Gear Review – ‘Round’ Reels
When it comes to versatility, the multi-tool of the reel world is unquestionably the venerable round baitcaster.
By Eric Martin, SSJ Gear Editor
Ask a group of anglers what their favorite fish to pursue is and I’ll bet a case of green label herring that spring Chinook will reign king. Now ask that same group why they hold springers in such high regard, and you are likely to get a wide range of reasons.
For some, the arrival of spring Chinook signals the end of dreary winter months spent dealing with blown out rivers, frigid conditions and the insanity of winter steelhead fishing. Then there are those who eagerly anticipate stockpiling the freezer with prized, oil laden fillets. Some enjoy fighting the strength and power of a fresh Chinook, whereas others find satisfaction in the skill it takes to persuade these fickle fish into biting. Additionally; the widespread distribution, long run timing and expansive migration range put these special fish within easy reach of anglers from the coast to central Idaho.
Personally, I have always enjoyed targeting spring Chinook because I like to use a variety of techniques to cover a wide range of conditions and situations. I have caught them plunking, trolling, back-bouncing, casting spinners, drift fishing, float fishing and back trolling plugs, and often I’ve caught them using multiple techniques on the same day. Being able to quickly adapt and switch over from a trolling rig to a plug set up as the tide changes, or switch to a float after being unable to effectively cover a slot with a drift rig, will increase your odds of being successful.
While there are reels designed specifically for tasks such as deep water trolling or precision casting, the features of such designs may limit or prevent use with other techniques; for example, you aren’t going to be able to drift fish with a line counter, or back bounce with a mooching reel. Not only is it expensive to have a garage full of technique specific reels, the chances are good that you won’t have the right reel with you when conditions or situations suddenly change.
Having more tools in your toolbox greatly increases the chances at being able to fix something when the situation arises. Ironically, I got into salmon and steelhead fishing about the time multi-tools hit the market. Sure, those combination tools weren’t nearly as task specific as that big chest of tools in the garage, but in a pinch, they allowed an amazing degree of versatility. My favorite spring Chinook reels follow this same principle.
When it comes to versatility, the multi-tool of the reel world is unquestionably the venerable round baitcaster. Relatively simple in design, the combination of size, line capacity, gear ratio, and ease of maintenance make the round reel an excellent fit with nearly all techniques used to target salmon. The combination of performance and price have made round reels a favorite with anglers for years, but there are a few key features and construction designs to look for before selecting your next reel to further enhance the performance and longevity.
Overall construction should be the first thing to consider when selecting a reel. Just as you wouldn’t choose a new car based off wheels or paint color, don’t choose a new reel based off flashy designs or less significant features. Look first at the frame, gears and drag construction.
Chinook are incredibly powerful and weak frame designs can flex and move when put under the strain of fighting a strong fish. One piece designs constructed from aluminum or magnesium will offer the greatest strength, and those with machined frames generally offer the tightest precision and tolerances in regards to fit with other components. Of course, such construction can influence overall weight, balance and comfort when holding a rod all day. Graphite components can help to reduce overall weight, but make sure such components are not load bearing.
Gears can come in a variety of materials such as brass, aluminum and stainless steel. The size of the drive gear, both in diameter and width, as well as the style and size of the gear teeth, all factor into weight, smoothness, durability and power produced by a reel. Generally, softer materials such as brass will feel smoother initially, though can wear down with heavy use. Harder, machined, or specially treated, materials can produce the best strength and longevity; though require a bit more care and maintenance to prevent grime from fouling gear teeth and producing sluggish or rough operation. Larger gear teeth produce excellent strength and require less maintenance, while smaller teeth can feel smoother and minimize slop and play between the gears. Helical (angled) cut teeth increase surface area contact between gears and also greatly increase strength.
Bearings also play a key role in the smoothness of a reel while doing everything from standard reeling to fighting a fish. Poor quality bearings and poorly-located bearings may go unnoticed during normal reel operation; however when under the strain of a hooked fish, the increased flex and pressure can cause binding and rough operation. Corrosive environments such as saltwater will also quickly render poor quality bearings useless. Bearings should be corrosion resistant stainless or ceramic, and should be well located at load bearing areas of the reel such as the pinion gear and spool shaft ends. If all other aspects of a reel meet your needs, don’t scrap it just because the bearings are lackluster. Often, high performance aftermarket bearings are readily available and easy to install, and can dramatically increase performance.
While important, drag is probably a little lower down my list of priorities in a salmon reel. While the acrobatic leaps and blistering runs of summer steelhead on thread thin line require a supreme drag, the shorter bursts of bulldogging pressure from a Chinook attached to heavy leader and main line, leaves the door open a bit in terms of drag performance. It is important to make sure drag settings are easy to adjust and remain set where you adjust them. If the drag on a potential reel is a bit underwhelming, don’t fret, like bearings, drag systems are an easy aftermarket fix.
Speaking of priorities, you may have notice I haven’t mentioned line capacity yet. Even the smallest round reels will provide adequate line capacity for most applications when paired with thin braided lines. More important than capacity, is how well a reel fits in hand, and how comfortable and balanced if feels on your rods. Models with increased line capacity often do so via a widened spool. If you spend a lot of time drift fishing or back-bouncing, wider reels may not feel as comfortable in hand, and may feel unbalanced and wobbly when reeling. Conversely, if you spend little time holding the reel, a wider spool and more line may add insurance against a hard to control fish or for deeper offshore applications.
Depending on the techniques you use to target salmon, certain features and design styles can play a major role in the operation and comfort of a reel. For example, if you spend a lot of time trolling, or even plunking, a line out clicker can help signal a bite when your back is turned while making a sandwich. When it comes to drift fishing or back-bouncing, maintaining a secure grip while being able to operate the reel clutch and handle is important. For these situations, a clutch bar near the spool and enlarged, textured double paddle style reel handles are often a favorite.
Because chasing salmon via a variety of techniques will subject your reel to all sorts of baits, scents, sand, mud, saltwater and other grimy gunk, it is important you not only keep things cleaned and maintained from a scent/contamination standpoint, but also for smooth, dependable operation. This means a reel needs to not only be able to withstand external cleaning routines, but should also be easily disassembled for internal maintenance and component upgrades as well. Thankfully, round reels have long been one of the easiest styles to disassemble and maintain, which is yet another reason why they have been one of my favorites when it comes to salmon fishing.
In life, there seems to be things which just go naturally together; apple pie and ice cream, mashed potatoes and gravy, pancakes and syrup. Many anglers would agree that another such pairing would have to be salmon fishing and round reels.