Small Powerful Reels Handle Big Fish

New reel designs make fishing more efficient.

October 5, 2020
Using lighter reels to catch fish offshore
New smaller, lighter reel designs pack a serious punch, and let you fight the fish instead of the tackle. Ric Burnley

When a 250-pound blue marlin engulfed a dink bait on the flat line and line peeled off the impossibly small reel, the angler looked worried, but Capt. Randy Butler didn’t break a sweat. He knew the reel was up to the task because, despite their reduced size, the new super reels pack the same power and line capacity as their larger, heavier offshore counterparts, and this allows him to target a wider range of fish with lighter tackle, and make the fight more fun.

Big Game

The latest generation of lightweight, high-power reels was born on the water. When white marlin anglers turned to fishing small ballyhoo on circle hooks, they needed a lighter, more nimble rod and reel to feed the fish and set the hook. The combo also had to be able to battle a behemoth, should a blue marlin swim into the spread.


Ben Joyce, product development manager at Penn, says braided line is at the root of many recent reel innovations. Packing a small reel with braid allowed anglers to use lighter tackle for bigger fish. That prompted designers to develop beefed-up models of smaller dimensions and lighter weights.

Joyce points to the Penn Fathom 40NLD2 (the N stands for narrow) as an example. It has a taller spool to pack more line, and increase drag pressure and torque. “Since it’s a lever-drag reel, the drag washers can be as wide as the spool,” Joyce explains. So, using a taller spool, the Fathom 40NLD2 can produce 40 pounds of drag pressure, enough to slow a blue marlin or big tuna, plus it retrieves more line per crank.

Designers can also increase the power of the reel by giving it two retrieve speeds. Then with the push of a button, the angler can switch from high speed, such as 5-to-1 for gaining line quickly when following a fish, to low speed, such as 2.5-to-1 for increased torque when winching up a stubborn one that sounded. Retrieve ratio numbers translate to inches of line per crank. “At 5-to-1, every turn of the handle spins the spool five times,” Joyce explains.


“Space and weight make it a challenge to get all this in a small reel,” Joyce says. “We port all our gears, drilling holes in them to reduce weight without affecting strength, and move the gears closer to the center in smaller reels for balanced cranking power.”


John Bretza, director of product development at Okuma Fishing, has been a fan of vertical jigging since the style was developed in Japan. Proven extremely effective on tuna and various other species, it was soon adopted by US anglers, and Bretza says, “Advancements in rods and reels, like Okuma’s new Alijos two-speed lever drag, have opened the door to improving the technique.”

Yellowtail caught on lighter tackle
Catching tough gamefish, like this big yellowtail, on scaled-down tackle is now easier than ever. Courtesy Okuma

While high-speed, vertical jigging is an exciting and effective way to catch alpha predators, it is also exhausting. “By the time I hook a fish, I’m too tired,” Bretza laughs. But reel designers are coming up with lightweight, ergonomic setups that anglers can work, instead of the tackle working the anglers.

Bretza says improvements in the materials used to build the reels are among the most important. “Okuma machines the main and pinion gears out of 17-4 stainless steel,” he says. “The material is more difficult to cut into shape, but it’s corrosion-resistant, and won’t flex under heavy drag,” Bretza adds. This allows the angler to retrieve line without damaging internal components.

Schematic of the internals of a fishing reel
[1] Side-Plate Mod: An asymmetrical gear case places the oversize gear outside the body of the reel. This configuration provides space to accommodate the larger gear, and two-speed mechanism in some cases, while maintaining a smaller side plate and resultant low profile. [2] Smoother Meshing: Okuma jigging and big-game reels incorporate helical-cut gears that increase the area of tooth engagement, for improved torque, smoothness and durability. Steve Sanford

Improved gear design has also enhanced reel performance. According to Bretza, Okuma uses helical-cut gears instead of straight-cut. “The gears are cut at an angle for more gear-tooth engagement.” This translates into more torque and overall durability without increasing gear size or weight, which makes things easier for anglers working vertical jigs and battling big fish. When jigging and cranking for hours on end, every ounce adds up.


Low Profile

Low-profile baitcasting reels were a fixture on bass lakes for years, “then they became popular with West Coast guys fishing irons and doing a ton of casting,” recalls Marc Mills, marketing manager at Daiwa. Saltwater anglers realized the palm-size reels featured a levelwind and high-speed retrieve, and were more comfortable to cast and retrieve all day, so they demanded heavy-duty versions.

Cast longer using new casting and jigging reels
New casting brake systems in casting and jigging reels boost casting distance to reach feeding fish. Courtesy Daiwa

The challenge to building a low-profile reel for saltwater species is balancing the width and height of the drag washers. Mills explains that low-profile reels don’t offer much space for wide washers, so the solution is stacking more washers. And advanced materials allow the latest generation of reels to replace felt washers with high-density, woven carbon-fiber ones impregnated with grease. “Carbon fiber provides more power, and also less start-up inertia and smoother pressure,” Mills adds. So, when a fish runs, the drag engages quickly and smoothly to prevent pulling the hook or breaking the line.

Another challenge to designing low-profile reels for big game has been extending casting distance while preventing backlash. A small spool and levelwind cut down on casting distance, but advanced magnetic brakes now offer wider adjustability and less friction than centrifugal brakes, contributing to longer casts. Magnets, however, are heavier and take up more space. To solve this problem, the casting brakes on Daiwa’s MagForce Z have a cup on the spool that fits in a side-plate cuff, producing even pressure and adjustability. The system, Mills says, works best with larger, heavier lures.


Spinning reels present their own special challenges for big-game anglers. Over a decade ago, Capt. Jack Sprengle found he needed a spinning reel to cast plugs and swimbaits to big bluefin tuna, but there weren’t many suitable options. “Fish were burning through line guides, spools were freezing, and drags were melting. I even saw a bail ripped clean off the reel,” Sprengle recalls.

Working with Shimano, he helped develop the Stella line of reels, which quickly became a favorite of anglers targeting huge fish with light tackle. The latest generation, Stella SWC, tackles a key problem with any reel: heat buildup, which begins in the drag and gears during a fish fight, but can transfer to the spool and affect the line.

“Heat affects the reel’s ability to shed water, and this will cook washers and bearings,” Sprengle says, but Shimano’s Stella SWC’s HeatSink Drag uses a plate between the drag and spool to dissipate heat before it can affect performance. “It reduces drag sag by 50 percent, and spool temperature by 30 percent.”

Daiwa MagForce Z system
The Daiwa MagForce Z system provides variable resistance during the cast for maximum distance and minimal backlash. At the beginning of the cast as the spool, [A], accelerates, an inductor cup, [B], disengages the magnets. As the spool reaches maximum speed, the cup retracts, engaging the magnets and preventing overrun. As the spool begins to slow, the cup again disengages, freeing the spool for maximum casting distance. Steve Sanford

Daiwa, meanwhile, overcame another major hurdle, preventing the intrusion of salt, dirt and sand to keep parts moving freely by replacing rubber seals with Magseal magnetic oil “developed in the aerospace industry for use on spacesuits,” Mills says. When magnetic force is applied, the oil solidifies to seal the reel. Magseal is an essential component of Daiwa’s new Saltist reels, protecting the roller bearing, handle bearings and main shaft.

Despite the toughest components and advanced waterproofing, one of the first things to fail on many reels is the dog, a little lever that keeps the spool from spinning backward. “Under high pressure, the dog will bend until it applies pressure to the gears,” Joyce explains. To stop the dog from breaking, Penn uses a double anti-reverse clutch in its new Slammer III spinning reels. “The second clutch only engages when the rotor starts to move backward,” he says. “Under normal circumstances, you won’t know it’s there. But when a trophy fish makes a strong run under heavy drag, the second clutch engages to take pressure off the dog,” Joyce says.

Engineers, designers and pro staffers have worked for years to develop new materials and technology to meet the demands of anglers targeting big fish with light tackle. The latest crop of super reels boasts the design elements and features to comfortably fish long and hard, and increase your odds of landing the fish of a lifetime.


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