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Anatomy of a Fishing Reel

Academy Staff
10 min read
Man letting his fishing line roll out from the spool

Baitcaster and Spinning reels are two of the most popular types of fishing reels and make up the majority of reels on the water. To understand the different types of fishing reels, it is first helpful to understand how a fishing reel works. This will help you select the best reel for the type of fishing you want to do. There are a few differences between how a spinning reel and a baitcast reel work, but most reels consist of the following parts, which we’ll further explore.

Parts of a Fishing Reel

Spinning Reel

Diagram showing the parts of a spinning reel

Baitcast Reel

Diagram showing the parts of a baitcaster reel

Drag Adjustment

The drag system applies the friction to your spool as you cast and bait a fish. Spinning reels will often have a dial-like knob to adjust the drag adjustment, which should be set according to the breaking strength of your line (although some older models may have a fixed drag system that cannot be adjusted). There are different types of drag systems to look for in the various types of reels.

  • Lever drag system. As the name suggests, lever drag systems are set with the use of a lever near the top of the reel. This allows you to set your drag quickly and provides a handy visual indicator of the setting.
  • Star drag system. Star systems are a series of washers housed within the body of the reel that provide pressure on the line, which is tightened or loosened with a simple turn of the star-shaped wheel on the outside.

Bait Arm

The bail controls the line on your spool. Open the bail to release the line from the spool, such as when casting. A closed bail prevents the spool from unwinding the line. The bail also serves as a guide for your line when winding it back onto the spool.

Line Roller

The line roller is the surface your line travels over as it’s reeled in and what makes your fishing line glide smoothly as you cast. It is situated at the end of the ball bearing wire. Too much friction in the line roller caused by rough surfaces and uneven edges is not only annoying, but can cause your fishing line to twist, weaken, or even break.


The spool holds the fishing line and, along with the drag system, controls the casting distance and precision. This means spools are the most common point on the reel where the line tangles. Line is secured on the spool by wrapping it around the axis. Spools have certain line capacity, so make sure to check the reel specifications to ensure the right fit for the type, length, and weight of the fishing line you are using.

Line Guide

The line guide ensures that your fishing line is spooled evenly on a baitcast reel spool. This feature enables the fishing line to move freely out into the water during casting and back again during the retrieve. It moves back and forth from one end of the spool to the other end as you rotate the reel handle – similar to an old typewriter’s motion.

Spool Tension Knob

The spool tension knob on baitcast reels adjusts and fine tunes the spool rotation speed towards the end of a cast. Keep in mind that lures with different weights perform differently in respect to spool tension so you’ll have to re-adjust spool tension every time you rig a lure.

Thumb Bar

On baitcasting reels, you’ll find the thumb bar (sometimes called the spool release or clutch) at the rear of the spool. It’s typically positioned just below where your thumb rests on the spool for manual control. Once the thumb bar is engaged, the spool releases for casting so be sure to press it at the exact moment you want release the line.

Body (Housing)

Also known as the housing, reel bodies are the main component of the reel. Your reel body should be solid with a smooth operation and no loose parts. Most housing is made of graphite, aluminum, or a combination of both. Graphite is lighter and its corrosion-resistant qualities can better withstand saltwater fishing conditions, whereas aluminum is stronger, but heavier and less flexible.

If you plan to spend a lot of time on the water, however, you may want to consider a lighter reel to reduce the strain on your wrist and forearm.

Reel Foot

The reel foot is an extension of your reel and the part that attaches your reel to your rod by a hollowing on the rod frame called a reel seat. It’s important to ensure a snug fit to withstand casting and the tension of a fish pulling on your line.


The reel handle is rotated by hand to bring the fishing line back to the rod after casting. Make sure the handle operation is smooth and comfortable in your hand as well as easily rotated with minimal effort. Typically, round or T-shaped, the handles can be adjusted to accommodate right- and left-handed anglers.

Handles will vary in weight and length. Lighter handles have a quicker response time, which is a feature bass fishers will appreciate. Longer handles weigh more but provide a more stable grip and may be more comfortable for anglers with larger hands. Another benefit of handles is that they can be purchased separately and are easily replaceable.

Anti-Reverse Switch

Anti-reverse levers prevent the reel from moving backward. This is a helpful feature, especially in bass fishing, when a fish fights and pulls out the line. When the anti-reverse switch is disengaged, you can reel in reverse (rather than depending on the drag system for line tension).

Spinning vs Baitcaster Reels

Spinning Reels Baitcast Reels
  • Mounted underneath rod
  • Thumb bar line release
  • Anti-reverse switch
  • Takes more time to master
  • Durable and reliable
  • Great for bigger, tricky fish
  • Easy-to-use
  • Longer and more accurate casting distance
  • Great for beginners
  • Drag system adjusts the spool to the correct level of resistance needed
  • Spinning reels are mounted below a fishing rod handle and are good all-around reels that are generally easiest for beginners to use. Baitcast reels are typically used by anglers who require heavier lures and lines for bigger game fishing. In contrast to spinning reels, baitcast reels also feature more parts to allow for greater sensitivity and adjustment when casting.

    Whereas spinning reels often come with an anti-reverse mechanism (which is helpful in preventing your line from unraveling when you get a bite), baitcast reels require the pressure of your thumb to keep from unspooling because they are designed to work with the weight of your bait or lure as it pulls on the line.

    Baitcast reels also usually feature a line guide and spool tension knob, which help you evenly feed your line into the spool and fine-tune your cast, respectively.

    Overall, the type of reel you choose will generally be determined by the type of fishing you plan to do.

    Person fishing with a baitcast reel

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