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A fishing reel is a device used for the deployment and retrieval of fishing line using a spool mounted on an axle. Fishing reels are traditionally used in the recreational sport of angling. They are most often used in conjunction with a fishing rod, though some specialized reels are mounted directly to boat gunwales or transoms. The earliest known illustrations of a fishing reel are from Chinese paintings and records beginning about 1195 C.E. In the West, fishing reels first appeared in England around 1650 C.E., and by the 1760s, London tackle shops were advertising multiplying or gear-retrieved reels.
Paris, Kentucky, native George Snyder is generally given credit for inventing the first fishing reel in America around 1820, a bait casting design that quickly became popular with anglers. Today, there are a variety of types, models, and features for a fishing reel. Each is designed for a particular type of fishing.
Types of fishing reels
There are a variety of types and models of reels. The most popular types are: Bait casting reel or conventional reel, spinning reel, and a centrepin reel.
Bait casting reel
Bait casting reels have bearing supported revolving spools that store line. The bait casting reel is mounted above the rod, hence its other name, the "overhead reel." The bait casting reel dates from at least the mid-1600s, but came into wide use by amateur anglers during the 1870s. Early bait casting reels were often constructed with brass or iron gears, with casings and spools made of brass, German silver, or hard rubber. Early reels were often operated by inverting the reel and using back winding to retrieve line. For this reason, the reel crank handle was positioned on the right side of the reel. As a result, the right-hand crank position for bait casting reels has become customary over the years, though models with left-hand retrieve are now gaining in popularity.
Many bait casting reels today are constructed using aluminum, stainless steel, and/or synthetic composite materials. They typically include a level-wind mechanism to prevent the line from being trapped under itself on the spool during rewind and interfering with subsequent casts. Many are fitted with anti-reverse handles and drags designed to slow runs by large and powerful game fish. Because the momentum of the forward cast must rotate the spool as well as propel the fishing lure, bait casting designs normally require heavier lures for proper operation than with other types of reels. The gear ratio in bait casting reels was initially about 3/1, later standardized at 4/1 in most reels, but recent developments have seen many bait casting reels with gear ratios as high as 5.5/1 or even higher. Higher gear ratios allow much faster retrieval of line, but sacrifice a small amount of power in exchange.
Spool tension on most modern bait casting reels can be adjusted with adjustable spool tension, a centrifugal brake, or a magnetic "cast control." This reduces spool overrun during a cast and the resultant line snare, known as backlash. Each time a lure of a different weight is attached, the cast control must be adjusted. The bait casting reel design will operate well with a wide variety of fishing lines, ranging from braided multifilament and heat-fused "superlines" to copolymer, fluorocarbon, and nylon monofilaments. Most bait casting reels can also easily be palmed or thumbed to increase the drag, set the hook, or to accurately halt the lure at a given point in the cast.
A variation of the bait casting reel is the big game reel. These are very large and robust fishing reels, designed and built for heavy saltwater species such as tuna, marlin, sailfish, and sharks. Big game reels are not designed for casting, but used for trolling or fishing set baits and lures on the open ocean.
Bait casting reels are sometimes referred to as conventional reels or boat reel in the U.S. They are known as multiplier reels in Europe, on account of their geared line retrieve (one turn of the handle resulting in multiple turns of the spool).
- Bait casting reel operation
A bait casting reel and rod is cast by moving the rod backward, then snapping it forward. During the forward cast, the weight of the lure pulls the line off the reel. The thumb is used to halt the lure at the desired location and to prevent spool overrun. Though modern centrifigal braking systems help to control backlash, using a bait casting reel still requires practice, and a certain amount of finesse on the part of the fisherman for best results.
Spinning (fixed spool) reel
Reels that have a fixed spool were in use in North America as early as the 1870s. They were originally developed to allow the use of artificial flies, or other lures for trout or salmon, that were too light in weight to be easily cast by bait casting reels. Fixed spooled reels are normally mounted below the rod. Spinning reels also solved the problem of backlash, as they did not have a rotating spools that overran. The earliest fixed-spool reels turned the spool 90 degrees in the body of the reel for retrieval, and then reversed it back into casting position. In its casting position, line was drawn off in coils from the end of the fixed, non-rotating spool.
In 1948, the Mitchell Reel Company of Cluses, France introduced the Mitchell 300, the first modern commercially successful spinning reel that had a design that oriented the face of the spool forward in a permanently fixed position below the fishing rod. A mechanical line pickup was used to retrieve the cast line (eventually developed into a wire bail design), and an anti-reverse lever prevented the crank handle from rotating while a fish was pulling line from the spool. Because the line did not have to pull against a rotating spool, much lighter lures could be cast than with a bait casting reel. Conversely, halting the cast and stopping the lure at the desired position requires practice in learning to feather the line with the forefinger as it uncoils from the spool. Most spinning reels operate best with fairly limp, flexible fishing lines.
Though spinning reels do not suffer from backlash, the line can be trapped underneath itself on the spool or even detach from the reel in loose loops of line. Various oscillating spool mechanisms have been introduced over the years in an effort to solve this problem. Spinning reels also tend to have more issues with twisting of the fishing line. Line twist in spinning reels can occur from the spin of an attached lure, the action of the wire bail against the line when engaged by the crank handle, or even retrieval of line that is under load (spinning reel users normally pump the rod up and down, then retrieve the slack line to avoid line twist and stress on internal components). Most anglers who use a spinning reel also manually reposition the bail after each cast in order to minimize line twist.
- Fixed spool reel operation
Fixed spool reels are cast by opening the bail, grasping the line with the forefinger, and then using a backward snap of the rod followed by a forward cast while 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.
Mainly used for fly fishing.The fly reel or fly casting reel has traditionally been rather simple in terms of mechanical construction, little has changed from the design patented by Charles F. Orvis in 1874. However, in recent years improvements have been made with the development of better reels and drags for fighting larger fish. A fly reel is normally operated by stripping line off the reel with one hand, while casting the rod with the other hand. Early fly reels often had no drag at all, but merely a click/pawl mechanism intended to keep the reel from overrunning when line was pulled from the spool. To slow a fish, the angler simply applied hand pressure to the rim of the revolving spool (known as "palming the rim"). Later, these click/pawl mechanisms were modified to provide a limited adjustable drag. Although adequate for smaller fish, these did not possess a wide adjustment range or the power to slow larger fish.
Modern fly reels typically have more sophisticated disc-type drag systems made of composite materials that feature increased adjustment range, consistency, and resistance to high temperatures from drag friction. Most of these fly reels also feature large-arbor spools designed to reduce line memory, maintain consistent drag and assist the quick retrieval of slack line in the event a hooked fish makes a sudden run towards the angler.
At one time, multiplier fly reels were widely available. These reels had a geared line retrieve of 2:1 or 3:1 that allowed faster retrieval of the fly line. However, their additional weight, complexity, and expense did not justify the advantage of faster line retrieval in the eyes of many anglers. As a result, today they are rarely used.
Automatic fly reels use a coiled spring mechanism that pulls the line into the reel with the flick of a lever. Automatic reels tend to be heavy for their size, and have limited line capacity. Automatic fly reels peaked in popularity during the 1960s, and since that time they have been outsold many times over by manual fly reels.
Saltwater fly reels are designed specifically for use in an ocean environment. Saltwater fly reels are normally much larger in diameter than most freshwater fly reels in order to provide a large line and backing capacity designed for the long runs of powerful ocean game fish. To prevent corrosion, saltwater fly reels often use aerospace aluminum frames and spools, electroplated and/or stainless steel components, with sealed and waterproof bearing and drive mechanisms.
- Fly reel operation
Fly reels are normally manual, single-action designs. A rotating a handle on the side of the reel rotates the spool which retrieves the line, usually at a 1:1 ratio (that is, one complete revolution of the handle equals one revolution of the spool).
The centrepin reel is also used for coarse fishing, where one can use it to trot on a fast flowing river. Normally, the float would be pulled under because of the fast current, but the centrepin reel automatically releases line, thus making the float not go under.
Spin cast reel
This is a spinning reel with a large egg type shell that covers the spool inside of the shell. Today, this type of reel is sold at a low price and is primarily meant for small children and beginners.
The first commercial spin cast reels were introduced by the Denison-Johnson Reel Company and the Zero Hour Bomb Company (ZEBCO) in 1949. The spin cast reel is an attempt to solve the problem of backlash found in bait cast designs, while reducing line twist and snare complaints sometimes encountered with traditional spinning reel designs. Just as with the spinning reel, the line is thrown from a fixed spool and can therefore be used with relatively light lures and baits. However, the spin cast reel eliminates the large wire bail and line roller of the spinning reel in favor of one or two simple pickup pins and a metal cup to wind the line on the spool. Traditionally mounted above the rod, the spin cast reel is also fitted with an external nose cone that encloses and protects the fixed spool.
With a fixed spool, spin cast reels can cast lighter lures than bait cast reels, although friction of the nose cone against the unspooling line slightly reduces casting distance compared to spinning reels. Spin cast reels also generally have narrow spools with less line capacity than either bait casting or spinning reels of equivalent size. However, this tends to reduce line snare issues. Like other types of reels, spin cast reels are frequently fitted with both anti-reverse crank levers and friction drags, and some also have level-wind (oscillating spool) mechanisms. Most spin cast reels operate best with limp monofilament lines, though at least one spin cast reel manufacturer installs a thermally fused "superline" into one of its models as standard equipment. During the 1950s and into the mid 1960s, they were widely used and very popular, though the spinning reel has since eclipsed them in popularity. They remain a favorite fishing tool for small children and beginners.
- Spin cast reel operation
Pressing a button on the rear of the reel disengages the line pickup, and the button is then released during the forward cast to allow the line to fly off the spool. The button is pressed again to stop the lure at the position desired. Upon cranking the handle, the pickup pin immediately re-engages the line and spools it onto the reel.
Underspin or Triggerspin reels are spin cast reels in which the reel is mounted underneath a standard spinning rod. With the reel's weight suspended beneath the rod, underspin reels are generally more comfortable to cast and hold for long periods, and the ability to use all standard spinning rods greatly increases its versatility compared to traditional spin cast reels.
- Underspin reel operation
A lever or trigger is grasped or rotated (usually by the forefinger) and this action suspends the line in place. During the forward cast, the lever/trigger is released, and the line flies off the fixed spool. When necessary, the lever can be activated once again to stop the lure at a given point in the cast.
Electric reels contain electric motors that reel in fishing line automatically. They often have digital displays that indicate the length of line that is let out.
Each reel has various mechanisms and what mechanisms a reel has depends on the type and model.
- Direct-drive reel
Direct-drive reels have the spool and handle directly coupled. When the handle moves forwards, the spool moves forwards, and vice-versa. With a fast-running fish, this may have consequences for the angler's knuckles. Traditional fly reels are direct-drive.
- Anti-reverse reel
In anti-reverse reels, a mechanism allows line to pay out while the handle remains stationary. Depending on the drag setting, line may also pay out, as with a running fish, while the angler reels in. Bait casting reels and many modern saltwater fly reels are examples of this design. The mechanism works either with a "dog" or "pawl" design that engages into a cog wheel attached to the handle shaft. The latest design is Instant Anti-Reverse, or IAR. This system incorporates a one-way clutch bearing on the handle shaft to restrict handle movement to forward motion only.
- Line counter
Some reels have a line counter that tells the length of line released from the reel. An angler can drop the line to the designated depth by reading the counter. The counter is attached to some models of bait casing reels and the counter reads the line by mechanical mechanism. The latest electric reels, however, have an electric display attached with the reel and the length of released line is displayed on the crystal display panel.
Drag is a mechanical means of applying variable pressure to the turning spool in order to act as a friction brake against it. It can be as simple as a flat spring pressing against the edge of the spool, or as sophisticated as a complicated arrangement of leather and Teflon discs. Properly set drag allows larger and more powerful fish to be safely brought to boat and landed, as the drag will "slip" below the breaking point of the line, but in combination with the angle of the rod, it puts relentless pressure on the fish, quickly tiring it. As a rough general rule, drag is nominally set at about one-half of the line's breaking strength. It can be adjusted up or down as needed by the fisherman while playing a fish, though it takes practice to do this without adding too much drag which frequently results in a broken line and a lost fish.
- James A. Henshall, Book of the Black Bass: Comprising Its Complete Scientific and Life History, Together with a Practical Treatise on Angling and Fly Fishing and a Full Description of Tools, Tackle and Implements (Montgomery, Ala: Bass Anglers Sportsman Society of America, Inc, 1987).
- American Museum of Fly Fishing and Jim Brown. A Treasury of Reels: The Fishing Reel Collection of the American Museum of Fly Fishing. Manchester, Vt: The Museum, 1990. ISBN 9780962511110.
- Bates, Joseph D. Fishing; An Encyclopedic Guide to Tackle and Tactics for Fresh and Salt Water. New York: Outdoor Life, 1973. ISBN 9780876901090.
- Henshall, James A. Book of the Black Bass: Comprising Its Complete Scientific and Life History, Together with a Practical Treatise on Angling and Fly Fishing and a Full Description of Tools, Tackle and Implements. Montgomery, Ala: Bass Anglers Sportsman Society of America, Inc, 1987.
- Silva, Gregory J. E-Z Reel: An Electronic Fishing Reel. Thesis (B.S.)—California Polytechnic State University, 1999, 1999.
- Turner, Graham. Fishing Tackle: A Collector's Guide. London: Ward Lock, 1989. ISBN 9780706368390.
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