How To Set Up A Spinning Reel

Chances are if you bought your reel in a combo with a rod from a big box store, online source, or larger outdoor outfitter, it is about as ready to fish as you can make it.  If you did that, skip down to step 6. Of course, if you bought one of those rods, you also got one made of inferior materials like plastic gears and very few metal components.  If you are serious about fishing, you need serious fishing gear that is made to handle hard fights and last for years!

If you purchased a quality reel, it likely came in a box and may not be fully assembled.  If you bought a rod with it, you will need to get that mated up.  It’s easy and quick and, in the process, you will learn more about your rod and reel that will help you decide how best to set it up for your preferences and needs.

Step 1:  Getting your Equipment

Spinning Reels

If you have yet to purchase your reel, it’s time to decide on what reel suits your needs.  Not all spinning reels are the same and getting one that is ill suited to what you want the reel to do can be a big frustration.

Line Capacity and Weight

I don’t worry much about line capacity as most reels will hold more than you will need but pay attention to the weight of line the rod is designed for.  If you want a rod capable of landing a variety of fish species, go with a 6 or 8-pound test.

Gear Ratio and Bearings

The Gear Ratio of a reel will determine how fast it will retrieve.  More bearings will make for a smoother retrieve.  Most of this is more comfort and efficiency than anything else but a fast retrieving reel can be a challenge to retrieve some lures.


This is a number usually listed as a selling point for reels.  If you are going for bass and smaller, I wouldn’t worry about it.  If you want pike, catfish or carp, get one that has a drag in the 15 lb. range.


Most reels are reversible but make sure you get what you want out of a reel and that it suites your fishing style.  If you are left handed, make sure your reel can be setup to make your fishing comfortable.


The rod you pick will need to match your reel in line weight to be most effective.  You will also need to fit it to your style of fishing.  Don’t get a really stiff rod for small fish and don’t get a weak rod for heavy fish.

Length & Takedown

Many roads are takedown rods that can be more easily transported and stored.  This makes the use of longer rods an option when you don’t have a truck or larger vehicle to transport them.  Though one-piece rods are often slightly better, they are much harder to carry.

I prefer a rod in the 6 to 6 ½ foot range that is a two piece.  This is a good in between.

Line Weight

You will need to match your line weight on your rod to the line weight on your reel.  Otherwise you risk damaging or breaking your rod.

Lure Weight

The maximum lure weight will ultimately decide what species you will be able to catch.  The reel and line weight will be a factor in your decision.  It’s very hard to fish with a rod that is too weak and bendy for the bait you want to use.

Action and Power

The action and power of a rod is dictated by the flexibility and strength.  If you have a fast rod, less of the rod will bend and hook sets will be faster.  Strength is the amount of lifting power a rod has and will determine the maximum weight of a fish you can fight and lift from the water.

I like a medium fast rod in a power suitable for the species I am fishing.  A medium power rod is usually enough unless you are targeting the biggest species.


Choosing a line may be the easiest decision of all.  Your reel and rod will govern what line weights you are able to use and sometimes the most suitable material.  You may want to pick a specific color depending on your local water.

Pound Test

This is simply the breaking strength of the line.  There is a trend to go with a very high strength line to resists breaking when you have a fish on but it is unnecessary in most cases.  I have caught many 5 and 6 lb. bass on 2 and 3 lb. line.  I will generally opt for the lowest pound test that I can get away with based on my target species.


If this is your first time or one of your first times fishing, go with a monofilament line.  They are easier to use and get set up with. Fluorocarbon is stronger but much easier to get twisted and tangled.


If you fish a variety of waters, stick with clear but if are more likely to fish in water that is similar, match your line to the water.  Green for murky water and glue for the cleanest reservoirs and salt water.


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.

Step 2:  Get to Know your Gear

The Reel

Line Spool: 

This is the spool that will hold you line and keep it from tangling.  Some spools will have a tie point to tie line but most will not.


This wire works as a guide for the line when reeling in to properly wrap the line around the spool.  The bail can be opened to allow the line to be cast or freely removed from the spool.

Line Roller:

This is a part of the Bail that the line rests on.  It provides less friction to the line and keeps it in a place where it can be wound without kinks or tangles.

Drag Knob:

The drag on a reel governs how hard it is for line to me forcibly pulled from the reel by a fish.  This knob allows you to tailor your drag stiffness to the approximate size fish you are expecting to hook.

Anti-Reverse Switch:

Most reels will have this lever that will either allow the reel to be reeled in reverse to feed line or reeled forward to pull line in.  In nearly 30 years of fishing with a spinning reel, I have never used this.

Reel Handle:

This is the crank used to retract line.  On the opposite side of the reel from the crank will often be a small nut that can be removed to switch the handle to the other side of the reel for left handed users.

Reel Foot:

This is the flange that secures to the fishing 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.

Step 3:  Attaching your Reel to the Rod

 1. Open the Reel Seat:  The reel seat will have a fixed socket in the front and a movable socket in the rear that is close by a threaded nut.  Start by opening this nut all the way to the rear.

2. 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.

3. Close the Reel Seat:  If your reel moves inside the reel seat, make sure the nut if firmly tightened by hand only.  There are very few occasions where a reel is too small for the reel seat but if this happens to you, count on replacing one of the two parts.

Step 4:  Spool on your Line

This step will greatly benefit from having a line winder.  If you do not have one and have a two piece rod, I prefer to keep the reel attached to the bottom section of the rod.  If you do this, start by passing the line through the eyelets from the tip of the rod down to the reel.

1.Open the bail:  This will ensure you keep the line on the correct side of the bail.  Otherwise your reel will not function correctly.

2. Attach the line to the spool:  If the spool has an attachment point for the line, use that.  Otherwise I prefer to use an Arbor Knot but most any not will work.

3. You may trim excess line but never burn it.  The heat will break down the line for quite a distance from where you apply the flame.

4. It will sometimes help to do a few wraps by hand around the spool to help the line get started.  In order to make sure the line goes on evenly, keep it around 10 wraps or less.

5. Close the Bail:  Position the line across the roller.  You are now ready to reel on the line.

6. Slowly Reel on Line:  Keep tension on the line either by holding the line or by keeping some pressure on the roll the line came on.  If you are using a line winder, it will likely do this for you.

7.Reel until you reached the desired length which will be specified by the reel manufacturer.  Most spools will have a mark inside the spool arbor showing the maximum line.  Avoid getting too much line which will cause tangling issues.  It’s better to have too little than too much.

Step 5:  Stringing the Rod

Now that you have your reel set up, it’s time to get the line through all of the rod guides.

1. Starting with the bottom guide closest to the reel, simply pass the line upward.  In order to get free line, you can either open the bail or adjust the drag knob until the line pulls from the reel easily.  I prefer the latter option.

2. If you are having a lot of trouble, try attaching the line to a large sewing needle to add some weight and stiffness.

3. As you move up the rod, if you drop the line it will often slip back through every eyelet you have complete.  This can be frustrating.  Using the needle will help but you can also pinch the line to the rod below the guide you are working on, moving it as you complete a guide.

Step 6:  Attach a Hook or Lure

When you’re ready to attach a hook or lure to your setup you’ll need to learn some knots. If you’re using monofilament or fluorocarbon line, then there is a simple knot knot you can use.
The Uniknot is easy to tie and it can be used for tying your line to a hook, lure or even for splicing lines together.

Here is a diagram on how to tie the uniknot. If you’re not using braided line, you can skip step 2.

How To Tie The Uniknot

Step 7:  Set your Drag

Knowing exactly where to set your drag will take experience and knowing the fish you are after.  You will want to set it close to where you want it before you get on the water but you can always adjust as you go if you need to.

1. Turn the drag knob clockwise until it stops.  This is the stiffest drag you can get.  If you were to hook a large fish with your drag this high, it would likely break your line.

2. Slightly turn the drag back counter clockwise, pausing about every 1/8 turn to give the line a moderate pull.  Repeat this stem until you hear a clicking sound from the reel and the line unspools a little.

3. Very slowly turn the drag knob until you are no longer able to unspool line with the same moderate tug.  From this point, I always turn my knob between 1/8 and ¼ turn clockwise to stiffen it up.

4. If you have trouble getting your drag set, consult with your local outfitter or fishing shop for advice.  These people are professionals and should be able to quickly help you.  Having the drag just right is vital.

If your drag is too loose:

1. You may hear the clicking sound when you go to set the hook.  If this happens, it is likely that the fish was not hook well or at all.  Check to make sure you can’t easily unspool the line by hand.  If you can, repeat the steps above.  If you can’t, tighten the drag another ¼ to ½ turn and try again.

2. You may successfully hook a fish and he may run, stripping out line behind him.  If this happens, very slowly tighten your drag while keeping your rod tip up.  This allows the rod tip to act like a spring to keep the line from snapping.  Tighten a half turn and see if the fish is still running.  If so, you can tighten more or try to wait till he is too tired to run anymore.

If your Drag is too Tight:

1. In many ways a loose drag is easier to deal with than a stiff drag and much more forgiving.

2. Drag that is too tight will most commonly lead to snapped line but in a worst-case scenario, it can break the tip of a pole.  Having the drag too tight is often hard to gauge until it’s too late.

3. If you are unable to fight the fish in or it is very difficult to do so, loosen the drag slowly until you hear the clicking sound and let the fish run himself a ways before you try to pull him in again.

A properly set drag should allow a fish to pull out line but not quickly.  It should take some effort.  Drag is a way to keep the fish from breaking the line but also provides a means for him to tire himself out so you can fight him in.  If you have a fish on and he is pulling out line, keep your rod tip up which should help keep pressure on the hook and keep him from getting off.

Step 8:  The Basics of Casting

Casting is a complicated movement that is hard to get right.  It will take practice to get your lure exactly where you want it.  This is the basic cast, from here you can move on to other casting methods and positions.

1. Never reel your lure up till it touches the tip of your pole.  Allow it to hang down about 18”.  This will give you some leeway on timing your cast and improve your results.

2. Place your dominant hand on the rod just in front of the reel seat and use your index finger to pinch the line firmly against the rod.

3. Use your non-dominant hand to open the bail then place it on the butt of the rod below the reel.  This is the casting position.

4. Draw the rod backwards over your dominant shoulder until the tip is a couple feet behind that shoulder.  If you imagine a clock face, the tip of the pole should be around 2:00.

5. Turn your body squarely toward your target and quickly swing the pole forward.  When the rod is close to vertical, release your index finger to let the line pay out.

6. Don’t attempt to stop the pole here, continue your swing until the pole is about 10:00 on the clock face.  This is called follow through and is important to making a good cast.

If your lure goes high into the air, you released the line too early.  If it lands at your feet, you released too late.  Somewhere in the middle is exactly where you want to be.  It takes practice, we have all failed at it.

You can substitute a small weight for the lure and practice casting in your yard.  A small bucket makes a great target.

Step 9:  Reeling in your Line

1. Now that your line is out there, it’s time to get it back.  Start by closing the bail.  Some reels will have an automatic bail that will close when you start reeling but I have always flipped mine closed by hand anyway.

2. As you start to reel, make sure the line moves onto the line roller on the bail.  If it doesn’t, move it onto the roller manually.

3. Continue reeling.  If you are only attempting to get your lure back to you, reel as fast as you like but you probably won’t catch fish this way.

Learn to vary how you reel in the line by moving the rod tip and reeling at different speeds.  Learning to do this correctly and well will take time.  Each bait, fish species, and even weather can alter how you reel in a lure.

Step 10:  Get out and Fish!

Now that your rod and reel are set up and you know the basics, there is nothing holding you back from trying it out for real.  Head down to the water and spend a few hours.  See what happens.

Just remember, if the fish yanks your line, yank back.  When you are reeling in, keep your rod tip low and pull upwards when the fish takes the bait.

When you are reeling in a fish, keep your rod tip high to maximize the spring effect of your rod.

Hope he is a fighter!

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