A casting reel vs spinning reel argument is like comparing a hammer and a screwdriver. Both are distinctly different tools that have different uses. To the uninitiated anglers out there, neither is better than the other—just different in what you should use them for.
The spinning reel is easily the most popular of the two. You can see that just by walking into a sporting goods store. Compare all the rod combos for sale equipped with spinning reels to everything else. You’ll find that most are equipped with spinning reels.
Casting reels have a much more illustrious history, having existed in one form or another for centuries. Casting reels are the go-to reels for big fish, especially when it comes to surf fishing. Why is it important to understand the difference? Because you should have a tool for every task, and knowing which one to use will make you a better angler.
Casting Reels vs Spinning Reels – What’s the Difference
Casting reels sit on top of the rod and have a horizontal spool. Casting reels feature a braking system and a thumb button for line control. Speaking of line control, it’s probably the most complicated factor for a new angler switching from a spinning reel to a casting reel.
When you cast, you have to use your thumb physically brake the line and stop it when your bait reaches its maximum trajectory. Allowing the line to feather against the skin of your thumb gives you a feel for each cast. It requires a little finesse, and you may turn your casting reel into a bird’s nest of line the first few times you cast it.
A casting reel utilizes a magnetic braking system that determines how rapidly the line unspools when you cast. It also has a customizable rate of line retrieval, which you can change by rotating a “pinwheel-looking” knob beneath the handle.
A spinning reel is the best choice for beginner anglers. It mounts on the bottom of the rod and features a spool that runs parallel to the rod. When you cast, you release the bail, and the line flows off of an unmoving spool.
When your bait reaches its zenith (its energy is exhausted and falling back down), you flip the bail, locking the line in place. It sounds more complicated than a casting reel, but it isn’t. Once you reengage the bail, you can reel the line in with little effort.
Unlike a casting reel, your only adjustment feather is the drag on your line (how easily your line is drawn from the spool). Since the spool doesn’t move on a spinning reel, the bail rotates around the spool, pistoning up and down as it rotates, collecting and evenly distributing the line on the spool.
Differences between casting and spinning reels
The physical differences stand out more than anything else. Casting reels are a little larger, mounted on top of the rod, with a spinning spool. Spinning reels are parallel to the rod, mounted on the bottom, and sometimes larger, depending on the intended use of the reel.
The bail on the spinning rod ruins any kind of streamlined aesthetic, even in the smaller, spinning reel variations. If a fish runs, a casting reel will unspool, with the entire piece spinning and the line feeding out through the guides.
If a fish runs on a spinning reel, the bail doesn’t spin. The line feeds off the corner of the bail, flowing off the side of the spool. It feels different, mostly due to one reel sitting on top of the rod and one sitting on the bottom.
When it comes to casting, there is a lot more speed and finesse involved with a casting reel than a spinning reel, mostly because you have quicker control options with your thumb. On a spinning reel, you either flip the bail or you don’t—your options are fairly limited.
Larger casting reels, for deepwater fishing, don’t even really cast. It’s more of a “drop the bait and pray you’re quick enough when the weight hits the bottom to catch the line with your thumb.” Otherwise, you’ll get a nasty bird’s nest (backlash).
When to use each reel
In one way or another, you can use each reel for many of the same things, provided you make adjustments for some of the drawbacks. Spinning reels are very difficult to use for a lot of topwater applications while traditional casting reels are more difficult to cast over and over again.
Uses for a casting reel
Casting reels give you an advantage when using heavier and larger lures or when going after bigger fish. When it comes to deep sea fishing, it’s rare to see a spinning reel on board because they just aren’t practical when dropping bait in a fish hole.
All of your big game fish like Marlin, Wahoo, Mahi Mahi, large grouper, etc.
Uses for a spinning reel
Spinning reels are at their best with casual fishing and for beginner anglers. Spinning reels are good for lightweight to moderate weight fish in fresh water and for things like redfish and speckled trout in brackish water.
They also make more sense for bottom fishing, with a simple weight and bobber set up for catfish and other bottom feeders (yes, catfish don’t always feed on the bottom—we know).
Pros and cons of casting reels
Casting reels and spinning reels are as different as night and day. But their differences are in their uses. The former requires practice and dexterity while the latter helps you learn both before you’re ready to make the jump.
- Adjustable cranking speed
- Better for live bait
- Make good trolling reels
- More power and casting distance
- Better casting accuracy
- Larger casting reels are heavy and awkward
- A lot of potential for backlash when you’re a beginner
- Manual line retrieval on most
Pros and cons of spinning reels
Spinning reels are easily the most popular and much of that is probably related to their low-cost. However, spinning reels are useful in a lot of fishing applications. It’s also relatively easy to cast and perfect for new anglers to get a feel for everything.
- Come in a wide variety of sizes
- Have a lot of line capacity
- Great for beginners
- Perfect for light to moderate weight fish
- Difficult to cast one-handed
- Difficult to use for certain fishing applications
- Requires more maintenance
Anglers who predominately fish with casting reels generally frown on spinning reels, and that makes sense in a way. The problem is, that the spinning reel is not inherently inferior to a casting reel, it just doesn’t have any business being used to drop a line in a fishing hole in the Gulf of Mexico.
The same is true in reverse. You’re not going to see someone down at the local catfish pond with a casting reel—a baitcasting reel, maybe, but not a casting reel. Spinning reels also teach new anglers how to fish. It’s the difference between teaching a kid how to drive an automatic or starting them off on a stick shift.
Old school moms and dads know the answer to that last, but it belies the point. Both reels have their uses, and spinning reels are more useful for casual fishing, which is what many anglers spend their time doing, year in and year out. Casting reels are good for seasoned anglers, going after the big one.
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