Reel Tech: The Steak Behind The Sizzle - The Fisherman

Reel Tech: The Steak Behind The Sizzle

Whether spin or conventional, quality performance discussion is always a drag! Photo courtesy of Capt. Jack Sprengle, East Coast Charters.

6 top reel manufacturers offer insight into continually evolving designs.

I asked some of the major players in the saltwater reel world to describe a few of the engineering and manufacturing features that are unique and give them a “reel” advantage in competitive comparisons.  With the ICAST show in Orlando, FL this month, I thought it was a good time to look for some of the steak behind the marketing sizzle.


Daiwa’s Field Marketing Specialist Chris Martin has been described by some as the “Rain Man” of fishing reels. There’s not much that he doesn’t know about his own gear, as well as the competitions’.  “One of my favorite and key features of the Saltiga conventional models is their milled aluminum frame, which gives us the ability to achieve peak rigidity and precision tolerances between the internal componentry,” Martin said. “They feel incredibly solid, with almost zero jiggle, rattle, or clunkiness that is normally associated with lever drag reels.”

Martin described their Corrosion Resistant Ball Bearings (CRBB) which last up to 12 times longer than traditional steel bearings, maintaining a smooth retrieve and more importantly, an incredible free-spool.  “While not traditionally used for casting, these reels are popular within the jigging fisheries around the country, where that smooth and fast free-spool comes into play when anglers are trying to quickly drop their jig into a [school] of fish or to the bottom before the current moves them off the spot,” Martin said, explaining how once hooked up the angler will get to experience Daiwa’s Advanced Tournament Drag (ATD) drag system which boasts a series of carbon fiber drag washers and supporting metal plates within the drag stack, with unique low-viscosity grease applied to the carbon fiber washers. “The grease is formulated in such a way that it allows the drag to smoothly engage and then becomes more viscous as drag is pulled,” said Martin, adding “This enables a smooth hookset without over-applying pressure and pulling hooks while still giving the angler the pulling power needed to successfully boat bigger gamefish.

All of Daiwa’s Saltiga reels are covered by a 5-year executive service plan and warranty that allows customers to submit their reel(s) to Daiwa for service as often as they like for 5 years after purchase with no charge for regular maintenance, one-business day turnaround and free shipping back to the customer.  “The Saltiga encompasses all the most advanced technology Daiwa has to offer for the saltwater spinning enthusiast,” Martin said, noting how the MQ monocoque body boasts a larger, thicker gear set compared to competitors along with increased corrosion resistant properties. “No other manufacturer has a MagSealed main shaft either,” he said, explaining how this corrosion resistant property allows for the Saltiga to maintain peak performance.

The ATD drag system has been improved on the Saltiga models by adding additional sets of carbon fiber drag washers and the metal plates that support them, boasting drag pressure up to 66 pounds and smoother drag payout.  “With this increased drag pressure, friction and generated heat were impacting line performance,” Martin said, adding “This problem was solved by increasing the size of the drag knob and changing it from plastic to a heat-sinking aluminum construction. That drag knob pulls heat away from the drag stack to prevent burning or melting line near the spool. With this effective heat dissipation, we have achieved up to 10 times more drag durability,” he added.


The evolution of the Ocea Jigger lineup continues with the Ocea Jigger 2500 LD, providing anglers with a more capable offering for deeper water and larger fish. The updated Infinity Drive drag system increases drag force while decreasing side load pressure to produce up to 30% easier cranking during tough battles. Available in two gear ratios, MG (5.7:1) and HG (6.2:1), anglers can decide which model fits their situation best. With a retrieval rate of 47 inches per turn, the HG model allows for presentation of jigs with finesse in deep water while also providing quicker retrieval. The MG model is ideal for situations where drag strength and winding power are paramount. Ocea’s rigid Hagane metal body eliminates body flex during tough battles and efficiently transfers winding directly into cranking power. The Ocea Jigger 2500 LD features an S-Compact Body design for increased in-hand comfort with a cutout for improved thumbing and line control, and also includes a secondary light-line cam that creates a drag curve similar to a 30-pound-class reel for added drag control and versatility.

Shimano engineers say, the Ocea’s Infinity Drive offers an advanced structure that creates exceptionally light winding. The main shaft is supported by a new bushing that significantly decreases frictional resistance, and is designed to drastically reduce rotational torque. Infinity Drive within low-profile and conventional reels also optimizes the support distance and pinion gear thickness to achieve high support rigidity so that anglers can actively wind under heavy loads without compromising gear strength. Infinity Drive comes into play when in a vertical fight with a large tuna allowing the angler to more easily gain ground while keeping pressure directly on the fish with the reel.

On the spin side, Shimano’s proven Stella and more affordable TwinPower reels feature a Heatsink Drag at the bottom of the spool designed to maximize drag performance and durability. The Heatsink Drag dissipates heat outside of the spool by about 50% to reduce the drag-force drop that is caused heat buildup. Like the Ocea Jigger, the Stella SWs are equipped with a Hagane metal body that offers highly rigid construction for improved impact resistance and less body flex. At the heart of the reel, state of the art Hagane gears are cold-forged for lasting durability and smoothness.

Infinity Drive technology offers an improved winding experience, optimizing winding torque by up to 30%. SilentDrive further improves smoothness by eliminating worm shaft and drive gear play. X-Shield ensures your investment is guarded against the saltwater environment so you can fish with confidence. The reels are sealed at 12 critical locations, allowing Shimano to achieve a water-resistant structure that is reliable and durable even in extreme saltwater conditions. I own and use a Shimano 140000 Stella spinner and a Talica 16IIA lever drag reel and each features many of the technologies detailed above. These reels are giant-slayers and their relatively light weight and superior componentry work exactly as advertised on big game.


Penn reels, both spin and conventional, have been known for decades as reliable workhorses. One of the best examples of “making a good thing better” was the switchover from the HT-100 drag to Penn’s new Dura Drag System. According to the Dura Drag summary, “The Penn Dura-Drag dramatically improves the performance of Penn International reels, as well as extending the life-span of an International drag. Penn Dura-Drag was developed in a joint effort between Penn engineers and a leading US auto manufacturer supplier and is based on the same material used in the transmissions of high-performance racing cars. This material has been awarded QS-9000 compliancy, among the highest of quality standards in the automotive industry. Dura-Drag is tough and durable; it endures frequent and heavy use; and withstands the high levels of heat generated during big game battles. Dura-Drag contains a special Phenolic bonding agent that prevents premature breakdown of the material while also providing a water-barrier. It is then pre-treated with a special formula developed by Penn Engineers through extensive testing and research.  This special formula improves the drag performance, provides a barrier to prevent water damage and gives the drag a silky, smooth feel from start-up through the entire drag run. The combination of this new drag material and the special formula gives anglers the toughest, smoothest, longest-lasting drag ever developed; a drag so revolutionary we’ve trademarked it Dura-Drag.”

Accordingly, scientific tests have shown that new Penn Dura-Drag performance is unsurpassed. “After 30 hours of drag pressure in controlled testing, Penn Dura-Drag looked and performed as if it were brand new, while competitive drags showed obvious signs of wear. In terms of performance and smoothness, both light-tackle and big-game anglers will greatly appreciate the lack of an initial surge in drag-pressure, common in other drag materials. Smoother start-ups and more consistent drag pressures translate into fewer pulled hooks and broken lines will quickly become a thing of the past.”

Penn’s Dura Drag has migrated from being the sole purview of the International series reels, filtering down to the everyday spinners and conventional reels in the Penn lineup. I fish a few dozen Penn reels on my home and away charters, ranging from Penn Slammer IV and Battle III spinners, to Fathom two-speed lever drags and my fave VSX and VISX open top, two-speed lever drag reels. They all feature the aforementioned Dura Drag material in their drag stacks and they definitely work exactly as advertised.

Yet another unique feature of Penn reels is the ability to “upgrade” the gear set on both the Battle III and the Slammer IV spinners. While I am a big fan of the affordable Battle III series spinning reels, I was never enthralled with their standard CNC aluminum gears, which I tend to grind up after a few seasons of hard use. Enter the DX series of these Battle IIIs that upgrade the aforementioned aluminum gears with main and pinion gears of solid brass. This was the magic that I was looking for, and the gaggle of Battle III 4000, 5000 and 6000 series DX reels that are in my current inventory have proven their mettle, season after season.

I also own a six-pack of Battle IV spinners in the 5500, 6500 and 7500 sizes that are my go-to reels when near offshore tuna are in the neighborhood. The larger spools and drag stacks of these reels can dial in 40- to 50-pounds of drag, depending on the model, and the Slammer IV comes equipped with standard brass drive and pinion gears. Penn also allows their fans to get stronger, more durable stainless steel gears in these reels with their DX upgrade and I have a few of those in my stash that perform great under heavy pressure.


To get the story on Maxel’s top-end jigging reels, I reached out to Bimini Bay Outfitters Special Projects Director, Jerry Gomber. “When talking about fishing reels, there’s something that’s generally overlooked by writers and anglers, specifically, spool geometry,” said Gomber, explaining how the shape and dimensions of the reel spool has a significant effect on the amount of line recovered per handle turn. “Yes, gear ratio is a part of this but, although a high ratio gear set will wind a lot of line onto the spool per handle turn, the reel handle gets harder to turn with a heavy fish on the line,” Gomber said noting how a lower ratio won’t recover as much line but will better control the fish.

“Some of this trade-off can be improved with a narrower spool, that’s larger in diameter. Each handle turn of a power ratio could recover as much line as the speed gear set, but still have the power to control that fish,” Gomber noted, explaining how many manufacturers provide the line recovery measurement in their reel specs. However, the ratio has to be considered when planning to fight bigger fish.  “A power ratio reel with a high-recovery narrow width, wide-diameter spool can present most lures that require a ‘fast’ retrieve to trigger strikes from target species, but with more power to bring that fish to boatside quicker,” said Gomber, adding “In the case of conventional models, a tall, narrow spool can also be line-leveled easier by the angler on retrieve. The thumb doesn’t have to travel from side to side of a wide spool as the lure is retrieved.”

I have put the Maxel #9 jigging lever drag reel to work on near offshore tuna, where it absolutely shines. The large spool diameter combined with the narrow spool width, 4.5:1 power retrieve ratio and extra-long power handle can literally dance a jig through the water column with ease. Although it’s a single-speed reel, the double disc drag can stop 50- to 100-pound yellowfin and bluefin cold in their tracks, with enough leverage on the oversized handle and grip to get them quickly to boatside.

Other features common to all Maxel OceanMax reels are a precision machined, rigid, one-piece tempered anodized aluminum frame; a super-strong, cold-forged aluminum spool and side plates; heat treated precision stainless steel gears; a six-pack of shielded stainless steel ball bearings; plus a dual disc carbon drag system that delivers impressive amounts of stopping power, both at the strike and full settings. My #9 reel dials in a whopping 36 pounds of strike drag and 43 pounds at the full setting, which is way more drag than either you or I could stand up to for any appreciable length of time.


Okuma’s two flagship reels, the Makaira lever drag and Makaira spinner, have earned quite a following in our Northeast fishery.  According to John Bretza, Okuma’s Director of Product Development, the uniqueness of the Makaira drag system has helped lead the conversion.  “Unlike many competitive lever drag systems that employ a ‘push bar’ mechanism that squeezes the spool to the left (palm side) of the reel frame, we designed the Makaira’s Dual Force Drag (DFD) system with a ‘pull bar’ technology that was specifically engineered to be mounted in the right side of the spool,” Bretza said, explaining how bringing all these mechanical workings closer together helps maximize both alignment and durability.

“The main advantage of the pull bar drag system is that the drag is being pulled rather than pushed,” explained Bretza, adding “Although the push bar drag system is the most common type used in the industry, this operation places heavy pressure on the left (opposite) side plate and relies on the frame for overall stability, which in our view is a fatal flaw of this design.” As you ramp up the drag lever, the pressure creates frame flex, reducing drag efficiency and causing tolerance alignment issues, a problem Bretza said is further exaggerated on competitive models with open top designs. “One of the major benefits of the Makaira’s pull bar system is that there is no pressure placed on the reel’s frame. The Makaira open top models will not be subjected to the frame flex found in many of our competitor’s reels.”  Okuma’s DFD pull bar drag found in the Makaira series increases maximum drag pressure, reduces side load pressure on the ball bearings and improves heat dissipation.

“The heart of the Makaira DFD drag system is a specialized thrust bearing that works in conjunction with the drag system to absorb side load pressure on the ball bearings for maximum performance,” said Bretza, adding “This thrust bearing is crucial in the drag system design, since it allows anglers to fish heavy drag settings with no visible signs of handle binding.”  Another singular feature of the Makaira two-speed lever drag reels is the helical cut gear design. “While most competitive reels use spur cut gears, we’ve found that by going with helical cut 17-4 stainless steel gears (that are cut at an angle), more than one tooth engages at a time, which translates to more torque and improved pulling power,” he added.

The Okuma DFD is a ‘wet’ drag system comprised of two large carbon fiber washers sandwiched together and bonded with a fiberglass core. The carbon washers are then coated with a thin layer of Cal Sheet’s Universal Drag Grease for virtually zero start up inertia. The washers are compressed by two precision-ground 17-4 stainless steel drag plates ground flat and polished for maximum smoothness.

Okuma’s Makaira spinning reels also offer a few unique features that set them apart from the competitive pack. Like their lever drag brethren, the Makaira spinners offer their own DFD version consisting of a generous stack of carbon fiber and stainless steel drag disks located in the center of the spool, in addition to a large carbon fiber wash and stainless drag plate positioned underneath the spool for maximum stopping power. This high-output drag system can achieve max pressures over 65 pounds.  Very much like a conventional lever drag setup, anglers can pre-set their drag based on target species or required drag output via a center knob that’s set in the middle of the top-mounted drag cover plate.


I reached out to Accurate Sales Manager Ben Secrest for enlightenment on their lineup. “Before the introduction of our patented TwinDrag system, traditional fishing reel design applied drag to only one side of the spool. As a parallel, imagine trying to stop your car while braking was applied only to the wheels on one side. Besides veering you into a skid, such a one-sided system would create erratic pressures and prematurely wear out brake materials. The dynamics are no different in single-drag reels. Now imagine the increased efficiency of equal pressure applied to both sides of the spool: the bearings and spool shaft receive a more balanced load, translating into stronger, smoother drags, while the dual-drag design also doubles heat dissipation.”

The TwinDrag design also requires less pressure to be applied to each side of the spool, while allowing precise drag settings with barely any drag fluctuation. Here’s a simple comparison – take a standard lever-operated, single-drag reel and a TwinDrag reel, set both to the same drag pressure. While both reels will apply the same amount of drag to stop a running fish, the TwinDrag reel will accomplish this by applying only half the amount of side pressure to each side of the spool. The single-drag reel, however, applies all of its tension to one side of the spool, promoting heat buildup and uneven, jerky drag performance.

Another Accurate advantage is the precision-adjusted drag of the TwinDrag reels will fluctuate less than a single pound in total drag range when line is pulled at any speed. “When the drag is set to 20 pounds on a TwinDrag reel, drag pressure will only vary between 19.5 and 20.5 pounds or less,” Secrest said. “They’re always ready to fish, right out of the box, with no additional ‘tuning’ or ‘blueprinting’ necessary. What all of this means to the fisherman is that our TwinDrag reels apply the smoothest, best balanced, most precisely set and maintained drag pressure possible, while not falling victim to heat buildup that can cost you fish.”

This TwinDrag system is found not on lever drag reels, but the designers at Accurate have figured out how to apply this to star drag reels, with their Tern2 being a perfect example of that. A mix of carbon fiber and stainless-steel drag disks are set on both sides of the main gear to create the ultimate smooth and powerful star drag experience. Another attribute of Accurate lever drag reels is the Accurate DirecShift mechanism that offers the instant power of two-speed shifting while battling big fish. Their patented two-speed mechanism lets you control the battle by instantly shifting from high to low or vice versa, directly. There is no quarter crank into engagement of gears like many of the other reels on the market. When it gets critical, you have the ability to get the power at the touch of a fingertip.



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