Reels – Knowing Your Types

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If you are in the market for reels, or you are a first time buyer, then you need to make sure you get the right reel for the type of fishing you are doing. We look at some of the history and development of reels and explain the differences between today’s modern reels.

Wikipedia relates an interesting development of the fishing reel and states that in 1651, English literature first reported a “wind” installed within two feet of the lower end of the rod. This is usually accepted as the earliest known written reference to a reel. However, there are examples of Oriental paintings that depict Chinese fishermen using reels of various sizes that date to the twelfth century.

Until the 1800’s the reel was used primarily as a storage device for excess line. However, in the 19th century there was a rapid development of the multiplying reel, which allowed reels to evolve into casting devices. Although multiplying reels were probably invented in Great Britain, the reels of George Snyder, of Paris, Kentucky, have become the most famous 19th century multipliers.

Snyder’s reels were developed in the 1820s, and became the basis of the “Kentucky Reels,” made by such artisans as Meek, Milam, Sage, Hardman and Gayle. Most of these makers were trained as jewelers and had experience cutting gears and producing precision lathe work. Copies of these hand-made reels were soon available from mass production assembly lines from the major producers at a fraction of the price of a hand-fitted reel. This stimulated the sale of multiplying reels and increased the popularity of “bait casting.”

In the late 1800s, there were developments in reels used for big game fish. Anglers from around the world discovered the abundant salt water game fish in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, and reels and drag mechanisms were developed in response to the demand created by these new interests.

“Spinning” or fixed spool reels have been produced for over a century. The popularity of modern bass fishing tournaments brought a resurgence in interest in bait casting reels, and since the late 1970s manufacturers turned development and production toward these products. This field of collecting is rapidly developing as the fine reels produced at the end of the 20th century are still readily available.

While you may walk into your local tackle shop and be overwhelmed by the vast array of fishing reels, there are, in fact, only three principal types of reels. Within these categories many differing features and ideas  have been adapted to suit the discerning angler. These three main categories are the boat or overhead reel, the surfcaster or fixed spool spinning reel, and the “one-to-one” centrepin or knuckle-duster reel.

One to One Reels

T he most basic is the “one-to-one” reel. These have been around since the start of time and as suggested they operate on a retrieve ratio of 1:1. That is, for every time you turn the handle the drum of the reel turns one revolution. These are reels that you see attached / operated on the underside of the rod and the most common uses are trout and fly fishing. They are popular with trout fisher as changing spools that carry differing fly line weights is achieved with ease and spare spools are relatively inexpensive.

These are the most simplistically constructed reels and are often included with the budget packages that are sold as children’s sprat fishing outfits. At the upper end of the range, they come with a full drag assembly and are capable of tackling saltwater gamefish on fly tackle.

A derivation of these reels that have been adapted for heavier saltwater use is the Alvey sidecast reel that is popular with Australian and a few New Zealand surfcasters. Their larger diameter spools (which are similar in design to the common plastic handcaster spools) swivel sideways on the reel seat to enable them to be cast. Additional drag pressure can be applied while fighting a fish, by placing a hand on the underside of the rim of the reel. The term knuckle duster comes from the beating that your knuckles will take if you get them caught in the path of the handle knobs, which spin at a rapid 1:1 rate if a fish takes Zealand, he found early Kiwi gamefisherman were using these old fashioned English centrepin reels to catch Marlin with. They used a heavy leather pad on one hand as a brake and placed against the reel hard until the leather smoked. They also used a large treble hook which he was appalled at, conversely the local fisherman were in awe of the tackle he brought over from America.

Fixed Spool Reels

This is probably the most popular reel with recreational fishermen, as it is easy to cast and is what is commonly known as the surfcaster or fixed spool spinning reel. Sometimes they are also referred to as eggbeaters. Again, these are available from the level of a child’s sprat catching set to the upper end of the market such as the Daiwa Saltiga or the Shimano Stella series, which are capable, at a push, of handling billfish.

These reels have a fixed main shaft and, depending on the quality, will have a mixture of roller bearings or plain bushes. As the name implies, the spool remains stationary while the bail arm moves up and down as it rotates and distributes the line evenly on the spool. A single fixed gear enables these reels to regularly provide a retrieve ratio of 4:1, up to 5:1 or more.

With the spool fixed, casting is simple. The bail arm flicks over leaving the line free to loop off the spool. The downside to a fixed spool is that when the drag slips, the spool is no longer fixed and every ‘revolution of the line released from the spool under drag results in one revolution, or twist, in the line. The same is applicable if you wind the reel while a fish has the drag at stalemate and you are not gaining any line. An easy way to remove these line twists is to cut all terminal tackle away from the main line, then feed this line out behind the boat at a trolling speed. You will find after about 5 mins all the twist will be removed from the line. This can be rewound onto the line and used as normal.

The drag system of these reels comprises a series of metal and composite washers that are compressed by the drag knob which is mainly located on the top of the spool or occassionally at the rear of the reel. They surround the main shaft and are located in the centre of the spool. While easy to access and clean they are also susceptible to saltwater intrusion and, being stacked on top of each other does not provide the most efficient heat dissipation if the drag is working hard.

This can lead to a jerky drag and ultimately the loss of what could be a trophy fish. However top of the line reels of today are now being manufactured with waterproof sealed drags, which eliminates this water problem.

The optimum amount of line for these reels is when the edge of the spool sits around a millimeter proud of the line on the spool. If the spool is down on line, your casting distance will be impaired by the resistance created as the line spirals off over the lip of the spool. If overloaded, line will inconveniently spew off the spool as soon as the bail arm pressure is released.

Overhead Reels

The third and more popular reel with serious fishers is the overhead or free spool reel. These are frequently passed over by many fishers as they are difficult to cast and if you get it wrong the resulting bird’s nest can take some time to sort out, not to mention the damage and weak spots created in the line when the ‘nest’ jams to a stop.

The casting issue is not as insurmountable as first would appear and simply comes down to two totally different techniques for free spool as opposed to fixed spool reels. Whereas fixed spools rely on full-on power and the attached sinker / bait or lure to drag off line, the free-spool requires a little more finesse.

When you finally accepted the shortcomings of fixed spool reels against a big fish and put your mind to it, it will only take around two hours to become reasonably competent, by using an overhead reel designed for casting, as there are both overhead casting and non casting reels.

The cast needs to be a gradual build-up of power through the casting arc to ensure that line is leaving the spool at the same rate as the spool is revolving. Fine tuning is via the thumb being lightly applied to the side of the revolving spool.

These overhead casting ‘star drags,’ still have a large following even today. The problems with the star drag are the same as for a fixed spool reel in that they have several small small bunched steel and composite washers that are compacted together giving poor heat dissipation and are susceptible to salt water intrusion. Although the modern top end overhead has superior drag material and as already mentioned are sealed.

These shortcomings saw the development of lever drag reels with two large washers, one composite material that provided far superior heat dissipation. Initially this technology was utilised only for game fishing reels. However, it has now progressed to being available in even the smallest of reels. On the whole, lever drags are a lot more waterproof, although this can vary from brand to brand.

Lever drags will certainly provide a smoother more durable drag system. One tip with them is that the preset should not be altered unless the drag is backed off. Failure to do so can result in the drag washer being bent and the drag thereafter being very lumpy / jerky. Level winds are also popular, but the downside of these is that they will slightly impair your casting ability. I have found that it is better to forgo this feature and use your thumb to keep the line level on the spool when retrieving. Having your line wound level on your spool is important as if you have peaks and troughs the speed of the spool is erratic when casting and as stated above this is the principal cause of birds nests. The exception to this is braid line. Level wind reels are great for this type of product.

The latest modern reels of both overhead and spin tend to be much smaller and far stronger than their earlier cousins. Everything about the smaller reels is smooth, both in the gearing and the drag. If you can imagine reels you were using 20 years ago, the latest reels are half the size, but have twice the power. Yes, the good ones are expensive, but they are worth every cent you spend on them! Matched with an appropriate lightweight graphite rod, you will have a set that will be easy to fish with all day long, because they are so beautifully balanced. Whatever your form of fishing, be it straylining, softbaiting, slow jigging or Kingie jigging, you will find the modern combo an absolute pleasure to fish with.

Irrespective of which reel you choose, the old adage that you get what you pay for is so true. It is a very competitive market so in that regard, apart from any deals that are offered by individual retailers, the price will be a good indicator of quality.

It also pays to remember that no matter what the quality, the marine environment is harsh and takes no prisoners. Reels are tools that need to be maintained on a regular basis, as salt corrodes, and sand mixed with grease makes a good grinding paste that doesn’t discriminate between degrees of quality. You pay a lot for these reels so look after them.

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