Important note: This article from 2017 is now obsolete. A 2020 edition will come next year, meanwhile if you need recommendations contact me.
What reel; 2017 Edition
You're probably cursing my lazy heinie now after I missed 3 announced posting dates over the past month, but I wasn't being lazy at all. I just underestimated the work required for this article and fell behind, then I was forced to interrupt writing for a while as I provided a compensated consultation work in a legal dispute. I apologise and I'l be more calculating in the future when I set a date.
This guide was supposed to be an annual thing, but I decided to skip it last year for a good reason; two years ago when I wrote the first edition of this guide I did not think much of it, but surprisingly it went to become the most read page of narrated content on the entire site for almost two years, dropping to third only recently after I added a note on top that it has become obsolete. Amazingly, even with the note it still gets more than 7000 hits a month
This meant that the following edition needed to be able to stand the test of time, which wouldn't have been the case had I written it last year. 2016 will forever be known to me as "Year of the Reel" because of the unprecedented number of important releases that came that year. Had I gone ahead and written this article in 2016 without including these new releases, the article would have become obsolete quickly and those reading it would be getting outdated information. I needed time to get my hands on a large number of reels, test them, review some, and only then I could post this second edition. I finally feel that I'm ready to do it.
You probably know the drill, but quickly, this article mirrors my thought process as I answer readers looking for tackle recommendations. It differs significantly from the Top Picks, which is cold numbers purely reflecting quality and performance, with the subcategories of these two main headlines. An analogy would be list of the best cars in the world, where the top spots would be taken by beautifully made high performance cars, but when a dad seeks a car to drive the family around a busy city these top cars would not be the right choice, even if he can afford them. Similarly, this article is my personal opinion of what reels suit particular needs, and how each compares to other options. When looking for a reel recommendation, I encourage you to read this article first before contacting me because it might provide you with an instant answer instead of waiting 24-48 hours to hear from me. Of course if you don't find your answer here you are -as always- most welcome to send your questions via the contact form. When you do that please include the following information to make things quicker and easier; your fishing technique, target fish species, expected average catch size, budget, and any relevant criteria you have.
Finally, some small bits will be things you've seen before, because this needs to be a stand-alone article that does not require new readers to read the previous edition. Since this will be mostly text-only, I'll be breaking the text with random images for easier reading. Please read the whole thing because some categories intersect, and you might find the reel you seek in a section other than the one you expect it to be in. Now, and to quote the beginning of one of my all time favourite movies; Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.....Traaa lalaa ♪♫♬
Lower end, standard reels
"Standard" refers to the common configuration of a spinning reel, which is neither a long spool long cast reel nor a free-lining type. These types have their own sections further down.
Once upon a time there used to be many competing reels in this category, then a tidal wave swept it in the form of the 2016 Daiwa BG. Daiwa's in-house manufacturing capacity allowed them to make a budget reel with the exact same bearings found in the world's most expensive high end reels, a high grade anti-reverse, an anodised metal frame, the ATD drag found in the 2015 Saltiga, and a smart gear design that injects extra strength and durability into a low cost gearing.
High speed reels built on a budget usually don't score high on the longevity scale, because of the extra working cycles of the pinion and the sliding motion (translates to friction and wear) involved in the operation of the gears. This makes the new BG a unique reel, being a budget high speed reel that is actually of high quality. The cheapest high speed quality reel after the BG is the Shimano Biomaster SW, which belongs in a different price category at more than twice the price of the Daiwa. Of course the BG remains a budget reel that has its limitations, therefore I rate the biggest sizes 6500 and 8000 for fish up to 30kg (~65lb) only. When used within its limitation, the reel has a surprisingly below average failure rate according to the reports I've received since it was released. I do receive reports from fishermen around the world and make rough estimates of failure rates of different reels, and these usually fall into three categories; average, below average, and above average, and when a reel falls into that third category I raise alarm and take the affected reel off any lists etc. The BG's below average failure rate is a testament not only to the manufacturing quality, but also to the consistency in reproducing that exact quality one batch after another.
Since Japanese tackle companies like to make everyone's life difficult, a few months after I reviewed the BG they released a JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) version, which is built to lower standards than the regular export BG. Differentiating the two versions at a distance is not the easiest thing in the world since there is no glaring external difference, but if you can hold the reel you can tell which version it is by the way the handle attaches to the body; the export version has a screw-in handle, while the JDM version has the cheaper hexagonal shaft design. It might also help to know that the lower quality JDM version comes in sizes from 3500 to 5000 only (at the time of writing), with some of them being low speed models (4.9:1 gear ratio) named 3500, 4000, and 4500, while the rest of them are high speed models (5.7:1 gear ratio) that have an "H" in the model and are named 3500H, 4000H, 4500H, and 5000H. If you are buying online and unsure which version it is, send me the link and I'll find out for you. Needless to say that the BG I speak about throughout this article and recommend is the export version.
While by default the BG is the reel to go to if you're looking for a budget beach, pier, or light-medium inshore reel, you might still need to look elsewhere if you definitely know that the high speed gear ratio of the BG will not work for you. That "elsewhere" would be the very decent Shimano Socorro SW. This reel was introduced as a part of the response of tackle companies to today's better informed fishermen who became aware of what makes a good reel, and demanded more value for their money. The Socorro SW comes with Shimano's well known cold forged drive gear with surface coating, only assembled in a less costly way that does not affect performance in this grade of reels. It also has a tried and tested proprietary anti-reverse clutch, and a carbon fibre drag washer. I rate the Socorro SW lower than the BG because of its full plastic body, as well as the hexagonal shaft handle attachment. Nevertheless I found it to be well designed and a convincing performer when used within its limitations, which I would set as fish up to 18kg (~40lb) for the 8000 and 10000 sizes. I loved it when I tested it, and I would've reviewed it had I not decided to review a freshwater Shimano built on a very similar platform soon. My first recommendation in this category would be the BG, but if it's too fast for you the slower Socorro SW is the next best thing.
In the past reels such as Fin-Nor Lethal 25 to 80, the Okuma Azores, and the Penn Battle 2 would've had a place in here, but not anymore. We have moved past the times where these generic reels were the best we could get in this slice. If though you have mysterious reasons that prevent you from buying a BG or a Socorro SW, those three reels are the next best thing. I'm using "next" here loosely because there is a big drop in performance and build quality from the BG and Socorro SW to the small Lethals, the Azores, and the Battle 2.
That's it in this category as far as modern reels are concerned, but there are also quality reels of classic design still being produced. These reels have ratchet anti-reverse (not instant), and are not very braid friendly due to their older designs, yet they offer great durability and reliability for little money. These are the original Daiwa's Black Gold (1981 model), and Daiwa SS Tournament series. When you fish braid on these traditional reels, make it a habit to regularly examine the line roller to make sure it rotates freely, and clean and lube the roller a bit more frequently to make sure it continues to spin. If the line roller stops spinning the braid will cut into it like a saw damaging both the line roller and the braid itself.
Time to break the chunks of text with a picture
Actually it's a mini-rant. In a recent review I posted a catch picture, something I seldom do to illustrate a certain point. Within hours I received criticism from people saying things such as they were "appalled by the disrespect for the catch" or that I was "giving fishermen a bad name", and such outlandish abuse as calling me "the ugly voice of blood sport"! I didn't know if that was organic or some antis' page was sending these people, but anyway I edited the review quickly to explain why the fish was bloodied and assert my respect for the catch. Still I remain annoyed that anyone would attack someone like that without having the full facts. I rarely post fish pictures to avoid arguments about what people think I should have released or kept, debates about the legality of landing something even though no one can possibly know the laws where I fished, and similar headaches that I suffered in the days of blog postings. Still, if and when I do that, I expect people to trust that I act conscientiously and ethically. If they haven't already learned this about me then I don't even know why they're still on this site to begin with.
Rant over. Moving on.
Mid range, standard reels
Firstly I want to deal with the spawns of the 2016 Daiwa BG, which are priced within this mid-range slice. Please note that there used to be older reels carrying some of these model names, but these have been discontinued. I am talking here about the current models, which are easily identifiable because they look identical to the 2016 Daiwa BG externally, except for the different colour schemes.
Daiwa Saltist - The exact same reel as the BG, with the following differences
* A more streamlined bail wire joint
* A washer around the handle's opening for protection against water intrusion
* A mag-seal around the pinion
* A mag-sealed ball bearing in the line roller
Daiwa Saltist Nero - The exact same reel as the BG, with the following differences
* A more streamlined bail wire joint
* A washer around the handle's opening for protection against water intrusion
* A mag-seal around the pinion
Daiwa Saltist LTD - The exact same reel as the BG, with the following differences
* A more streamlined bail wire joint
* A washer around the handle's opening for protection against water intrusion
* A mag-seal around the pinion
* A mag-sealed ball bearing in the line roller
* A round metal handle grip on ball bearings
* The body is painted, NOT anodised.
This is it. Everything else in these reels is exactly the same as in the BG, including the gearing. The hype surrounding the Saltist LTD in particular is the textbook making of a royal fiasco. We are talking about a reel with the same body of the BG, same gearing, same main shaft, same rotor, same drag, same anti-reverse clutch, yet somehow it's being promoted as a reel with mighty capabilities. The Saltist LTD is only capable of what a BG is capable of, except for being able to handle more wetness because of the added handle washer and the mag seals. Otherwise it has zero advantage in capability over the BG or the other spawns, and I would say that having a painted body is a disadvantage for the LTD when compared to the anodised finish of the BG, Saltist, and Saltist Nero. The Saltist LTD is coloured like a an Expedition, which makes it super sexy, but it does not make it perform like an Expedition or give it any operational advantage over its $90 cousin. I hate this part where I call out the rubbish marketing and hype because I enjoy positivity more than negativity and criticism, but if I did not do it no one else would, because people either do not know or do not want to voice scepticism then get attacked for it.
Now you have the facts about the BG spawns, make your own minds about their value for money and if any is worth it. My personal view is that none of the spawns is worth the money since they offer no real advantage over the BG, and instead they get you stuck with the mag-seals. As explained in the past a mag-sealed part should only be cleaned with freshwater, and great care should be taken to avoid contact with lubes or solvents, then of course if you ever need to service the mag-seals or parts behind them you will be forced to use Daiwa's own service centres. Maintenance precautions and service headache make these reels a bad choice in my book, and I'd rather stick to the excellent BG which has no mag-seals, and one can always give it extra protection against water by inserting a washer around the handle opening or even greasing that area.
The Spheros SW is the pillar of this category, and to me it's the default reel to buy unless you have a commanding reason not to. It's fully sealed with some sealing elements similar to those of the Stella. It has the proven almite-coated cold forged drive gear, also similar to that of the Stella except with a different coating. It has Shimano's second tier proprietary anti-reverse clutch, having been used in pre-2001 Stella and in current expensive reels right below the Stella. It has quality carbon drag washers. The line roller runs on a ball bearing as it should. The line lay is beautiful which translates to excellent casting. And the drag knob's pressure disc is metal to resist heat. The reel has been such a success story that sometimes I commit the sin of ending my emails to people seeking lower end reels by saying "and if you can spend a little more and move into the mid-range, get a Spheros SW because it's a worthy jump in quality". Its a highly versatile reel that works for a wide range of applications, as long as it's fished within the proper limitations of each size. Its potential negatives are being a heavy reel, and its parallel foot which would not work well with rods having unusually close or small first guide. If these traits will be a problem for you then look elsewhere. As have been established, Japanese companies just love torturing our existence, therefore Shimano makes a JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) version of this reel which is cheaper, but it has a lower grade cast drive gear. You need to avoid it and stick to the regular export version, which is the one I recommend and speak about throughout this article. Thankfully this time the lower quality JDM version is easily identified by the fact that it comes in HG and PG models, and also by the different handle stem as seen in the following image
The Saragosa SW is the older sibling of the Spheros SW. I list the differences between the two reels in the Spheros SW's review, but in a nutshell they are very similar reels sharing the same build and materials, except that the Saragosa SW has a more capable drag located beneath the spool as opposed to a simple top stack drag in the Spheros SW. Other differences in the Saragosa SW are an extra ball bearing, a streamlined bail wire connection, a different handle design, and a backup anti-reverse in the 20k and 25k sizes. Choosing between them depends on what you will be doing, and what your priorities are. For example a certain size and type of fish could be landed on a Saragosa SW 10000, but if you move to the Spheros SW you might need to step up in size to the 20000 to make up for the difference in drag power. In such case you'd need to decide if having the smaller and lighter Saragosa 10k is worth the extra money over the bigger and heavier Spheros 20k or not. The decision would be much easier though if you need more line capacity than a 20k size has, since the Saragosa comes in 25k size and the Spheros does not. Similarly the choice would be simple if you need a high speed reel, because some sizes of Saragosa SW come in high gear ratio while all Spheros SW sizes are standard speed. The Saragosa SW 8000 is one of my more frequent recommendations for those seeking a quality high speed reel without venturing into the pricey high end territory, of course when their expected catch size corresponds correctly to the reel's size. As mentioned earlier, budget high speed reels of good quality are not too many.
Another excellent mid-range reel is the Quantum Cabo PTSE, and you should make sure you are getting the current PTSE generation, not the old PTSD. Both generations look identical and share almost every part, except that the PTSE has upgraded drive gear and pinion. In PTSE sizes 40 to 80 you get a stainless steel pinion and a brass drive gear, while in the PTSE 100/120 you get a brass pinion and a stainless steel drive gear. In the old PTSD the pinions were brass and drive gears were zinc. You won't find the generation printed externally on the reel's body, but if you remove the spool you should see a printing on the rotor of either "PTSE" or "PTSD". Just like the previous generation, the Cabo PTSE sizes 60 and up have full metal bodies and rotors, while the 40/50 have metal bodies but with plastic rotor. This reel is very durable with a top quality drag that comprises main discs beneath the spool and secondary ones in a top stack. You might remember how impressed I was with the world class smoothness of the drag in the review of the old PTSD, which is exactly how I feel about the identical drag of the PTSE.
Choosing between the Cabo and the and Saragosa SW is one of those cases where you won't go wrong either way, because both are superb reels. It's just a matter of knowing your fishing conditions and specific needs. If you are looking into medium sizes, 60/80 Cabo and the equivalent 8k/10k Saragosa, the choice would be between the full sealing of the Shimanos and the stiffness of the metal rotor of the Quantums. The Saragosa has a plastic rotor and a plastic gearbox attached to the metal frame, and while strong and very well designed, there is no denying that the metal structure of the Cabo flexes less under pressure. If your medium sized reel will be heavily drenched or sprayed in a moving boat's gunnel, go with the Saragosa. If the wettest your reel will get is occasional light splashes, then the Cabo is the way to go. The bigger Cabos though are a different story. The 100/120 are still not fully sealed, yet they have better protection against water intrusion than the smaller Cabos. They also have a backup anti-reverse which is not in the smaller ones. These traits give the Cabo 100/120 a clear edge over the equivalent Saragosa SW 20k/25k, because of the Cabos' full metal construction.
Then we have the Quantum Boca PTSE in 100 and 120 sizes, which are excellent value for money. The Boca 100/120 are the exact same reels as the Cabo 100/120, only with a simpler top stack drag. These big Cabo and Boca reels have the same gearing, same full metal body, same backup anti-reverse, and the same impressive line capacity. In this 100/120 size class, the relation between Boca and Cabo is similar to the relation between the Spheros SW and Saragosa SW; practically the same reel only with a different drag design and capability. Note that the smaller Boca reels are NOT on the same level as the small Cabo. What I said applies only to the Boca 100/120. As is the case with the Spheros and Saragosa, choosing between the Boca 100/120 and the Cabo 100/120 depends on what exactly you will do with the reel and the size and type of your catch. I keep repeating "type" of fish in conjunction with size because fish fight differently and challenge a reel and its drag in different ways. For example a big striped bass puts minimal fight and it's basically like reeling a wet rag, a Tarpon jumps and does crazy head shakes that more likely than not will make it break loose, a GT is like a fighter jet with powerful bursts at the beginning of the fight but then it loses a lot of steam, while a bluefin tuna is a nuclear submarine that never seems to run out of power. Choosing a reel is not always about a fish's size only, but in many cases the characteristics of the fish is a deciding factor as well.
So far I've mentioned two quality high speed reels, the 2016 Daiwa BG in the lower end, and some Saragosa models in the mid-range. The third quality high speed reel that does not cost an arm and a leg is the Biomaster SW, whose different sizes come in a combination of standard speed (PG), high speed (HG), and extreme speed (XG). Things are about to get confusing, so bear with me. The current generation of Biomaster SW is the 2013 one, which is quite similar to the old Stradic FJ except that the Biomaster SW comes in high gear ratios and in more saltwater sizes. What I've just said describes 2013 Biomaster SW in 4000, 5000, 8000, and 10000 sizes only. In 2016 though they released the 6000 size Biomaster SW in three speeds, but this 6000 size is of a radically different design than the other sizes. These 6000 reels have a body shaped like the Saragosa/Spheros, are fully sealed, and have a locomotive oscillation system. On the other hand the rest of the Biomaster SW reels, or the 2013 ones, are not sealed and have a worm gear oscillation. All Biomaster SW sizes have a simple top stack drag like the Spheros SW, and all remain excellent reels with one size being sealed as a bonus. If the Biomaster SW is sold in your country and you want a high speed reel but don't need the extra drag power of the Saragosa SW, compare its price and ergonomics to the Saragosa SW and see which is a better package for you.
The Fin-Nor Lethal 100 continues to be one of the best values for money out there. A full metal reel with a smooth drag utilising carbon washers, ball bearing line roller, a very durable drivetrain made of machined brass and stainless steel, and a mechanical backup anti-reverse which is commonly found in reels that cost much more. It has its limitations though; as highlighted in its review the line lay isn't exemplary which affects casting distance to a degree, and I consider it a medium duty reel fit for most inshore tasks, and a lot of offshore work that isn't on the heavier side. Although not as powerful as the big Cabos or Saragosas, for the price the Lethal 100 is an unrivalled value for various styles of fishing short of full fledged heavy jobs.
Time for a break, and if you're in a relationship skip it because you're not supposed to ogle women
How lovely is this? Not just the girl, but her intricate dress, the Bavarian beer, and the celebratory atmosphere. I heard about Oktoberfest in the past, but for some reason I thought it's a bunch of people who get drunk and "fist" each other, which wasn't very appealing considering my strict policies regarding what people can do with my butt. Recently though I was on a Lufthansa flight, and they had a documentary about Oktoberfest in the in-flight entertainment, which basically blew my mind. Gorgeous women in sexy traditional attire, special local beers, delicious food, festivities of all sorts, and the heritage and history of the event all participated in creating an overwhelming desire to be there one day. It was too late for me to attend this year because of work commitments so I just looked up pictures online, but I will most likely be there next year. If around that time I posted naked pictures of myself or announced that I'll begin reviewing Black Forest Cuckoo clocks, don't panic. I'd probably just be getting tipsy over there and posting rubbish!
That's about everything you need to look into in this mid-range slice. The overpriced and completely redundant Sustain FG has thankfully been discontinued, Okuma's Raw and Salina of all generations are not the heavy duty reels they are hyped to be, and Penn's Slammer 3 is a joke at this price with its incomplete sealing, plastic drag pressure disc, and the troublesome bushing line roller. Just to mention a few of the most frequently asked about reels.
The above concerns modern designs only, but as with the lower end category, this mid-range has a couple of very decent classic designs
The Z series is pretty much the only Penn reel I still like, particularly after they discontinued the original Torque and replaced it with a downgraded version for more money. The 704Z and 706Z which have been reintroduced a few years ago are every bit as good as the original ones, most of which have been serving owners for decades. They have a worm gear drive train which is at a disadvantage in efficiency, yet it operates with the trademark smoothness and fluid feel of that gearing, which other gear types used in reels can't match. Looking at the build quality and materials it won't surprise me if these reels last even longer than the original ones. Being a classic design though the anti-reverse is a ratchet type (not instant), and faithful to the original reels this anti-reverse engages the drive gear instead of the pinion as in modern designs. This makes the reels unsuitable for heavy work that puts a lot of pressure on the mechanism, since the gear meshing area would bear the stress of braking due to the fact that the anti-reverse is stopping the drive gear. For most light applications though when you need a very simple and easily maintainable reel that would be handed down to your children, the Z series won't disappoint.
The second classic design that I still recommend is the 2016 Fin-Nor Offshore, which was released last year to replace the original 2006 model. Despite being a downgrade in my view due to the annoying new spool finish highlighted in the review, the 2016 Offshore still offers a lot of strength for very little money. Actually in terms of sheer toughness only a handful of reels can match or beat the Offshore, and these cost much more. The reel is heavy and clunky, and it has a ratchet anti-reverse as well, although this time it engages the rotor for proper strength. If you are moving into heavier duty fishing on a tight budget, this is a great reel as long as casting distance is not of paramount importance to you. That horrid new spool finish tangibly affects casting, and I hate them for doing this to one of my favourite budget reels.
Or "bait-runner" reels as they are often called. The "Stella" of this category is the Baitrunner CI4+ XTR-A, which combines a long cast spool with the reliable freespool mechanism that made Shimano's "Baitrunner" become the informal name of all free-lining reels. Top grade construction, great ergonomics, and the worm gear driven slow oscillation powers its impressive long casting capabilities. I fished this reel at higher drag settings than I usually use on long spool reels, and it handled it without an issue thanks to the CI4+ construction which to me is every bit as good as Daiwa's Zaion plastic. Next to it comes the Thunnus CI4, which is similarly a high quality reel but has a standard spool instead of a long cast one, and the oscillation is a standard speed locomotive design. Choosing between these two top reels depends mainly on whether you need a long cast spool or not, but also on where you live because they aren't sold in all markets. Buying a reel from overseas could leave you without warranty, and might cause difficulties or incur extra costs for service.
In third place comes the Baitrunner XTB LC, which is another hybrid free-liner/long-cast reel, although built with more economical features, most notably the hexagonal shaft handle attachment instead of a screw-in one, and in standard plastic instead of the carbon infused CI4/CI4+. It come with high grade gearing though, and overall a very solid performer. Again, if it's not available locally try sticking to locally sold reels for warranty and hassle free service. My test piece was a dealer sample that came all the way from Australia so it will certainly be sold there, but not sure which other markets will get it.
These above mentioned reels are built to withstand high frequency fishing or reeling against currents which can take its toll on reels, but if you will be fishing occasionally or not doing particularly challenging work you might look at lower tier reels. The Baitrunner D and Baitrunner OC are good such candidates, and I personally recommend the OC over the D because it's cheaper. They are the same reel for all intents and purposes, but the OC has a standard bail wire connection instead of the one piece bail wire of the D, which is a nonsensical difference in this grade of reels. You will hear all sort of rumours about the D having better gearing or bearings etc, but it's all wrong. The only tangible difference is the bail wire style, therefore go with the OC and save some money, unless you really need the 12000 size which is available in the Baitrunner D but not in the OC. Note here that the Baitrunner OC is sold in some market as "Baitrunner Oceanic", and under the Oceanic name it does come in the 12000 size. The OC and Oceanic are the exact same reel.
You do not need to look at anything else. I hate to see one brand having a complete dominance in a particular category, but facts are facts, and Shimano is dominant in this style of reels.
James Purdey Bicentennial trio, made for the company's 200th anniversary. A SxS shotgun, O/U shotgun made of Damascus-patterned steel, and an African SxS double rifle. In a specially crafted cabinet the trio was auctioned for a secret price, but rumours put it around 2 million dollars. To me Purdey's weapons are the pinnacle of all human creations and the zenith of hand craftsmanship. Firearms are my other passion, and if they weren't hard to move and transfer I'd be ruffling feathers with firearms' reviews too. You think fishing industry is dirty? You haven't seen the absolute filth of firearms industry; Beretta claims to be 500 years old when in reality it made its first complete gun in 1850s, sponsored shills bully people who complain that early Remington V3 shotguns vent hot gasses into their faces, Glock refuses to help shooters whose Gen4 slides rusted, manufacturers' help forums always make it the user's or ammo's fault and never the gun's failure, and scientific fallacies intentionally spread to cover shortcomings. One such example is claims that springs of permanently cocked pistols will never weaken because "fatigue is only caused by cycles of compression and decompression", when in reality a static compressed spring will weaken because of stress relaxation. It's one thing to conceal your product's deficiencies, but it takes a special type of sleaze to spread junk science that trusting listeners will take with them to other aspects of life. I once joked that it looks like firearms manufacturers scout for scummy shills on fishing sites, then take them to work for them on even higher levels of sleaze!
The definition of a "surf reel" is quite illusive. Actually there is no universal definition since what makes one differs from a person to another. For some people a surf reel is a dedicated distance casting reel and nothing else would suffice, for others it must be a reel that is sealed like a submarine so they can reel it underwater, for a third group it should be able to chew sand without an issue, etc. I will just go by my personal opinion on what makes some reels viable surf tools, but reels in other categories might fit your own style of surf fishing as well.
The Penn Z would make great surf reels because of their simple construction. They can be subjected to harsh treatment by elements associated with beach fishing, including even occasional brief submersions, as long as you'll open and clean them once you're home. It takes exactly 2 minutes to open the side cover, spray internals with WD-40 or any good solvent, then cover the gears with grease and put it back together. Well, maybe it will take you a bit longer, but my personal best is exactly 1:56 and I bet many can beat it.
There is no bigger proof of Spheros SW's incredible versatility than the fact that it also makes it here as a great surf reel choice. It's fully sealed and is able to take continuous heavy drenching or a quick dunk every now and then, without needing anything more than external tap water rinsing when you're done. The gearing can take punishment of retrieving lures or landing fish against surf currents. And it casts very well for a standard (non long cast) reel. Over the years I've recommended this reel for surf fishermen whose criteria matched what the Spheros SW has to offer, and many of them would later express high satisfaction with its performance. As mentioned earlier, make sure you get the export version and avoid the JDM one. The Saragosa SW has the same traits as the Spheros SW, but you are unlikely to need the extra drag power for surf fishing, unless you're after particularly large species.
The Van Staal VM275 would perform similarly. I hold it in very high regard because of its full sealing and high quality build, but considering the price and what the competition has to offer there is no good reason to buy one for surf use. If you already have one though go ahead and fish it as you'd fish a Spheros SW in the surf. The smaller VM150 though is not fully sealed.
For those whose surf needs are primarily tightly sealed reels that can be reeled underwater, I used to recommend the Van Staal X surf reels, but not anymore. The Van Staal X remains as good as it gets for this sort of fishing, but there is simply no need to spend that sort of money when we have the Van Staal VR reels. I began testing the VR a couple of years ago, but then put it on hold to deal with "The Year of Reel", and now I'm finally able to pass a final judgement; the VR can do everything that the VSX models can do when it comes to surf fishing. I spoke about the history of the VR in the past and how it was originally made to compete with the best Van Staal has to offer, taking different names including "3 Tand Submariner" and "RK Sports Subaqua", before Van Staal company took it over and made it into the Van Staal VR. Strictly speaking about surf fishing, the VR indeed beats the VSX in my book, because it does everything the more expensive reel does but with a wider range drag. The only advantage VSX reels have is a more refined finish. I'm talking subtle things that only a highly trained eye would catch, but it's not something that you would notice, nor does it affect the reel's performance. I can't see a reason why you'd want to buy a VSX for surf fishing, unless maybe you were after the pride of ownership, which is something I understand and sometimes practice myself. What I've just said covers sizes from VR125 to VR200, because I have not yet had a chance to actually fish the new 50. I saw one though and I really think it's a cute little reel, but "cute" is not exactly a proper evaluation. I should voice an opinion of the 50 once I get to properly test it.
There isn't a single reason to buy a ZeeBaas reel. They cost much more than the competition, and in my opinion are inferior in most aspects. The company has recently changed ownership again and at the time of writing there appears to be no reels in stock at major retailers.
The following bit concerns a reel that I normally wouldn't talk about, but I'm doing it for my East Coast USA readers who ask about it a lot. The Tsunami Shield is a rebranded OEM reel that's sold bearing other brands such as Balzer Metallica Salza and Catking Ace, with varied optional cosmetics and bearing count, etc. There is nothing wrong with that since I have not seen any misrepresentation of origin by the company. I'm only stating facts here. Sizes 5000 and 6000 have seals at all possible water entry points, while 3000 and 4000 have areas without seals. I fished a blank unmarked reel a while back and found it to be an alright reel, although it remains an entry level one made of most basic grade components and parts. In the context of surf fishing, they should work, but do not expect any exceptional performance or longevity. It's a much wiser investment to pay a little more for the fully sealed and vastly superior Spheros SW, and if you don't need a fully sealed reel then the 2016 Daiwa BG is head and shoulders above the Shield. I almost feel bad saying this because Tsunami seems like a bunch of good people trying to offer a budget product, but it just happens that this reel has no specific advantage.
Long cast reels
This category has barely changed since the last edition. The Aero Technium XSB and XTB remain the undisputed top reels. The XSB has a standard high progression drag, while the XTB has what Shimano calls "Baitrunner Spool II", which is a dual-knob drag with one knob setting the range and the other changing the drag within that set range. I spent much of 2014's spring catching Dicentrarchus labrax on the XTB, and while I did not need the dual knob for that, I sometimes would free-spool to let the bait drift away with the tide.
One step below are the Aero Technium XSC and XTC, similarly with a standard high progression drag in the XSC and a "Baitrunner Spool II" drag in the XTC.
Daiwa's 2013 Tournament Surf 45 QD used to come next, but it's been discontinued. In general, Daiwa's top long cast models come with mag-seals now, and none offers anything that makes them worth the trouble of being chained to Daiwa's service centres. The reels are not even sealed. Just a mag-seal in the pinion and another in the line roller.
On the budget front, the Shimano Ultegra CI4+ XSB and Ultegra CI4+ XTB are ahead of similarly priced reels. They follow the same pattern with the XSB having a standard high progression drag, and the XTB having the "Baitrunner Spool II" drag. Note that the Ultegra CI4+ XSB is sold in some markets as "Ultegra CI4+", so look for the "XSB" in the model's code. If in doubt, email me the link and let me check it for you.
Below this no reels stand out, so you can choose from the rest of the pool based on your personal preference in ergonomics, capacity, ratio, features, price, etc. Well, there could be a single exception in this group if your fishing conditions are particularly wet, and that would be the Penn Spinfisher V LC (long cast). It doesn't have any advantage in quality over the rest of the pool, but it has more protection against water intrusion than other mainstream long cast reels. If your reel will be splashed repeatedly, the Penn would have an edge over the others.
Was at Kensal Green cemetery paying respects to someone, then decided to walk into the older parts of the place and take photos. It opened in 1832, and I actually saw graves as old as 1835. Standing there among statues of crying angels and similar, many thoughts crossed my head, some fascinating and some macabre. Thought about how the person mere feet from me has been laying there for more than 180 years as the world changed around him; he's been laying there since Victoria was a shy 16 years old girl still years away from rolling the British empire, since Abraham Lincoln was only 26 years old, and he continued to lay there with the crying angel statue above him gazing into space as the civil war and two world wars erupted and ended. Also thought that considering the size of the cemetery, there is a high statistical probability that several people buried there were murdered, some of whom might have been poisoned or strangled without anyone ever knowing it was a murder because forensics were still primitive then. If horror movies are anything to go by, then several tortured souls could've been trying to communicate with me as I walked around, asking me to tell the world the name of their killer. Brrr...
After-sales service, spare parts, and warranty are very important factors in making a decision to buy a reel. I usually recommend reels from mainstream companies to people living in major markets, since these companies would likely have local service centres that would look after reels if they develop issues or need parts. Not everyone lives in a major market though, and many anglers live in places where there is absolutely no official representation or service centres for any brand, thus for those anglers all reels of all brands are pretty much equal since they can't have any reel serviced locally. When talking to these anglers, I sometimes expand my recommendations to include non-mainstream reels if they offer a special value or meet a certain requirement an angler has. The following are the non-mainstream reels that I like because of their quality, performance, or value.
The Blue Marlin BMC/BMJ is the first dedicated offshore spinning reel designed by Robert Koelewyn, who previously focused on surf reels and is credited for creating Van Staal and ZeeBaas brands. He created this reel along with the reel that later became the Van Staal VR, and it shares some design concepts and even parts with that surf reel, although here they are employed in a decisively heavy duty offshore context. Following the review the company made changes to address some of the issues I highlighted, and the upgraded reel took its place as the best non-mainstream reel I've ever tested. They also took on my suggestion to lower the price to give it a competitive edge, so I began recommending it for those who are looking for a true big game powerhouse but can't find particular combinations of weight, ratio, capacity and cost in mainstream reels. Following the current trend the reels are fully sealed, but probably the best thing about them is that they come in 3 sizes, with each size coming in both slow and fast models for a total of 6 reels covering all grounds.
The Omoto Severo was also reworked and improved following the review in 2010, and for 7 years it was one of my recommendations in the non-mainstream category. At this stage though the competition has taken it over, and I will not have a good reason to recommend it anymore. Its a quality reel made in Taiwan by a large and prolific actual manufacturer, and I hope they will refresh it one day because the design has fallen behind the more modern competition. Keep on mind that the Severo is a virtual copy of the 2005 Accurate Twin Spin, with a simplified drag taken from the even 4 years older Ryobi Metaroyal Safari.
The Tica Talisman is a smaller reel that packs many original features, and for years it has proven to be a tough and dependable reel. I wish they would finally release it in full size instead of stopping at size 8000, which roughly equals to Shimano's 10000 and Daiwa's 5000 sizes.
The Teben Sea is another lovely non-mainstream reel, which also received important updates based on the review 5 years ago. Its design emulates that of the 2008 Stella SW, and for the price it offers a plenty of smoothness, line capacity, and admirable reliability.
High end, standard reels
Everything you've seen so far leads to here. Most reels discussed so far are diluted or economised to various degrees, but then you reach this area where there is no compromising or watering down. These are the proud flagship creations of their respective companies, each company showcasing its technological muscles and design prowess in an apex reel, made in the home country of the company by their best trained people. High end reels are usually good value for money, because they cost a lot to make. You might not know that, but as a percentage of actual cost, the markup in price of high end reels is often less than the markup of low end and mid range reels. The companies make a smaller percentage of profit on them, but they make up for it when the reputations of these flagship reels help increase the sales of their lesser models. They know exactly how to link their standard reels to the flagship and create that trickle down effect, when for example Shimano puts "Hagane" on the Stella SW's features list, then puts that same "Hagane" on the features list of the $200 Stradic FK. Same with Daiwa when the Saltiga comes with the "ATD technology", then we see it also on the $90 BG. Even Okuma has started doing this in their own way right after they introduced their flagship reel, with graphics such as this one linking the Makaira to their other reels
As with everything there are exceptions, but the general rule is that high end reels are indeed a good value for money.
The two Expedition sizes and the Dogfight 8000/8000H have the best capacity/weight ratio of all super spinners. They can't be beat in this regard. The 2015 Saltiga reels don't have that superior capacity/weight ratio, still their numbers are very good.
The 2016 Catalina is a genuine super spinner as well, built very close to the Saltiga largely using the same parts. The following is a list of the few differences between the 2016 Catalina and the 2015 Saltiga; some insignificant bearings are replaced with bushings in the Catalina, the drive gear of the Catalina is mounted on two standard bearings instead of the mag-sealed bearings of the Saltiga, there are rubber seals where you insert the handle into the body of the Catalina, the handle grip is different, so are the cosmetics. The Catalina is as good as the Saltiga in my book, and many would even consider it a better reel because the rubber seals around the handle's opening make cleaning it after fishing an easier job than cleaning the Saltiga/Expedition/Dogfight reels. In these more expensive reels you must remove the handle and rinse inside the opening thoroughly after each trip to wash out salt deposits, in the Catalina the rubber seals relieve you from this duty.
I removed the entire Expedition/Dogfight/Saltiga/Catalina family from the top picks because of Daiwa's insistence on not selling the magnetic fluid, the ATD and UTD-Hypertune drag grease, as well as some spare parts for these reels. This forces you to send your reel to Daiwa's service centres for any work involving any of these things, or for full service when it's time for one. If that wasn't bad enough, Daiwa's service in my opinion is the worst of all mainstream brands. You would not believe some of the well documented complaints I receive. Anyway, a fact remains that these reels are immensely powerful, they are the lightest of the super-spinners, have the highest gear efficiency and pulling power, as well as the best free-spinning of them all. That is in addition to the unmatched capacity/weight ratio of some models listed a couple of paragraphs up. If to you these characteristics outweigh the extra work in cleaning/maintainable after fishing, and being emotionally molested by Daiwa when you need service, lubes, or some parts, then go for them.
Then there is the new kid on the block, the Makaira. It is the toughest reel ever made inside out, and I just can't see anyone topping that in the near future. Other than strength it's sealed by oil seals throughout to a degree very close to that of dedicated surf fishing reels, has anodised finish that takes extreme abuse without the possibility of flaking or bubbling, and the drag performance is right at home among the other elite reels. I have a psychological barrier that prevents me from loving it though because of the heavy copying of design features from other reels, but from a practical standpoint this isn't a bad thing since it's as if they threw a Stella, a Saltiga, and a Van Staal surf reel into a blender then created one reel with some of the best features of each. Well, let me add some blocks of lead in the blender in that analogy because the thing is painfully heavy!!
Notably the Makaira comes in "mammoth" size class in the form of the 30000. I personally do not need reels of this size class, but I know people who need the enormous line capacity for things such as chasing cow tuna from anchored boats or letting a live bait swim hundreds of metres out from shore. I've just finished playing with a pre-production 30k, and I'm confident it's every bit as tough as the 20k. Notably, in the Makaira 30k the drag discs beneath the spool are scaled up to match the width of the spool, and are therefore much bigger than the drag discs of the 20k. This is in contrast to the Stella SW, where the wide spool of the 30k has the same drag discs of the 20k, which makes the maximum drag output of the Stella 30k lower than that of the Stella 20k. Thanks to the enlarged drag discs of the Makaira 30k, it produces roughly the same maximum drag as the 20k.
In addition to the heft, the Makaira lacks the buttery smoothness of its Japanese counterparts, it's also a bit tighter to operate due to the heavy sealing, and the drag knob's operation is not very intuitive as explained in the review. Still, if for some special reason you need more strength than other reels have to offer, or if you want a super spinner that can take mistreatment with barely any maintenance or cleaning, the Makaira is for you. Note that following the review Okuma reworked the reel to address some of the criticism, so if you have not looked since the original review was posted, please look again for details of the updates and fixes.
The Stella SW holds middle ground between the two previous reels in some aspects; it doesn't require as much care and maintenance as the Daiwas, yet it's nowhere near as maintenance-free as the Makaira. The weight also falls between these two other reels, and the same is true for its free-spinning which is better than the Makaira but the Daiwas spin with less effort. It's no secret that the current generation initially didn't rise to the name's usual superlative standards, yet Shimano did what they could to improve the situation following the review, which won the reel a well deserved place among my top picks.
The Stella SW has that distinct Japanese buttery smoothness and quiet running, it is "reliably reliable" for the lack of a better description, and I am yet to see anyone who faults the mind-blowing drag performance. It's more expensive than the other reels, but it generally has a better resale value considering the ring of the "Stella" name and its desirability. Just make sure your rods are ready for the parallel foot before you go for it, especially important for the larger sizes of this reel. Need to note that everything I said applies to the whole series except for the 30k size, which is still not recommended because of its issues.
Bring the TV show "Gypsy" back!!! I have no idea what it was about, but it provided me with hours of ecstatic elation as I stared at Naomi Watts, who is the living definition of a demigoddess. Naomi, if one day for some reason you see this, maybe while seeking gift ideas for a friend who fishes, please marry me!
Now I need to talk about the Twin Power SW, not because it belongs to this category, but rather because people still think it's a watered down Stella when it certainly isn't. Unlike the Saltiga and Catalina situation where they are the same reel for all practical purposes, the Stella SW and Twin Power SW are not in the same league, nor even in two consecutive leagues. In 2009 I detailed the differences between the previous generations, and the following is an updated list of the differences between the 2013 Stella SW and the 2015 Twin Power SW.
1) The drive gear of the TP SW does not have the bronze surface treatment of the Stellas SW's drive gear.
2) The Stella SW has a premium full metal (aluminium alloy) body and side cover, while the TP SW has a metal piece that forms the stem and a part of the frame, then a plastic body that contains the entire drive train is screwed into that metal piece, similar to other reels such as the Stradic FK, Spheros SW, Saragosa SW, etc.
3) The Stella SW has a first tier anti-reverse clutch that is housed inside an integral piece of the metal frame, while the TP SW has a second tier anti-reverse clutch that is attached via screws to the plastic body, again just like several mid range Shimanos.
4) The TP SW is missing some important ball bearings, such as the ones the oscillation worm gear is mounted on.
5) The oscillation idle gear is directly connected to the pinion in the TP SW, when in the Stella SW there is a set of intermediate gears between them. Not an important one, but I'm just listing all the differences.
6) The TP SW has no mechanical backup anti-reverse.
7) The TP SW does not have the "floating shaft" feature.
That's not to say the Twin Power SW is a bad reel. Not at all. Just that it's nowhere near the premium Stella SW. To me the Twin Power SW is virtually a Saragosa SW with a metal rotor, and the Saragosa SW and Spheros SW even have some advantages over the Twin Power SW because of their tough locomotive oscillation and Alumite coating on the drive gear. As you know both the Saragosa and Spheros have the same full sealing of the Twin Power SW. Is the Twin Power SW worth more than twice the price of the Saragosa and three times the price of a Spheros? No, not by any stretch of imagination.
Finally the Accurate TwinSpin remains a highly capable big game reel, but the design and ergonomics are quite outdated now and it needs to be updated to catch up with the other top reels. I heard talk of an update, but not sure what happened in this regard since. The small SR6 is still plagued with issues and its build quality leaves a lot to be desired, while sizes from the SR12 to the mammoth class SR50 are trouble-free and very dependable. Considering the price and what the competition offers, there is no good reason to buy a TwinSpin anymore. Its gearing isn't smooth or quiet, the pulling power is inferior to the other high end reels, and the drag is good but not nearly as good as the elite spinners.
The main body of this article is done, and the following are some general thoughts about various subjects that are usually raised by readers, so you might call it a form of FAQ..
Dry reel myth
One of the most frequent subjects raised, is reels whose owners think are under-lubed. Someone would open a reel, look inside, then mistakenly believe that it's not well lubed because he doesn't see clumps of excess grease everywhere. In reality the only grease that matters is a thin layer directly on the metal surface, which you can't see unless you take the part out and look closely under light to spot the "oily" surface. The clumps of grease that you see in some reels are excess grease that stopped being relevant 1 second after it was applied. Someone at the factory applies a lot of grease, they assemble the reel, and after just 1 spin of the handle 95% of the applied grease gets swept away from the mating metal surfaces and only a thin layer stays on the metal to work on reducing friction. The grease that was swept away forms the clumps that make people feel good, and it stays there doing absolutely nothing because there isn't a system that injects it back onto the working parts as the reel operates.
Most of the complaints I get from people who think their reels are dry come from owners of expensive reels. This is expected because usually these expensive reels are assembled by experienced labour who know that only a thin layer on the metal is needed, and they normally use high grade expensive lubes that no one wants to waste. That's why expensive reels sometimes appear "dry" to the eyes.
You need to consider several things before buying an out of production reel. Sometimes discontinued reels are sold at discounted close-out prices, but on the long run you might end up with a bad deal if you can't get parts or service. Generally, one expects companies to keep parts and service for discontinued reels for around 5 years (give or take) from the end of production. Therefore you need to know when exactly was the reel discontinued, find out how long parts and service will last, then weigh it against any potential saving you're making on a discontinued reel to see if it's worth it or not. Some reels have wear parts that could be obtained from externals sources, therefore the effect of discontinuing service/parts by the tackle brand would be minimal for such reels. Discontinued mag-sealed reels are a special case that require extra caution, because the life of the magnetic fluid is around 5 years from production for well preserved reels. Accordingly, I wouldn't for example recommend buying a 2010 Saltiga now because these were discontinued early 2015, meaning the ones manufactured between 2010 and 2012 would likely have broken down fluid, and reels made after that would have fluid that's going to break down in 1 or 2 years then require refreshing by a Daiwa service centre since they don't sell the fluid.
I encourage you to stop giving any weight to show awards given to fishing gear. I explained the comical way these awards are decided in my coverage of a major show last year, but let me say it again; people are given ballot cards, they walk around looking at hundreds of new products and hold some briefly, then they write down their vote in the card. Votes are counted, and the products with most votes in each category are given the award. Now I would care for these awards had they been given by a panel of fishermen who test each product in the field for weeks, then sit down and write comparative notes before choosing the winners. Unfortunately though that's not how it works, and in reality it's a matter of votes by people who look at the product for seconds then vote, which isn't a proper evaluation by any definition.
Usually the subject of sealing is erroneously treated as a black and white matter, where a reel is either not sealed so it's only good for dry fishing, or it's sealed so you can swim with it. This couldn't be further from the truth, and "sealing" is far more complex than a simple black and white matter. Think of sealing or waterproofing as a spectrum, or a relative term instead of an absolute one. Sealed reels are not all equal, and their waterproofness depends on the degree and type of sealing, or in other words where it falls on the spectrum. This is what actually decides what a reel can or can't do, and you should fully know it so you can use the reel appropriately.
This pretty much covers saltwater reels available at the time of writing, except of course for recent releases that I have not had a chance to see yet. Naturally I had to draw the line somewhere and start writing, because reels keep coming and I can't delay the article indefinitely. Some of the reels that caught my attention and will be examined later are the Star Tackle S7000 and S8000, which according to my initial research are proprietary reels, the upcoming Vosseler reel for the mere fact that it's the first German made spinning reel since 1994, and 13 Fishing's Prototype X and GT. Some of these are freshwater reels, but I do fish freshwater too and actually enjoy landing a Channel Catfish or a Pike from a quiet bank as much as I enjoy landing an Amberjack or a Snapper from a rocking boat in the middle of the ocean.
That's at some lake, casting crank baits in preparation for an upcoming dedicated freshwater article/review. I do write about saltwater disproportionately, but that's because the great majority of my readers are saltwater fishermen. You are welcome though to send any questions you have about freshwater reels.
Keep watching the News page because the next article will be more important than anything I've written. It's an exposé that will be quite shocking to most people, but it's important that you know. Until that time, be safe on the water and treat people with kindness.
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October, 10th, 2017