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Picking Out A Baitcasting Reel

It Ain't Your Granddaddy's Ambassadeur Anymore!

By Mike Whitten
Southern Staff Writer


August 21, 2009

Let me preface this little treatise with the proviso that I am OLD—at least I look old.  I’ve been around this crazy sport, in one way or another for over 50 years.  I was here two years before dirt got invented!  I remember, and still have in my attic, baitcasting reels with braided line on them, with NO freespool and levelwinds that move when you cast!  Yes, boys and girls, I have a very clear memory of the first Red Reel—aka Ambassadeur 5000—that I ever owned.  Don’t own it anymore, but I still remember it, and all the black, gray, green and other reels that came after it.  And, I remember my first Diawa Millionaire, and putting Gleem toothpaste in the gears and spinning it with a drill to make it smoother.  Ah, the memories!

Well, the good old days are not behind us.  They’re still here, and in front of us.  It is absolutely amazing how good baitcasting reels have become!  Who in the world would ever have thought that we could buy a freespool, levelwind baitcaster with a durn MICROPROCESSOR CHIP inside it that would control backlashes?  I wish I’d had that chip in my thumb when I was in the back yard with my Red Reel 40 years ago!  And who would have believed that we would pay just short of $700 bucks for the durn thing?!  I only paid $625 for my first flat top 9.9 Johnson outboard—DURN!!!!

Alright, enough with the memories.  Fact of the matter is we now have an intimidating selection of reels to choose from as we build our tackle selection.  So, how do you ever choose a reel?  Let’s see if we can offer some key concepts that will make it easier.

Gear Ratios
First, understand gear ratios.  The lower the first number, the slower the reel picks up line on the retrieve, and the slower the lure comes back to the boat.  Slower reels have more torque, or cranking power.  Higher numbers mean faster line recovery, but at the expense of sheer cranking power. So, lower ratio reels with numbers starting at 3, 4, or 5 are generally your best bet for lures like crankbaits , especially the deep diving variety, and big heavy spinnerbaits.   Using a lower geared reel  for big crankbaits will actually allow you to get the bait deeper than a super high speed model, and it will do wonders for how tired your are not at the end of the day.  Trust me on this, pilgrims, you DO NOT want to be throwing a big lipped, ¾ oz bottom-bouncing crankbait on a 7:1 reel!  The stress on your wrist and hands will make for a very long day.  On the other hand, if you are setting up to pitch, flip, throw buzzbaits or lipless baits across vast expanses of watery terrain, then a higher geared reel, with a front number in the 6 or 7 range will be the toy of choice.
Don’t get all wrapped up in reading the latest issue of Bass Pro Shops or Tackle Everywhere For U catalogs, trying to figure out if you want a 5.0:1 or a 5.1:1 cranking reel, or a 6.2:1 instead of a 6.4:1 spinnerbait reel.  Look at the first number, and see the table below:


Reel Gear Ratio
3, 4, 5
Crankbaits, big spinnerbaits
5, 6, 7

Texas rigs, jigs, soft plastics, Carolina rigs, lipless baits

6, 7
Lipless baits, spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, pitching, flipping

Notice there is some overlap -- just as in picking lure colors, nothing in fishing is absolute.  You can use a 5.0:1 ratio Shimano Calcutta to do just about anything, and it is a bulletproof reel.  Are you better off with a 6.2:1 Curado or Calais for buzzbaits and lipless baits? In my experience yes, but the 5.0:1 will work.  On the polar ends of the scale, however, I have no 3.8:1 cranking reels in my boat—they are just tooooo slow for my style, and I can’t tell they get baits deeper than the 5.0 reels.  I also don’t have any 7:1 reels, as the ones I’ve used have less cranking power than I prefer.  And there are personal preferences you just have to check out for yourself.  My most favorite reel in the entire universe is the Calais 100A by Shimano.  It has a mid-range ratio of 5.8:1.  I use it and the Shimano Conquest 100 in the same ratio, for everything from spinnerbaits to Senkos to medium diving crankbaits to topwaters.  I love the size of the reels, and am comfortable with what they make a lure do in the water.

Do I recommend picking only one gear ratio?  Absolutely not.  Reels are tools, just like socket wrenches or nut drivers.  You need different tools to do different things.  So now that gear ratios are old hat, what next?

Do Some Hands On Research
Go to a store—and Bass Pro Shops is a good one, because they have so many different reels in one place.  Take some time, talk to other anglers.  Pick a FAMILY, or brand of reels, with a line that offers a range of ratios, and in a price point that you can afford.  Handle the reels, spin them and see how smooth they feel to you.  Put them on a rod, and see how they fit your hand.  Some folks like round reels some prefer low profile.  Some like right hand cranks (like me), others including my 17 year old daughter, Meredith, much prefer a left -handed crank.   In her extremely logical mind, she tells me it makes no sense to cast with your right hand and then swap hands to reel.  And, it works for her—for me it’s like trying to work a Rubic’s Cube puzzle.  Just can’t get the hang of it! 

As you look through the families of reels, check to see that they offer a range of gear ratios; most will have at least three to choose from.  Try to make your selections from the same brand of reel.  That way, they will feel the same when you pick them up, and the internal and external braking systems will be similar and easy to learn to use.

Make your choice, and keep in mind that with fishing reels you do get what you pay for.  A $100 reel may be all you need, and if serviced properly, will last for years, but until you hit the very high end products, you definitely get what you pay for.  The Calais 100A is a very pricey reel, but if you fish as much as I do, there is a certain satisfaction in fishing with a reel this good.  I will also tell you that the Bass Pro brand reels, especially the Johnny Morris reels, (silver, blue and gold versions) are all very well made reels, extremely smooth, and have served me well over the past three years.

All baitcast reels now have spool release thumb bars, so be sure the one you select fits your thumb.  All reels have star drags—but some of the high end reels, like the Calais, Conquest and gold Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris have very precise micrometer click adjustments, that you may prefer.  Some have internal magnets for spool control. Some, like the Shimano reels, do not.  All will have a spool tension cap control on the handle side of the reel.  Locate and be sure you understand these controls before you purchase any reel.  They are critical to your effective casting and overall success with the reel, and I cannot begin to tell you how many folks at seminars I talk to who have NO IDEA how the spool controls and drags on their reels work.

Final Tips
More and more of the upper end reels come with drilled spools.  This is done to reduce weight so the reel casts further and easier.  However, it can also allow water a direct access to spool shaft bearings.  I always wrap my drilled spools with two layers of white Teflon tape in order to prevent water entry.  Just wrap it on before you spool on the line. 

Lubrication is key to maximizing reel performance.  Less is generally better, as too much oil will actually slow a reel down, and cut casting distance.  The best oil I’ve ever used, and the only oil I will use is Yellow Rocket Fuel, an oil made in England specifically for level wind reels.  You will need to add a drop to each bearing, and two to the levelwind gear about every 3 to 4 months, but it is worth the trouble.  It will add distance to your casts.
There it is---Baitcaster Buying 101.  Grab the cookie jar and go shopping!