How To Set Up A Baitcasting Reel

If you watch any of the various fishing shows on television, you will notice almost all of the big-time anglers use a baitcasting reel. If you are really getting into targeting species or want to go for those big springtime bass, you are going to have to follow suit eventually.

Of course, if you do this, you will have to worry about the dreaded backlash. If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon, its where the line on the reel decides to tangle itself in ways that don’t seem physically possible. Older reels were very prone to this if the angler wasn’t proficient with their use. Modern reels are better!

That isn’t saying that they are backlash free. It still happens and can happen very easily if you don’t get the rod set up correctly. Taking that time up front will save you from a wasted day where you do nothing but cut and untangle line.

Unlike a spinning reel, even if you buy your rod and reel as a set, you will still need to do the setup work. You won’t get one pre-setup from the store. To start off with, make sure you have everything you need.

Step 1: Getting your Equipment

The Casting Reel

If you haven’t purchased a reel yet, it’s time to consider what options are best suited to your intended use. Though most reel of a decent quality will do the same job, some will excel at specific weights of lures or line diameters. Consider your target species and the baits or lures you intend to use.

Line Capacity and Weight

The amount of line a reel holds will rarely be an issue, even with a long casting rod and reel setup. What is important is the weight of the line you can use. Most baitcasters will list different capacities and weights for braided line and monofilament. Unless you have a very good reason, stick to the monofilament capacity for now.

Spinning reels may be able to use a variety of line weights but most baitcasters are specific. Follow the recommendations for your reel or get a different reel for a different sized line. It will save you a lot of headache in the end.

Gear Ratio and Bearings

Looking at the gear ratio and the line recovery will give you an idea of how fast your line will reel in. There are benefits to both faster and slower systems. Generally, something in the 4 to 8 range is good for a beginner.

Bearings will determine how smooth a reel retrieves. You can quickly get into a number of bearings that means nothing. Anything around 5 will be enough. !

Max Drag

A baitcaster can handle some pretty large fish so having sufficient drag to keep them from running away with your line is a huge plus. However, it is useless to have 10lbs more drag than your max line weight. Look at the maximum line weight your reel is set to use. If the drag is less than the line, go to a different reel.


Unlike a spinning reel that can often be reversed, a baitcaster is set as either a left or right-handed model. Left-handed reels are becoming more popular but are still not available at every retailer. Fishing isn’t like a lot of other tasks and many left-handed people do fine on right-handed reels.


There are two types of brakes available on a casting rod. The first is centrifugal that uses weights inside the reel and is often considered to be the more reliable option but is harder to set. The other is magnetic which is easier to set and generally cheaper. A few reels have a hybrid brake that uses both methods but doesn’t seem to be much improved over either.

The Casting Rod

The primary concern when selecting a rod is that it matches your reel in terms of line weight and can cast the size lures you intend to fish. The rod may look slightly different than a spinning rod but they function more or less the same. Once you know what rods will work for your line and lure, you can think more on the length of the rod and the action and power.

Line Weight

Simply match this to your reels specifications. Make sure you are reading the right specification for monofilament or braided line to make sure you are getting the right rod. Most of the weights on rods will assume you are fishing monofilament line, if you want to go with braided you will need a much stronger rod.

Lure weight

Fishing with a lure that is too heavy for your rod can lead to a variety of issues including a broken rod tip. Having too large a lure can also cause a lot of problems back at the reel. Generally, you will have a range of weights spanning anywhere from half an ounce to a full once of difference.

Just like a lure that is too heavy can cause issues, one that is too light may have trouble casting from your reel.

Action and Power

The rod’s action will be listed from slow to extra fast. A slow rod will have a more even bend throughout the rod and hook sets will be slower but more forgiving. A fast or extra fast rod will bend less hand have a harder, faster hook set. Pick one that suits your style of fishing and the species you are after.

Power is the strength of the rod or the average amount of pressure that it takes to break your rod. Typically, you aren’t going to have to worry much about this. Even with weaker rods, your line will probably break first.


Line will be picked by strength, material, and color. It is an overall easy decision. Your reel will govern your line strength and possibly material. Color is up to you.

Pound Test

When we discussed reels, we talked about the line specifications for a baitcasting reel. If your reel offers a variety of strengths it can use, I usually go low to middle of the range. There is rarely a need to go for the strongest line you can get.


You can use fluorocarbon, braided, or monofilament line in a baitcaster but if you are just starting out, stick with monofilament. You will have a lot better success. Braided line is known to tangle badly and fluorocarbon is very stiff and hard to work with.


In most cases, using a clear line is best but many swear by a full green line. I have never seen much difference. If you want to do it the proper way, use a line suited to the color of your local water. It may not help but it won’t hurt either.


For most of the tasks of setting up a rod and reel, you will need very little but there are some tools that are handy and can make the job easier.

Cutting Tool

For weaker monofilament line, most any cutting tool will work but as you move into the stronger materials and line sizes, having a dedicated tool is a good idea. Line snippers, wire cutters, and line scissors are all good options.

Line Stripper

If you are removing old line from your reel, having a motorized line stripper can speed things up and avoid tangling issues. For the price, they are worth it.

Line Spooler or Line Winder

This is just a tool with two names. It is a holding device that keeps the line from getting tangled when putting it on the reel. Most of these are hand crank but some motorized ones exist. While this is not strictly necessary, it is a very useful tool to make sure things go perfectly. If you aren’t inclined to buy a specific tool for this task, one can be rigged using a dowel rod, pen, or screwdriver (more on that later).

Step 2: Getting to Know your Gear

The Reel

Line Spool:

This is the arbor that holds your line and will hopefully keep it from tangling. It is a more complicated setup than the spool of other rod types.

Line Guide:

This small eyelet feeds the line on and off the spool while moving across guide bars to ensure that line is put on the spool evenly.

Spool Release:

Pushing this button will release the line and should be timed mid cast to get the best results from your reel.

Spool Tensioner:

The tensioner puts pressure on the spool to keep it from spinning too fast and outrunning the speed that line is being stripped from the spool during the cast. Having this adjusted too weak will cause imminent backlash. Setting it too firm and you won’t be able to cast at all.

Reel Handle:

When it’s time to retrieve your line, this is where you do it. The handle should only turn one direction. Unlike a spinning reel, this handle cannot be reversed to the other side of the reel.

Drag Adjustment

Near the reel handle is a star-shaped knob that is used to set the tension it takes to strip line off the reel. Keep this set below the breaking point of your string but not so soft that line strips off the spool when you attempt to set the hook.

Spool Tensioner:

This is the primary anti-backlash mechanism. The tighter you make it, the harder it will be to cast line off the reel. It needs to be matched perfectly with the weight of the lure you are casting.


If you have a magnetic brake, this will simply be a dial on the side of the reel. If you have a centrifugal brake, you will need to remove the side opposite the reel handle to set your breaks. This is the mechanism that prevents the reel from continuing to spin once your lure has hit the water.

Reel Foot:

This is the flange that is used to attach the reel to the rod. !

The Rod


The handle of a rod is the often-padded section at the butt end of the rod. The padding may be foam, cork, or even plastic. The handle will contain the reel seat and may or may not have a hook keeper installed.

Reel Seat:

This is a threaded keeper that will clamp down onto the reel to keep it firmly attached to the rod. These should only be hand tightened and never tightened with tools to prevent damage to the threads or reel foot.


These metal rings help to keep the line in order and in the right place during retrieval. Depending on the length, your rod could have as few as 5 or as many as 12 guides.

Rod Tip:

If you are using a fast or medium fast rod, the last few inches of the tip will be the most flexible to help in quickly setting the hook. Be cautious with this area. While it may be strong when it comes to bending force, it is often very weak to shock forces. A light tap can break it off fully.

Attaching your Reel to the Rod

Open the Reel Seat:

The reel seat will have a fixed socket on the rear and a movable socket on the front that is close by a threaded nut. Start by opening this nut all the way.

Install the Reel:

Simply slide the front portion of the reel foot into the front socket and tightening the nut on the rear socket until it firmly engages with the rear portion of the rod foot.

Close the Reel Seat:

If your reel moves inside the reel seat, make sure the nut is firmly tightened by hand only. There are very few occasions where a reel is too small for the reel seat. If this happens to you, you will need to decide on a different product.

Step 3: Spooling on Line

Using a line winder is very important to the success of this step. It can save you a lot of trouble down the road. If you don’t have a line winder, you can improvise one from a screwdriver. Simply place the spool on the screwdriver and clamp or otherwise attach the point of the screwdriver to something that won’t move easily when you reel. You can check out a video of the process here.

I also recommend spooling line with the reel attached to the rod. The extra eyelets will help keep the line in order.

  1. Start by feeding the line through the eyelets on the rod from the tip down to the reel. Once you have the line all the way through, run it through the line guide and around the spool by going over the spool first.
  2. Attach the line to the spool. Most spools have holes or some other type of attachment point for your line. If your spool does not, consider using an arbor knot to attach it. Make sure the knot is secure and will not slide around.
  3. Trim off any excess line from the tag end of the knot. Having extra pieces of line hanging on can cause a mess. Never burn the line. The heat can damage the line in a large area and cause a weak knot or damage the line to the point that it will break easily.
  4. Slowly reel on the line and make sure the line guide is applying the line evenly across the spool without any humps. Manufacturers will specify how much line a reel can hold and the reel may have a mark at this level. Either way, I recommend only putting on 90-95% of the line recommended.

Step 4: Attach a Lure or Weight

This is a vital step in ensuring your setup is correct. Whatever you attach to the line should be very close to the same weight as the lure you intend to use. There are a variety of knots you can use but since the weight you will be attaching at this point is just for setup and testing, we will tie a simple Surgeon’s Knot.

  1. Start by passing the line through the eyelet of your weight or lure and tying a simple overhand knot but don’t tighten it down.
  2. Going in the same direction, wrap the line through the loop two more times making a sort of ‘Triple Overhand’ knot and snug it down.
  3. Not tie a single overhand knot that will snug up against the Surgeons Knot.
  4. This knot will serve well for setup but may not be strong enough to fish with.

Step 5: Set your Spool Tension

Of all the steps listed here, this is the most important to get right if you want to avoid any issues with backlash. Repeat this step every time you change lures. It may take several minutes to get right the first time but as you practice, it will quickly become second nature.

  1. With the weight or lure attached from step six, hold the rod straight out in front of you with your lure hanging about 6” below the rod tip. Tighten the spool tension fully.
  2. Press the spool release, with the tension turned up, the lure should not move. Slowly release the tension just to the point where the lure starts to drop. It should take a couple of seconds for it to touch the ground. It should stop the moment it touches the ground and no extra line should come off the spool.
  3. Tighten the spool tension 1 click tighter and reel the line back to the starting position.
  4. Press the spool release one more time. The lure should not drop. If it does tighten one more click and start over.
  5. Now tap the back of the rod lightly, the lure should begin moving when you do and stop as soon as it touches the ground. This is the proper tension.

Some reels will not allow the lure to drop with the light tap. If yours will not, simply loosen the spool tension to the tightest you can that will still allow the lure to drop. !

Step 6: Setting the Brakes

This is the next step in preventing backlash but is a much simpler process. The process will differ depending on which brake system you have. !

Centrifugal Breaks

  1. Open the side of the reel where the brake system is. Inside you should see colored pegs. These are the weights that will determine the strength of the break. If they are pushed in, they are disengaged, if they are pulled out they are engaged.
  2. Pick three weights that are evenly spaced around the brake and turn them on. You want things to be balanced so don’t turn on just the weights on on one side. This should be sufficient to start with. You can more should you have problems.
  3. Close the reel, you are done. As you get better and can start controlling the line spool by ‘thumbing’ you can release more weights to get longer casts.

Magnetic Breaks

You should see a dial, usually numbered from 1 to 10 on the side of the reel opposite the reel handle. Adjust this to a medium value from 4 to 6. If you have problems, you can tighten it but don’t loosen it until you are used to casting and ‘thumbing’. You are done. !

Step 7: Setting the Drag

Getting the drag set correctly for what you want it to do will take experience. For now, we just want it to be soft enough that it can be pulled by a larger fish but stiff enough that they can’t run away with the line.

  1. Locate the drag adjustment which should be a star-shaped wheel near the base of the reel handle. Turn this all the way forward to the tightest you can make it.
  2. Loosen the drag a few clicks and tug the line. If the line will not move no matter how hard you tug, loosen more.
  3. Repeat the above step until a hard tug will allow the line to come off the spool. Should you hook a larger fish, you can always tighten the drag on the spot. The same is true should you want a looser drag. That is why the knob is located where it is.


Your rod and reel are set up. You are ready for some practice. It is better, in the beginning, to cast in your yard or open spot where hooking a fish will not be a complication. You need to figure out the reel before you worry with that but it will come soon enough.

Should you have any issues with backlash, first start by firming up your spool tension from step 7. If you get to a point where the line will not cast unless you loosen the tension but you get a bird’s nest when you do, try adding a firmer break from step 8.

Remember to always go through step 7 when you change lures!

After an hour or two of practice, you should be able to reliably hit something the size of a tire at about 40 feet. You are more than ready to hit the water! Good luck and tight lines!

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