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This is from an article i found and I think it's the best explanation i have seen. The credit for this article is at the bottom of the page.

Gear Basics
This view of helical reel gears helps illustrate the way these objects relate to each other and how numerical ratio is determined by the number of teeth on the respective gears.The gear set in a typical fishing reel consists of the drive gear, pinion gear, oscillation gear(s) or levelwind gear(s), and perhaps a transfer gear. Of these, the most important are the drive and pinion gears, which establish the speed or power found in any reel.

The drive gear is usually directly linked to the reel handle in a spinning reel and indirectly through a drag mechanism in a baitcasting reel or a conventional reel. The purpose of the gear is to set the retrieve of the reel. The pinion gear is normally smaller in diameter than the drive gear and connects to the rotor of the spinning reel or to the spool in revolving spool reels. The diametric difference between the drive and pinion gears constitutes the basic numerical ratio of any reel. The number of individual gear teeth machined into each gear is used to calculate the precise ratio.

In almost any simple gear set, one gear material is normally harder than the other. This both directs and controls the action of the two parts throughout their life and actually keeps the gears running smoothly for a longer period. Two hardened gears running together would amplify even the smallest machining imperfection or piece of grit on the gear teeth.

It is common in spinning reels for the pinion gear to be made of brass. This is hard material, and it allows for the more intricate machining required in this smaller part as well as absorbs the greater anticipated wear in this gear with its fewer teeth. The corresponding drive gear is most often made of aluminum in quality reels, and is sometimes made of easily die cast zinc, which tends to be somewhat harder than aluminum. In either case, the gear teeth should be machined as precisely as possible to ensure smooth operation and long life.

Baitcasting and conventional reels typically use brass for the drive gear and bronze for the pinion. Here, too, the hardness differential favors the smaller diameter pinion gear to provide longer life. The gears in these reels are generally smaller than those in spinning reels, and they require a still greater degree of precision and strength. The other gears in any reel will not face anywhere near the stresses and loads encountered by the drive and pinion and therefore do not need to be significantly harder. Almost all reel gears in better-quality fishing reels are helically milled. This means that each gear tooth is curved, rather than straight, on the gear circumference. Helical milling results in greater strength, thicker cross section, and a high degree of inherent smoothness. The major benefit is that, unlike straight-milled gears where only a single gear tooth is fully engaged at one time, helical gears allow at least partial engagement of several gear teeth at all times, spreading the load and potential wear.

The best way to prolong the life and performance of reel gears is regular maintenance and lubrication. Heavily used reels should be cleaned and properly relubricated on at least an annual basis. A midseason lubricant check, and possibly a small addition, can also be helpful. Even the best-designed and best-produced gear set can eventually wear out or strip, regardless of regular maintenance or lubrication. Ordinary wear failure results from a weakening of the gear teeth through the removal of material over time. The typical warning of impending failure is that the gears seem to become rougher and “sloppy,” with an increase in free play. The final failure results in the gear teeth skipping over one another, particularly in a small area of the handle rotation. Once this occurs, you should replace both the drive and the pinion gears.

Gear RatioThe basic numerical ratio of the drive and pinion gears in any fishing reel merely establishes the number of revolutions made by the reel spool or rotor per turn of the reel handle. That number is determined by counting the gear teeth on the larger drive gear and dividing that by the tooth count of the smaller pinion gear.

In a gear set consisting of a 60-tooth drive gear and a 12-tooth pinion gear, the ratio would be calculated at 5:1 (read as “five to one”), since the pinion will turn five times for each full rotation of the drive gear. The drive gear is normally linked to the reel handle, and the pinion gear is engaged with the spool or rotor. Thus, in a 5:1 ratio reel, one turn of the handle will cause the spool or rotor to turn five times.

Typical low gear ratios are 3.5:1 or 4:1, and typical high gear ratios are 6:1, although they range both higher and lower. The average or all-around ratio for a spinning reel used in freshwater is 5.2:1. For a baitcasting reel, it is 5.1:1; and for a conventional (inshore trolling) reel, it is 3.8:1. These ratios are often referred to in terms of speed; for example, a high gear ratio reel is frequently called a high-speed reel, but in fact gear ratio does nothing more than designate the mechanical gear action of the reel, which is not the whole story about the true speed of any reel.

Line recoveryTo determine the useful speed, the mechanical ratio must also be factored by the size of the reel spool, creating a geometric ratio that establishes how much line is wound onto the spool with each turn of the reel handle. The geometric ratio for every reel is determined by spool diameter, which is a key dimension for any reel and which sets the circumference of the line level on the spool and the amount of line wound onto the spool with each turn of the reel handle. What the geometric ratio really establishes is a more meaningful number than gear ratio: the line recovery ability of an individual reel, or the length of line placed back onto the spool per turn of the handle.

For example, a 4.4:1 gear ratio reel with a 2-inch-diameter spool will recover 13.8 inches of line per turn of the handle. A 6.2:1 ratio reel with a 1.5-inch-diameter spool will recover less than 11 inches of line per handle turn. Therefore, it is the size of the spool in combination with gear ratio that most affects the recovery of the line. In the aforementioned example, the 6.2:1 reel would be considered a high-speed model based on its numerical gear ratio. But, by comparison, the “slower” 4.4:1 reel will move a lure through the water at a faster speed per turn of the reel handle. Of course, if that 6.2:1 gear ratio reel were equipped with a 2-inch-diameter spool, it would take up almost 19.5 inches of line per handle turn, which is much greater than the 4.4:1 reel.

The point is that you need to know how much line a reel will recover per turn of the handle in order to compare it to another reel; gear ratio alone does not provide enough comparison. Obviously, two reels with identical gear ratios but different spool circumferences will have different recovery rates.

The preceding table shows a line-recovery comparison of spool (line level) diameters by typical numerical gear ratios. These calculations have been simplified by using the maximum line level diameter at all times for the highest resulting linear value, but bear in mind that spools are not normally filled to their maximum possible capacity, and should not be, for practical fishing use. In normal fishing use, the line level will vary as line leaving the spool reduces the working circumference; differences in line thickness can further reduce the line level even when casting identical distances.

The dimensions used in this table are representative of a wide variety of spinning reels marketed for uses from ultralight freshwater through heavy saltwater applications. The same pattern holds for other types of reels, although the range of spool diameters is less broad. A typical baitcasting reel spool will have a diameter between 1.25 and 1.5 inches. Heavier-duty conventional casting and trolling reels can range to spool diameters of over 4 inches.

As shown by the numbers with single asterisks, a quarter-inch of increased spool diameter makes an average gear ratio reel (5.1:1) faster than a high numerical ratio model. An increase of a half-inch in diameter can make a “slow” numerical ratio reel (4.4:1) faster than the one that is generally accepted as high speed, as indicated by those examples with double asterisks.

Thus, selecting a reel for a particular technique, lure type, or species of fish involves not only considering numerical ratio, but also line recovery rate to get the best tackle advantage. But there are still other considerations.

Cranking PowerAlthough the line recovery rate of any reel affects how much line is wound onto the spool, the numerical ratio of a reel indicates the available cranking power of the gear set. This is similar to the operation of an automotive transmission, where the lower ratio of the first and second gears is much more powerful because these gears transmit greater torque to overcome inertia. Once the vehicle is moving, it is easy to step up in gears through second and third to fourth gear or higher. The low-ratio power gears aren’t designed for speed, and the high-ratio speed gears aren’t designed for power. Try to move a manual transmission car from dead-still in fourth gear and see what happens.

In a fishing reel, the ability to winch in a sizable fish—or any object with great resistance—is achieved only through a powerful, low-numerical-ratio gear set. “Pumping” a fish during the fight is recommended with any tackle, but it is almost mandatory with high-ratio reels. You have more ability to crank a fish toward you with a power ratio of 3.5:1 or 4.4:1. These ratios in a reel with a respectable spool diameter deliver a compromise of line recovery and gear power that is hard to beat.

Certain applications or situations demand a conscious choice of gear ratios. When using a highly water resistant lure, such as a deep-running crankbait with a large lip, the ideal choice would be a low-numerical-ratio reel. A 3.8:1 gear set can comfortably deliver the necessary power to drive this bait down and through the water with minimal wear and tear on the angler. A very high-speed reel can bind under the line load created by this lure’s water resistance. Trying to fish high-speed lures with a slow 3.8:1 ratio would wear out most casters before lunch time. The effort required to turn the handle fast enough to work a truly high-speed lure would be exhausting.

It is more difficult and fatiguing to reel a slow-ratio gear set fast than to reel a high-ratio gear set slowly. A high-ratio reel can easily be used to retrieve slow-technique lures or bait as long as they do not create a great deal of water resistance. However, some anglers make the mistake of fishing too fast by virtue of using a high-speed reel when they really need to be fishing more slowly. For instance, when a lure or technique calls for a slow presentation or retrieve, anglers sometimes inadvertently retrieve too fast because of their reel; in such a situation, a slow-speed reel would be better if you cannot keep using a fast-speed reel slowly.

Some surf anglers will remember that an ideal choice for use with either high- or low-speed retrieve lures was the original Crack 300 spinning reel, an expensive imported reel that had a spool diameter of 3.75 inches and a power ratio of 3.2:1 and that was a forerunner for that market until production ceased in the 1980s. It provided anglers with a superb combination of line recovery and gear power, and was one of the most respected surf fishing reels ever made. The benefits of such a diameter and power ratio for that activity were such that other manufacturers later developed reels with similar attributes.

The simplest and most powerful reel ratio is 1:1. This is commonly found in almost all flycasting reels, which typically do not have gear sets but are direct drive. They are also typically slow, especially when the level of line is low, such as when a fish has stripped the fly line off the reel and gone down to the much-thinner diameter backing. A few of the more modern designs of saltwater flycasting reels achieve greater line recovery speed by increasing spool diameter. They are employing the geometry factor to achieve a line recovery advantage. The capacity of the reel, however, does not necessarily increase. This is because the central arbor area of the spool is also increased in diameter. This large arbor helps minimize line set, and it reduces the amount of backing required to properly fill the spool. One such 10-weight reel needs 27 percent fewer turns of the handle to retrieve a 90-foot line than a standard design reel. It recovers more line and puts less wear on the angler, and is still a powerful 1:1 reel, but it may not have the total capacity (fly line and backing) that some fishing circumstances warrant.

True big-game fishing reels start out with fairly powerful ratios (3.1:1 to 3.5:1) and large-diameter spools. These reels are expected and designed to deal with big, powerful fish. The large spool diameter allows for sufficient line capacity in a variety of line tests and for acceptable line recovery. Fishing for big game species requires power to control their movements and bring them to the boat as quickly as possible. Large-diameter spools on big-game reels can rapidly recover line when a speedy fish charges the boat or even when clearing lines from the trolling pattern upon hookup. The 3.1:1 ratio is, of course, mechanically powerful. Anglers can quickly wind significant amounts of line onto the spool and have the ability to winch in line against a large fish.

Two-Speed ReelsSometimes even a powerful 3.1:1 gear ratio isn’t enough to control big-game species. Controlling these fish can often require a reel with two separate gear ratios. In the case of the modern two-speed big-game reels, the ratio shifts from the typical 3.1:1 to the still lower and more powerful 1.3:1. The very largest two-speed big-game reels intended for use in fighting giant fish can offer ratios such as 4.0:1 and 1.7:1 or 4.5:1 and 2.0:1. In these cases, the reel delivers both the speed necessary to catch up to a charging gamefish and the power to exert control over its movements.

These reels change gear sets in different ways. Some demand that the angler physically relocate the reel handle to switch gears. Simpler designs require the push of a button to shift in one direction and the turn of a knob or movement of a lever to return to the original ratio. All of these operations have to be fast and easy to permit up and down shifting in the heat of battling a large, powerful fish. And, obviously, the gear sets have to be strong, precise, and durable to withstand the stresses applied.

Attempts at producing multiple-speed spinning reels have not been successful, although a few manufacturers have applied a good deal of time and effort to the project. Two-speed baitcasting reels have been introduced, and these unique tools provided both a higher speed ratio and a true power ratio in a single reel suited for most freshwater and some inshore saltwater applications. Some of these products even offer an automatic shifting design that downshifts as the load on the line increases (as upon hookup). When the load decreases, such as when a fish turns toward the angler, the reel automatically upshifts to permit rapid recovery of line with the higher-ratio gears and to catch up to the movements of the fish. This reel also allows the angler to adjust the amount of force needed to cause the gears to shift up or down. It’s a very versatile item and ideal if the amount of tackle available to you is limited.

Retrieval ConsiderationsSome of the important fishing considerations relative to this subject have already been noted, but it’s worth recapping these to emphasize some of the advantages and disadvantages of different ratios and line recoveries.

Although recent trends favor high-ratio or so-called high-speed reels, and many people equate speed with fishing value, it is important to recognize that line recovery is the real issue, not speed. Reels with a technically low gear ratio, but a high line-recovery rate, are actually better in situations where large fish are encountered, powerful fish are played, and where hard-pulling lures are cranked. These reels simply have more power, are less likely to bind, are less likely to get stripped gears (assuming the gears are of strong material to start with), and require less effort to land tough fish.

One of the main reasons why high-speed reels are popular in freshwater is because most of the fish caught in freshwater are small on average (bass and walleye, in particular) or do not put up a long tackle-testing struggle. Anglers like the high-speed retrieves because, among other reasons, they feel that they can quickly catch up to fish that run toward them (as many bass do). This is only true when the spool diameter is large enough to permit a lot of line recovery with each turn of the handle, and if the fish is not so large as to be difficult to handle.

People who fish jigs and worms in freshwater are likely to be good candidates for a reel with a high gear ratio, since it lets them pick up a lot of slack with each turn of the handle. But fishing a large spinnerbait and especially a deep-diving plug will be wrist-punishing unless the reel has cranking power for the drive, meaning that a slow-speed reel is preferable there.

For many anglers who cast and retrieve lures, especially those using baitcasting tackle, a reel with 5.1:1 retrieve ratio is a good all-around choice for most fishing, especially if the line recovery is adequate.

See: Baitcasting Tackle; Big-Game Tackle; Conventional Tackle; Flycasting Tackle; Reel, Fishing; Spincasting Tackle; Spinning Tackle.

Line Recovery by Spool Diameter/Gear Ratio

Spool (line level)Numerical gear ratio diameter (in inches)4.4:15.1:16.2:1













A quarter-inch of increased spool diameter makes an average gear ratio reel (5.1:1) faster than a high numerical ratio model (6.2:1).

A half-inch of increased spool diameter makes a low gear ratio reel (4.4:1) faster than a high numerical ratio model (6.2:1).
From Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia: Worldwide Angling Guide, © 2000 Ken Schultz.
Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons,Inc.,(Fish illustrations © 1999 David Kiphuth.)
Buy Ken Schultz's encyclopedia


Premium Member
11,453 Posts
Awesome article Kevin. I really enjoyed reading it, and got a lot of great info out of it. One of the best explanations of reel gears, and ratios I have seen. Thanks for posting. :thumbup01: :clap: :clap: :clap:

3,400 Posts
You learn something new everyday here at the :tbh:

Thanks Kevin :thumbup01:
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