Fishing Gear Fishing Techniques

Baitcasters vs Spinning Reels: Which is the best?

spinning reel and baitcaster

The age long argument of baitcasters vs. spinning reels is a heated topic amongst anglers. But who is right, and which is best? To me, comparing a baitcaster to a spinning reel is akin to comparing apples to oranges. Sure they are both fruit, but I wouldn’t want an orange pie any more than I would want a caramel orange. The truth is, there is no inherent “better” or “best” per se because each reel excels when applied to different fishing or environmental conditions.

To answers the question of which is best, we must begin at the beginning of our fishing obsession, typically with a push-button reel or something similar where the line emerges from the top of a covered housing with a spool holding the line inside. Over time, as we improved our casting and fishing abilities, many of us graduated to a spinning reel with an open bail. Most anglers at this point stop learning new reels and become spinning reel aficionados because their chosen fishery doesn’t have the necessities to move on to anything more complex.

The baitcasting reel is one step up from a spinning reel in terms of difficulty. These reels sacrifice casting distance and versatility for precision, ergonomics, and leverage. These reels are prized by Bass tournament anglers and often come with a price tag to reflect it. Having spent thousands of hours throwing both baitcasting and spinning reels, I can tell you from experience that each reel type will get the job done. The real trick is learning what circumstances are best to use either a baitcaster or a spinning reel.

What is a Spinning Reel?

Spinning reels have a spool attached to a vertical piston fixed by the reel’s body. As we “reel” a spinning reel, the spool does not rotate, but the bail arm rotates around the spool. The fishing line is fed directly onto the spool via the bail arm that holds the line horizontally from the spool. This bail arm is always manually opened and, often, manually closed. Spinning reels are always seated below the rod and come with various handles that can be freely swapped from lefty to righty with a simple unscrewing of the bolt held in the reel housing.

spinning reel diagram

Diagram of the parts of a spinning reel.

Spinning reels come in various sizes, ranging from micro reels used for ice-fishing to reels big enough to handle a Blue Marlin. Quality spinning reels are usually lightweight and made of high-quality aluminum and carbon fiber materials. Saltwater models are typically sealed for surf-fishing, preventing the highly corrosive saltwater and sand from entering the “guts” of the reel.

Casting a Spinning reel

To cast a spinning reel, the angler must open the bail arm, hold the line taunt against the spool with a finger, then release the line being held by that finger near the end of an arcing cast, pointing the tip of the rod at the intended target. Spinning reels can cast lures incredible distances overhand or sidearm using this method. Still, the cast’s accuracy is lacking because once you let go of the line, it’s difficult or impossible to slow the cast down from its intended trajectory.

The main problem with spinning reels occurs when the angler reels against the drag when hung up or fighting a fish. This action causes the line to twist, and on your next cast, your line will un-coil from the spool like a loaded spring. The only way to remedy this is to let out all the line in current or behind a moving boat and let the line naturally unwind itself. Luckily, to prevent this, all the angler must do is not reel against the drag.

The drag system on a spinning reel usually comes in the form of a rotating handle on the top or bottom of the reel housing or spool. This should be set tight enough to maintain pressure on a fish but not so tight that the pressure will exceed the line’s breaking strength. As the angler tightens the drag, pulling the line from the spool will be more challenging.

When to Use a Spinning Reel

Open water, deep water, shallow water, or running water, the spinning reel is as versatile as it gets. Coming in various sizes and able to hold a wide range of line types and capacities, very few fish can outmatch a properly outfitted spinning reel and rod. A couple of my favorite spinning reel applications are below.

  1. Throwing lures off a beach, jetty, or any large body of water where casting distance is important
  2. Using braided lines and finesse plastics or jigs on deep structures or shorelines
  3. Throwing light, shallow-running crankbaits or jerk-baits across flats or against shorelines
  4. Throwing small spinners in lakes, rivers, and streams
  5. Free-lining live baits or bobbers into current

The spinning reel has no counterpart for saltwater applications until we move on to larger conventional reels for deepwater jigging and trolling. Spinning reels can throw light or heavy lures significantly farther than most baitcasters and are much more forgiving of mistakes, making them ideal for surf-fishing and other open-water casting experiences. Spinning reel maintenance is easy, and a simple rinsing with fresh, clean water is often sufficient.

Casting distances and sensitivities are increased dramatically when paired with braided lines as opposed to monofilaments or fluorocarbons. Because the line tension is initially redirected by the top most eyelet of the rod and then the bail arm, light braided lines don’t overlap on spinning reels as on baitcasters. The interaction between the top eyelet and a braided line also improves the angler’s sensitivity to the lure, making braided lines ideal for finesse fishing techniques such as drop-shots and shakey head plastics.

Spinning Reel Pros and Cons

The following chart lists the pros and cons of fishing with a spinning reel.

ProsCons
  • Affordable
  • Easy to learn and use
  • The line doesn't backlash
  • Ideal for lightweight fishing line and lures
  • Easy to switch for left or right-hand use
  • Extremely far casts
  • They can be bulky
  • Not as strong or durable as baitcasters
  • The line can tangle and knot if you reel against the drag
  • Produces less leverage when fighting larger fish
  • Difficult to control the distance of the cast
  • Not for extreme depths

What is a Baitcaster?

Prized by freshwater fishermen, baitcasting reels are the smaller, faster versions of the conventional reels seen in saltwater or your grandfather’s closet. Baitcasting reels don’t have a piston that pushes the spool up and down but instead have a roller system that rolls the line horizontally over the spool like a winch. The spool is disengaged via a thumb bar system at the reel’s base and re-engaged by turning the handle. Baitcasting reels are seated on the top of the rod, and some will additionally have a small trigger grip behind the rod seat for the angler to have more control over the cast.

baitcaster reel diagram

Diagram of the parts of a baitcaster reel.

Baitcasters are designed for maximum comfort and conservation of movement by the angler. Due to their winch design, the brunt of the energy required to retrieve a lure is dispersed across the reel as opposed to the angler’s muscles. This ergonomic design is prized by tournament anglers, who often have to make several thousand casts daily.

Casting a Baitcaster

Casting a baitcaster is a deceptively simple process, simply hit the button and make your cast. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. There are two systems in place when using a baitcasting reel, your control system and your thumb. The control system is governed by a magnetic or centrifugal system of gears inside the reel that dictates how “freely” the spool spins when open. For heavier lures, you want more control, i.e., less free spin, and for lighter lures, vice versa. On almost all baitcasters, the control system can be freely adjusted to fit the circumstances and lures thrown. This control system is typically a dial on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the tightest level of control.

If your control system is too tight, you won’t be able to cast very far. If it is too loose, you could end up with the dreaded backlash caused by the spool spinning under the line. Anglers offset this by carefully “thumbing” the spool with their thumb; when done correctly, this action limits the spool’s ability to overspin and allows the angler to maintain control over the entire cast. Problems arise for beginner anglers using baitcasters because the concept of “thumbing” a spool takes time to master and requires careful consideration of lure size, line size, and control system settings. Remember, even professionals will overcast into the wind from time to time and completely backlash an entire spool if they aren’t paying attention.

Baitcasters are famous for “flipping,” “skipping,” and “punching” lures to the bank or structure with incredible accuracy using underhanded casts. This flipping action lets the angler keep their arms, rod, and bait at a much lower angle and closer to the water’s surface. This optimizes movement for the angler and improves the angler’s accuracy when attempting to throw under structures such as overhanging vegetation or docks.

When to Use a Baitcaster

Because Bass and other ambush predators like to hide in dense vegetation and cover to ambush their prey, the ability to cast into that cover accurately is of the utmost importance. This alone is why baitcasters are still the undisputed kings for bass fishermen and some inshore saltwater fishermen. Their ergonomic design, increased leverage, and precise casting make them the ideal tool to throw hundreds of casts in a day when precision is required. Below are some of my preferred baitcaster applications when fishing for Bass or inshore saltwater species

  1. Punching large jigs or plastics into the brush or heavy vegetation with the precision of a trained sniper.
  2. Throwing frogs or other topwater lures over dense vegetation and cover.
  3. Throwing deep diving crankbaits across points for hours upon hours, grinding it deep into the substrate
  4. Throwing heavy spinnerbaits, swim baits, or any lure over a couple of oz for more than a couple of hours
  5. Skipping lures under heavy overhanging vegetation and docks where larger fish usually go to escape the sun and ambush prey.

Since the angler never technically has to remove their hands from the reel using a baitcaster, these reels are typically superior when throwing heavier lures for extended periods. Because the line is coming directly off the spool, anglers can use heavier lines on bait casters without sacrificing casting distance. It’s not uncommon to see 20-25 lb. lines on baitcasters, while usually around 10-12 lbs. are the limit for most spinning reels of similar sizes. Braided lines can be used with baitcaster reels; however, larger diameter braids are preferred due to the risks of lighter braids digging underneath the outer layers of the line on the reel.

Baitcaster Pros and Cons

The following are the pros and cons of fishing with a baitcaster.

ProsCons
Increased leverageDifficult to master
Quick, precise castingTypically, more expensive
Ergonomic designNot for light lures and tacklen
Easier to use heavier lines and luresComplex maintenance
No line twistingNeed to be sealed for saltwater usages

Spinning Rods vs. Baitcasting Rods

A common mistake beginners make is equipping a spinning reel to a baitcasting rod or a baitcasting reel to a spinning rod. Sure, it may work for a while, but the rods are meant to bend differently. Mistaking one for the other results in awkward casts and, at worst, will cause the rod to break. Rods can be distinguished using multiple methods, so be sure before you spend your hard-earned scratch that you are getting the correct type for your needs.

Baitcasting rods are designed to have the reel seat facing up and sometimes have a “trigger” behind the reel seat, where you can rest your index finger for added control of a cast. These rods will almost always have small uniform eyelets running the length of the rod. These smaller eyelets assist in guiding the line toward the intended target and increase the amount of leverage on the rod.

Spinning rods are designed to have the reel seated below the rod itself and never come with a trigger grip because the rod is held using your entire hand. The eyelets of a spinning rod are larger to reduce the line’s drag as it unwinds itself from the spool. When a cast is made with a spinning reel, the line looks like a double helix uncoiling itself off the spool as those coils are steadily corraled further up the rod. Rods designed for optimum casting distances are longer and have oversized eyelets the whole length of the rod to drastically reduce the line drag from the eyelets from this uncoil action.

Overall

So, have you made up your mind? No? Good. That’s the correct answer. There are arguments to be made for both spinning reels and baitcasting reels. The point is they complement each other in more ways than they oppose each other, depending on the type of fishing you want to do. For saltwater applications spinning tackle is still considered superior to baitcasters, while for certain types of bass fishing, baitcasters have no equal. The overconfident beginner might want to start with a baitcaster, and that’s fine. But they should be fully aware that they have chosen to run first and walk second. Like any skill, mastering these reels will make you a more versatile angler.

Brian Walters is an avid angler that has been fishing since he was old enough to pick up a rod. With over 40 years of experience fishing all over the country for.... read more
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