline, eggbeater or coffee-grinder reel. An ‘overhead reel’ refers to a collective including several types of reels that might otherwise be known as a conventional, game, trolling, barrel, baitcaster and low-profile reels.

Strength, maximum drag capacity and line capacity were once the determining factors that made overhead reels the choice of ‘serious’ anglers, simply because early spin reel designs couldn’t match the overhead designs. Modern spin reels can now equal—and in some cases exceed—the capabilities of overhead reels. This makes the choice of which reel is better for you less clear, so we’ll take a look at the options relative to the intended purpose.

Reels for bait fishing

Either a spin or overhead reel is fine for everyday bait fishing, where you’re casting your baits from shore or a boat, so let your personal preference decide.

If you’re new to fishing then it’s best to start with a spin reel because they are simple to use and will do everything you need. As you develop more specific fishing styles that might benefit from an overhead reel, then you can add to your tackle then.

Reels for trolling

Overhead reels are the best choice for trolling, whether you’re targeting marlin offshore with game reels or seeking barra or cod in rivers using baitcaster reels. This is simply because the shapes and designs better suit being left in rod holders; they’re more suited to reacting to unexpected strikes; they facilitate easier line length adjustments; they have a free-spool function; your fingers are safer when engaging the reel after a strike; and in the case of offshore fishing, have superior line holding capacity and are better suited to be used with a gimbal belt.

Reels for casting

There are good casting reel options in both spin and overhead reels. Spin reels are easier to cast with. However, casting with an overhead reel can be mastered; it just takes a bit more practice at the start. Personal preference will decide which is best for most of your applications but there are some other considerations.

Spin reels are better at casting lighter weights because the line moves off the spool more freely when the bail is open; whereas the line on an overhead must revolve the spool as it is cast out, which requires more momentum and that can be difficult when using a lightweight lure or sinker. This is one reason why spin reels are more often preferred for light and ultra light lure casting; another is that a small spin reel usually weighs less than a small baitcaster, for example.

The spin reelfreer line advantage diminishes as the lure or sinker weights increase because with more weight comes more momentum, regardless of which reel type is used. 

Baitcaster are a popular overhead reel option for lure casting in rivers, estuaries, lakes and inshore. They allow extra precision via direct contact between the thumb and spool, allowing an angler to place a lure or bait exactly where they want. It should be noted that modern anglers who prefer small spin reels are achieving similar precision by using their index finger for the same contact on the spin reel’s spool. However, the effectiveness of the latter option is limited to small spin reels and is also determined by the size of the angler’s hand relative to the reel size.

Baitcaster are a popular overhead reel option for lure casting in rivers, estuaries, lakes and inshore. They allow extra precision via direct contact between the thumb and spool, allowing an angler to place a lure or bait exactly where they want.

The thumb contact made possible by baitcaster reels also allows an angler to apply extra drag, for emergencies such as stopping big fish powering towards a snag. This extra ‘feel’ and control is a massive advantage in many situations.

Casting situations where big line capacities are needed—such as when land-based fishing from beaches and rocks targeting large pelagic species—are often dominated by overhead reels. These land-based specialists learn to control big overhead reels and can cast impressive distances with these reels.

Reels for bottom fishing and jigging

Overhead reels are a better option for boat fishing scenarios such as when you’re dropping baits or heavy lures to the bottom and fishing vertically. The immediate line contact and spool control are advantageous when your lure or bait hooks a fish on the drop. Line capacities are usually ample for fishing deep water. More robust parts and fewer small parts are better for longevity in a harsh saltwater environment and bigger gears designed for more torque tend to last longer as well. The line running over the top of the rod is also useful during fights with big fish because it reduces the chance of the line accidentally coming in to contact with the gunwales when a fish has you bending over the side in a rough sea, which could cost you a fish in a moment of distraction.

All that said, strong modern spin reels now hold their own offshore. Some offshore anglers prefer this style due to the extra lure speed they can generate when needed, and because a big spin reel offers more versatility should the angler encounter a scenario where a long cast could secure a bonus fish spotted feeding on the surface.


Line capacity

Spin reels dominate reel sales for fishing styles where line capacity is less important. Small fish such as bream, flathead, whiting, bass and golden perch should never require anything more than what a small spin reel can hold. Small fish rarely have the size or stamina to spool even the smallest 1000 size spin reel if a sensible drag pressure is used If targeting medium demersal fish—for example snapper or coral trout—then you must consider the depth of water you’re likely to be fishing and/or how far you must cast. This will give you an estimate of how much line you will have out before any fish grabs your bait or lure. Then, you probably only need 50-100m more than that to cover the fish fight because if such a fish takes that much line from you, it will probably have already run you into a reef or kelp bed!

If targeting fast inshore pelagic fish—for example tuna, mackerel, queenfish, kingfish or trevally—then you might need 100m to 200m of reserve line to accommodate a smoking-hot run from an unexpectedly big fish. Big spin reels will accommodate enough line for those casting metal lures, poppers or soft plastics, but for those trolling, an overhead reel is better.

Drag capability

Anglers now pay less attention to the ball bearing count within a reel, shifting focus to the maximum drag capacity. A good working drag is important and the best drag set-up for you will again depend on what style of fishing you plan on doing.

A heavy maximum drag is not important for small fish such as your average bream and flathead. The most useful attribute of a drag in light tackle fishing is actually the drag’s ability to increase and decrease across a broad range in subtle increments. This allows the minute accurate drag adjustments which are vital when fishing with light line. Accurate drag adjustment is also a very useful feature for heavy tackle fishing.

Anglers targeting big fish living near line-shredding structure need heavy drag settings to have a chance of landing such fish before it’s too late. But keep in mind, only fit anglers will actually be able to maintain a long fight under a heavy drag setting of more than 10kg or so. It’s hard work, but if you’re game and crank the drag up to 15kg or even 20kg, you’d best hope it’s a short fight, a very strong reel and that you are well balanced when the fish strikes!One advantage of a high maximum drag capability is that when your reel is operating at a more ‘normal’ drag setting, say 3-5kg, it’s working less relative to its capacity, so in theory it should cope better and require less-regular servicing.

Remember: A maximum drag setting is only as good as the reel parts and tackle around it. Shafts, gears, bearings, anti-reverse mechanisms, reel seats, reel bodies, line, knots, hooks, split rings and rods are all placed under the same intense pressure, so examine your entire set-up before cranking the drag knob to maximum.

It’s worth noting that a majority of reel manufacturers apply the minimum of drag grease when shipping reels across to Australia, to avoid any lubricant weeping while in transit and storage prior to sale. Be mindful of this and if you choose a reel that you intend to work hard then it’s a good idea to have it serviced prior to first use, to ensure it’s lubricated by a trained expert. This doesn’t cost much, will prolong the need for a first full service anyway, and you can be sure that your reel is ready to fish as hard as you want it to. Anglers’ Central Service Centre is the biggest authorised reel service centre in Australia and offers national coverage.

Spool design

Spool design is a hard thing to check when you’re examining a reel in a tackle store. Much of the time you are relying on the manufacturer’s claims and buzz words to determine how well a spool will cast. Try not to get confused by this; having a spooled filled correctly and ensuring the line diameter suits the spool size will ultimately have more of an impact on the casting performance than the angle of the spool’s lip.

If you plan to use braid, an aluminium spool is better than graphite. That choice is less of a concern if you’re using monofilament nylon line.

Other things to check when buying a reel:

  • If you intend fishing saltwater, check that the reel is suitable for this purpose. Some reels imported into Australia are specialist reels developed for freshwater-centric markets in other countries.
  • If you intend fishing with a heavy drag setting, check the body, reel seat, handle and bail arm assembly for flex by gently squeezing and moving the parts with your hands. Too much flex might cost you a fish and might be an indication the reel is not up to the torture you have planned for it.
  • It’s worth checking that the reel you’re planning to purchase will actually fit into the reel seat fitting on the rod you plan to match it with. It’s only rare that they won’t fit together, but check, just in case.
  • Whichever reel you choose, remember it has a lot of interconnecting moving parts that operate in harsh conditions and at times under extreme pressure. The more you look after it, the better its chance of a long reliable life. After each trip, wipe it down with a cloth soaked in warm soapy water, then give it a light rinse with freshwater, dry it, then loosen the drag knob before storage.

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