Welcome to the world of baitcasters. You’ve probably seen the pro bass anglers using them to fill the boat with large and smallmouth bass.
A baitcaster is a specially-designed reel that helps anglers get a really accurate cast. With these reels, you have more control over where the lure lands, how it lands, and you are connected to the line all the way, so you can feel a strike at any point. They’re a favorite of bass anglers and anyone dragging in the monster fish. Because baitcasters can handle heavy line, they enable casting large swimbait lures, crankbaits, and spinnerbaits.
You’ll definitely want a baitcaster in your arsenal and once you start using one, you might not want to stop. They’re well worth learning how to use.
Baitcasters are different from a standard spinning reel or a flycasting reel. They sit on the top of the rod and the spool is open face up. At the base of the spool window, there’s a thumb clutch. The handle faces the side of the hand that casts it. In other words, right-handed casters have the handle to the right and left-handed casters have the handle on the left. The handle side also features a casting control knob and sometimes a star drag wheel. There are two braking systems: an active system and a passive system. The active system is your thumb on the spool. The passive system is built into the reel and normally utilizes a series of weights to control the momentum of the spool.
These special reels aren’t ready to cast right off the shelf. Don’t think you can take it out the same day and start casting with it. There are some adjustments you’ll need to make and you’ll need some practice in the yard before you go out. The main mechanical adjustment you need to make is to the casting control knob. This knob adjusts the speed at which the line leaves the reel. You’ll also need to access the passive braking system. Some models of baitcasting reels don’t have an easy-access way to adjust the passive braking system and require opening the reel to get at the adjustments. But, it’s not as difficult as it sounds. A good review of your reel’s manual should tell you how to adjust your particular model. We’ll also cover more in the tuning section below.
Most of the adjustments you make are going to be to your casting style, not to the reel itself. The next step is to practice casting some lures. This way, you can get a feel for the weight and tension of the reel. You’ll also take this time to get the hang of the casting rhythm, the braking systems, and improve your accuracy. Start with some roughed-up lures that match the weight of what you plan to use when fishing. Rig up the lure and take your gear out to an open space where you have plenty of room to throw it around. Parks and soccer fields are great for this, just make sure to be aware of your surroundings so you don’t snag an unsuspecting jogger by mistake.
To begin, test your tension by pressing the clutch with your thumb and letting the lure drop. If it hits the ground without birdnesting your line, no further adjustment to the casting knob is needed. If you do birdsnest, check out the solutions for that below. If you change out your lure, you will need to adjust again. The tension is weight-based, so if you’re using a new lure that’s a few ounces larger than the last, you have to adjust the knob or you’ll have problems.
Once the tension has been adjusted, start to cast with your lure eight to ten inches from the tip of your rod. You can cast either overhead or sidearm. Most beginners prefer to use the sidearm cast, just because it’s easier to produce a smooth motion and not snap the rod. Reach back and release the clutch as you swing, but keep your thumb in position over the reel. By pressing lightly against the spool, you should be able to just feel the line going out. Just before your lure hits, use that thumb to stop the spool. This way, you control how fast your lure hits the water. A huge splash is going to chase off the fish you’re after, so if you stop the lure and ease it in, there won’t be a terrifying commotion to scare anyone away.
All of these steps will take you less than a minute to go through and it might be hard to remember the right order and the right timing when you just get started. That’s why throwing some lures in your yard is advisable instead of wasting your day on the water, trying to get the hang of everything.
Now that you have the barebones basics of using a baitcasting reel, let’s drill down to the fine-tuning of your rig. First, let’s take a closer look at the casting control knob. Start to tune it by making it as tight as you can. Usually, that means turning the knob all the way toward you, but some reels are a little different. Once you’ve got it as tight as it can go, hold the rod out and press the clutch. The lure should hesitate a little before starting to drop. Try to stop the reel with your thumb right before it hits the ground. If not, you’ll probably end up with backlash, a.k.a. a birdsnest. Now, do the same process over, except loosening the knob just a little first. You can do this slowly, in increments until the lure falls freely, but is still easy to stop before it hits the ground.
The breaks are different from the casting control. There are two main types of braking systems in baitcasting reels: magnetic and centrifugal. They’re not the only two systems, but they’re the most common systems. Magnetic systems are like they sound – they use the power of magnets and a nearby object to slow the spin of the reel. Centrifugal brakes have small weights inside, set in a circle. The faster the reel spins, the further those weights slide to the outside the circle. On the outer edge, the weights create friction and slow down the spinning reel. You can control how many weights are in play with a small lever. For a magnetic system, you might have an outer dial instead. In this case, just turn the dial to the high end for starters.
Regardless of the type of braking system your reel came with, there should be an easy way to access it. Look for a button or a latch that lets you easily pop open the reel case or just a numbered dial built into the side. For a centrifugal system, you should see a numbered dial. The lower the number on the dial, the looser the brakes will be. Likewise, the higher the number, the tighter the brakes. As a beginner, you’ll want to start near the high end of the dial.
If you’re a geek for reel mechanics, this breakdown of braking systems from Japan Tackle is a good read.
Between the handle and the body of the reel, you’ll find the drag wheel. This part is made so you can easily adjust how much the fish can pull on the line. Allowing for some drag by the fish helps to keep your rod and line from snapping under the weight of a large fish. The drag system is also there to allow the fish to tire itself out. The way you set the drag depends on two things: the weight of the fish you’re trying to catch and the breaking strength of your line. For smaller fish, loosen up the drag. For heavier fish, tighten it. As for your line, a braided line isn’t a very good shock absorber. So, you want to set your drag a little lighter. Mono has more stretch and give to it, so you can tighten up the drag.
It’s a good idea to set the drag before you have a fish on the line. There are two main ways to do this. The pros set their drag by using a spring scale. By attaching the line to the scale and pulling against the scale, you can measure the drag. You know your drag is set right when the scale measures a third of the breaking strength of your line. If you don’t have or don’t want to use a spring scale, you can set the drag by hand. Set the drag pretty tight and then try to pull some line from the spool. Then, release the drag a little at a time until you can pull on the line without it cutting into your finger, but with enough resistance to engage the mechanism. Then, give it just a hair less tension. The drag wheel should be very easy to turn. Most of them are star-shaped, with long spokes that let you easily make adjustments with your thumb. Once you get a fish on the line, you can further adjust your drag, depending on the way your fish is behaving.
You can check out the inner workings of the drag wheel in this Saltwater Fishing 24/7 article.
Finally, you’ll need to get used to using your thumb as the active braking system. The purpose of casting is to get your lure to where you want it in the water, not to smack the surface of the water. So, once it’s out to where you want it, you don’t need that momentum anymore. With baitcasting, it’s your thumb that provides the control of that momentum.
After you’ve cast out, watch the arch of the lure. Once it’s at the top of its arch, start to slow it down by putting light friction on the line with your thumb. You should have slowed most of the momentum before the lure hits the water. The key is not to slow it down so much that you’re not getting the distance you want, but slowing it down enough that it doesn’t slam into the surface of the water. Hitting the water kills the momentum you’ve built up from the cast. If it stops too quickly, your reel will still be spinning, causing the line to backlash.
Several aspects of your cast can cause the line to slack and tangle up on the spool, resulting in a tangled mess of line that resembles a birdsnest. If your spool starts to birdsnest before the lure lands, it means your tension is way too loose. Adjust it with the casting knob. If the spool is wobbling in the reel or rattling to where you can hear it move, you need to tighten up your casting knob here too. If your line is backlashing after the lure hits, it’s your active breaking that needs adjustment. Practice using your thumb to slow the spool at just the right time. Placing a bucket or a hula hoop in the backyard and then trying to cast into it is a great way to practice active breaking.
What if your line gets out of control and backlashes, as it will inevitably do when you’re a beginner? You can try to untie it bit by bit, untangling the knots, or you can use a simple trick and be done in minutes. Once you have a tangle, try to stop the spool before things get worse. When you’ve stopped the line from moving, press your thumb firmly against the spool with the tangle on it. Keeping it pressed down reel in a little bit of line. Then, release pressure and pull some line through the level wind. Repeat this process until the line becomes untangled. Then, reel the excess back onto the spool and get ready to cast again.
Much of baitcasting is learning to finesse your cast. It does take practice and some trial and error, but once you try a baitcasting reel, you may never go back to a spinner!
Check out our article discussing the Spincast Reel vs. Spinning Reel.