How to Use a Baitcasting Reel

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How to Use a Baitcasting Reel

by Capt. Terry Rand

Does the idea of learning to use a baitcasting reel put the fear in you? This article teaches you to learn to use a baitcaster properly and how to avoid those dreaded birds nests.

When it comes to choosing a reel to use for your fishing needs there are a many choices to consider. One of those choices is whether you should invest in a spinning reel, a conventional reel or a baitcasting reel. All three choices can be used in various fishing situations and conditions but some of these reels perform certain tasks better than the others. For our purposes, we will be focusing on the baitcasting reel and how it used in various situations and how to use them properly.

Baitcasters have become most popular through the tournament bass industry where bass anglers have found them to be indispensable tools for their pursuits. Baitcasting reels handle larger line diameters far better than spinning reels and heavy lines are often needed to wrestle large fish out of weed beds. These reels also have a completely different drive gear system from spinning reels that provides a lot more power for the angler. This makes the retrieval of many lure types much easier on the angler, especially after long hours of constant casting and cranking.

One of the bigger downfalls of baitcasting reels is their inherent tendency to tangle line easily while casting which is referred to as a “backlash”, “birds nest” or “over run”. This occurs because the spool often spins faster than the speed of the line leaving the spool.  This, in turn, causes the line on the spool to loosen and the line leaving the spool becomes jammed in the loose coils of line. This issue can be addressed through the use of the reels spool braking system which will cause the spool of the reel to rotate more slowly during a cast, which helps to control the speed at which line is paid off the spool.

Although the reels braking system aids in controlling how quickly the spool rotates, the power behind each cast can still leave the spool susceptible possibly over running. The best way to address this is by using your thumb to control the rotation of the spool. By applying a small amount of pressure to the exposed line on the top of the reel with your thumb, you can keep the spool rotating at the correct speed to let the line flow off the reel evenly.

But, learning to educate your thumb at applying the proper amount of pressure to the spool at the correct time takes some practice. It also requires some practice in learning how to use your reels braking system. The back yard is a perfect place to work on your thumb training and brake setting exercises.

To get started with learning to use your baitcasting reel, mount the reel to the rod and string the line through guides. Heavier lines are easier to learn with so use a line with a breaking strength in the upper end of the line range that is recommended for the reel. On the end of your line, tie on a 1/2oz casting weight to practice with instead of a lure. The easiest thing to use as a casting weight would be a lead sinker. Have a few of them in various sizes handy.

Before you can start casting, you need to set the brake on the reel properly for the weight of the lure that you will be using. Every time you change to a lure of a heavier or lighter weight than you started with, you need to make this brake adjustment. The brake knob is found of the side of reel, under the star drag on the reel handle. By rotating the knob clockwise, the brake tension on the spool is increased, making the spool run more slowly. Turn the knob counter clockwise and the opposite effect is achieved.

To set your brake properly for the 1/2oz casting weight you tied on, start by raising your rod tip in front of you so the casting weight is hanging seven or eight feet above the ground. Depress the thumb bar on your reel to let the spool go into free spool and watch the line on the spool as the casting weight drops and hits the ground. Ideally, when the casting weight hits the ground the spool should stop spinning and paying out line. If the spool continues to spin when the casting weight hits the ground, you need to tighten the brake a bit. If the casting weight fails to drop to the ground then the brake is too tight and must be loosened. Make the necessary adjustment and repeat the process until the spool stops moving when the casting weight hits the ground.

Once the brake has been set properly for the 1/2oz casting weight you can begin practice casting. Start with overhead casts of a light to medium strength power. Depress the thumb bar to put the reel in free spool mode and quickly place your thumb on the spool. Your thumb will keep the spool from rotating until you release it on the cast. Bring the rod tip back over your shoulder like you would for any overhead cast. Swing the rod forward under moderate power and release your thumb from the spool as your rod tip reaches the eleven o’clock position. As you release your thumb pressure from the spool on the cast, you want to maintain the slightest pressure on the line on top of the spool as the line spins off the spool. This is often referred to as “feathering” the line as the amount of pressure you are applying is minute. This helps to keep the spool from turning too quickly.

If all goes well on the cast, the casting weight should be landing on the ground somewhere in front of you and the line on the spool should be free of any tangles. It is likely that the casting weight did not cast very far, either from too much brake pressure or thumb pressure or possibly from releasing the cast on a poor trajectory. Stopping your rod tip and releasing your thumb pressure at the eleven o’clock position should give you the proper trajectory for a successful cast. If the casting weight is thumping into the ground only a few feet in front of you, try stopping your rod tip a little sooner during the cast. If it feels like the brake pressure is too tight to pay out much line from the spool, loosen the brake slightly and repeat your cast.

When you loosen the brake on the reel, more thumb pressure must be maintained during the cast to prevent the spool from over running. Essentially, the less internal braking you use, the more thumb pressure braking you must maintain while casting. Less internal braking will allow for longer casts but the spool must be controlled more with your thumb.

You will undoubtedly experience tangles caused by spool over runs while practicing how to use your baitcasting reel. But, this is how you are going to learn what the spool feels like under your thumb while an over run is occurring so that you can learn how to avoid it. Some of these tangles will be fairly easy to remedy while others, really bad backlashes, will prove much more difficult or even impossible to get out.

The easiest way to get the line untangled is to put the reel in free spool and pull line out until you get to where the main line is buried into the line wrapping on the spool. You will most likely find a loose coil of line that creates a loop near the main line. Start working on freeing up the loose line coil first as this is usually the area where the line is buried into the spool. Once you get that coil unknotted, the main line will often be much easier to work free. When there are many loosened coils of line created multiple knots within the spool of line, it is often prudent to simply cut out the line and respool. 

Another tip for helping you to learn to cast and minimize the frustration level of dealing with backlashes is to limit the amount of available line on your reel. This can be accomplished by filling your spool to around half the spool capacity and then wrapping electrical tape around the line to create a stopping point in the spool. Then, continue to fill the spool, allowing the line to wrap over the electrical tape. Now, when you cast, the amount of line that can knot up during a backlash is minimized so you free the knot more easily or you’ll waste less line when respooling.

Keep practice casting until you can cast that casting weight 30 – 50 feet without a backlash. Once you get relatively comfortable with casting the ½oz casting weight replace it with a 3/4oz or 1oz casting weight. Remember, every time that you change to a lure of a different weight, you will need to readjust your brake. Run through the vertical dropping drill that you performed before you started casting the 1/2oz casting weight. Once the brake is adjusted, start practice casting with the heavier casting weight. You will notice how much further you can cast because of the weight of the casting weight even though you are casting at the same moderate power that you had been earlier. Generally, heavier lures are easier to cast on baitcasting gear.

After getting comfortable with casting the heavier casting weight you should go back to casting with the 1/2oz casting weight again and then move on to an even lighter casting weight. You will find that it is a bit more difficult to cast the lighter weight sinkers than it is the heavier ones. This is why many anglers will rely on spinning reels to handle their lighter weight lures. For example, in the world of freshwater bass fishing, most seasoned anglers will choose to throw lures weighing more than 1/4oz on their baitcasting gear while leaving all the lightweight, finesse presentations for their spinning gear.

Once you get the feel for making short casts with the various casting weights you can work on increasing the distance of your cast. Applying more power to your cast will require that you involve your thumb more precisely while feathering the spool to prevent backlashes but it does become second nature once you get the casting basics down.

Just start by incrementally increasing the power of your cast. You may start to feel as if the reel cannot cast any further, yet your casts are still falling short. Simply loosen the brake just a hair and attempt the same cast. You’ll find that you gain distance but you’re starting to get some tangles. After pulling the knots out, compose yourself, and recast with a little more thumb pressure applied. Try to be aware of the feel of the line under your thumb during the cast and try to stop the line with your thumb as the casting weight hits the ground. You will quickly gain a feel for the way your baitcaster behaves depending on how hard you cast and the size of the casting weight you are using.

Continue to practice in the yard until your casting skills feel suitable for the water. Take your baitcasting gear out there with you and bring some backup gear, just in case. It’s very possible that you could make a critical casting error shortly into your trip that may put your reel out of commission until you get home and respool it. If it’s your only rod and reel combo then bring a knife and some extra fishing line with you, just to keep yourself from being disappointed.

One added note about using your reels braking system. Many baitcasting reels are now made with secondary brake systems that the angler can use to fine tune the braking of the spool. Some of these brake systems use tiny magnets to control the speed of the spool and some systems use centrifugal force to slow down the spool. The details of operating magnetic and centrifugal brake systems are covered in detail in the following articles:
Centrifugal Brakes & Magnetic Brakes

Once you get used to using your baitcasting reel you will likely grow to love it. You’ll be amazed at the power found in the gearing of the reel which makes it act like a winch while cranking in heavy lures, sinkers and fish. The benefits you will find will likely have you searching for another reel to add to your arsenal in no time.

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