Balancing Your Fishing Gear

Balancing your fishing gear is important to being successful and enjoying your day on the water.

As a full time sport fishing guide, I fish with a lot of people from all over the country.  Occasionally, I receive comments about the setups and gear we are using when fishing for steelhead and salmon.

Statements like “This barrel swivel seems really small.” or “I never would have thought we could catch such big fish with gear like this.”  It’s not that the gear we use is too light, but instead it is balanced in a manner they are not accustomed to using.

Gear anglers can take some important notes from the fly anglers when balancing their gear.  Fly anglers ensure they have a rod and reel that match, matching the fly-line to the rod.  Further, matching the leaders and tippets to the rod and the size fly they use.  As a gear angler, balancing your rod, reel, line, and tackle is just as important to being more successful when fishing.

Balancing your rod and reel is easier than you might think. I will explain the in’s and out’s here.

We will not get into the choices made for rods and reels and the type of fishing, but rather the importance of balancing your entire system, regardless of what you will fish for.  This applies to both spinning and bait casting rods and reels.

One of the most common mistakes I see in balancing is the rod and reel are mismatched.  I am not talking about the brand, but rather the size and weight of either the rod or the reel.  Sometimes the rod and reel are the wrong size for the species of fish. As an example, I have seen anglers fish for Coho salmon with a trout rod setup. This rod and reel is too light for Coho Salmon who are feisty fighting salmon. On the flip side, I have seen folks fish trout with a surf rod setup, which is too heavy for this type of fish.

Many folks who are new to fishing buy a rod and reel package that is already matched. This said, you would think that a rod and reel that comes as a package is already balanced. This is not always the case.

Many anglers who have been fishing for a while prefer to choose a rod and then select a reel for the rod. This ensures they succeed in balancing of their fishing system.

If you decide to make your purchase this way, you first you need to purchase the correct size rod for the fishing you plan on.  Choose your rod specific to the type of fishing you plan on. That said, there are many rods that are versatile and can be used for several species.  

The good news is many rod manufacturers now provide information about the type of techniques or the type of fishing the rod was designed for. You can find this on their respective websites.

So lets get into balancing your system.

Rods – A balanced system begins with the fishing rod.  Fishing rods are labeled with information such as what line weight is recommended, the action of the rod and what the weight allowances are for the rod to perform as designed.  

Rod Label
Your rod will have a label similar to this.

Since the rod is the foundation for your system, select the rod first.  This choice is primarily based on the type of fishing you are doing. Second, the power of the rod and action will be important, depending on the technique(s) you will use the rod for. Power is how the rod loads when a fish is on and the action is the flex it has when you cast.

As an example, if I am drift fishing for steelhead or salmon using eggs, or cheaters and yarn. I use a medium light rod such as St. Croix Avid AVS96LM2 (spinning rod).  

I have even used this same rod for casting small plugs and spinner baits, so it is multi functional.  This rod is 9’6″ long and rated for 4 – 8 lb. line.  It is designed to handle lure weights of 1/16 – 3/8 ounces.  It has a slow action and is an medium-light rod.

Balanced system for Chinook

I would not want a rod with fast action for fishing bait because I would likely throw the eggs off the hook when casting. A fast action rod would be perfect for casting hard baits, such as jigs when bass fishing, but not so good for natural bait.

Understanding the action of the rod is important when choosing a rod. 

Fast action rods flex in mostly in the tip section, while slow action rods flex toward the lower 3rd of the rod.

There are also combinations of actions such as moderate-fast.  Slow to moderate action rods are forgiving and are great for varied distances.  Fast action rods put more force in your cast, allowing you more distance, but you can throw natural bait from the hook.

Summer Chinook 10lb Mainline.

You might think a St. Croix Avid AVS96LM2 medium-light rod is too light to fish for 10 – 30 lb. salmon and steelhead.  But I assure you this rod will handle these fish with no problem.  

I fish out of a boat the majority of time, which allows me to move the boat with the fish. When you fish an area you can move around to fight the fish, using lighter rods will offer more sensitivity for feeling those light bites.  

Bites are often missed if fishing a system that is not balanced.

If you are a bank angler the majority of the time, you can probably use the same rod, but you may need to adjust the weight of your mainline.  I use a 10lb. mainline in a boat, but if I fished from the bank I would use a 12lb. mainline.  The rod will handle the fish.  But we need a line weight that will help keep the fish in the hole or area you are fishing.

When I use bait casting rods for pulling plugs on the river, I use lighter rods than most anglers. I want to make sure the rod will allow the lure to perform in the manner it was designed, and handle the size of fish I am targeting.  

In balancing this system, I’ll use an 8’6” fast action medium power rod matched with a Abu Garcia 5500 series bait casting reel with instant anti reverse for pulling small plugs on smaller rivers, such as the Snohomish or Skykomish River.

What I am looking for in a plug rod is a very sensitive tip and enough backbone to fight the fish. These rods are not used for casting the plug, we simply let the plug hit the water and let line out to a certain distance.

Reels – Next, select the reel to fit the rod.  Again, there are many things that affect this decision, but a couple of the most important aspects to consider will be the drag system and the amount of line the reel will hold.

Balancing bass gear
Whether baitcast or spinning, the reel should match the rod.

Quality reels also have labels describing the line weight and how many yards or meters of line can fit on the spool. IE. lb.(mm)–yds.(m) 6(0.25)-210(190) 8(0.28)-170(155)

With the example above you can get 170 yards of 8lb test line on this reel.  When choosing a reel to match a fishing rod, it needs to balance with the rod and it needs to have the capacity to hold enough line for the type of fishing you are doing.

Consider this:  Many anglers will never have a fish pay out 140 yards of line.

But we may get hung up on a rock, a tree, or a bush and break off 30 yards of line.  You do this a couple of times in a single outing and you only had 140 yards of line to begin with, your now down to 80 yards of line. So don’t choose a reel that is too small for the rod. Likewise, if the reel is too large it will not feel balanced, causing angler fatigue after hours of fishing.

Using the St. Croix rod example above, I use a matched spinning reel with instant anti reverse, specifically a Pflueger Supreme SUPSP35.  

It is important to understand that not all reels of the same size are actually labeled the same.

What I mean is that a reel in size 35 from one manufacturer may not be the same size of reel with another manufacturer. So you could find a size 35 reel and a size 25 reel with the specs that are similar in size and weight, but they are from two different companies, thus have different size designations.

Here are some tips for selecting a reel for balancing your fishing system;

  • Find several reels that fit your criteria.
  • Does the reel fit in your hand comfortably? Is it too large?  If the reel feels too big, choose the next size down
  • Remember, you will fish more comfortably if the reel fits your hand.
  • Gear ratios – To explain it simply, the higher the ratio, the faster the retrieve of the bait without racing the handle on the reel and wrenching your wrist.
  • The most often used gear ratios are 5.3 and 6.0 to 1. This means the spool turns 5.3 times every time you turn the handle of the reel 360 degrees (one time).
  • Put the reel on the rod you plan on using.  The rod and reel should feel balanced in the hand.  The weight of the reel should not overcome the length of the rod.  Literally, the balance point should be just in front of the reel seat, near the front cork.

Balancing the rod and reel are the first two steps. Now let’s balance the rest.

Mainline – Matching your mainline to your rod and reel is the next step in the balanced system.  There is a wide variety fishing lines on the market. Brand, quality, features, and reputation will have a bearing on your choice.  

Regardless of your choice, balancing the line to your rod and reel is most important. Often anglers choose a line that is too heavy for the rod, reel, or terminal tackle.  Line weight is important to how much line you will spool and how the line works with the rod and the terminal tackle.

Even though a rod may be labeled with a line weight of 4 – 8lbs., you can usually adjust this a little.  As an example: If you use a rod that is labeled: 9’6″ 4–8  1/16 – 3/8  Slow Action Medium-Light, your heaviest line used does not have to be 8lb, even though the line weight listed on this rod states 4-8 lb. You can use 10lb mono or maybe even 12lb mono without hindering the performance of the rod.  However, it can affect how much line you can spool on your reel.

Choosing a mainline can be a daunting task.  Should you use fluorocarbon, braided line, or just plain monofilament?  

There are many things to consider with mainline.  

Find something you are confident in and compliments your balanced rod and reel.  I use Izorline “XXX Super Co-Polymer” for both my medium-light spinning reels and my bait casting plug rods for the river. 

As far as color of the line, I use the Hi-Vis yellow on my spinning reels and smoke color for my baitcasting rods.  For the baitcasting rods I use for king salmon and sturgeon fishing, I use 65lb. Power Pro braided line in green.

For my Bass fishing setups, specifically the spinning rods my clients use, I use Power Pro braided line in yellow. I top shot the line with about 10 ft. of fluorocarbon. I like to be able to see where the line is right away. I have found the color of the line does not affect the bite.

Now that you have balanced your rod, reel and mainline, continue balancing your system with the leaders, lures, and terminal tackle used. When I use a mainline that is less than 17lbs. and I need to use leaders, I use leaders at least 2 lbs. lighter than the mainline.  

This allows for the break-off point to be below the terminal tackle (barrel swivel, etc.).  It also prevents hinging and wrapping commonly associated with using mismatched leaders and mainlines.

Depending on the area and species of fish targeted, you may use a heavier leader than the mainline.  This is usually for trolling plugs and other gear where casting is not an option and balancing terminal tackle is not as important.

Terminal Tackle – I am usually surprised to see what I pull from the water. I see terminal tackle, such as hooks, snap swivels, barrel swivels and lures of all different sizes.  Usually, it is oversized.  

Breaking off and losing tackle is a fact of fishing.  

However, using the right size terminal tackle with a properly matched rod, reel, and mainline will reduce lost gear and you will enjoy your time on the water more, and actually increase your odds in catching more fish.

Given the minor weight difference of your mainline and leader, using a barrel swivel that is too big, will cause hinging and wrapping.  Hinging is where your leader hinges back over the mainline as you cast.  Wrapping occurs when leader now wraps itself around the mainline as it hits the water, keeping the bait or lure from working properly.

When balancing your leader, tackle, etc. think of it like this, the leader should be an extension of the mainline.  The barrel swivel should not cause a disruption from the mainline to the leader. It should allow a flow, just as if the mainline reduce itself from one weight to the next without the barrel swivel.  

This is how leaders are made for fly anglers.  The leaders are heavier in the butt, similar to the diameter of the mainline and reduce to a lighter weight line at the tip for the fly or tippet to be tied in.

Barrel swivels, snap swivels and other terminal tackle have a much higher breaking strength than you think.  

The size of the mainline does have some bearing on the size of swivels used, but for the most part, you can use much smaller swivels than you think.  

I use Beau Mac tackle when drift fishing and even pulling plugs, I use a #10 roller barrel swivel has a 48lb. static breaking strength.  While the #10 snap swivels have a 20lb. static breaking strength.

Breaking strength is based on a constant strain until it breaks.  This does not mean a #10 roller barrel swivel will break with a 48lb. fish on the line. Your rod, reel and terminal tackle function as a dynamic system, not static.

Because the rod flexes and the drag is set to allow the fish to take line if necessary as the fish moves through the water, you can handle those big fish with tackle this size.

The amount of weight and the size of hooks or lures also play a factor in balancing your gear.  If you use weight, do not use too much. Use just enough weight to keep you on the bottom or in the desired strike zone.

Regardless of the fishing method, most anglers use too much weight to get the job done.  The water speed and depth in addition to the type of lure or bait fished is a good indication of how much weight should use.

When I am drift fishing I like to use just enough weight to keep it on the bottom.  I like to feel a light ticking of the weight across the bottom about every 6 – 8 feet. If I change locations I change my weight to match the conditions of the section of water I am fishing.

Lures typically come with the correct size hook.  

However, you may have to switch out a treble hook for a single hook to meet the regulations in your state or a particular body of water.  Make sure you use the right size hook when doing this. The new hook should not hinder the action of the lure.

Hook size for fishing bait such as eggs and shrimp are equally important. Using an oversized hook can be a mistake anglers want to avoid. To help with hook size choice, consider these things; where are you fishing? What species are you fishing for? Does the hook match the leader and mainline?

Doing tests off the water help you be successful on the water.

Do a test yourself.  Tie up several leaders with hooks of different sizes, including corkies, cheaters, or whatever you use for leaders.  A 6 inch leader will be long enough for this test.  Tie a weight to the other end of the leader and put it in a hot tub, bathtub, or something you can drop the leader into and see what kind of buoyancy you get with various size hooks and various size cheaters.  

After finding the right combination, put on a cluster of eggs or sand-shrimp or whatever you might use for bait where you fish.  What does it do now?

The key is to allow the bait to float freely and naturally, or in the case of a lure, to action the way it is intended to.  If you change out a hook on a lure and you use something too big, it may not work the way it was designed.

In closing, lighten up your rod and reel. Enjoy the fight with the fish. Most importantly, balance your overall system. You will definitely see the reward!

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