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Updated Nov 29, 2022 4:23 PM
Shopping for a good saltwater fishing reel can be overwhelming. There’s a multitude of choices across many brands, wildly different prices, and a lot of overlap in size and features. That’s further complicated by the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect “do everything” reel. The best fishing reels for saltwater for surfcasters pursuing striped bass in Montauk, for flats fisherman chasing tarpon in the Gulf, and for tuna fisherman off the coast of California, are going to be vastly different.
Additionally, choosing the best fishing reels for saltwater can come down simply to preference—what works for you may not work for me.
However, there are some general guidelines to follow when shopping for the best saltwater fishing reel for your purposes and budget, and we break down the most important factors below. To make your decision even easier, we also evaluated hundreds of models of saltwater fishing reels for reliability, strength, weight, the functionality of the drag system, and the price, and picked our favorites across a wide spectrum of fishing situations.
- Spinning Reels
- Conventional and Baitcasting Reels
- Fly Reels
Best Saltwater Spinning Reels
Saltwater spinning reels are the most popular option for saltwater fishing. Whether you’re a boat, kayak, or shore-based fisherman you can count on spinning reels to get the job done. There are so many choices of spinning reels that it can be hard to decide which one is best suited to your needs. They come in a huge spectrum of prices, sizes, and designs; so, it is important to consider all the points above before making a choice. Below is a list of top saltwater spinning reels that are good choices for various species, fishing environments, budgets, and sizes:
- Reliable: For a budget reel, it stands up well to the harsh saltwater environment.
- Drag pressure: It puts up good drag resistance numbers, especially in real world testing, and is easily adjusted.
- Saltwater ready: It’s truly saltwater grade, and performs well under the stress of powerful saltwater fish.
- Heavier than some competitors: This is typical of many Penn reels, but for the price and reliability, it’s a worthwhile tradeoff
- Not as refined as competitors: Over time, this reel loses some of its tight tolerances.
The options for best saltwater spinning reel for under $100 are limited, but the Penn Fierce is one, and it’s a good choice. The reel has been around for many years, and is now in its third iteration. It has a good reputation as a reliable and fairly tough budget reel that performs well from shore, boat or kayak, and even outperforms more expensive reels from other brands. It is ready to accept braided line, and is available in a large variety of sizes to suit any need, with most sizes coming in under $100.
Best Value Spinning: Daiwa BG
- Reliable. Even with a lot of use, it provides years of fishing functionality.
- Ready for anything: It’s strong and tough, for battles from the shore, near the shore, and far from shore.
- Outstanding performance: The smooth spinning rotor and handle, and strong, straightforward drag make it comfortable to use all day and night.
- Chunky: It’s heavier than some competitors.
While the Daiwa BG is over $100, it is one of the most legendary and best value saltwater reels in production today. The Daiwa has the reputation of being strong, smooth, and very reliable across a huge spectrum of uses, from surf to inshore to offshore. It’s also an absolute joy to cast. It is used around the world in pursuit of a giant variety of species, and the newest version does not disappoint, living up to those that came before it. If you are on a tight budget, but have a few more dollars to spend, the Daiwa BG is a great choice. In fact, the BG outperforms some other reels that cost much more.
- Weight weenie: Lightweight is an understatement considering how powerful the Saragosa is.
- Overbuilt: extremely strong and smooth, it’s a superbly reliable reel.
- Can’t beat the price: it’s a moderately priced reel, on the same lever with its competitors.
- Size limitations: It is not available in the smallest sizes suitable for ultralight tackle applications.
While it’s impossible to choose a reel that will work for every saltwater situation, the Shimano Saragosa comes close. Surf, bottom fishing, offshore, flats-fishing, trolling—the Saragosa can do just about everything. It has outstanding drag performance, superior reliability, and the muscle to stop the largest and most powerful saltwater species. The lightweight and unbelievably smooth-operating Saragosa is a top choice for the best saltwater spinning reel for everything from fluke and sea bass to corvina and halibut to redfish and sea trout, even school tuna and trophy tarpon—essentially most species around the world. Further, while not a budget reel, it is relatively affordable when compared to other reels with this same level of performance, and is used by many charter captains. This is also one of the best saltwater kayak fishing reels, and is even used for bottom fishing for anglers who prefer spinning gear over conventional reels. The only criticism of the Saragosa is it may not stand up to the very harshest shore-based angling that some fisherman subject their reels to, particularly those in the Northeast who regularly have their reels submerged.
- Incredible drag: The Stella has a reputation for the strongest and reliable real-world drag systems.
- Weight watcher: Relatively light for its size and power.
- Smooth: Even after hours-long battles with huge fish over many months, the Stella retains its silky-smooth operation.
- Not a surf reel: The Stella is not designed for abusive dunkings and being dropped in the sand and rocks.
If you’re looking for the very best premium saltwater spinning reel to use in the salt for powerful offshore pelagics or giant inshore species, look no further than the Stella SW. While the Daiwa Saltiga and Okuma Makaira both offer solid alternatives, and are both amazing pieces of fishing technology, I have to give the nod to the Stella. With a rich history and a huge number of trophy fish landed, the Stella has a reputation worldwide as one of, if not the, very best of the best when it comes to saltwater reels—spinning or otherwise. It is made of the strongest and most reliable components available, and is also well known for its ability to sustain incredibly long runs against a nearly locked drag without overheating. Parts are relatively easy to get, and you can even service it yourself (unlike some other reels of this caliber). While it is one of the most expensive spinning reels you can buy, it delivers on the investment, and will for decades.
- Unsurpassable Reliability: The Van Staal is designed to last decades, even if you abuse it.
- Strength: It is strong enough to tackle any inshore species.
- Bullet-proof drag system: even when jammed full of sand, saltwater, or grime, the drag still works.
- Rough and tumble: It’s not the smoothest reel, especially for the price, and the drag can be sticky.
If you are looking for the best surf fishing reel that will stand up to the harshest surf conditions, this is the reel for you. Van Staals are known for being the most rugged, simple-to-maintain reels available to the saltwater angler. Will your reel be underwater for long periods? The Van Staal is actually designed to be reeled underwater. If you tend to treat your gear harshly and push it to the absolute max, the Van Staal VSX is worth the investment. This is my go-to reels, and one of the best saltwater reels for striped bass. Yet, it has also landed a myriad of fish from Florida to Maine. It’s been subjected to conditions no reel should ever be expected to endure, and come out the other side relatively unscathed. These reels are genuinely designed to last a lifetime.
- Sealed up: The body and drag are closed off to help keep saltwater out.
- Tough: The strong, reliable internals and drag system will handle most inshore species.
- Price: There are few competitors for surf-specific use in this price range.
- Not impervious: It’s not designed for the harshest surf conditions, and won’t last long if you submerge it a lot.
The Penn Spinfisher VI is the best budget surf fishing reel and a less expensive alternative to the Van Staal. While nowhere near as tough, the Spinfisher has been around a long time, and these reels have always had a good reputation for being a solid choice if the angler is never going to submerge the reel. The Spinfisher is a great contender as a saltwater spinning reel for all purposes—boat, kayak, or shore—but has found a particular following with surf fishermen. The reel is all meta, has lots of seals to keep water out, a strong drag system, and is available in several sizes. Some anglers will be happy to also know it can be converted to bail-less operation. My first “serious” saltwater fishing reel was a Penn Spinfisher II, and I got years of enjoyment and hard use out of it.
Best Saltwater Conventional and Saltwater Baitcasting Reels
Low-profile, saltwater-specific baitcasting reels have started to replace traditional large conventional reels for many common saltwater fishing applications. They’re easy to cast and lightweight, and strong enough to take on most inshore species. I know of several friends who have made the switch to a saltwater baitcaster to do everything from throwing topwater lures, to trolling bait to jigging on the bottom.
However, when compared to more traditional conventional saltwater reel designs, baitcasters do not offer as much fish-fighting power through low gear ratios, and also only come in limited sizes. Many conventional reels come in huge sizes capable of holding incredible amounts of line—but with the popularity of thin strong braid in many applications, it’s possible to put a lot of line on a smaller reel.
So how do you choose between the two? If you’re an inshore angler who casts lures or jigs in relatively shallow water, you should consider a low-profile baitcaster. However, for those who fish wrecks, jig deep water, troll large lures or long lines, or fish for blue water species, the traditional conventional is the better choice.
Best Saltwater Baitcasting: Daiwa Lexa HD
- Small and strong: It’s a lightweight and compact reel with a lot of fishing-fighting power.
- Rugged: Internals are designed for saltwater—this is no largemouth bass reel!
- User-friendly: It’s available in several gear speeds and both right- and left-hand configurations.
- Longevity: Some anglers I know have noted that it loses its smooth operation after moderate use, though it still continues to function just fine.
If you’re a boat or kayak fisherman who uses a variety of techniques, the Daiwa Lexa HD is our choice for the best saltwater baitcasting reel. It performs well for vertical jigging, throwing lures and poppers, live-lining bait, and just about everything in between. It’s powerful but very compact, and reflects the trend of boat and kayak anglers to move towards more compact, modern baitcasting reels. If you use braided line, the Daiwa Lexa HD has enough line capacity to tackle a large spectrum of species. And unlike some of its rivals, such as the Penn Fathom II Low Profile, the Lexa has a level wind that makes it very user friendly.
- Muscle: It’s strong and powerful, particularly for its size, ready to take on anything.
- Never comes up short: A high line capacity is ideal for jigging deep or trolling far behind the boat.
- Dynamite drag: The hallmark smooth and reliable Shimano drag is easy to adjust during a fight.
- Expensive: It’s overkill for many anglers who can accomplish most of their angling with a reel that costs less.
The Shimano Tranx 500 is a great alternative to the Daiwa Lexa if you’re looking for the best saltwater baitcasting reel for large fish. The Tranx 500 is simply a larger, more rugged reel. You can use it to fish for some of the very largest inshore species from boat or kayak. It’s one of the best saltwater reels for bottom fishing, and is even up to some light blue-water fishing. It has a great reputation among a variety of anglers all over the world, and has the signature Shimano smoothness. It’s substantially more expensive than the lighter and more compact Daiwa Lexa, but if you are chasing larger fish or need more line capacity, the Tranx 500 HG or Tranx 500 PG is a better choice. The HG version has a high gear ratio and is good for fast retrieves, while the PG is designed for cranking in large, heavy fish.
- Easy on the wallet: It’s very affordable for its class.
- Saltwater rated: Strong enough for most small- to moderately-sized inshore species.
- Pitching switch: It allows one handed operation, a huge benefit over spinning reels for jigging and trolling.
- Size: It’s relatively small, and a single size offering limits line capacity.
The Quantum Accurist Inshore is the best budget saltwater baitcasting reel for the kayak, boat, or even shore-based anglers. Quantum is well known for making great reels at very affordable prices, which stand up well for their intended purposes. Anglers like the pitching switch on the budget Accurist Inshore, which allows you to quickly adjust the depth of your bottom fishing offering with one hand: a huge advantage when compared to spinning reels. The reel is also strong enough to tackle most inshore species, with a smooth drag and saltwater-rated internals. However, the line capacity is somewhat limited compared to more expensive reels like the Daiwa Lexa, Shimano Tranx, Penn Squall, or Okuma Komodo, and if you’re going to tackle very large fish, you might want to consider upgrading to one of these larger and stronger reels. The Accurist comes in both right- and left-handed models.
- Packs a punch: It’s lightweight and reliable, but strong.
- Relatively affordable: Compared to other off-shore reels, the price is competitive.
- Versatile: There’s not much it can’t do.
- Speed: The higher gear ratio is not always the best choice for some species.
Shimano has several reels considered to be the best all around saltwater conventional reel, including the TLD, Talica, and our choice, the Tyrnos. The Tyrnos is the top pick because it is highly versatile—able to tackle a large number of different techniques and species— while still being relatively budget friendly. There are few complaints about the Tyrnos up and down both coasts, and internationally, and many professional charter captains use this reel. This reel is known for its strength, holds plenty of line, and has two speeds to make retrieving lures and fighting fish easier. The simple and powerful level drag is capable of producing between 33 and 42 pounds of drag, depending on which size model you choose. This reel is capable of subduing tuna, sharks, sailfish, marlin, and other blue-water species. Land-based shark fisherman also pick this reel as a top choice.
- Jack of all trades: It’s a good choice if you fish for a lot of different species.
- Easy to fish: The reel is strong, smooth, and comfortable to use all day.
- Affordable: Meets the needs of the average angler without breaking the bank.
- Strength: there are definitely stronger reels out there; but they cost quite a bit more
The Penn Squall and Daiwa Sealine are both the best budget saltwater conventional reels looking for versatile traditional conventional reels. Both are very castable, while also able to handle light offshore use. It’s tough to choose a favorite, but I gave the nod to the Squall simply because it felt better in my hands. The Squall II is a modern reel that is light; has an easy-to-operate, smooth and powerful drag system; and has composite parts that are impervious to corrosion. The main gear is very strong, and an easy access side plate allows self-service. From boat, kayak, shore, or all three, the Squall delivers excellent performance across a diverse set of angling parameters.
Best Saltwater Fly Fishing Reels
Saltwater fly fishing reels are designed with the same characteristics in mind as their spinning cousins: durability, strength, weight, and strong drags. When choosing a saltwater-specific fly reel, make sure it matches the rod weight. Balancing the reel to the rod makes casting much more comfortable, natural, and increases distance.
- Extremely durable: The Terrapin is rugged to the extreme and appropriate for any saltwater fishing scenario.
- Strong and smooth drag: Even in smaller sizes, it’s consistent and impervious to heat.
- USA made: The manufacturer is accessible.
- Weight: It’s a bit heavier than several rivals.
Fly reels are sensitive to saltwater intrusion, but the Colton Terrapin is the best all around fly fishing reel for saltwater and one of the most rugged and reliable—and simple—fly reels made. This is my go-to reel, and it has performed very well over several years of hard use—including some time completely underwater. If you are a boat or kayak fisherman, a Terrapin should last a lifetime- it beats reels costing two or three times as much. The reel comes in three sizes to match with any saltwater fly rod, and has an incredibly strong sealed drag that is easy to maintain. The reel is designed and machined in the USA, and the company is easy to get in contact with if you have any issues. The Colton Terrapin even comes with a lifetime warranty.
Best Mid-Priced Fly Reel: Orvis Hydros
- Reliable: The Hydros has one of the best reputations for reliability among fly reels.
- Strong and smooth: It’ll handle large fish effortlessly.
- Bang for the buck: Many anglers won’t need to buy another saltwater fly fishing reel.
- Narrow spool: Some anglers favor a wide spool, though many feel there’s no difference between narrow vs. wide.
Few saltwater fly fishing reels have the reputation of the Orvis Hydros. Fishermen have spent hundreds of thousands of hours on the water for decades with Hydros, making it one of the best mid-priced fly fishing reels for saltwater. Orvis has improved the reel recently accounting for some mild criticism from picky anglers.
Still, the Hydros is strong and smooth, and the housing is sealed, as a quality saltwater reel should be. The Hydros is backed by a solid warranty, and is easy to self-service.
- Value: For a saltwater reel with a lifetime warranty, you can’t do any better.
- Drag: It’s incredibly strong for a reel at this price.
- Capacity: It holds a lot of line in all sizes.
- Could be tougher: It’s not the most rugged reel out there.
- Heavy: It’s especially heavy compared to premium saltwater reels.
The Redington Behemoth features a unique die-cast construction that helps it stand up well to saltwater abuse. It holds a large amount of backing for its size, and has one of the most powerful carbon-fiber drags I’ve ever tested for such an affordable reel. It’s also backed by a lifetime warranty—something almost unheard of at this price point. It’s available in a spectrum of sizes. If you’re just giving saltwater fly fishing a go, you can’t go wrong with the Behemoth, especially if you’re a kayak or boat angler.
How We Made Our Picks
I carefully researched and reviewed hundreds of models of reels to make my decisions. I have been fishing my whole life. But I am not an expert in every form of angling, so I also reached out to respected writers, editors, charter captains, and reputable independent retailers. I also interviewed a variety of professional and amateur anglers who fish from boat, kayak, and surf to help inform my recommendations. Since reel choice often comes down to preference, I specifically wanted to ensure I was offering the best reels in each category, without relying on a personal bias.
In particular, I evaluated each reel for a specific list of parameters:
- Reliability and Ruggedness: Is the reel the most reliable option for the application? Can it stand up to the specified use? The saltwater fishing environment is harsh, and the fish strong, and they will expose any weakness in your gear. Reels that quickly succumb to the elements lead to lost fish, so I value reliability and ruggedness of reels over just about all other factors, as do all other anglers I know. Smooth and strong means nothing, if the reel is broken all the time. I paid close attention to the materials of the body of the reel to determine how they might withstand being dropped or knocked around. Metal components help, but composites can be strong and reliable, too. However, there is no alternative to time on the water by myself and trusted allies and professionals. That is ultimately the true test, and played heavily in my choices.
- Strength: Is the reel capable of fighting and landing the fish it is designed to tackle? This is particularly important for larger reels designed to fight large and hard-fighting fish. Strength of the handle, main gear, and the reel stem were specifically considered, as these are prone to being weak spots.
- Weight: Lighter weight is almost always an advantage because a light reel can decrease user fatigue, allowing you to put in more hours of fishing. This is especially important if you’re casting a lot! However, a light reel must also be strong, and ultimately, I’d rather have a stronger reel than a lighter one.
- Drag: Is the drag smooth, strong, and reliable? Strong drags capable of handling a lot of heat are essential in some saltwater fishing scenarios—and we always must be ready to hook an exceptionally large fish. This means having a reliable and worry-free drag system. For me, nothing is more annoying than a drag that is hard to adjust, or won’t stay consistently tight. Further, having a drag that is smooth and has low start-up inertia can be important when fighting powerful saltwater species to reduce the chance of breaking off a fish.
- Price: Is the reel the most affordable option in its respective category? If not, does it have qualities that put it ahead of a lower-priced reel? I am a budget-minded angler, and want the lowest priced reel I can get that still gets the job done. Saltwater fishing can be expensive, and I certainly don’t want to waste money on an overpriced reel. However, saltwater reels can be subject to harsh treatment and tough use…and you do get what you pay for with saltwater reels. Therefore, cost vs. benefit was carefully considered.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Saltwater Fishing Reel
There are four key aspects to consider before you commit to a saltwater fishing reel:
1. The species you’ll be targeting
This is probably the most important factor when choosing the best saltwater fishing reel. The strength and size of the reel in particular are determined by the fish you’ll be targeting, but the type of reel can come into play, too. Large spinning reels with stainless steel gears, carbon fiber drags, forged internal parts, and tons of line capacity may be a requirement when targeting big tarpon around bridges. But this is hardly true when jigging in shallow waters over sandy bottom for fluke, where a low-profile baitcasting reel may be preferable.
Further, the gear ratio of your reel can be important based on what you’re targeting. For example, when fishing for false albacore, an angler must reel extremely fast so the lure skips across the surface, which requires a high gear ratio (the number of times the reel spool or the reel bail turns each time you turn the reel handle one complete revolution). Anglers hoisting amberjack up from the depths are likely going to want a slow, low-geared reel to power the fish to the surface.
2. The environment
Where you’ll be using your saltwater fishing reel, and how much salt water it will be directly subjected to, is another extremely important factor. Budget reels that are not designed for saltwater use can be ruined very quickly—sometimes in just a few trips—by being splashed by saltwater, subjected to sand, or dropped on rocks. Even if you take proper care of your reels, they can still succumb to saltwater penetration, corrosion, and broken parts simply through regular use—and this has nothing to do with hooking or fighting fish! Anglers who wade or fish from shore should consider the water resistance and the toughness of a reel. If you’re fishing primarily from a boat or kayak, or never intend on getting your reel wet from shore, this is less of a concern.
3. Your budget
Saltwater specific reels are more expensive than most freshwater reels. The typical reel starts at around $70, and many exceed $1,000. A lower priced reel is obviously not going to have the features of a more expensive reel, but many anglers don’t need top-tier technology to successfully fish the beach or from a boat. And, some mid-price reels are astoundingly well built and will provide the average angler with years of service.
However, it is my experience that the more expensive the reel, the longer it will last. Further, even some moderately priced reels do not have the strength to fight large fish under heavy drag pressures. This being said, if you are on a tight budget and only fish occasionally, a less expensive reel will probably be fine.
4. The rod you’ll put it on
Saltwater reels come in a huge variety of sizes, and choosing the correct size reel for the rod it’ll be on will increase comfort, casting distance, and balance. However, there are some species that necessitate a big reel, regardless of the length of the rod. This is where considering the requirements of your species of fish comes into play. Tuna and blue-water species in particular often require using a large reel with a short rod, because the angler needs the huge line capacity of the larger reel to fight these powerful fish. Always consider the requirements of the species first, and the rod length and weight second.
Q: What makes a reel good for saltwater?
Reliability, ruggedness, and strength are the primary characteristics to look for in a saltwater fishing reel. Saltwater fish are powerful and often live in inhospitable environments, both of which are tough on equipment. While freshwater reels may allow you to catch a few small fish in the salt, they will not withstand even the first powerful run from a mature tarpon, giant striped bass, or bull redfish—and these fish aren’t as powerful as tuna or other pelagic species. A good saltwater fishing reel is an investment in ensuring the highest chances of landing fish.
Q: Are spinning reels better for saltwater?
Spinning reels in the last 30-years have become so tough and reliable that conventional gear is no longer needed to haul out most inshore and many offshore species. However, there are still plenty of techniques and fish classes that are better suited for conventional tackle. Vertical jigging for a wide variety of species, fighting giant 500-pound-plus pelagics and sharks, live-lining bait, and fishing for a variety of other structure-oriented fish (like amberjack, tautog, or grouper) is best done with conventional tackle. However, new low-profile saltwater-specific baitcasting reels are becoming a good alternative to traditional conventional reels and spinning reels alike, particularly for inshore boat and kayak anglers.
Q: Can you use a Zebco 33 or other budget freshwater reel in saltwater?
You can truly use any reel in saltwater as long as you understand its limitations—and a reel like a Zebco 33 has a lot of limitations. Braided line has become the choice of line for most saltwater anglers, and that alone would eliminate the Zebco 33 from being used in saltwater. When I first started out saltwater fishing, I took an inexpensive catfish outfit to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Though I only caught a handful of small sharks, the reel broke in 48-hours of use. It was jammed with sand, the handle was wobbling simply from fighting the small sharks, and the drag stopped working completely. In the end, it’s best to save a little more for something purpose built for saltwater; it’ll just make your experience that much more enjoyable. That being said, you don’t need to buy a Shimano Saragosa or a Van Staal. There are great budget options listed here that will give you years of enjoyment.
Q: Who makes the best saltwater spinning reels?
There is no one brand that makes the best saltwater spinning reel. Instead, the “best” is instead dictated by what you are planning to do with the reel, and what your budget is. Penn, Daiwa, and Shimano all make excellent saltwater reels that fit different niches. If you’re a Northeast angler who is constantly dunking your reel, then a Van Staal may be best. However, if you’re a boat angler casting small top water lures to snook in the gulf, then a Daiwa BG or Lexa might be more than sufficient. Are you after goliath grouper, or giant Mahi? Then you might want to consider a Shimano Stella. There is no single answer for every angler.
Final Thoughts on Fishing Reels for Saltwater
There are almost as many things to consider when looking for saltwater reels about as there are models on the market. Think about the type of fishing you do first and foremost, then start the reel selection process. Use the above to guide your decisions, and buy the best reel you can afford.