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Baitcasting reel

Make no mistake, the most primitive tools will catch fish, including a stick of bamboo, some fishing line and a hook, but the angler’s desire to catch more and bigger fish drives a major industry. Think about the equipment that is available to the angling public: boats, motors, fish finders, rods, reels, lines, tackle, apparel and so much more.

One of those categories is fishing reels, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big enough to land blue marlin, and some are designed for the smallest panfish. Just one of those fishing reel types is a baitcasting reel. Probably best known for some of the most hideous backlashes imaginable, the baitcasting reel also is recognized by accomplished users as the most powerful and efficient reel type available for catching freshwater gamefish.

Many aspiring anglers have picked up a baitcasting reel only to put it back on the garage shelf after the third consecutive backlash. Picking at loops of line and/or eventually cutting out a fresh spool of line in a freshly blown-up baitcaster can be demoralizing. As with many things, practice makes perfect, and there is some satisfaction in being proficient with this precarious fishing reel. Once comfortable, an angler can place a larger sized bait on a dime from 50-plus feet away; and then, winch double-digit-sized bass from the nastiest cover. 

The first baitcaster I bought was a red Ambassadeur 4500 when I was about 14 years old. After saving up some hard-earned money from cutting grass, this was like getting a new boat or car. I honestly may have slept with it the first night after bringing it home. I couldn’t wait to get it rigged up on a rod and go to work.

The thumb bar made it appear as if it worked just like an old push button, but I had been forewarned that it was not going to be that easy. After going through a few minor backlashes, as well as a few really bad ones, I started to get the feel for when to apply pressure with my thumb on the spool. More pressure was good to avoid the spool overrunning, but my bait didn’t go 15 feet. With less pressure, the bait took off like a rocket, but the spool occasionally spun so fast that the dreaded line loops began to roll up. One trick was to recognize that the bait was slowing down, and I needed to press down on the spool before it landed. 

The Ambassadeur was a top-of-the-line reel for bass fishing at the time. Equipment has improved by leaps and bounds since then. Reels are lighter, faster and more forgiving with advanced materials and braking systems that make baitcasters an option for anyone.

There are two main components to setting up a baitcaster to match casting ability with a given bait. The first is a braking system. On a right-handed baitcaster, the braking system is on the left side plate of the reel. Many of the reels have a dial ranging from zero to 10 with zero being essentially no braking and 10 being the maximum amount of braking. As the line rolls off the reel during a cast, internal brakes slow the spool down. This sounds great, and it is – for early baitcaster learners – but a reel with a brake setting of 10 limits casting distance significantly. 

Other reels have internal brakes that can be adjusted inside the reel. By lifting or removing the side plate on the reel, the brakes can be set active or inactive, according to the user’s preference. The ultimate goal is to reach a point with the least amount of braking and still making efficient casts with little to no loose line on the spool.  

When starting out with a baitcaster, it’s best to turn the braking system up higher than you might expect to need. Begin making short casts and thumbing the spool slightly. With each cast, slowly turn the braking down in small increments. If loose line starts to jump up on the spool, it may be time to turn the brakes back up some for now. 

The other key component that I constantly fiddle with on my reels is the spool tension knob. The spool tension knob is a small round knob underneath the handle and drag star. Tightening the spool tension knob has a similar effect as turning up the brakes on the reel, but it’s more of a fine-tuning mechanism. Most of my reels are set at similar braking levels, regardless of the bait size.

Assuming the braking system is in a comfortable spot, the spool tension knob can be backed off to allow the spool to spin more freely, improving casting distance. As with braking, turning the knob too far back can be risky. Oftentimes, a slight turn of the knob can be the difference between a perfectly clean cast and a speedy spool leading to overrun.

Work in small, incremental changes to the knob while trying casts. Too much loose line and it probably needs to be tightened back some as with the braking system.  

Try holding the rod up with the bait dangling just below the tip. Press the thumb bar with thumb on the line. Lift your thumb from the spool and see if the bait begins to fall. A good guideline to start would be a setting where the bait falls ever so slowly with no thumb pressure on the spool. Stop the spool by applying thumb pressure; then, engage the reel handle. 

When practicing casts, long, smooth, deliberate sweeps of the rod are more forgiving. One of my favorites is a roll cast with the rod to my side, sweeping across sideways rather than overhead. It’s a more fluid delivery without introducing slack line mid-cast, and it allows for a softer bait landing.  

Practicing for fishing doesn’t always require water. Casting accuracy is a key element in successful fishing. Fortunately, by just setting up a few targets in a garage or the back yard, you could improve casting skills. Eventually, casts get better and better with much less time spent pulling out loose line. I like to practice with an old bait, like a jig, and just cut the hook off, so it doesn’t hang or, in our case, one of the pets doesn’t think it’s a toy. 

Greg Vinson is a full-time professional angler on the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour. He lives in Wetumpka and grew up fishing on Lake Martin.