Understanding Salmon Fishing Reels

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Understanding various types of fishing reels

When it comes to salmon fishing reels, the three main questions you should answer are; what species of fish am I targeting?  What is the method of use?  And Experience?

Answer these and you will determine what type of fishing reels you’ll need.

Lets have a close look at the different reels used in salmon fishing and some of the topics that we’ll be covering in this article like;


Spool – the spool is the part of the reel that holds your line and is most commonly made of aluminum (more durable) or graphite (light weight). It is recommended that you buy a reel that is anodized or bronze plated, as it will endure the harsh saltwater corrosive conditions as opposed to graphite. A reel that is made of aluminum a little more money but a better investment as it lasts longer. If you want something more inexpensive graphite is a fine choice if you want to keep your cost down and your not sure of your “angling future.”

Frame – The frame of the reel is also made from aluminum or graphite with the aluminum being the strongest when machined from a solid block of the alloy. Graphite, again, is lighter and less expensive, but is not as strong and will not hold up to a machined block of aluminum when going through the adverse effects of torque caused by a big Spring or Coho salmon.

Gear Ratio – Gear ratio and the number of bearings in a reel go hand in hand and determine performance in a reel. A gear ratio of 4:1 for example, means for every rotation of the handle the spool winds the line up 4 times! This ratio will also determine how much “fight” is in your reel. Lower gear ratios have more “torque”, but can cause slack line and possibly cause you to loose a salmon. Some reels are able to change between more than one gear ratio acting as a sort of transmission. These reels provide the best of both options, for an additional cost that can be well worth the money over the entire life of a reel.

The gear ratio is an important factor to consider when it comes to spinning reels for freshwater salmon fishing. Again, a lower ratio will give you more power, which can be an essential element in landing that big salmon. Higher numbers mean that you will retrieve more line per turn, but in order to successfully land an aggressive freshwater salmon you will need to tire him out pretty good first; go for the crank power.

Ball Bearings – Ball bearings determine how smooth your reel will operate as it supports the moving parts in the “guts” of the reel. In other words, the more bearings you have the smoother the reel will work. Good ball bearings are worth every penny if you have a big King salmon on and it’s always good to remember that you get what you pay for even when your talking bearings.

Drag – Drag is used to control the amount of resistance between you and the salmon. If you have a smooth drag you will be able to control the movement of your rod tip and in turn control the salmon. Two major categories separate drags in spinning reels, front and rear adjustment. Front drags are generally more effective for really big fish like a Chinook. The increased effectiveness of front adjusted drags has a lot to do with the way the drag is tightened but mostly it’s the size of the drag surface. Frontal drag systems have larger areas, cool better and are more effective to slow big salmon down. A rear adjustable drag is going to be used to tweak the tension while you’re in the middle of a battle with a big one.

Again keeping in mind that salmon are large species of fish on the whole, front adjusted drag is probably the best option on a spinning reel. The drag surface is larger on the front of the reel, so it is a more effective tool in tiring out a bigger fish. In recent spinning reels there has been cool advancements in drag placement such as “drag ring control” being placed before the spool for easier and less awkward use as it can be hard to adjust in the front of the spool when trying to concentrate on the fight.

So in short, find a drag that isn’t awkward to adjust, and is tight enough to stay where it’s adjusted as you don’t want it to loosen off as your’e trying to reel in a monster.

Comfort – fishing for salmon in freshwater means a lot of casts with relatively few plays at the other end. Salmon that are spawning have to be in the perfect mood to bite, and fish like kokanee just aren’t very predictable when it comes to mood. Your reel should feel comfortable enough in your hand that you are confident about taking it out and repeating casts dozens of times in just a couple of hours; the repetitive motion can make you feel uncomfortable if you have not selected the best reel. A big consideration for a lot of anglers is casting with one hand and reeling with the other; if you’re not comfortable with this, there are spinning reels that can switch to accommodate.

Saltwater Salmon Fishing Reels

There is nothing quite like saltwater salmon fishing. This is the chance to catch the fish in the environment where they reach their maturity, and there are several different techniques that are proven to be successful when out on the ocean. Most saltwater salmon fishing reels are suited to casting, mooching, drift fishing, and trolling, but there are some considerations when selecting a reel according to the type of fishing you are going to do that should be kept in mind.

The Golden Rules

There are two rules to keep in mind when you are looking for fishing reels suitable for the pursuit of salmon in salt water. The first is to buy a reel with the greatest amount of line capacity you can handle. You will need not only to get the line down to where the fish are (and if you are out after chinook in summer time they can be down quite far), you will also have to have enough line that you are confident you can handle a long run and a good fight. Salmon are big, athletic fish, and can run out a line pretty quickly if you are not prepared.

The second rule when selecting appropriate saltwater salmon fishing reels is to keep the harshness of the environment in mind. Salt water corrodes everything due to its rough texture, from boat engines to lures, and reels are no exception. Make sure that the reel you select is made from a material resistant to corrosion, such as brass, stainless steel, plastic, wood, or graphite. Anything else will wear out in no time flat.

Action and comfort

Saltwater salmon fishing can involve a lot of monotonous periods punctuated but moments of frenzied action. When you are drift fishing or mooching, there is no reason why you can’t have both single action and casting reels in the boat with you. Single action reels are ideal for both types of fishing (and also for trolling); they have smooth actions and provide a good feel when a fish is fighting on the other end of the line. Moreover, they are less likely to tangle the line when it becomes twisted, and easier to measure the line that is stripped. Casting reels, on the other hand, will come in very handy in the event that a school of herring rises to the surface nearby; chances are that the salmon are not far behind.

Comfort is another big factor when it comes to fishing for salmon in salt water. You have to make sure that the rod is balanced to your arm when the reel is on it; it should balance over one finger at the point where you would naturally grip the rod. Any difference will mean that you are holding your rod at an angle greater than 90 degrees and your arm will get tired quickly.

Finally, make sure that the reel you select has a large handle. Small handles are much harder to grasp, especially when a salmon is making a beeline for farther waters on the other end of the line. Large handles also lessen the risk of stripping the skin from your knuckles.

Comfort, line capacity and durability are the keys when out shopping for saltwater salmon fishing reels. This criteria applies to all types of salmon fishing in the ocean, and is an important step towards a successful trip.

Just a reminder that if you do decide to go out on the ocean for some salmon, it’s a good idea to be with someone who is experienced. For more information visit our saltwater salmon fishing page to be a safe and prosperous saltwater angler.

Casting Reels for Salmon Fishing

There are 3 basic casting reels for salmon fishing. Lets have a quick look at each before we go into detail.

  • Bait casting reels are reels in which line is stored on a revolving spool. The bait casting reel is mounted above the rod, hence its other name, the overhead reel.
  • Spinning reels are cast by opening the bail, grasping the line with the forefinger, then using a backward snap of the rod followed by a forward cast, releasing the line with the forefinger at the same time. On the retrieve, the large rotating wire cage or bail (either manually or trigger-operated) serves as the line pickup, restoring the line to its original position on the spool.
  • Spin-casting The spin cast reel is an attempt to solve the problem of backlash found in baitcast designs, while reducing line twist and snare complaints sometimes encountered with traditional spinning reel designs.

Going after salmon in their freshwater incarnations means a big trip, big fights, and big gear. Baitcasting reels for freshwater salmon fishing are the popular choice among anglers as they are mounted on top of the rod with the spool turning at right angles to the rod. These rods are perfectly suited to salmon casting, as they are designed to carry heavier lines as well as greater capacity in most cases. They are large, bulky, and noticeable, but with steelhead and other species being one of the most prized and aggressive fish in any freshwater river, you’ll need this heavier gear for what you are out after. Keep in mind that “baitcasting” is often shortened to just “casting”, so information you may find regarding this type of rod or reel is interchangeable. Most baitcasters or spincasting reels look very similar to the diagram above.

Anglers who are more experienced prefer bait casting reels when targeting steelhead or king salmon. When it comes to casting for these power-houses, you need to get the reel with a large line capacity, low gear ratio and heavy duty drag. A big spool enables long runs by the fish and great distances on the cast, which is vital from shore when you need to clear beds of kelp or when you are standing on a wharf or a high pier. The heavy duty drag and low ratio will help retrieve a monster salmon if caught. The added distance will also help on a boat, especially when trying to cast to a rising salmon. The key to casting successfully is in your accuracy, which is more difficult with these reels as they often require the use of your thumb to slow the line down before it hits the water. With today’s technology drag has become more advanced allowing for easier use and less backlash that causes lines to get tangled.

When you are going out freshwater casting for salmon in particular, the big difference in your choice of reel is going to be in the amount of line the reel can hold. You won’t need quite as much line on the reel as you would if you were casting in salt water, where tides and the weed line also need to be reckoned with, but you are going to need enough line to be secure if a large sockeye or Chinook takes your bait and makes a long run (and these fish in freshwater are feeling aggressive; count on a big hit and long fight).

This is the number one consideration on any spincast reel when you are going out after salmon, whether on a river or in the ocean. Casting (especially from shore) on the ocean means that you have a lot of obstacles to clear: kelp beds on the tide line, rocky shoals, and sheer distance are a few considerations. More line will make sure that you can reach the distance needed to where the salmon are swimming.

Keep in mind when you are looking for spincast reels for salmon fishing that you are going after some of the biggest, fightingest fish that can be found on the west coast. Features from brake mechanisms to drag all need to be heavier than they would be for other types of fish. It won’t cut down on the sportsmanship of the pursuit; heavier reels will only give you greater peace of mind.

Spinning reels are popular among casters due to their easy use and many different applications. When you are looking for spinning reels for freshwater salmon fishing, you will need to think about some of the things that separate salmon from other types of fish; in particular, their size (especially that of the two most popular species in spawn; the sockeye/kokanee and the chinook) and their fight (all freshwater salmon are going to put up a great fight on the line, the physical and chemical morphing they go through on the spawn are suited to finding a mate, fighting off competitors, and protecting a nesting site for a short time). A spinning reel that will work fine for even the most aggressive trout species will not work as well for a salmon in freshwater.

Saltwater casting reels are the only ones that can be used from the shore or from a wharf, while boat fishing will give you the added option of using conventional saltwater reels (typically single action) as well. The term saltwater spinning reel is used interchangeably with casting reels, which are open-face easy to cast reels. Line capacity and drag durability are the major downfalls to these reels, but because they are so user friendly and ideal in certain situations they are popular.

The rule with both types of reel is that you need to select reels that are made with only one type of metal, and this metal should be resistant to corrosion. Dual metal reels will often result in one of the metals corroding long before the rest of the rod, leaving 75% of the reel intact but useless. Of course, this is usually the cheapest part of the reel. For this reason, casual salmon fishermen and those just starting out are best off buying cheaper reels; they have the same benefits of expensive models, and can land just as many fish.

Because of the size of the fish, casting for salmon in freshwater will mean that you will likely have to invest in more specialized equipment than for other species, and this includes casting reels for freshwater salmon fishing. We’re not saying that regular casting reels for salmon in freshwater don’t work, but you can expect a lot more work and possibly a lot more escapes than if you were using a reel that went well with salmon. Most of us have probably seen or heard of anglers out casting for rainbows or cutthroat in water where the Kokanee are gathered to spawn, and getting a lucky strike on a gear set up for the smaller fish. The ensuing battle can be a great challenge, as landing one of these fighters with smaller reels can take half an hour or more.

Any time you are casting for salmon, regardless of the salinity of the water, line capacity should be the first consideration when you are considering different types of reels. Spinning reels are located on the bottom of the rod, so in most cases they will have less capacity than casting reels, which are mounted on the top. The spool on the reel will indicate both the weight of the line it can handle and the capacity of line it can hold; it is important to stay within these limits so that your reel performs at its best. Spinning reels for freshwater salmon fishing will ideally have a large capacity and weight so that you know you have enough line when that big fish bites and runs.

Spincasting Reels

Casting in pursuit of salmon species can provide one of the greatest thrills to be found in the sport of fishing, and when you are spinning it is important that you have an idea of the appropriate spincast reels for salmon fishing. Most reels with similar features are priced around the same amount, and you can really go as high or as low as you wish depending on the features you want. This article should help you in deciding which features to look for on a reel, and also some basic consideration whether you are fishing salt water or fresh water for these exciting fish.

Although spincasting reels are probably the least popular of the three basic types, they are still useful and probably the easiest on your pocket-book. Lets take a look at some of the features and benefits that spincasting reels can provide.

Another consideration when looking for spincast reels for salmon fishing in both salt and freshwater is the size of the drum. A big drum, or “spool,” means that you can cast a lot farther with the same amount of effort. You can cast to where you just saw those salmon jumping on their migrating spawn up a river, or on a boat in the ocean you can cast towards a herring ball that just rose to the surface. Either way, you are going to need to be confident that the distance is one you can hit, and a big drum will make this task easier.

Keep in mind when you are looking for spincast reels for salmon fishing or Steelhead that you are going after some of the biggest, fightingest fish that can be found in water systems. Features from brake mechanisms to drag all need to be heavier than they would be for other types of fish. It won’t cut down on the sportsmanship of the pursuit; heavier reels will only give you greater peace of mind and with todays materials it’s amazing how light some of these big reels can be. To learn even more about spinning reels and to buy product visit the “Spincasting Reels For Salmon Fishing” page

  • Important tip!!

Remember that while you can use saltwater casting reels to fish freshwater, you should not use casting reels for freshwater salmon fishing in a saline environment. Salt will corrode the bearings, so make sure to keep your gear for different environments well apart and organized.

Trolling Reels for Freshwater Salmon

If you are looking for trolling reels for freshwater salmon fishing, then the odds are pretty good that you are out after kokanee or one of the landlocked species of Atlantic salmon. Other types of salmon tend not to venture into deeper bodies of freshwater like lakes, as they only go into water that is fresh in order to spawn; they must do so where the water is shallow. Still, there are some rivers that can get quite deep, especially in the mouths, so it may be that you know some good areas to troll for salmon appropriately along their spawning migration routes. For the purposes of this article, though, we will focus on trolling reels and considerations in buying them as it pertains to lakes where kokanee, the landlocked version of the sockeye salmon, or landlocked Atlantics can be found.

Ideal trolling reels for freshwater salmon will allow the line to strip smoothly so that the angler can loosen the drag on the reel, decrease pressure on the downrigger clutch, and let the ball drop smoothly. A poor reel will grab the line as it is stripped, causing the rod to bend almost double in some cases. When the rod straightens with a snap, line goes everywhere, causing a big mess. The grad action of the reel may also cause the release clip on the downrigger to be triggered, which will mean whatever work you have done you have to start all over again.


Fresh water salmon, like other species of salmon, are deep feeding fish, so the best way to catch them is through weighting a line to sink to a certain level and tempt the fish with your lure right where they are found. This is achieved through the use of downriggers, and the relationship to between your downrigger and your reel is as crucial in fresh water is it is in salt water. Your trolling reel should provide some resistance to the line as it drops on the downrigger to keep the feed under control, but this resistance should be as smooth as possible in order to keep track and keep the rod from bending and jerking around.

Level Wind

Level wind reels are generally the choice when going after freshwater salmon; they allow the angler to keep a good tick on the amount of line that is left out, as well as providing that smooth action necessary for letting the line out. Trolling in deeper parts of rivers where salmon are migrating will mean using a lighter level wind reel, which will also work when you are flatlining in the evening.

Heavier level wind reels are best used when you are trolling in the deeper lakes where landlocked salmon are found; they will allow you the line capacity you need to get down to the right level and to fight the fish after the bite. Greater line capacity on the reel is also good if you are fishing with a leader.

Spinning and spin-casting reels for trolling

While level winds are the main trolling reels for freshwater salmon, some anglers will use spinning or spin casting reels from time to time. These reels won’t offer the same feel as level winds, but are good for relaxing fishing without too much stress. Just be sure that you select a model with a good drag; this will be needed if the reel is to hold up when used with a downrigger. To learn even more about spinning reels and to buy product visit the “Trolling Reels For Salmon Fishing” page

Fly Fishing Reels for Freshwater Salmon Fishing

Catching any species of salmon on a fly means that you are in for a hell of a fight, so it is important that you use the right fly fishing reels for freshwater salmon fishing. Fly fishing reels for the most part have the same basic design, and the difference that will mean a great story with a picture or a steelhead to back you up and a great story about one that got away will often lie in the makeup of the reel itself. Here are some of the components you will want to look at in order to land those spawners when they are on their way upstream; always keep in mind that although the techniques and casting may be the same for salmon and trout, the salmon are the fish that are going to give a bigger fight in the landing.


The handle of your reel can make all the difference in a salmon strike on fresh water. There are a couple of considerations here. The first is comfort. Fresh water salmon are notoriously fickle in their tastes; one day can see hardly any bites, the next day your line is hopping. Western steelhead in particular are one of the greatest fly fishing catches there are in terms of bragging rights, both because of their fight and their reluctance to rise to the fly. It’s important that the handle on your reel is suited to your palm so that you won’t find your hand is getting tired or sore after hours of reeling. A big handle will provide this comfort, and will also come in useful when after a few hours out, throwing and retrieving with no action, you suddenly get a bite. The size of the handle allows you to make a quick grab even from the doldrums, in time to play your line.


Fly fishing reels for freshwater salmon fishing need to have materials that get rid of heat and that have a good amount of surface area for the drag. The drag itself will assist you in playing the fish out, while heat dissipation is critical in order to keep a line from snapping with a fish on the other end. The very highest quality (and also of course the costliest) material used to create drag on a fly reel is carbon fiber. With this material any concerns about losing a big fish due to heat friction are gone, but then so is a lot of money. The next material down, Rulon, is also acceptable and presents a minimal amount of heat exposure to the line. In order to prevent friction caused by debris, it is important to look for a fly reel that has a sealed drag on it.

Fly fishing for salmon, even land locked species, can mean quite an arduous days’ work with little or nothing to show for it at the end. When looking for the best fly fishing reels for freshwater salmon fishing, you need to be aware both of the level of comfort and the possibility of tempting a really big fish onto the fly. Any fisherman will tell you that the latter consideration is the most important, but the qualifications of a reel to meet the two distinct needs are no longer mutually exclusive, so look for a reel that offers the heavy duty materials needed to land those big fish without a lot of additional weight and handling.

Mooching and Center Pin reels

Mooching and Centerpin Reels for Salmon Fishing

These reels are typically single action, meaning that the line can either be pulled out or taken in. Open face reels both give and take, and can be difficult to use when trolling as you are not sure who is winning, you or the salmon. Single action reels give you an idea of how much you can afford to give, and how long the reeling in is going to take. Trolling reels will also give you a lot better sense of you against the fish; your palm is guiding the whole process. Look for reels with longer handles; they are easier to control and grasp. Another feature that is becoming more standard is a counter which tells you how much line is out which in turn gives you the depth you need.

Whenever you go out in a boat, you should have a few reels handy. Not only will you want to be ready with a saltwater casting reel if you start noticing rising fish, but you will also want to be able to immediately replace it in the event your reel gets damaged or the line gets really tangled while you are landing a fish. You can get the next line out and repair the tangle while you wait for the bite, as long as you have backup. Make sure and bring extra saltwater conventional reels as well as a saltwater spinning reel and you will be ready for any circumstance.

Important Rules to Remember Before You Buy


One of the pitfalls of any baitcasting reel is a susceptibility to tangling the lines, or creating bird’s nests. Experienced anglers can prevent this through learned manual application of the thumb, but for others, it might be best to find a reel that helps with corrections for you. Many baitcasting reels for freshwater salmon fishing incorporate innovations to minimize the likelihood of tangles. Running in the forefront among these are brakes.

Brakes come in two basic types, magnetic and centrifugal. Centrifugal brakes use brake blocks to create friction and dictate the speed of the line; they are not adjustable and will have more force on a fast cast than on a slow one. In fact, the force applied by a centrifugal brake will be almost impossible to detect. Magnetic brakes, on the other hand, work by using the force created between magnets and metal. They are adjustable from the outside and are proportional to the line speed. Some baitcasting reels will have a combination of brake systems, which allows the reel to compensate for the weakness of each system (the centrifugal brakes are used initially, with the magnetic brake used at the end of the cast).

Avoid the common mistake

Baitcasting for salmon in freshwater is no different than any other pursuit that involves equipment; many people will feel that the more expensive the reel, the better angler the fisher becomes. This is not true. Expensive additions and mechanisms on reels can certainly help to reduce some of the wear on an angler’s arms and hands over a long day of fishing, but these improvements are really best utilized by an angler who really knows what he or she is doing; otherwise, the improvement is lost. Practice, therefore, is the essential element when it comes to properly utilizing any baitcasting reels in freshwater salmon fishing.

The Importance of Line Capacity

Casting reels for freshwater salmon fishing have their line capacity determined by the spool. You can increase the capacity of a low profile reel with a spindle, the most capacity can be found on high profile, round reels. Salmon fishing means going after the big guys, and you won’t ever have to worry about a lack of fight, so it’s best to avoid the elegant appearance and let everyone know exactly what you are after.

In fresh water, having a lot of line capacity will mean that you are ready when a salmon takes the bait and makes a big run. These fish have a lot more strength and fight than other species found in rivers, and you need to be sure that you are not going to run out of line when you are fighting them. Don’t forget that the fight in the fish is only half the battle, the other half is the current of the river and in huge systems like the Columbia, Skagit, or Thompson, the current itself is enough to snap your leader.

Materials Make the Difference

Lightweight materials are the order of the day when it comes to spincasting; graphite and copolymer reels remain among the top choices here. You will also want to take a look at the material that the bearings are made of, and this is particularly important when using spincast reels in the ocean or at river mouths and other estuaries. Salt will corrode the workings of the reel, and materials such as stainless steel and brass will mean that your reel keeps its maximum shelf life.

Technology in Today’s Reels

The computer age is everywhere around us, and it has made its way even into freshwater fishing, that traditional refuge of the sportsmen getting away from the bustle of the city world. New casting reels include chip technology that allow programming of the reel to brake at set intervals, making the line easier to cast as well as cast farther. Freshwater salmon fishing is hard work, as the cast-to-fish ratio is probably going to be pretty high, so anything that can make the job a little easier, saving your energy for the fight, might come in useful. I mean let’s face it, having a reel with this type of control is like having the TV remote and 1000 channels at your fingertips!

The downside of this technology, of course, is the price. These circuit board reels are really expensive, and you might not feel too comfortable having a $600 or more reel attached to your pole or in your truck, although if you’ve got a few spare dollars then you’ll be blown away at the ease of using these reels.

Wikipedia will feed you more information on salmon fishing reels here, if you’re still not quite content!