How Does a Fishing Reel Work? 

Fishing is nearly as old as human history, with reports estimating the practice is around 40,000 years old. For as old as fishing is, the fishing reel is a relatively new invention, having been around for less than 1,000 years. Technology has revolutionized fishing reels in more recent times, and today’s reels don’t bear much resemblance to the early models of the past.

Today’s fishing reels offer tons of features and characteristics that make it easier for anglers to land the fish of a lifetime. Read on as we take a closer look at how fishing reels work and what types of fishing reels are used for different applications.

Common Fishing Reel Components

Before we answer how do fishing reels work, we need to understand the essential components that make up the different fishing reels that are popular today.


One fundamental component which every fishing reel shares is a spool. The spool is a metal cylinder that holds the fishing line. Depending on the reel type, the spool may rotate during casting, or it may remain fixed in place.

Reels that feature a rotating spool, such as baitcasting and conventional reels, are more prone to line tangles than reels with a fixed spool, like the spincast or spinning reels. Today’s baitcasting reels offer features that help control tangles during casting.


The bail is a component of a spinning reel that serves as a gate, preventing the line from spooling off the reel when the bail is closed. Once the bail is flipped open, the angler can make a cast. After casting, the bail is closed, which feeds the line onto the line roller for retrieval. 

Drag System

The drag system is a critical component of almost all fishing reels, and it helps prevent your line from breaking as you fight a fish and helps tire out larger fish should they start running in an attempt to spit your lure. 

When a fish exerts a certain amount of pressure on the line, it causes the reel to spin in reverse, which releases more line. The drag system is a pair of friction plates that dictate the pressure the fish must place on the line to release more. Tightening the drag makes it more difficult for a fish to pull out line, putting more pressure on the fish as it tries to evade capture.


Most reels have an anti-reverse function which prevents the reel from spinning backward and releasing line when a fish takes your bait. Without tension on the line, it’s much easier for a fish to spit the hook, so anti-reverse is a critical feature that helps you catch more fish. 

Some reels have a switch that disengages the anti-reverse function, so you can reel in reverse when fighting a fish instead of relying on the drag system. This technique is mainly used with sunfish and other small species and isn’t recommended for larger fish.


Conventional and trolling reels and some baitcasters have a clicker function that serves as an audible cue when a fish is on the line. The clicker emits a loud clicking sound when a fish begins peeling line from the trolling reel, which lets the angler know there’s a fish on. 


Most fishing reels have at least a single gear inside, which turns as the angler rotates the handle and retrieves the line. Today’s modern reels have complex gearing mechanisms which allow an angler to retrieve more line with each crank of the reel handle. 

Ball Bearings

Ball bearings are a component of spinning, conventional, and trolling reels that help reduce reel friction. Reduced friction makes for a smoother retrieve when turning the handle and makes for longer casting distances. 

Types of Fishing Reels

Fishing reels come in several different styles, each of which suits a different kind of fishing. To answer the question of how do fishing reels work, we must first look at the different types of reels, as each one functions a bit differently.


Spincasting reels were first invented in 1947 when a Texas watchmaker drew inspiration from watching twine come off a fixed spool behind the counter at a butcher shop. The design caught the eye of a local company that made construction bomb components, and it would go on to revolutionize the angling hobby for casual enthusiasts. 

These simple reels are ideal for freshwater fishing and make it easy for anyone to enjoy the fishing hobby without much skill or experience. These reels are intended for beginners and novice anglers, and they lack many of the performance features that serious anglers are looking for. 

How Does a Spincast Reel Work?

Spincast reels have a fixed spool that’s hidden behind a covered body. These reels have a trigger button that prevents the line from coming off the spool when it’s pressed. Once released, the force of the lure allows the line to spool off the reel and into the water. Turning the reel handle activates the pickup pins, which rewind the line onto the reel for your next cast.


The basic design of a baitcaster has been around for hundreds of years, and William Shakespeare Jr. revolutionized it in 1896. His level-wind system helped make it easier to cast the reel without line backlash. 

While the design of the baitcaster has changed significantly over the last 120 years or so, baitcasters remain a popular choice for experienced freshwater and saltwater anglers who need a lightweight and powerful reel for large game fish. 

How Does a Baitcaster Work?

Baitcasters attach to the top side of a casting rod, and they allow the spool to rotate during casting, which allows the line to release from the rod. These reels have a clutch that keeps the spool fixed before and after a cast. When casting, the clutch is released, allowing the spool to rotate to release the line. As the handle is turned, the spool rotates to pick up the line.


Spinning reels are one of the newer reel styles developed in the 1930s in Europe. These reels helped address the backlash issues of early baitcasting reels and allowed anglers to cast greater distances without the threat of tangled line. These reels remain exceptionally popular for freshwater and saltwater fishing.

How Does a Spinning Reel Work?

Spinning reels mount to the underside of a spinning rod, and they have a fixed spool that helps eliminate line tangles during casting. To cast a spinning reel, disengage the bail wire and make your cast. To retrieve, engage the bail and turn the handle, which causes the bail arms to spin. The spool moves forward and back to bring the line back onto the spool evenly. 

Conventional / Trolling

Conventional (trolling) reels are pretty similar to baitcasting reels, although they typically lack the casting features of a baitcaster. A conventional reel is used for drop fishing and trolling, where casting isn’t essential. 

You’ll see these reels most often on recreational charter boats and commercial fishing vessels, and they’re the reel of choice for the largest game fish in the ocean, such as shark, tuna, and sailfish. 

How Do Conventional Reels Work?

Conventional reels have a rotating spool, which allows the line to release from the reel when the clutch is disengaged. Engaging the clutch allows the spool to spin in reverse, retrieving the line in the process. You can cast with conventional reels, but it takes skill and practice to prevent backlash. Conventional reels are also typically more significant than other reels, making casting a challenge.

Fly Fishing Reel

Fly reels are one of the older styles of modern fishing reels, and they’re still popular today with freshwater and saltwater anglers alike. Fly reels are among the most straightforward fishing reel, with a simple 1:1 design. The reel retrieves one rotation worth of line as the angler rotates the handle once. 

With fewer moving parts and a more simple design, fly fishing is exceptionally popular with anglers who want to establish the most direct connection between themselves and the fish they’re fighting. 

How Does a Fly Reel Work?

A fly reel functions mainly as a storage system for the line. A fly angler begins by unspooling about 20-25 feet of weighted fly line into the water. While holding the rod tip close to the water, the angler brings the rod backward to load the rod with the weight of the fly line. The angler then brings the rod forward, which casts the fly. 

As necessary, an additional line is pulled from the reel with the free hand. Turning the fly reel handle spins the spool and retrieves the line.

Centrepin Reel

Centrepin reels were developed alongside fly reels in the early 1800s, and they share many characteristics with a fly reel. These reels have a spool that can spin freely forward and backward, which allows for an exceptionally natural fly presentation. While there is still a tiny niche for centrepin reels, they’re rarely used today.

How Does a Centrepin Reel Work?

Centrepin reels function similarly to fly reels, but they don’t have a drag system, and the reel can spin freely in either direction. Instead, drag is supplied by palming the side of the reel as the fish runs. 

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