How to Choose The Right Saltwater Fishing Reel (Beginner’s Tips)

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By Bryan Rucker •  20 min read

When it comes to the outdoor life, there is perhaps no more entertaining or adventurous pursuit quite like saltwater fishing. Unlike fishing in freshwater sources—lakes, rivers, streams and even ponds—in which the species and variety of available fish is somewhat limited; saltwater fishing affords fisherman the unique opportunity to angle for thousands of different fish species—fish that call the vast oceans and seas of this great country home.

Those who set out to tackle the big fish of the open ocean, whether by boat, on a pier, barge or even the open shore, must possess the appropriate equipment and tackle—fishing gear that includes the requisite saltwater reel—the foundation of saltwater fishing that is used to surface and land this great variety of fish and other sea species.

Best Saltwater Fishing Reels For The Money (2017 – 2018)

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To help you purchase the ideal saltwater fishing reel for your upcoming angling adventure, below we have highlighted the various features you should look for in these devices, and explained why each of these features is so helpful and beneficial in terms of reaching your ultimate goal: a boatload of prized fish just begging for you to take them home.

About Saltwater Fishing Reels

A quality saltwater fishing reel can mean the difference between an adventurous and fruitful fishing expedition and a boring boat ride with nothing to show for it. In this day and age, where everything is better and more advanced, saltwater fishing reels have become technologically sophisticated devices, some of which use space-age-quality materials that are lighter and more durable than ever before. Add to this the precision workmanship that goes into these saltwater fishing reels and you have a tool that is ready and able to tackle even the largest fish in the sea.

As we will cover later in more detail, saltwater fishing reels are classified in one of two ways: low-speed and high-speed. These speeds essentially represent the “real gear ratio.” Low-speed saltwater fishing reels, which offer more power and torque for hauling in some of the biggest fish in the ocean, have a gear ratio of less than 4:1. High-speed saltwater fishing reels have a gear ratio greater than 6:1, allowing anglers to retrieve the line and their baits quickly—the higher the gear ratio, the faster the reel can retrieve. These ratios are important to understand when selecting the proper reel. Fortunately, many of today’s saltwater fishing reels can be switched from low-speed to high-speed at just a push of the button, making them very versatile despite the type of fish you seek or the type of fishing you wish to pursue.

As we go through each of the factors you will need to consider when buying a saltwater fishing reel, you will learn about terms such as “line capacity”—the amount of line a typical reel can hold, usually measured in feet or yards; and “drag pressure”—a measurement, usually marked in pounds, that should be adjusted to one-third the breaking strength of the line. You will also learn the importance of size and weight when it comes to saltwater fishing reels; and learn that different types of “reel actions” are better suited to catching different types of fish. First, however, we will discuss the two general types of saltwater fishing reels: spinning reels and baitcasting reels, and what to look for in each type when shopping for the perfect reel to suit your needs and fishing preferences.

Two Types of Saltwater Fishing Reels: Spinning Reels and Baitcasting Reels

About Saltwater Spinning Reels

Although baitcasting reels have long been the standard for saltwater fishing situations, the advancement in spinning reels, once used exclusively for freshwater fishing, have now made them a viable option for the ocean and the preferred type of reel for some fishermen. Many fishermen have opted for spinning reels when working lures, high-speed plugs and poppers on the top water. Spinning reels are also ideal for casting baits and lighter saltwater fishing lures, lending themselves to more accurate casting and faster retrieval.

A saltwater spinning reel is typically mounted to the underside of the fishing rod, with the handle to the left (reversible handles are also available for left-hand-dominant fisherman). The spool of the spinning reel is stationary; the line uncoils from the spool and is released from the reel, but the spool does not move. This is a very attractive feature of saltwater spinning reels, as it lessens the chance that the line will snag or tangle—an eventuality that can ruin a fishing trip. On the flip side of the coin, spinning reels are very rarely used when big fish are the target, as they are not robust or durable enough to handle that kind of weight. Trying to consistently land large fish with a spinning reel can eventually exert too much pressure on the gears inside the reel, damaging the internal components over time.

Equipped with a feature known as an anti-reverse locking mechanism, a saltwater spinning reel is designed to prevent too much line from paying out. Should a large fish bite and run, for example, this can prevent line fouling and snags. The mechanism also prevents the line from paying out too rapidly in instances where the hook snags when trolling the bottom of the source.

Wind knots can be a problem with spinning reels. These knots can form if the line becomes twisted or when the line is not retrieved under pressure. This disadvantage can sometimes be prevented by adding a small swivel between the line and the leader.

About Saltwater Baitcasting Reels

The most popular and widely used reels for ocean fishing, saltwater baitcasting reels have been used for decades by expert deep water anglers and by fisherman using heavy lines (10 pound test or more), baits and lures in their quest for some of the bigger specimens of fish for which the oceans and seas around the world are best known.

Baitcasting saltwater reels are perfectly-suited for bottom fishing and jigging. They are also the ideal choice for fighting large fish over a long period of time, such as sharks, marlin and sailfish, using the device to tire them out and land them without damaging the inner workings of the reel whatsoever.

Consisting of a revolving reel that sits atop the saltwater fishing rod—a rod that has smaller eyes than a spinning rod—a baitcasting reel utilizes an intelligent drag system, which allows fishermen to determine the amount of line that is pulled from the spool and at what speed. The baitcasting reel system works with the weight of the line and lure, pulling off the desired/appropriate length of line when casting the bait or lure. Hence, a heavy line with a large, heavy lure, gives a longer, more powerful cast than lighter line with a smaller lure.

Baitcasting reels are available in a variety of sizes. Some of these reels, which are designed exclusively to catch the largest types of fish in the ocean (shark, marlin, some species of tuna, etc.); are even mounted to the side of offshore fishing boats, as the weight of the reel makes it too prohibitive to hold for long periods of time.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the two types of saltwater fishing reels—spinning reels and baitcasting reels—let’s take a closer look at what you should look for when purchasing either of these two types of reels.

What to Look for in a Saltwater Spinning Reel

Saltwater spinning reels come in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles. These reels are typically mounted underneath a spinning rod, which also has the guides mounted underneath. Saltwater spinning reels, while not the best option for going after bigger fish, are generally easier to cast than baitcasting reels and tend to reel much faster, albeit with less torque. When shopping for a saltwater fishing rod, here are just a few things you should look for:

Body or Frame

The body or frame of a saltwater spinning reel, which includes the mounting foot, support arm and gear-box housing, comes in a variety of materials, including graphite, aluminum, composite plastics and other metals and materials. When shopping for a saltwater fishing reel, we recommend you select one that is strong enough for the demands of ocean fishing, and one that will not corrode or weaken from the exposure to saltwater. This leaves a couple of good options: aluminum or graphite. Aluminum reels tend to be a bit more expensive, but they are more durable than the graphite options and definitely worth the extra cost if you plan to do a lot of fishing.


Because the fish you are likely to hook into when saltwater fishing are much larger than some of the freshwater varieties, we strongly recommend an anti-reverse handle. An anti-reverse handle locks into place after the cast, allowing the angler to set the hook the moment the fish hits the bait. An anti-reverse handle will also decrease the number of line snags you will encounter, as it stops the spool from moving once the bait has stopped moving forward. You should also look for a reversible handle—one that can be placed on either the right or left side of the reel. This enables the reel and rod to be used by anyone, despite what their dominant hand might be.

The Spool

The spool on a saltwater spinning reel, like the body, can be made from a variety of materials, but the higher quality spools are made from either graphite or aluminum, with the higher-end models usually made from the latter. Spools also come in various sizes. These sizes will determine how much of a certain weight or test of line the spool can hold. Spools on saltwater fishing reels may have measurements such as 270/10-190/20. This means a given spool can hold up to 270 yards of 10 pound test line, and 190 yards of 20 pound test line. For saltwater fishing, we recommend the larger spools, as this will give you the opportunity to wind enough line onto the spool to reach deep into the ocean—even to the bottom—which is necessary for certain varieties of bottom-dwelling fish such as halibut, rock cod and red snapper.

The Bail

The bail is unique to the spinning reel. Consisting of a metal bar that flips open and closed, the bail is typically mounted on spring-loaded hinges that flip it closed with a single crank of the anti-reverse handle. To cast the line, anglers simply need to manually flip the bail open while holding the line with their finger. After the cast, a single crank is given to the handle and the bail flips down into place (the bail can also be closed manually), preventing any more line from feeding off of the spool. Unlike with baitcasting reels, which have an adjustable braking system to prevent “bird nests,” the bail helps prevent line entanglements, but only when it is flipped close immediately after casting and after the bait has sunk to the desired level.

Drag Setting

The drag is a crucial part of any quality fishing reel, including saltwater spinning reels. In the simplest terms, the drag setting on a fishing reel can be adjusted to control the rate at which line is pulled off of the spool once the fish has taken the bait or lure. Working in concert with the action of the rod and the strength of the test line, the drag essentially performs two functions:

Naturally, the drag setting you utilize will depend on the type and size of fish you are pursuing—or how strong the fish is fighting after the bait has been taken. Therefore, we recommend a reel with an easy-to-adjust drag setting—one that will allow you to effortlessly change the drag either before your cast or mid-fight.

Ball Bearings

With a saltwater spinning reel, the number of ball bearings within the body of that reel—bearings that are used to operate it—is very important—much more important than the number of bearings in a baitcasting reel. Jerkiness when the handle is cranked, slippage, and even stripping of the reel’s gears can all be caused by having too few bearings in the body of the reel. Therefore, when selecting a saltwater spinning reel, you should definitely pay close attention to the number of ball bearings it contains—and be sure those bearings are “sealed.” In most cases, you can determine the number of bearings by reading the product information on the back of the package, or you can always look up the manufacturer’s information on the product through a simple online search.

Gears and Gear Ratio

The gears on a saltwater spinning reel will take much more punishment than those on a spinning reel that is used exclusively for freshwater fishing. The reasons for this extra punishment range from the increased weight and strength of ocean fish to the surroundings (salty) in which the fishing takes place. For this reason, it is imperative that the gears on the spinning reel you ultimately purchase are made of high-quality metal—steel, titanium, high-grade, forged aluminum, etc.—materials that can withstand the added weight and often corrosive conditions.

Normally, spinning reels that are intended for freshwater fishing have a gear ratio of 6:1 or more, putting those reels in the category known as “high-speed” models, which are known for their ability to reel fast and effortlessly cast baits. However, when shopping for a saltwater spinning reel, you will normally require a lower gear ratio, with more torque for fighting the bigger ocean fish. If you plan to use your spinning reel for a lot of different kinds of fishing, we highly recommend you select a model with an adjustable gear ratio, which will give you the strength and torque you need for ocean fishing and the speed you covet when trolling for freshwater species like bass.

What to Look for in a Saltwater Baitcasting Reel

As we discussed earlier, the baitcasting reel is the reel of choice when going after big fish, allowing anglers to use heavier line and special techniques to lure in certain type of fish. Yet, despite the enduring popularity of baitcaster reels in the saltwater milieu, many fisherman that are new to ocean fishing choose to go with a spinning reel to avoid the dreaded “bird nest”—a frustrating type of line entanglement unique to the baitcasting saltwater reel. Some also find baitcasting reels a bit more difficult to learn, but with a little practice these reels can be quite simple to master.

Right-Handed versus Left-Handed Baitcaster Reels

As we briefly defined earlier a saltwater baitcasting reel has a revolving spool that sits atop a baitcasting rod—a rod with the eyelets or guides facing upwards. With a spinning reel, the reel sits underneath the spinning rod, which has the guides facing downwards. Unlike today’s spinning reels, many of which have reversible handles to accommodate both left-handed and right-handed anglers, baitcasting reels come in right or left-handed models, but not reversible. If you are a right handed person who prefers to reel with your dominant hand, the right-handed baitcasting reel is the choice for you. However, if you prefer to hold the rod with your dominant hand and reel with the left hand—as many anglers prefer to do—the left-handed baitcasting reel is the correct option to select.

Round Baitcaster Reels versus Low-Profile Baitcaster Reels

There are essentially two shapes a baitcasting reel can take on: a round baitcasting reel or a low-profile baitcasting reel. Round baitcasting reels are the types most often seen in saltwater fishing, as they tend to be stronger and a bit more durable. These reels vary in size and weight. Many anglers appreciate these round reels because they:

Low-profile-style fishing reels, which are very popular for freshwater fishing (bass fishing in particular), are occasionally used for saltwater fishing, but their oblong shape makes them less effective when tackling big fish. A major advantage of low-profile saltwater baitcasting reels is how easy they are to cast. Because anglers can essentially palm these reels, it makes it easy to toss baits with them—making casts longer and much more accurate. This makes these reels great for fishing from the ocean shore and from structures like piers and jetties.

Gear Ratio

As we indicated in the introduction all saltwater fishing reels have a gear ratio. And the gear ratio on a standard baitcasting reel tends to be much lower than that of the faster-reeling spinning varieties, which are often used for top-water fishing and in instances when the ability to reel quickly is demanded.

The gear ratio on saltwater baitcasting reels can vary from about 2½: 1 to 5:1. This makes these reels mostly low-speed, with plenty of torque for catching some of the bigger fish in the ocean. In fact, the lower the gear ratio is, the higher the torque will also be. On the flip side, spinning reels, which reel at much faster rates, have very little torque—and are typically not suited for fighting some of the bigger fish.

If your upcoming saltwater fishing expedition will find you fishing for a variety of species, both large and small, you can always opt for a reel with a variable gear ratio—one that can be changed from low-speed to high-speed at the flip of a switch. These tend to cost a bit more, but are well worth it in the long run.

Braking Systems

All baitcasting reels have braking systems—and for good reason. These braking systems, which are fully adjustable, help to slow down the rotation of the spool during the cast. A good braking system helps to slow or stop the rotation of the spool after the lure or bait has stopped moving forward. Without these braking systems, the spool would continue to let out line after the cast, ending up in the dreaded backlash, which causes the “bird’s nest” we spoke about earlier—a time-consuming line entanglement that has frustrated more than a few fisherman.

On baitcasting reels, the braking system can be adjusted using the spool tension knob—a large knob located on the reel handle side of the reel. This knob should be tightened to the point that when you disengage the reel, your lure or bait falls slowly to the ground. Once it makes contact with the ground, the spool should cease revolving. Keep in mind that with heavier baits and lures, this tension knob will have to be adjusted even tighter.

Baitcasting reels can come equipped with one of two types of braking systems: centrifugal or magnetic braking systems. Centrifugal brakes utilize friction as the stopping force. They use pins inside the side plate of the reel to make adjustments. To engage the brakes, anglers need to simply push the pins outward. For a six-pin system, one must always adjust pins that are across from each other. Both should be either on or off.

Magnetic brakes work on a more complicated principle, but rely on the spool and magnets to decrease the spool revolution rate. They are also adjustable by the angler.

Regardless of the type of breaking system you choose to utilize (magnetic braking reels are a tad bit pricier), learning how to properly thumb the spool is still your best strategy for tangle-free casting. Of course, you can fine tune your braking system depending on the type of bait or lure you are using; as long as you allow your thumb to do most of the real work.

Frame Material: Graphite vs. Aluminum

When shopping for your next baitcasting saltwater reel, you are sure to find that the frame or body of a baitcasting reel is usually made up of either graphite or aluminum. Both are good options. Graphite reels tend to be less costly and lighter in weight than their aluminum counterparts. However, graphite reels are not nearly as durable as aluminum varieties. That is why most of the higher-end baitcasting reels—and those used to catch some of the larger fish in the ocean—are constructed from a single piece of high-grade aluminum.

Ball Bearings: Quality vs. Quantity

All baitcasting reels come with ball bearings. And while some people erroneously assume that a high number of ball bearings translates to a higher quality of reel (as it does with spinning reels), this is not the case for baitcasting reels. When it comes time to shop for a baitcasting reel, just remember that quality is more important than quantity. Most low-end, 10-ball bearing baitcasting reels are really not worth your time, effort or money. Sure, you will pay less money on the front end, but the product is not likely to last. When shopping for a reel, look for terms like “shielded,” double-shielded” or “sealed” when it comes to the ball bearings. Reels that boast these features are generally built for both function and durability.


When it comes to baitcasting reels, the quality of the spool is very important. Most spools today are made from aluminum—either die-cast aluminum or forged aluminum. Either one of these choices is okay, but keep in mind that forged aluminum spools, while more costly, tend to last longer than their die-cast counterparts. Another crucial aspect you should look for in a spool is a collection of tiny drilled holes in the spool itself—a feature that takes away from the overall weight and makes it easier for the spool to start and stop spinning. Most mid-range to high-end baitcasting reels have these features, while the very cheaply made reels do not. This is definitely NOT something you should skimp on.

Line Guides

The line guides on a baitcasting reel are typically made from one of two substances: ceramic or titanium. The type you choose is really up to you—and your budget—but keep in mind that ceramic guides can crack and break due to extended use, especially when using heavy line and angling for big fish. Titanium guides tend to make the reels a bit more expensive, but they are much more durable in the long run. Therefore, if you plan to fish a lot, titanium is definitely the way to go.

Reel Handle

Reel handles are generally built for durability across the board, but they do come with a few options you might want to consider if you plan to use your reel for long periods of time. Rubberized handle knobs can be much easier on your hands over time, and oversized reel handles make them easier to grip in all types of weather. Shop around and hold a few of these handles in your hands before ultimately making your purchase.

Both spinning reels and baitcasting reels have some attractive features for purchasers, but baitcasting reels are much more suited for the realm of the sea. Although you may be accustomed to spinning reels and their easy-to-adjust drags and bails, keep in mind that baitcasting reels, despite being a little harder to learn, offer a lot of advantages for saltwater fishing—advantages that are absent in spinning reels. Once you’ve practiced and mastered the gear ratios and braking systems on baitcasting reels, you’ll be set up to go after some of the biggest fish in the ocean—something we don’t recommend with the spinning varieties.

image credit: lunamarina/Deposit Photos

Bryan Rucker

Brian Rucker has spent his entire life participating in essentially all things wildlife. His concern grew astronomically during the previous tensions between the United States and other nations. He also has grown a substantial interest in survival and sustainability due to the current shape of the world over the years. He believes that preparation triumphs all things.