Take the guess work out of your purchasing process
By Eric Martin, SSJ Gear Editor
I often hear steelheaders sub-categorize themselves according to the equipment or technique they prefer, claiming titles such as “drift fisherman” or “float fisherman” or “bead fisherman.” Contrary to this focus on a specific aspect of steelheading, I have always thought of myself as simply a “steelhead fisherman” because quite honestly, as long as I am catching fish, I have never prioritized one technique over another.
When I was first getting started, it seemed as though any steelheader worth his Boraxed eggs was zipping casts with levelwind style reels. Spinning reels were given a bum rap as being inferior in performance and durability when it came to the demands needed of a steelhead reel, and at a time of limited materials, technology and available options, this was relatively justified. Showing up to a popular hole with an “egg beater” was a surefire way to gain a label as a city-slicker novice, or God forbid, a bass fisherman. As the adage goes, when in Rome do as the Romans, so I cut my teeth casting (and cussing) a levelwind.
What has always attracted me to steelhead over other fisheries is the ability to catch them under a wide range of conditions, with an even wider range of techniques. Even when I lacked experience, I quickly noticed that the insistence on using a levelwind reel for steelhead frequently hindered opportunities to catch fish. When conditions favored small presentations, or when trying to cover large expanses of water, the casting performance of a levelwind literally fell short. When using ultra light line, inconsistencies in drag would often result in broken line. Slower gear ratios made for tiresome retrieves with long line techniques such as float fishing, and resistance while in free spool hindered drag free drifts. Let’s not forget to mention the frustration that comes with picking out backlashes. Combined with the top-mounted design of a casting rod, levelwinds were heavy and produced more torque and fatigue when fighting fish when compared to the under slung design of a spinning rod and reel.
Like so many other things in life, spinning reels have benefitted enormously from advancements in materials and computer aided design. They have gotten lighter, stronger, smoother and more streamlined. Specialized composites, alloys, precision design and high-tech testing have proven to be the perfect recipe for elevating both the performance attributes of spinning reels as well as the dependability creating reels which have launched themselves to the head of the pack on the steelhead scene in recent years. In fact, improvements have come about so quickly, that it can be hard to keep up with the ins and outs of reel selection.
While the argument could be made that today’s most budget friendly models of spinning reels far surpass construction and performance top tier versions from just a few years ago, it is still important to examine key components of design before making a selection for your next reel.
SIZE, WEIGHT: I like to start by looking over the exterior of prospective reels, with the most glaring of such features being size and weight. There can be big reels that are light, small reels that are heavy, and lots of combinations in between. Consider the weight and length of the rod you are pairing the reel to and select a reel of sufficient weight to balance the rod comfortably and slightly tip up in hand. A feather weight reel may increase fatigue and create a tip heavy feeling when matched with a long float rod, just as a heavy reel may impact performance and sensitivity on light side drifting rods.
Size, specifically spool capacity, should be of adequate yet not excessive line capacity for your intended usage. I once fished with a guide who used the smallest sized reels offered from the manufacturer. At first, I thought it odd, but because they were only being used in a boat, he could control the fight by moving the boat if necessary. Matched with short, light side drifters made for an incredibly sensitive package that was a blast to fight fish with. Conversely, those who pursue larger strains of fish in big water from the bank demand larger spool capacity to control fish from a more limited position. Use of thin, braided line can significantly increase the capacity of smaller spools.
Capacity is driven by spool design. Spools come in a range of diameters, lengths and channel depths, which not only impacts line capacity, but also casting performance, line retrieval, and line twist. Larger diameter spools produce fewer loops of line than narrow diameter spools over a given length of line; fewer loops traveling through the air when casting reduces friction, thus increasing casting distance. Also playing a key role in casting performance is the design of the leading edge of the spool, called a lip or skirt. Skirts that are specially shaped, are polished or treated with a coating, will further help reduce line friction when casting. Another spool feature that has become relatively standardized is texturing or non-slip material to allow braided lines to be tied directly to the spool without risk of slippage or the need for a bumper section of monofilament.
Traveling around the spool is the rotor assembly. Though seemingly simple, the rotor is dealt a heavy task of maintaining uniform line wind even under heavy loads. Poor rotor construction hindered early spinning reels as improper balance and inadequate strength would cause wobbly feeling retrieves, friction and irregular winding. Modern high-quality rotors are well balanced for smooth rotation, and withstand stress with minimal flexing. By turning the reel handle at various speeds, and also physically squeezing and handling the rotor, you can get a feel for balance, rigidity and excess slop, noise or movement. I also like to look at the point where the line contacts the rotor and bail arm, often called a line roller. Quality reels will use a bearing system here to ensure the roller spins freely as line travels across it in order to minimize damage to the reel and to the line. Inspect the line roller frequently during usage to ensure the bearing has not failed. Thankfully, these are a pretty easy fix. Worth noting, bails should always be reset by hand after a cast rather than by cranking the handle to minimize wear on internal components and prolong life.
DRAG SYSTEM: Delving into the internals of a spinning reel, let’s first look at the drag system. Most modern steelhead-capable spinning reels will utilize a front drag system with either a wet or dry drag. Wet systems are what most of us are familiar with as they have been around a long time, are inexpensive, and easy to maintain. Relying on felt or fiber washers impregnated with a lubricant, wet systems require a bit more start up inertia and on longer runs, can produce a bit of an inconsistent feel as washers heat up from friction. Dry drags are a bit costlier, but produce a more consistent drag that requires very little start up force, and are less affected by long, sustained runs. Dry systems are sealed to protect against water and debris intrusion which can cause the drag to malfunction or fail.
BEARINGS: The next component is often the most hyped part of a spinning reel. Bearings are a lot like tacos, a few good ones in the right places, are a lot better than a lot of bad ones in the wrong places. More important than the quantity of bearings in a reel is the quality of said bearings, and where they are located in regards to the overall design and operation. Bearings should be stainless steel, and placed in areas where the load is best supported and distributed in order to maximize stability when under heavy strain.
GEARS: While they don’t receive near the attention as other aspects of a reel, yet gears are critical to power, smoothness and longevity. Constructed of materials such as brass, stainless steel and even aluminum, how gears are sized, cut, treated and maintained impact price and performance. Softer materials will typically feel very smooth when new, but will wear more quickly. Specially-treated, harder gears will produce the longest life, though require a bit more maintenance to ensure grit and fouling doesn’t impact performance. Wider profile gears and deep cut tooth designs, or the angled designs of helical cut teeth maximize strength, while smaller, precision cut teeth often feel smoother and have little play or slop. Since you can’t disassemble reels at a store to inspect gears, use maintenance videos on the internet or downloadable schematics from the manufacturer to get a feel for gear design.
GEAR RATIOS: The combination of gear size and orientation create the gear ratio of a reel. For every crank of the reel, the rotor will make a number of revolutions around the spool. The number of revolutions, multiplied by the diameter of the spool, determines the line retrieval rate. Lower gear ratios will produce more torque for fighting strong fish, but low gear ratios do not always indicate a low line retrieval rate. A reel that makes four revolutions around a larger spool may be the same retrieve at a reel making six revolutions around a smaller diameter spool. Higher retrieve rates are an excellent choice for long line techniques like float fishing, or for retrieving cast lures such as spinners.
Because of facets of design such as heavily ported spool designs, precise fit and tight tolerances of components, and sometimes complex assembly, it is imperative to perform regular maintenance on all your reels. Some aspects of maintenance such as lubrication via external maintenance ports and cleaning are relatively easy, while others such as bearing upgrades or spring replacements may require the experienced eye of a service shop. Sending off a reel at the end of a season for professional service is cheap insurance to ensure the greatest service life of a reel. If you choose to perform maintenance yourself, be sure to use recommended products when stripping old oils and for re-lubricating. Improper grease and oils can gum up the inner workings and render reels sluggish or inoperable.
By taking the time to evaluate potential reels on construction, features, the rods you will pair them with and the frequency and intensity of applications you intend to use them, you can take the guess work out of reel selection, and fine tune your equipment for maximum benefit to your particular needs.