Here’s Why Trolling With Spinning Reels Isn’t Crazy

Ask a group of anglers if they troll with spinning reels and you might get a few scoffs and some sideway looks.  But there will be plenty of sheepish nods in there too.  When it comes to trolling, spinning reels often get a bad wrap and are seen as tools for the novice. 

Well, guess what?  Many pros use spinning reels for trolling too.  And while spinning gear is often the first setup novice anglers use, it’s by no means inferior gear used only by amateurs.  

You can absolutely troll with spinning reels.  In fact, spinning reels are often a better, more versatile choice for certain trolling tactics than level wind reels.  Plus, most anglers are familiar with using spinning reels so trolling with them has less of a learning curve. 

By the end of this article, we’ll prove to you that trolling with spinning reels isn’t as crazy as some make it out to be.  Plus, there are tricks that make spinning reels even more effective for trolling that everyone should know.  Let’s get started!

Spinning reel vs. Level wind reel

Just in case you aren’t 100 percent sure, let’s take a look at the differences between spinning reels and level wind reels before we dive in.

Spinning reels – The design of spinning reels utilizes a flip over bail mechanism that must be opened to release line for casting.  Spinning reels are highly effective when casting light tackle on light line.  However, you can size up spinning reels for handling heavier tackle as well.  

Spinning reels have very fine drag control but lower drag ratings than baitcasters.  Gear ratios, and therefore retrieval rates, on spinning reels are lower too.  Spinning reels should also be used with spinning style rods which have larger bottom guides for smoother casting.

Level wind reels – These reels utilize a horizontal spool that releases and retrieves line directly in-line with the rod.  The name level wind comes from the guide mechanism that moves back and forth in front of the reel to help lay the line flat on the spool.  Most baitcasters are a level wind style reel and the leveling mechanism disengages when casting.  

Level wind reels have much stronger drag systems and can handle heavier line and more of it.  Baitcasters also afford much more control with delicate casts but also demand a higher level of skill to prevent backlashes.  They typically aren’t suitable for light line applications.  However, gear ratios and retrieval rates are much faster with many level wind reels.  Also, you must use a casting style rod with level wind reels.  

When should you troll with spinning reels

Given the differences between the two styles of reels, it’s understandable that many people wonder if they can troll with spinning reels.  And believe it or not, there are some situations where you’ll be far more successful trolling with a spinning reel.

Trolling small lures is one such situation.  Obviously, small lures work on level wind trolling setups too but deploying them with a spinning reel is infinitely easier.  Small lures like spoons, spinners, small plugs, jigs, swimbaits and jerkbaits are well suited for spinning gear.  The reason is simple.  You can cast small lures behind the boat fast which is a big deal when the bite is hot.  That’s not possible with most level wind reels.  

Another big reason we love trolling small lures with spinning reels is because we can quickly switch tactics in a flash when a fish boils at the surface.  Never is this more advantageous than with stocked trout.  They feed right on the surface in early spring and most of the fall.  

We might be trolling to cover lots of water but when a fish suddenly jumps to the side of the boat, it’s nice to quickly reel up and immediately cast to the surfacing fish.  We’ve caught more than a few big trout this way.

In general, most light line trolling is more easily accomplished with spinning gear.  Both trout and walleye are prime candidates for targeting on the troll with spinning gear.  And the versatility of spinning setups lets you switch up techniques and adapt to a changing bite. 

Disadvantages of trolling with spinning reels

While trolling with spinning reels isn’t as crazy as some think, it still isn’t always the perfect setup.  The achilles heel of any spinning reel is line twist and line twist especially rears it’s ugly head when trolling.  

One of the more insidious causes of line twist happens when you try trolling with high resistance gear such as divers, large flashers or gang trolls.   

Here’s what usually happens.  When you reel in heavy trolling gear with a spinning reel, there is a good chance the drag will slip.  With a slipping drag, every crank of the handle adds twist in the line.  If it goes unnoticed and builds up, your line can suddenly snap and poof, your expensive tackle is gone. 

You may be thinking that swivels should solve that problem but you’d be wrong.  The twist doesn’t happen near the tackle.  It happens in the line right above the reel.  Plus, it takes a lot of twist before barrel swivels rotate when under tension.  By then, it could be too late.   

As a possible fix, tighten down your drag before retrieving your trolling gear.  If you are using light line, take your time so the line doesn’t break.  Also, be especially careful when fighting a fish so that you don’t reel while the fish is actively taking drag. 

Another disadvantage of spinning reels is the limited line capacity.  There are times when you need to get your gear way far away from the boat using side planners or just long lining.  It’s not uncommon to have your gear 100 to 150 feet behind the boat.  If that is half the line on the spool, you’ll be in trouble when a big fish makes a screaming run. 

When should you troll with level wind reels

The disadvantages of trolling with spinning reels are what level wind reels address.  While trolling light tackle is more challenging with level wind reels, trolling heavy tackle is not.  

Anglers targeting salmon, lake trout, big browns or trophy walleye are almost always better off with level wind reels.  Primarily because those fish are targeted in deeper water with heavy tackle.  Whether you’re dragging around 10 inch dodgers behind a Deep Six diver or a hefty diving crank on a downrigger, level wind reels hold more and heavier line and have excellent drag systems.

It’s also a huge advantage to have a line counter for precise depth control and you can get level wind reels with them built in.  This is something spinning reels don’t have.  

Fighting big fish isn’t the only thing a level wind setup is better for.  There is certain trout and kokanee trolling gear that is more of a hassle and a line twist hazard when using a spinning reel.  As an example, we recommend using things like gang trolls or kokanee dodgers with a level wind reel.  

Can you use a spinning reel on a downrigger

A spinning reel on a downrigger is not the most common sight.  The majority of anglers seem to like running long, whippy rods paired with level wind reels on downriggers.  There are a few perks in doing so.  

First, moderate action “downrigger rods” keep the hook pinned in fish better and act as a shock absorber when the line releases from the downrigger clip.  Also, longer rods give you more reach when trying to net fish at the end of long trolling setups.  Something tough to understand unless you’ve been in that situation.

Despite those obvious benefits of using level wind downrigger rods, there is no reason the right spinning reel setup won’t work with a downrigger.  The few times we’ve done it, we’ve had no issues and caught plenty of fish.

The same principles apply.  Stick to light tackle when using a spinning setup on a downrigger.  8 to 12 pound test line is sufficient for all but the largest freshwater fish.  In some cases, braided line is a great option for handling bigger fish.  We also suggest using at least a 7 foot rod with a medium-fast action.

Also, instead of opening your bail when dropping the downrigger ball, just loosen your drag so that line can unspool under light tension.  This eliminates the risk of billowing tangles common with spinning reels.

Rigging up a spinning reel for more effective trolling

With a few tweaks and a couple tricks gained from experience, we have learned how to make trolling with spinning gear more effective.  

Spinning reel size for trolling

Successful trolling with spinning gear starts with using the right size reel for the species and technique.  At a minimum, use a 2500 to 3000 size spinning reel for light tackle trout and walleye applications.  Step it up to a 3500 or 4000 size reel for chasing bigger fish with slightly heavier tackle. 

Pair it with the right rod

The rod is just as important as the reel when it comes to trolling.  Of course, you can use whatever rod you already have and it most likely will work just fine.  After all, sensitivity and high-end quality matters very little for normal trolling conditions.  

The average off-the-shelf spinning rod ranges from ultra light to medium-heavy power with stiffer fast action tips.  All will work.  Sometimes, we use ultra light rods to troll small flies for stocked trout.  We up it to medium-light rods for walleye on shallow flats. 

Yet, if we could choose an all-purpose spinning rod for trolling, it would be a 7’ 6” medium-light rod with a medium-fast action.  

Try braid

Line selection varies widely and everyone has their preference.  Most of the time, we are trolling 6 to 10 pound test monofilament on our spinning reels.  But there are times when braid is the way to go.  

Braid has some major appeal when matched up with spinning rods for trolling.  For one thing, you can fit way more line on the reel since it is so much thinner than mono.  That also means you can up the pound test rating a bit too. 

Also, the braid’s thin diameter lets the line cut through water with less resistance and therefore gets your gear deeper.  Not to mention, braid handles twist better than mono and is weakened less by it.   

Be careful though.  Unlike mono, braid has virtually no shock absorbing stretch so soft mouthed fish like kokanee demand a limber rod and/or trolling snubbers so hooks don’t tear out on the strike. 

Minimize twist

Since twist is the enemy of any angler trolling with spinning reels, here are couple useful tips to consider.

  • Never let your drag slip when reeling in heavy trolling gear.  Tighten the drag and pull up with the rod then reel down.
  • Use good quality ball-bearing swivels instead of cheap barrel or snap swivels.

If you could only pick one for trolling

Why pick one reel when you could just have both types in the boat with you?  Have your level wind reel setup with your larger trolling tackle and a spinning rod rigged up with light tackle offerings.  It’s the best of both worlds.  

But if you made us choose one setup for trolling for a wide variety of species, we would choose a level wind reel.  

Why?  Because you can troll light tackle in a pinch but when fish are deep or you are targeting larger species, a level wind reel has obvious advantages.  You can hold more line, line twist isn’t an issue and you get a more rugged drag system as well as a built in line counter.  All these things are a big benefit for hardcore trolling fanatics.

However, that doesn’t mean I would ever scoff at someone trolling with spinning gear.  With the right setup, you can do almost everything with a spinning reel that a level wind reel can do.  There are some drawbacks to doing so but with a little extra knowledge, you’ll be boating more fish which is not so crazy after all.