Choosing Between Spinning, Baitcasting or Fly Fishing

Choose the right tackle for the job.

Large fish on spinning tackle
The proper tackle choice leads to more hookups and increases your odds of landing fish.Alex Suescun

Propelled at crawling speed by the trolling motor, Mike Laramy and I scoured a winding Louisiana bayou for signs of redfish.

With spinning rod in hand, my tournament partner stood on the forward casting deck while, atop the poling platform, I held a baitcasting outfit. Soon, a wake materialized 40 feet off the port side. Instinctively, Laramy opened the bail, lobbed a weedless spoon, and connected with a member of the pack causing the V-shaped disturbance. The rest altered course and came right at us. So I flipped a swimbait, landed it softly ahead of the reds, and received the same aggressive response. A moment later, we netted the doubleheader.

Versatility Wins

One thing my years in the pro redfish tournament circuit taught me is the importance of versatility. Anglers able to tailor their tackle and tactics to the fishing situation invariably have a definite advantage. There’s no faster way to increase our catches than to make the most of the opportunities the fish gods bestow upon us, and that requires wielding the proper weapon to proficiently execute the best-suited technique and carry out the most effective game plan.

For the more adept anglers, the choice of tackle is more about using the best tool for the task at hand than about personal preference. Circumstances that call for a certain presentation or place particular demands on the gear itself weigh heavily in their tackle-selection process. Whichever will likely make a higher-percentage cast, work a bait or lure more enticingly, or best the quarry faster in an arduous tug of war is called into action.

Spin Cycle

Most folks learn to fish with spinning tackle, and because it is frequently possible to get by with using it exclusively, they refuse to try—much less master—baitcasting and fly tackle, not realizing the potential in broadening one’s angling arsenal.

Skirted spool reel
Skirted spools, one of many improvements in modern spinning reels, enable anglers to temporarily add more braking pressure to stop a hooked fish by clutching or feathering the bottom part (skirt) of the spool with the fingers on our free hand. This lets us keep a lighter drag setting, in case the fish makes a sudden run.Mike Sudal

Besides requiring the shortest learning curve, spinning gear also has several other strong suits. It is hard to beat when a fast retrieve is imperative, and when the situation calls for long casts or flinging lightweight baits and artificials. However, outgoing coils of line will invariably rub against the lip of the spool and the remaining wound-up line during the cast, so smaller-diameter lines—which lessen friction—are necessary to maximize casting distance.

Spinning reels also have some inherent limitations. For starters, the spool is fixed, and the gears turn the rotor to wind in the line. During the retrieve, this design limits the torque produced, thereby curbing its effectiveness when attempting to pull up bottom dwellers and sounding fish. And in order for the rotor to wind the fishing line onto the spool, the line must first take a right-angle turn at the bail, which places additional strain on the thin connection between the angler and hooked fish.

Line twist is another common drawback of spinning reels, but it’s easily mitigated by using a fairly limp line (here, braid is better than mono) and closing the bail manually after every cast instead of tripping it by turning the handle. As for drag, some new spinning reels are designed to apply as much as 40, 50 and even 60 pounds of pressure. Nevertheless, skirted spools—commonplace for a couple of decades—allow clutching or feathering (lightly pressing the fingers against it) to instantly increase drag as needed during a fight.

Plugging Away

When pinpoint-accuracy is more important than casting distance, baitcasting tackle (also called plug tackle) is the better option. Baitcasting reels employ a revolving spool instead of a fixed one. Once you push the free-spool button or thumb bar, the line peels off without any resistance other than that supplied by the angler thumbing the spool to prevent an overrun. (Cutting-edge spool brake systems do help keep things in check during the cast.) This design allows for the use of heavier lines without consequently hindering casting distance.

Baitcasting reel
Magnetic or centrifugal brakes curtail spool overruns on baitcasters, but only the right amount of thumb pressure maximizes casting distance and accuracy. With the reel in gear, thumbing the spool boosts the drag.Mike Sudal

Thumbing the spool, when properly executed, affords the angler precision control during the cast, and enables a soft landing of the lure or bait. When battling a fish, with the gears engaged, thumbing the spool exerts immediate, yet temporary, extra drag pressure as well.

Fish caught on baitcasting rig
Baitcasting offers more casting accuracy and feel during the retrieve.Alex Suescun

In addition, baitcasters are designed to directly transfer power from the handle to the spool during the retrieve, thereby yielding greater torque and feel than spinning reels. And with gear technology advancements, retrieve ratios on some baitcasting reels now rival those of their spinning counterparts.

Of course, the dreaded bird nests, nothing more than line tangles caused by spool overruns during casting, cause many to shy away from baitcasting tackle, which requires practice to achieve the consistency necessary to enjoy its virtues.

Frequent Flyer

The higher degree of difficulty that learning and using fly tackle represents is largely to blame for its underutilization. But while many consider fly-fishing a handicap, lots of its proponents think of it as upping the ante to increase the challenge of targeting species such as bonefish, permit, tarpon and even billfish in a true test of both skill and perseverance.

Fly fishing reel
Similar to the skirted spools on spinning reels, the spools on many fly reels incorporate an outer lip, called a palming rim, that serves to apply extra stopping power as needed with the palm of our free hand. If the reel lacks this feature, use your fingers to feather the line or backing still wound in the spool.Mike Sudal

Yet proficiency with the fly rod isn’t only for those intent on proving their mettle. The command of fly tackle becomes a major asset when fish appear skittish and the water is shallow and clear. Because it’s the weight of the line that pulls the fly to the target, instead of the other way around, fly tackle enables an angler to place a baitfish, shrimp or crab imitation within the strike zone more delicately and quietly than with spinning or baitcasting gear.

That same arrangement often limits casting distance and accuracy, especially in windy conditions. Nevertheless, because one can pick up 30 or 40 feet of line in one fell swoop (unlike with spinning and baitcasting, which require that you reel in most of the line in order to make another cast), fly tackle lets you instantly make a second or third presentation to a fish that initially refuses or doesn’t see the fly.

Fish caught on fly tackle
Fly gear allows the delicate delivery tailing bonefish require.Alex Suescun

Unfortunately, most fly reels lack the gears that increase retrieve ratio, so the angler must often wind faster and longer when battling fish.

Maximum drag is also less than that of spinning and baitcasting reels, but increasing braking power requires only that you press the fingers on your free hand against the spool. And many fly-reel spools have an outer lip (palming rim) that permits the easier use of your palm for that same purpose.

So, why should you bother to master the use of spinning, baitcasting and fly gear? For starters, it will make you a more complete angler. And aside from increasing your versatility, it will also improve your effectiveness, vastly expanding your playbook and enabling you to increase the challenge and, in turn, heighten the excitement and enjoyment in the pursuit of every catch.