Understanding Fishing Reel Gear Ratios

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As modern anglers progress in their fishing, and the range of species and techniques they adapt broadens, gear ratio has never been so important when choosing a reel. The tackle industry has certainly recognised this and responded accordingly, yet some anglers have been left behind. After you assess the most suitable reel size for your fishing, gear ratio is the next most important factor, far ahead of drag pressure or the number of bearings.

It’s a lot to take in when choosing a reel, and you can be forgiven for not even knowing you had options at the store when identical-looking reels of the same brand and size could be a completely different beast on the inside. As an example, Shimano’s very popular Curado Baitcaster is available in seven different gear ratios, the Daiwa Zillion in four, some Stella SW models in three and then you have Abu Garcia’s Red Rocket baitcaster in an ultra-fast 10.1:1. It’s easy to see why some anglers have purchased incorrectly.  But fear not, it’s quite simple and we will explain all so on your next visit to the tackle shop you know exactly the right gear ratio to choose for your next reel purchase.

Daiwa’s DigiCut drive gear.

So what is gear ratio?

The simple answer is the amount of line retrieved with one crank of the handle. Some reels will display the gear ratio on the reel, and almost all will state it on the box.  A common ratio such as 6.0:1 means the rotor rotates six times with one crank of the handle and this is the figure that determines ratio. However, you can’t just use the gear ratio as your only guide to the amount of line being retrieved; it’s a start, but you need to consider the amount of line retrieved per crank of the handle as larger spools retrieve more line. A 6.0:1 gear ratio on a small spin reel is fast, on a big spin reel is super-fast but on a baitcaster it’s considered moderate or even low. Ratios can be simply broken down into three categories of low, moderate, and high with some more nuanced speeds across the board where baitcasters are concerned. So which ratio do you need?

Low Speed

Low speed reels are designed for torque and pure cranking power – and perhaps the best style of reel to understand low ratios are game reels. If you’re targeting marlin, broadbill and big tuna, you need a low-speed ratio of around 1.3:1 as you’re essentially just using it as a winch. It needs big gears with big teeth to handle the cranking pressure under the strain of heavy drag pressures. These big gears and gear teeth are what provide torque and cranking power, and while they aren’t smooth to wind they do have power. Many game reels such as the iconic and industry-leading Shimano Tiagra offer dual speed with a slightly higher ratio you can switch to when you’re backing down on a fish and need to retrieve line faster.

You’ll find many baitcasters are available in low-speed options from 4.7:1 to 5.2:1, which are ideal for anglers trolling or retrieving big deep-diving lures with high water resistance. The high torque of a low-speed reel makes this job far easier. 

Game Reel such as Shimano’s Tiagra are very low speed for maximum torque and cranking power.

Moderate Speed

When it comes to large spin reels, this speed is popular for vertical jigging or bait fishing for large species in deep water with ratios of around 4.4:1 to 5.2:1. Moderate speed is the compromise of torque to retrieve fish from the depths and the ability to work a lure such as a vertical jig; it’s fast enough to get good action on the jig (or even to retrieve a bait from a great depth without it taking all day), yet it has enough torque to bring up a big king, dogtooth tuna or a reef fish from the bottom. These reels are often labelled with a P or PG (power/power gear), and while they’re not fast, they’re not exactly slow, either.

Many anglers have erroneously bought high-speed reels for these applications as they perhaps looked cooler or it was a popular model with top-water anglers – only to regret the decision. Rather than compromise, many overhead reels are now dual speed, allowing you to retrieve lures or bait with the higher speed setting then fight fish on the low-speed setting.

Moderate speed baitcasters are great for big plastics, swimbaits and spinnerbaits where you don’t need the full torque of low speed and you want some speed to retrieve your lure back to the boat to make the next cast.

Moderate speed reels are perfect for general bait fishing.

Moderate speed reels are also perfect for general bread and butter bait fishing and most low to medium-priced reels aimed at beginners or budget anglers feature moderate gear ratios.

There is an idea that for inshore applications for smaller fish species using small spin reels (size 3000 and under), moderate speeds are great for slow rolling (winding slowly) crankbaits as the slow speed provides a great cadence to impart the subtle action the lure requires for its intended action. There is some slight truth to this, and if you’re an angler who is happy to buy multiple outfits for specific lures, then go for it. But if you want versatility this is one style of fishing where you’re better off with a high-speed reel and just winding slower, as the high-speed reel covers a lot more applications. 

High Speed

While slow and moderate reels are ideal for techniques where you don’t need to recover slack line or retrieve a lure at speed, there are many techniques that benefit from a high-speed reel. Jerkbaiting, soft plastics, lipless crankbaits, glidebaits, metal slugs, slow pitch jigging, squid jigs, stickbaits, poppers – any lure that requires a repetitive action imparted on the lure will benefit greatly from a high-speed reel.

Working lures on topwater requires high speed reels.

A high-speed reel recovers the slack line quickly enough for you to impart your next rod action and keep that lure working. Trying to perform any of these techniques with a moderate-speed reel is difficult, puts more strain on the angler and reduces lure control. If you’ve ever been a situation where you’re trying to retrieve a large popper with that bloop and chug action and you just can’t co-ordinate it, your reel may be too slow. Another great example is trying to erratically work a jerkbait in a fast-flowing river, which needs a high-speed reel to impart that swim action.

High-Speed Gears Can Fail

High-speed reels require small teeth in the drive gear to achieve that high ratio of retrieve and in the past were prone to wear out faster or misalign making your reel feel rough to wind.  Modern technology has moved far past this issue with reputable companies such as Shimano developing its cold forging process. This process takes metal in its raw form and forges the gear into shape at room temperature as opposed to cutting it. This process achieves outstanding results and Shimano has recently improved it further with its MicroModule II gear system, which provides ultra-smooth and durable gearing. You can see how confident Shimano is in the quality of its high-speed gears, with even the sub-$100 Nexave available in a high-gear ratio and sold with a 10-year warranty.

Shimano’s Hagane Micromodule-2 gear is made with their cold forged process making it strong and smooth.

Daiwa is another company that has developed its own technology for producing high-speed gears. The DigiGear process digitally cuts an alloy gear and with the new Monocoque system, Daiwa can drop a much larger and stronger gear into a smaller reel body.

Choose Your Gear

After reading this you should have a good understanding of what gear ratio is best for your fishing, and be filled with confidence about your next reel purchase – instead of regretting the last purchase you made.

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