Fishing Reels: How Gears and Spools Affect Line Recovery

What Affects the Amount of Line Retrieved Per Turn of the Handle

Photo © Ken Schultz

Gear ratio is a figure that reflects the number of revolutions made by the spool of a fishing reel or by the rotor for each turn of the handle. It is calculated by counting the gear teeth on the larger drive gear and dividing that by the tooth count of the smaller pinion gear. Thus, if the drive gear has sixty teeth and the pinion gear has twelve teeth, the gear ratio is 5:1, meaning that a single turn of the reel handle will cause the spool or rotor to turn five times.

Typical low gear ratios for fishing reels are 3.5:1 or 4:1, and typical high gear ratios are 6:1, although ratios range both higher and lower. The average ratio for a spinning reel used in freshwater used to be about 5.2:1, but is more like 6:1 today, which might cause some anglers to categorize a 5.2:1 gear ratio spinning reel as low. For a baitcasting reel it is 5.1:1, and for a conventional (inshore trolling) reel it is 3.8:1.

Speed and Line Recovery Are Different Issues

These ratios are often referred to in terms of speed. For example, a reel with a high gear ratio is frequently called a high-speed reel. However, gear ratio only designates mechanical gear action, which is just part of the story. Many reel buyers, sometimes aided by marketing terminology, mistakenly think that a high gear ratio means faster line recovery, but it’s not that simple.

In actuality, speed is determined in part by gear ratio and in part by the size of the reel spool. The more relevant issue is: how much line is recovered per turn of the handle?

Here’s a realistic comparison: A reel with a 4.4:1 gear ratio and a 2-inch-diameter spool will recover 13.8 inches of line per turn of the handle. A reel with a 6.2:1 gear ratio and a 1.5-inch-diameter spool will recover less than 11 inches of line per turn of the handle. The reel with 6.2:1 ratio would be called a high-speed model based strictly on numerical gear ratio, and the reel with 4.4:1 ratio would be called a low-speed model. Yet the 4.4:1 reel will move a lure through the water at a faster speed per turn of the reel handle. The bottom line is that the size of the spool (as well as the amount of line on that spool) in combination with gear ratio is what affects line recovery.

How to Measure Line Recovery

You cannot quickly determine line recovery when evaluating a reel you might purchase because specifications on the circumference of the spool are seldom provided on the reel or in the packaging materials. You may know, for example, that with a 4:1 ratio reel one revolution of the handle puts four wraps of line on the spool, but if you don’t know how much line is gained with each complete wrap, you don’t know the actual recovery.

With a reel that you own, line recovery can be determined in this manner: cast your lure out a short distance, mark the line at a precise spot (like at the bail roller), make one full turn of the handle, mark the line at the same spot as before, then strip out the line recovered and measure the section between marks.

Large, Full Spools Make a Difference

This example about determining line recovery assumes that the reel spool is filled to the maximum with line. Line recovery per turn of the handle differs based upon the amount of line on the spool. When the level of line is low, as it might be when a strong fish takes a lot of line, less line is recovered per turn of the handle than it would be when all or most of the line is on the spool. As a rule, it's better to keep a reel full, and to replace line when it gets low on a spool.

The best of both worlds is a reel that has a high gear ratio and a large-diameter spool full of line. A reel with a 6.2:1 gear ratio and a 2-inch-diameter spool would recover almost 19.5 inches of line per turn of the handle, which is much greater line recovery than in either of the previous examples.

Another benefit of using a reel with a large overall spool diameter is that it minimizes line memory, meaning less severe line coiling. This is more of an issue with nylon monofilament lines than it is with braided super lines.