How Does Fishing Reel Work? [Explained for Beginners]

How Does Fishing Reel Work

Fishing reels are the most complicated parts of fishing equipment. They consist of a number of moving ad fixed parts, and all have to work perfectly in order to fulfil their function.

Different types of fishing reels exist, and work in a different way. Understanding those working principles will help you choose, use, and maintain your reels.

In simple words, fishing reels work in a way that anglers rotate the handle, which transfers this rotating motion onto the spool in order to retrieve the fishing line. Speed of the retrieve and the way the spool “releases” the line vary from type to type.

In addition to that, reels have to be mounted on a rod in a specific way, and anglers have to know the basic functions of a reel, like drag setting.

Reels have different features too, and come in different sizes with a different gear ratio. Understanding of these features is a crucial factor in the process of choosing the best reel for a specific purpose.

Beginners often find this confusing, and make some common mistakes while using the reel. In the following chapters I will explain the basics about how does fishing reel work.



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How Does Fishing Reel Work? [Different Type and Mechanism]

Fishing reels come in many types, but here I am going to focus on the 4 main ones, as their working principles may be applied to all of the other ones.

Spinning Reels

How fishing reels work is frequently explained on a spinning reel as an example, because these reels are used by both beginners and experienced anglers, and are quite easy to understand.

Spinning reels have many different parts - a fixed spool and an open face. Fixed spool stays on place while casting, and the fishing line is unwrapping from it.

These reels are easy to use, and are suitable for smaller fish, because they work excellent with smaller baits. But, they also exist in larger sizes for large fish.

These reels have a bail wire, characteristic for this type, and a small line roller attached, which guides the line while reeling in. Bail is a crucial part here, as it keeps the line where it should be, and reduces the possibility of knots.

To cast, you have to flip the bail up, to “release” the line, and let it unwrap. To retrieve, you must close the bail, and rotate the handle.

Spools, and the line release and retrieve mechanisms, are the main difference between types of reels.

Spincast Reels

Spincast reels are mostly used by the most inexperienced anglers.

In a way, these work in a similar way as spinning reels, but they have an enclosed face, and you can`t see the spool. The spool is also fixed, and does not rotate when casting.

Unlike spinning ones, these reels do not have a bail that needs to be flipped when casting, and have no line roller. Instead of a bail, there is a button or a trigger that is used when casting to release the line.

Enclosed face has an opening through which the line goes out. When you turn the handle, it “activates” the take-up pins, that are there to catch and wind the line onto the spool.

Casting distance is quite short because of the friction between the line and an opening. Some of them are also suitable for saltwater fishing.

Baitcaster Reels

Fishing reel mechanism works a bit different here.

First of all, the spool is not fixed, and it rotates while you are casting. This highly efficient and precise mechanism is mostly used by more experienced anglers (some of them are also suitable for beginners), because it is prone to line tangles, and it is harder to control.

When you cast, the lure and the line fly away. The weight of the lure pulls the line. The spool, which is parallel to the rod, rotates too. The lure gradually slows down and hits the water.

To prevent the spool from turning and releasing the line after this happens, these reels have braking mechanisms.

Braking will slow down and stop the spool. If there was no slowing mechanism, or if the angler does not slow it down, the spool would keep on turning and releasing the line, which is known as backlashing.

That can cause line tangling and it is often happening when casting into the wind, when the lure slows down more rapidly.

Fly Fishing Reels

Fly fishing reels may seem simple when it comes to their parts, but the technique of fly fishing, and using these reels, is quite hard.

These reels are completely different than the previously mentioned models, and they can only be used for fly fishing.

First of all, these reels have interchangeable spools, and you can easily replace them.

Secondly, both the spool and the handle rotate together when casting, and this feature is called "direct drive". Also, the handle is not the large standard handle you can see on other reel types.

Although there are a few different kinds of these, the majority works in a described way, and most of them have single action. I will mention more about gear ratios in the following chapters.

Casting with these is hard, and anglers have to manually strip the line from the spool. The same goes for retrieving. There are various hand techniques used to retrieve the line. Of course, turning the handle to reel in at a certain point is also done, but the whole process takes a lot of time to master.

Basically, the reel is there only to accommodate the line.

How Does Fishing Reel Work - Fly Fishing

Where Should a Fishing Reel be Placed? On Top or Bottom?

How does fishing reel work influences its position on the rod too. Some are mounted on the top, while some are below.

Spinning reels are mounted below the rod, and they are “hanging” from it. The rod line guides are mounted below the rod too, along the bottom side. Spinning rods, suitable for these reels, usually have a quite large first line guide, when compared to those closer to the rod tip, to facilitate passing of the line when casting.

Fly fishing reels too are mounted below the rod.

When it comes to baitcasting reels, they are mounted on top of the rod, and rods suitable for them have line guides on the upper side of the rod. This construction enables more pressure to be applied to the rod that can stand greater forces, and it is more suitable for larger and heavier fish species.

But, spinncasting reels are quite different. Majority of them is mounted on top of the rod, like baitcasting reels. Those have a push button on the back side of the reel, and anglers can use their thumbs to push them.

However, there are some versions that can be mounted below the rod. Those do not have buttons, and instead, they have triggers which serve the same purpose. Triggers are located between the spool and the reel mount, so that anglers can easily use them.

How Does Drag Work on a Fishing Reel?

Drag is an important feature, and all anglers should know how does drag work on a fishing reel.

It is basically an added pressure, that fish has to overcome to pull out the line. Drag is constructed in a way that friction plates are installed in the reel. Anglers can set it by using a button/knob on a reel, and every reel has a maximum drag which is stated in kilograms or pounds.

Drag allows the spool to turn backward and releases the line. Without it, if the fish were pulling hard enough, and wouldn’t be able to take out any line, the line could break and anglers could lose a fish quite often.

You should set the drag according to a targeted fish specie before you start fishing. It is much harder to do it while you are already in the middle of the process, and on many reels, it is not possible to do so.

Generally, if you are not sure how high you should set the drag, you should opt for a lower setting. If the line is a bit loose, you will have to put a bit more effort into retrieving. If the drag is set too high, the line could brake on harder impacts.

How Does Gear Ratio Work on a Fishing Reel?

Gear ratio is a number that shows you how many times the spool will turn for a single turn of a handle.

Reels can be slow, medium or fast. For example, 5.1:1 means that the spool will turn 5.1 times for a single turn of a handle.

This, together with the spool size and the line quantity present on the spool, also determines how much line length is going to be retrieved in a single turn.

This number is extremely important, because different speed is needed for different fishing techniques. As a beginner, you should choose the medium one, as those are versatile and suitable for many situations.

But, how does gear ratio work on a fishing reel?

Within a fishing reel, you can find wheels with “teeth” along their outer edge. These can be straight or helical. The second option runs much better and smoother, but it is mostly seen in more expensive reels.

These wheels are positioned next to each other and their teeth are held together. By turning one of them, the motion is transferred to another. Because of the difference in their size, the motion transferred from the larger to the smaller wheel makes it turn faster, and vice versa.

This is a simplified explanation, but it is good enough to explain how is it possible that one turn of a handle produces a number of spool turns.

Interesting thing about gear ratio is that many fly reels, to stay lighter and simple and have fewer moving parts, is 1:1. It is called single action, and means that for one handle turn, the spool will rotate once.

How Does Fishing Reels Work - Gear Ratio

How Does Fishing Reel Sizes Work?

Reels come in different sizes, mostly expressed in 10`s or 1000`s. The higher the number, the larger the reel.

So, how does fishing reel sizes work?

With the reel size, their overall strength and sturdiness increases, which is important for catching large fish.

Their maximum drag is also higher, and due to larger spools, they can accommodate more line length.

Not all models made by certain manufacturers are available in all sizes, although some will offer a very large size range of a specific model.

Small ones, sizes from 500 to about 3500, are suitable for kids, beginners, and catching smaller species. These are mostly used in freshwater, or saltwater fishing in small, calm areas (like fishing in a ponds), from the shore, for very small fish.

Then we have some medium sizes from 4000 to 5500, and those can be used for a bit bigger fish in freshwater (like basic river fishing), or inshore saltwater.

Large sizes, from 6000 to 8500 are used for very large freshwater fish (like carp fishing and other), and saltwater fishing.

Of course, sizes 10000 and larger, up to 30 000, are available, and those are mostly used for offshore fishing. As a beginner, you will probably start in a small to medium size range.

Of course, your rod, line, and rest of the equipment has to match. Light rods are not suitable to be paired with big reels and vice versa.

So, What is the Best Fishing Reel for Beginners?

Now when you know how fishing reels work, it may already be obvious which one to choose if you are an absolute beginner.

The best option (if the reel is not for kids) is a spinning reel. These are easy to use (if compared with baitacting reels), yet powerful enough for all kinds of fishing experiences.

You can use the majority of lures and baits with them and use them for different fishing techniques. Spinning reels are also quite affordable and if you are using them right, and take care of them, they can last a long time.

Spincast is not a bad option, but it offers limited possibilities. These are great for kids or those who just want to try fishing once or twice, and have no intention of doing frequently.

Beginners often have wishes that exceed their abilities. Keep it simple and give yourself time to learn. Get a spinning reel with a medium gear ratio, and go for a lighter setup. Avoid large sizes as there is almost no chance you are going to catch a record braking fish.

Lighter setups are more than enough to learn proper fishing techniques.

One good option for beginners is also fishing rod and reel combo ...

How Does Fishing Reel Work - Spinning


Anglers often ask how does fishing reel work and understanding of those working principles and differences among types is very important. It allows you to choose the best reel type and size for your fishing adventures.

Of course, reels are complicated machines, and have many differences among their internal parts, not just in their performance, but that is not something you should be concerned about, at least not before you gain some experience.

As a beginner, practice with spinning reels before upgrading to baitcasters. Keep it simple and it will pay off in the long run.

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