An Old Bait Casting Reel

Mastering a Bait Caster

I grew up fishing on ponds and lakes of various sizes in Kansas and Missouri, and one of my most memorable moments was when I caught a huge largemouth bass in the lake down the street from my house on an old bamboo rod, no reel, just fishing line tied onto a ten foot bamboo pole.  How simple is that?  Over the years I moved on to closed face spinning reels, then open face spinning reels, and I stayed with the open faced reels for a long time.  Then in my early college years I felt I was ready to try a bait casting reel, and I bought an Ambassadeur Royal Plus rod and reel combo made by Abu Garcia.  Just the name sounds fancy!

If you aren’t sure what a bait caster is, they are the modern-day version of the fishing reels you have seen in historic photos; two big round discs on each side of a spool of fishing line.  If you have ever watched a bass fishing tournament on T.V., bait casters are what the pros use almost exclusively. Bait casters are one of the oldest forms of fishing reels, and they have evolved incredibly with modern technology.

The challenge with a bait caster is mastering the output of line and preventing backlash.  Backlash is when the lure has stopped travelling, yet the spool continues to turn and line tries to come off the reel.  A nasty backlash can end a day of fishing if you don’t have a backup rod.  Through my years of bait casting, I have had some tangles so bad that I just decided to cut the line off and start over.  But I have also learned how to untangle some of those bird’s nests much better than my patience allowed in my earlier days.

But I don’t want to deter anyone from trying out a bait caster; they are very effective, and quite fun to fish with once you have mastered the cast and thumbing the spool, which I will describe in a moment.  If you are going to give bait casting a try, don’t spend the bank on a reel, but at the same time don’t go too cheap.  I am a big fan of Abu Garcia reels for spin and bait casting reels, but Bass Pro Shops also makes good reels at an affordable price, and most reel makers offer a combo rod and reel outfit, which I strongly recommend.  A bait caster requires a stouter rod than a spinning reel, and the manufacturers know how to match their reels to a proper rod, they want you to have a good experience with their equipment.

One important thing to consider when purchasing a bait casting reel is which hand you want to use to retrieve the line, and hopefully a fish.  For me, I prefer to cast with my right hand with all types of fishing, and retrieve with my left hand.  By doing this, I never have to switch the rod from my casting hand, I am always holding the rod in my right hand whether I am casting or retrieving.


My Bait Casters – The 25 Year Old One on Top

Once you select your rod and reel, spool it with 14 – 20 pound monofilament line to get started, this will be easier for you than fluorocarbon and lighter lines in the beginning stages.  I recommend filling only half of the spool to start with, this will make the spool lighter and the centrifugal force will be less, not propelling the spool to spin as fast.

Your reel will likely have two adjustment knobs on it, one on the right side of the reel, and one on the left.  The knob on the right is the tension control, and with the reel held upright, you adjust the knob towards your body to loosen the tension, and turn the knob away from you to tighten.  The left side knob is a brake adjustment, which further adjusts the spin of the spool.  This is a crucial first step to your success with a bait caster.  Tie on a casting plug, or even a big metal washer or nut, and while holding the rod horizontally in front of you, put your thumb on the spool and press the release button.  Slowly let up pressure with your thumb and let the weight fall to the ground.  An ideal adjustment combination will allow the weight to fall to the ground, and the spool should stop spinning when the weight hits the ground.  Practice this procedure until you can push the release button without your thumb on the spool and the weight falls freely, but the spool stops when the weight hits the ground.


Nasty Backlash!

Now you are ready to train your thumb.  Turn the tension knob towards you a little bit so that the spool does not stop when the weight hits the ground, and you should create your first backlash.  However, it should be minimal since you aren’t casting yet.  Now, as your push the release button, use your thumb to stop the weight just as it hits the ground.  Practice this for a long time, like during the length of a Stanley Cup playoff game (about 2 ½ hours for you non-hockey fans).  Once you can stop the weight without any backlash, it is time to try casting.

When you watch the pro bass fishermen on T.V., they will hold the rod parallel to the water, quickly snap the rod up to their shoulder, and then fire a cast with the rod returning to its original position.  If you try to do this when you are first learning, you will certainly cause a backlash, no matter how much you have trained your thumb.  This type of casting will come soon enough.  Instead you want to start with a lob-type of cast; hold the rod behind you and lob the weight out a short distance to start with, releasing pressure from your thumb on the spool to let it spin while the weight is in flight, but never completely releasing pressure.  Use your thumb to stop the spool when the weight hits the ground.  Practice this repeatedly, gradually lengthening your casts, until you can consistently master the spool and the output of line.  Keep in mind; this isn’t going to happen in a day, and you will likely create some backlashes, which will give you some training on how to untangle them.

Once you have this stage mastered, you can actually go fishing.  In fact, you can fish with a bait caster as a trolling rod without ever having to cast it at all, but understanding the basics of the spool is still important.  When you have built up your confidence with these skills, now you can try casting like those bass pros do.  Before you make your first cast when fishing, always remember to adjust the tension and the brake to the specific lure you have on.  Remember, you want the lure to fall freely to the water and the spool to stop spinning when it hits, then back off the tension just a bit.  It only takes a few seconds, and it can save you a lot of time and frustration.

Here are the five steps of that “bass pro” cast:

Step 1: Aim – Keep your arm close to your side with your forearm parallel to the ground. Keep the lure about 6″ from the rod tip.  Press the release button, and press your thumb against the line on the reel. You can now start the upward swing.

Step 2: Bring Back – Bring the rod up straight over your shoulder rather quickly with your wrist and remember to keep your thumb on the line.

Step 3: Stop Backward Motion – Stop the rod when the handle is straight up and down, and then begin the reverse action to move the rod forward. Your thumb should still be pressed against the line on the reel.

Step 4: Start Forward Motion – Start your forward cast and release pressure on your thumb. It takes practice to get the timing right, and make sure you don’t take your thumb completely off the line. This will cause backlash.

Step 5: Control the Landing– Hold the rod in alignment with the line going out. Still keep a slight pressure on your thumb and just before the lure hits the water, stop the line completely with your thumb. If you wait until after the lure hits the water, this will cause backlash.  I prefer to turn my wrist during the forward cast so that it turns the spool perpendicular to the water with my thumb at 9 o’clock (assuming a right-handed cast, or 3 o’clock for a left-handed cast).  That is just my preference, I can’t explain why.


Thumbing the Spool

Once you have the casting technique down, it is important to practice frequently.  Over the past 30 years my frequency of bait casting comes and goes, and I find that each time I want to use a bait caster I need to reacquaint myself with the process again, but it comes back to me easily.  In fact for about a 12 year period I did nothing but fly fishing.  But in the past few years I have come back to my roots and now I regularly fish with spinning, fly, and bait casters equally, they each have their strengths in certain situations, and I never want to limit my opportunities.  If you haven’t tried a bait caster yet, you should, it opens a new door to fishing and expands your skills as a fisherman or woman.