Baitcaster vs. Spinning Reels : What are the differences?

OK- I guided BWCA day fishing trips for a long time. About 60% of my parties had their favorite fishing gear that they wanted to take along which was fine. Many of them had gear that they had no clue how to operate. Some of them (my very favorites) would bring baitcasting gear that they bought at some big-box-tackle-mart sold to them by an "expert" who's never even been to Minnesota much less the Boundary Waters. They didn't have a clue how to use their new rods & reels, but they watched a lot of fishing shows all winter long. How hard can it be afterall?

Depending on the fishing gear they brought - always with bait caster reels, it was not unusual to burn up about a half a day on bird's nests, rat's nest's, backlashes and snags with 50 yards of cut-up monofilament in the bottom of the boat. There were a few who were incredibly good with baitcasters but I can literally think of only three people I guided in 25 years who were actually exceptional with baitcasters. They could literally light matches at 50+ feet on every cast and one of them was a woman. Her name was Pat and she could have hunted small game with a Rapala. Her husband barely knew which way to properly hold his spinning reel. This always brings to mind the occasional Hollywood movie where someone is fishing and holding their spinning reel upside down and cranking backwards, yet when they cast, they hold it properly to cast and then flip it upside-down to retrieve. ...and then there are the Hollywood canoe paddling scenes. The actors can fight like Jackie Chan but they don't have a clue as to how to handle a canoe on water. Go figure.

BUT, as I watched many of my customers attempting to use these baitcaster reels with right-hand cranks, I concluded that right-handed bait caster reels made about as much sense as cranking an upside-down spinning reel backwards. To me, it makes no sense to actually cast with one's right hand, and then, as the plug hits the water (or trees, or brush, etc.) one SWITCH'S hands to crank in the lure with the right hand on the reel while now holding the rod with the weaker, left arm. During the hand switch (and the guaranteed fumbling about), the plug would ultimately sink and instantly snag up on the rocks. Then, I'd have to back the canoe (19' Grumman Squarestern rigged for rowing) up to shore so they could unsnag the plug. Not only did these fisherfolk using baitcasters snag up 70% of the time, during the hand switch, when they took their thumb off the spool (moderates line peel-out off the spool during the cast) during the hand-switch, many reels backlashed spectacularly! Then, while the rest of us continued fishing, the guy with the bait caster is sitting there for the next five minutes muttering while pulling line out from his reel to smooth out the bird's nest. Trust me, after doing this 50,000 times as a guide, you start to really resent the BS of TV fishing shows with bass fisherman, bass boats and all the marketing-silliness that my customers thought was absolutely necessary to catch any fish in the BWCA. On TV, the fishing shows NEVER show the backlashes or how much film they shoot before they even find a fish.

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The problem wasn't as much in using the baitcasting reel for the casting as it was in using a back-asswards reel that required a hand switch to the left hand so the right hand could then crank. I observed that ALL of my customers who used spinning reels that they mastered in a fairly short amount of time (with just a few pointers) and found that they pretty much always cast with their strong arm (which happens to be the right arm for most people as we left-handers exist in smaller numbers) AND crank with their left hand. NO goofy rod-hand switch, no delay in closing the bail and retrieving at the very instant a well-casted lure lands just 3 inches from shore. The only disadvantage in spinning reels was during the "panic" that usually and predictably occurs when trying to land a whopper. With a spinning reel, as you hear that screeching (Shimano) or tinking (Plueger and others) sound as the big fish is pulling hard - that's the drag. When the drag is properly set to slip as needed, it allows line to be pulled from the reel which results in a number of different, good things.

First, with a properly set drag on any type of reel, you are less likely to have your line break on a fish that's fighting hard. Secondly, you are less likely to see your rod break on a fish (or snag) that's fighting hard. Third, you the fish tires out more quickly. And fourth, you maintain tension on the line more easily at all times when the fish is pulling. Usually, if you slack up your line for one second, a big fish (they didn't grow big by being dumb) will shake the hook violently from his lip and it's "buh-bye" fish.

Here's where the problem that lies with spinning reels. A LOT of people have never had the experience of hooking an alligator-sized northern or other big fish. When they finally do, their eyes usually glaze over, their face goes pale, and they don't hear anything I say unless I say it loud enough to break their panic-induced trance. A LOT of folks suck wind and really start to crank hard and fast when they actually see that big green submarine cruise by with their lure in tow. Cranking on their drag which means cranking the reel around-and-around-and-around as their line is actually being dragged out by a northern taking a 25 yard run really makes a mess out of the line. Folks tend to be oblivious to the drag's screeching plus many don't even realize what that sound means or what they should do when they hear it. They are totally focused on only getting the fish in the boat at all costs and cranking accordingly. This action puts a mean twist in the line!! After the big one is in the boat, when they finally slack up their line, they end up with enough twists and monofilament spaghetti to make a macrame`flower pot holder. Then, some start griping about the cheap line and how they got screwed at Bubba's Super Tackle Mart when they bought the stuff. Some don't even see the twist and just wind it all back into their reels, twists, loops and all. And, this brings us to the one of a few better reasons for using a baitcaster for big fish.

First, with a baitcaster reel you can crank on your drag until the reel catches fire and you won't screw up the line. Second, if you are casting big plugs, they tend to fly through the air without tumbling. If it's a good quality reel, you can zing some pretty heavy line through the eyes of the rod because with a baitcaster reel your line pulls off a spool that is rolling which keeps tension on the line which prevents lure tumble. With a spinning reel, your line sort of dumps/tumbles off the end of the spool (which does not roll) when you release the line in the middle of a swing and follow-through with the rod. The line on the spinning reel travels in a circular pattern as it's being launched and that's why the eyes of a spinning rod are large closest to the reel and then get smaller further out from the reel to the end of the rod. If you use a cheap, kinky line with a memory (stays coiled up really bad) , it won't get through the eyes easily, can make the lure tumble and tangle, and is noisy on the cast. Also, with a spinning rod, if you don't employ a bit of finesse' in your swing, the lure can tumble, get tangled up, go into orbit, etc. Casting-finesse' with a spinning rod is easier than a baitcaster reel however. And, while you may not have the definitely required "feel" for casting, trolling or jigging with a bait caster reel and rod is a great option. Fighting fish with them is fun! There is one flaw that I have found with most baitcasters over and above all the other problems mentioned thus far.

Baitcasters usually have a silent drag. On a lot of them, the drag makes no noise at all. How do you know if your line is going out or not? You can tell easily if you remember to place your thumb lightly on the spool, but sometimes, people don't think about that in modern times with modern bait caster reels. On the old baitcasters, your thumb was your drag. Now the new reels come with star-drags that do all the work for you, so you really don't have to fish with your thumb on the spool. Clearly, many of my customers did not know when their drags were working on their bait, but I could pretty easily tell that the drag was set too loose or too tight by watching the fish travel and how hard the rod was pulling with the runs the fish made. With a panicked fisherman doing everything he can to hold the rod tip up, he usually doesn't know what's happening. That makes it harder to do the two things one absolutely needs to do to land any fish using ANY style rod & reel - keep the rod tip up in the air and keep the line tight at all times without pulling the fish out of the water.

So these are my thoughts on the differences between the two reel types in summary. Hope this info helps -JB-: Here's my new addendum to baitcaster reels - Click Here

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Spinning Reels:
  • Twists the line when "cranked on the drag".
  • Can increase lure-tumble during casting.
  • Are easier to set on the floor of the boat - reel sits on floor. with the rod ready to grab quickly. Bait casters ALWAYS roll over and sit upside down.
  • Are easier to learn to use overall - no settings for spool spin, and lure weight.
  • Works nicest with 2 to 12 lb. line (for BWCA use).
  • Are easier to hold in your hand. The reel's weight is under the rod instead of on top of the rod like a baitcaster reel.
  • See different Spinning Reels HERE
Bait Caster Reels:
  • Do not twist the line when you "crank on the drag" - line goes out linearly and returns the same way.
  • Allow the lure to cast more accurately with less tumble
  • Work better with heavier lines and braided lines - 10 to 20 lbs.
  • Require that you adjust the reel's spool friction for the weight of each lure that you cast. Change a lure, change the friction setting on the side of the wheel.
  • Require the user to have a good feel for the weight of the lure, the casting distance and the spool friction.
  • Make great, trolling-only rods especially for big fish.
  • Do not sit well on the floor of the boat - always ends upside down.
  • Are fun to to use but baitcasters are for patient people who like to mess around a bit more. If you're on a tight time budget, spinning reels might be better.
  • Read Joe's addendum to modern baitcasting rods and reels
  • See different models of baitcasters HERE

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