Line-Counter Reels: Know Where You're At

Savvy anglers are finding this new breed of level wind reel critical to their success. 
By Dave Schamp

One of the keys to catching salmon is to put your bait in front of their nose. Those of us using trolling techniques often want our offering at precise depths, while moochers and jiggers want to keep their baits within a specific range of depths. Plunkers and plug pullers also want to know that their lures are set at certain distances from the beach or boat. 

The amount of line you pay out is often critical to success and until recently most of us had to rely on little more than an educated guess to get our baits at the right location. Sure, by marking our lines at certain lengths or counting “pulls” (the distance between the reel and fish rod guide) we can get close, but in many cases it is more art than science. 

Like many I have always relied on counting pulls to determine how much line I had out and initially saw the line-counter reels as an unnecessary device that wouldn't add much to my angling success. But after giving them some serious thought I realized there are solid advantages to reels with a line-counter. They provide the ability to accurately lengthen and shorten the line to adjust to changing conditions instead of reeling back to the surface or dropping to the bottom for reference. And, used properly the line-counter device will provide a higher degree of accuracy than relying    on “pulls.”

Fortunately, manufacturers have recognized the need and answered our call for reels that have what it takes to handle big salmon and make it easy to determine how much line has been released from the spool. The proof is a widening selection of line-counter reels.

There are two primary types of reel mounted line counter devices available. The most accurate utilize a microprocessor and are mostly available on larger offshore sized reels. The second, and more widely used for salmon and steelhead applications, relies on a mechanical counter. A mechanical counter is gear driven and it tallies spool rotations and converts each rotation into a length shown on the mechanical display. It is more accurate than counting pulls and with a little added information the mechanical counters come close to matching the accuracy of the microprocessor-equipped models.

The biggest advantage of the microprocessor is that it automatically adjusts for the changing diameter of the line on the spool. As line leaves the spool the diameter decreases and changes the amount of line that leaves the spool with each rotation. No big deal, right?

To get an idea how much spool diameter actually affects counter accuracy I did a comparison by filling the spool about half full with 20-pound monofilament and then pulled out exactly 50 feet of line. On the wide spool Abu-Garcia 6500LC the line counter read 61 feet, and the same comparison using the narrower spool Shimano Tekota 300LC resulted in a line counter reading of 70 feet. Taking it a step further, when the line counter read 50 feet there was actually only about 41 feet of line out on the 6500LC and close to 36 feet on the 300LC. The accuracy of both reels was checked with a full spool and the line counter readings were within a foot at 50 feet.

Granted few of us fish with the spools on our reels half full, but the comparison illustrates that a full spool is critical to accuracy when using a mechanical line counter reel and that spool width is a consideration. Also to keep in mind that line diameter plays a role and smaller diameter lines will provide overall improved accuracy.

Even with a full spool, putting your bait at the right depth can be a little more challenging than just stripping off the right length of line. If you're fishing straight down the line counter can provide an accurate depth provided you have accounted for the distance between the reel and water's surface. But, if you're trolling, mooching, or jigging with any current it is unlikely your line is going straight down. Instead your line will enter the water at an angle and that angle can also have a significant impact on putting your bait exactly where you want it. 

Look at the chart below. If your line enters the water at a 22.5-degree angle from vertical it will take 54 feet of line to put your bait at a depth of 50 feet. The impact is much more noticeable if the angle is increased to 45 degrees from vertical when it will actually require 71 feet of line to get to the 50 foot depth.

Understanding the advantages and operational nuances of a reel outfitted with a mechanical line counter is essential to success, but won't do you a lot of good if the reel isn't capable of handling the rigors of salmon fishing. When selecting a line counter reel intended for salmon and steelhead it's also important to pay attention to the reel's design, quality of construction and internal components.

Design Reel designers seem to be split on whether the counter should be mounted on the left or right side of the reel. It would seem that mounting the counter on the same side as the reel's handle would make sense because on that side it won't conflict with holding the reel with the other hand. All of the reels in this review are right hand retrieve and six of the nine have the line counter located on the right side. So, if you are considering a reel with a right hand retrieve and the counter is on the left side (and there are some   good ones out there) make sure that the counter will not cause problems when    you grip the reel. Because it plays a big part in comfort the reel's handle is another factor to consider. Two different handle designs can be found on the line counters and some manufacturers actually include both. The first, and my preference, employs a power knob. The big handle is a plus when my hands are cold, wet and slimy. Several of the power handle designs in this group have multiple attachment points so you can adjust the handle length. It's a nice feature that allows you to fine-tune the reel to your personal liking. The double knob design is also popular especially on the smaller models. Again, I prefer the larger knobs and the softer resilient grip materials. 

Quality of Construction A reel's overall quality starts with its frame. The stress caused by big fish and harsh environments require that attention be paid to the material and methods used to construct the frame. For strength and rigidity metal frames are better than graphite. But, a high quality, well-designed graphite frame can provide years of service and the major advantage is ultra lightweight and resistance to corrosion. 

Corrosion can be a problem for unprotected or poorly protected aluminum, especially in a saltwater environment. But, because it is both strong and relatively lightweight, it is used extensively in today's reels. In its defense, modern anodizing processes does an outstanding job of providing protection against corrosion. Frames machined from a solid bar of aluminum are light, strong, durable, and viewed as top of the line by many. Those made from cast or forged aluminum are also strong and a good investment. 

Internal Components The major internal components to consider when selecting a reel include the spool shaft and gearing, bearings, and the all important drag system. All are critical to performance and deserve added attention. 

Internally the precision and durability of the spool shaft and gear drive assembly are both vital to reliability and smooth operation. Gears should be machine cut stainless steel or brass with added treatments for extended life and strength a plus. 

Along with how the reel's gears are made, their retrieve ratio is a consideration and you won't find any blazing fast retrieves in this group. In fact, most will have a rather sluggish ratio between 4:1 and 5:1. The advantage of the lower ratios is added power and gear system strength. 

Properly located and constructed bearings will add strength and operational smoothness. Bearings should be made of stainless steel and sealed units help reduce water intrusion. Bearings with special coatings to help eliminate corrosion are a big plus.

Bearing location is arguably just as important as what they are made of. Don't get caught up with numbers, but instead focus on location. Axle and spool supporting points are critical and models with an instant anti-reverse often use a directional roller bearing to support the handle assembly. Take some time to study the parts break down drawing or schematic included in the reel's packaging to determine bearing locations.

While you have the parts breakdown in hand look carefully at the drag system. A high quality, well-designed and low maintenance multi-disc drag system is an absolute must. Many of the newer designs contain carbon based or ceramic discs that out perform grease impregnated felt because they handle the friction and heat much better. They also require less maintenance and are not as prone to problems if they get wet. Felt disc drag systems will get the job done, but do require regular maintenance.

There's a lot to consider when selecting a new line counter reel so to help you sort through the growing selection I spent time with the latest models from nine leading manufacturers. I rated them on their design, quality of construction, internal components, and overall value.