When purchasing a saltwater reel your decision will be driven by a series of factors, not the least of which is the species you’re after. Other issues that will weigh on your choice will be your method of fishing and lastly the amount of experience you have. Let’s examine these factors, one at a time.
The targeted species is a key factor because of size, and the habitat of each, but the season also has a bearing. For example, tarpon can be pursued along the coastline, as well as in coastal rivers and deep channels that lead to open waters. A favorite haunt for snook is a mangrove shrouded island, where they can make a sprint for the tangle of roots and break free. However, you can also find them holding under bridges in passes where bait flows on the outgoing tide. Tackling each species requires different rods and reels with characteristics that enable you to best each fish under these specific conditions.
The method of fishing is also a key issue. Anglers who fish from a boat have the advantage of being able to move with a fight and reduce the stress on rod, reel and line. Land-bound anglers who fish from bridge, pier, or surf have to match their preference with gear that can take the fight to the fish. For these situations, you need more line capacity and heavier drags that can hold up against longer fights from a stationary position.
The final factor, experience, is somewhat ambiguous. Perhaps, more to the point would be not only how much experience you have, but also how much you want. Baitcasting reels are more challenging to use, but more capable of handling a wider variety of species as well as techniques. The easy course is to select a spinning reel, of saltwater capacity, and accept its limitations. Easy is seldom exceptional.
Spinning reels are certainly easier to cast, and for some species an ideal choice, however, their key limitations are line capacity and drag durability. For targeting smaller species, and even some larger fish from a boat, spinning reels are not only acceptable but preferred by many. Another pitfall to the open-faced design of spinning reels is the limitation that is inherent in characteristics of monofilament line. Larger sizes of mono are stiff, and have the tendency to erupt from spools once the bail is opened.
If you are serious about pursuing saltwater angling, consider picking a rod and reel that is ideal for the task and learn how to use it. Anglers with more experience typically prefer baitcasting reels; especially when casting large baits is the optimal technique, or when heavier lines are mandatory. A common complaint about baitcasting reels is that casting requires more coordination to manage the line by using your thumb to regulate spool speed and stop it at the end of the cast. While this requires some practice and skill, modern reels make it much easier. Better baitcasting reels now incorporate a drag system to adjust the resistance, or drag, on the spool. An adjustable drag enables you to calibrate the speed of the spool to maximize your casting distance and minimize the dreaded backlash caused by spin over.
Baitcasting reels are designed to lay the line directly on the spool, which is an advantage when fighting big fish. With any reel, the size of the spool determines line capacity, and the baitcasting design enables deeper, wider spools that hold more line.
Over the years, reel manufacturers have refined their products, creating reels that are especially designed for specific purposes, with characteristics that improve performance for each technique. Select a reel that is designed for the technique you intend to use it for most often.
Offshore reels have high-capacity spools and low gear ratios for fighting big fish and handling long runs with heavy-duty drags. Some models have two sets of gears so you can opt for a fast retrieve of line or a lower ratio for fighting a fish.
Trolling reels have features like line counters that display exactly how much line is deployed; a critical issue to precise trolling at exact depths.
Other specialty reels are available for jigging, casting and bottom fishing.
Once you’ve decided on the type of reel, the next issue would be which reel within that category. Construction and durability are directly related, especially for saltwater, and the key to performance as well as cost. You can either pay for a higher quality reel, with components that resist corrosion or pay for another reel after the cheaper version is corroded beyond use. Saltwater is a harsh environment that is unforgiving and relentless.
Spools are made of either graphite or aluminum. Graphite spools are lighter and generally less expensive than aluminum. Aluminum is more durable, and it’s a good investment to select a model with an anodized finish, or machined bronze aluminum to minimize corrosion. While these materials resist corrosion they still require routine cleaning and maintenance to keep them in top condition.
The frame is a critical element of any reel. Frames also come in graphite and aluminum versions, with the strongest designs being machined from a solid block of aluminum. This type of construction reduces the effects of torque on the spool and reel body when fighting a large fish. Again, graphite is lighter and less expensive, but not as strong.
Gear ratio and the number of bearings in a reel are also critical issues. The gear ratio will determine how fast you can retrieve line and how much pressure you’ll be able to apply to the fight. Lower gear ratios provide more power, but bring line in slower. Some reels have what is basically a transmission, with the ability to change between two gear ratios. These reels provide the best of both options, for an additional cost that can be well worth the money over the entire life of a reel.
Ball bearings support a reel’s moving parts and determine how smoothly it operates. In general terms, the more bearings you have the smoother the reel will work. This is especially true during a fight. Another factor, relative to both cost and performance is quality. Bearings that are impervious to saltwater cost more, but last longer.
Level winds do a great job of mending your line and eliminating another distraction while fighting a fish. Level winds keep your line evenly distributed over the spool and avoid problems caused by uneven winding. Reels designed for extremely large fish do not use level winds, mainly because of the stress on these delicate mechanisms, and must be managed with the thumb during retrieval.
One way to save a few bucks is to select a rod and reel combo. The experts at Cabela’s have matched a number of reels with rods specifically designed for various species and techniques. Not only is this a better deal, it’s one way to make sure you’ll have the best tool for the task at hand.
Regardless of which reel or design you choose, remember that regular maintenance of your rod and reel will make them last for many more years of trouble-free fishing. After a day on the water, clean and lubricate your gear according to manufacturer’s recommendations.
Fishing in saltwater may be a little bit more trouble, but the rewards are well worth the effort. That’s one of the great things about saltwater fishing, you never know what you’re going to catch, or end up with. You may be reeling in a two pound snapper and end up fighting a six-foot barracuda. Occasionally, even with a good reel, you’ll get spooled, so take some extra line.