To start surf fishing all you need is a small box of tackle, a long fishing rod, and a surf fishing reel. Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean surf fishing is easy. Surf anglers face a daunting list of unique challenges. First, beach fishing puts the angler and his equipment in direct contact with sand, dirt, and saltwater. Then, reaching the fish requires the angler to make a long, accurate cast. Of course, fighting a fish while standing on shore calls for a smooth drag and powerful retrieve. Despite these challenges, surf fishing is one of the best ways to hit the water, and the key to success is reliable equipment starting with the best surf fishing reels.
How We Picked The Best Surf Fishing Reels
Testing surf fishing reels is easy: I take them to the beach, fish hard and the survivors win. Sand, salt, long casts and big fish push these reels to the limit of durability and performance. Surf fishing is often a group activity with dozens of anglers fishing the same area. With so much competition, the best surf fishing reels quickly come to the top. Not only can I test reels standing side by side with other anglers, but word quickly spreads about the best and worst reels. To win a place on this review, every aspect of the reel must come together. Designers build surf reels with special features like a larger spool, precision casting brakes, high-speed bearings and shaft, and solid construction built to shake off salt and sand. To test these reels, I want to see if these features function as advertised. For the reels in the list, the answer is yes.
The Best Surf Fishing Reels: Reviews & Recommendations
Best Overall: PENN Fathom II 15SD
- Weight: 17.1 ounces
- Monofilament line capacity: 305 yards of 15-pound test
- Drag pressure: 30 pounds
- Magnetic casting brake
- Large line capacity
- Easy access sideplate
- Conventional reels require more practice than spinning reels
Walking through the New Product Showcase at the 2019 ICAST trade show, I stopped in my tracks, took out my smartphone and sent photos to my surf fishing buddies. “Look at this!” I texted. I was excited about the new PENN Fathom II SD15 for targeting big red drum in the surf. Red drum anglers are among the most demanding surf fishermen. They are looking for every advantage to make a long cast and beat a 50-pound fish through the raging surf. The PENN Fathom II SD15 is a high-speed conventional reel capable of producing 30 pounds of drag. After using the Fathom II for the last three years, the reel has earned a position as my go-to surf reel.
The main reason I love this reel is the magnetic casting brake. Once I set the brake with the small dial on the sideplate, the reel casts flawlessly time after time. The reel has a huge line capacity. If I break off, I don’t have to re-spool on the beach. To fight a big drum through the surfzone, the carbon fiber drag is smooth and reliable. I have pulled 50-pound drum through huge waves and strong current with the line stretched tight and the 12-foot rod heavily bent. The PENN 15SD balanced power with smooth release to give me the advantage. When I get home, the quick access side plate makes it easy to clean and lubricate the reel. Drum anglers won’t use a reel unless it is the best on the beach and the PENN 15SD has already become a classic as the best conventional reel for surf fishing.
Best Large Spinning: Shimano Ultegra XTD
- Weight: 17.3
- Monofilament Line Capacity: 230 yards of 16-pound test
- Drag: 33 pounds
- Compact body
- Precision gears
- Well balanced
- Only available in two sizes
You need the best spinning reel for surf fishing to throw a big lure at trophy fish. A spinning reel casts farther than a conventional reel because there is less friction on the line. To get the most out of this advantage, Shimano’s Ultegra XTD reel uses super slow oscillation to wrap the line tightly around the spool and reduce friction on the cast. Also, a spinning reel is more ergonomic for working a plug, spoon, or jig, and the Ultegra XTD moves the reel closer to the rod for a more balanced retrieve. My favorite feature is the X-Ship gears, which are strong and stiff for more cranking power. To maximize casting distance, retrieve performance and fighting power. Shimano built the Ultegra XTD to live up to the expectations of the best spinning reel for surf fishing.
Best Small Spinning: PENN Slammer IV 3500
- Weight: 13.9
- Monofilament Line Capacity: 285 yards of 8-pound test
- Drag: 30 pound
- Waterproof body
- 9 ball bearings
- Carbon fiber
I love to wade the beach with a medium-action surf rod and light spinning reel casting jigs and plugs to sloughs and cuts in search of redfish, speckled trout, and flounder. Switching to bait, I pluck sea mullet, pompano and flounder from the shorebreak. My choice for a light tackle surf fishing combo is PENN Slammer IV 3500 matched to a eight-foot medium-action rod. PENN Slammer is an iconic saltwater spinning reel, and the fourth generation continues the family’s best traits. The main reason the Slammer IV makes my list is the sealed body and drag. The best way to prevent corrosion and damage is keeping water out of the works. To further improve durability, add corrosion-resistant stainless ball bearings, brass gears, and a full-metal body. The PENN Slammer IV isn’t a dedicated surf reel, but the sturdy construction and compact design make it my choice for the best saltwater reel for surf fishing.
Read the PENN Slammer IV review to learn more.
Best Budget: Daiwa Sealine X30SHA
- Weight: 17.1 ounces
- Monofilament Line Capacity: 295 yards of 20-pound test
- Maximum Drag: 15.4 pounds
- Simple construction
- Super durable
My first surf fishing reel was a Daiwa Sealine X30SHA, called a “Slosh 30” by devoted surf fishing fans. The X30SHA is so reliable, that I still keep a couple as backup reels. Even though the X30SHA is a great value, it includes some of the same features on more expensive reels like a free-floating spool, sealed drag washers, and stainless steel and bronze gears. My biggest complaint is that the large reel is difficult to grip with my small hands.
Things to Consider Before Buying The Best Surf Fishing Reels
Die-hard surf anglers are also hardcore gear geeks. I have shelves full of surf reels in my garage, and the rafters lined with surf rods. My collection is the result of searching for the surf fishing tackle for years.
When it comes to surf fishing reels, anglers have the highest performance demands. Like the best inshore spinning reels, surf fishing reel needs to cast like a rocket, stand up to the worst conditions and put the power on a big fish. To overcome the challenges of fishing from shore, every advantage improves my chance of catching a fish. I’m looking for surf fishing tackle with pocket watch precision and as durable as a framing hammer. The best surf fishing casting reel offers one of the biggest advantages to reaching a fish and reeling it in.
The most important quality of a surf fishing reel is casting distance. Surf anglers need to land a lure or bait on distant structure with pinpoint accuracy. Surf fishing casting reels combine design and components to squeeze every inch out of the cast. Conventional reels feature super-fast bearings, free-floating spindles, and sensitive casting brakes. The best spinning reels for surf fishing have a large open spool to allow line to leave the reel with less resistance. To make a long cast, surf fishing reels usually have greater line capacity and a high-speed retrieve. To get the most out of a surf reel you need to learn how to spool a spinning reel properly for maximum casting distance.
Making a long cast leaves a lot of fishing line between the angler and the fish. First, water pressure puts a lot of stress on the line. Then, working a fish through breaking waves and shallow water adds more tension. The only anecdote is a smooth drag system. Surf fishing reels take every advantage in material and design for strong, steady pressure that doesn’t jerk or skip. I look for a sealed carbon fiber drag with a stack of large drag washers. Conventional reels for surf fishing use a star drive. The star drive disconnects from the spool allowing for a longer cast.
Corrosion is a reel killer. Salt and sand tear apart every component of even the best surf fishing reels. No reel is immune from pitting, rust and abrasion. Not only can corrosion end the life of the reel, but it can greatly affect the reel’s performance. I look for a sealed body, stainless steel bearings and protected drag system. Even the best components are subject to the laws of chemical reactions. I need a reel that is easy to maintain with quick access to the casting brakes, spool and body so I can clean and grease the reel.
To meet the needs of surf anglers, reel manufacturers design special surf fishing casting reels with construction and components to overcome the challenges of surf fishing. Among the field of surf fishing reels, a few models stand out. These are the reels that made our list of the best reels for surf fishing.
Q: How do you care for surf fishing reels?
After your tackle turns to rust, it will be too late to ask how to care for surf fishing reels. Surf fishing puts your reels in direct contact with salt and sand, two of the most corrosive elements on earth. To cast maximum distance and maintain consistent drag pressure, surf fishing reels are precision engineered machines fine-tuned for ultimate performance. Keeping the reel running smoothly requires serious attention to maintenance. I wash my reels with fresh water after each fishing trip, then shake excess water-free and dry the reel with a chamois cloth. I loosen the drag and leave the reels to dry. After three or four fishing sessions, I remove the side plate and spool and wipe away dust and grit with a dry cloth and soft brush. I also change the monofilament line on my reels every two or three trips. I take my reels to the local tackle shop for maintenance and repair during the offseason. Even the best surf fishing reels require constant attention to keep precision parts moving smoothly.
Q: What size reel for surf fishing?
Like all types of fishing, a surf fishing reel should match the surf fishing rod. First, compare the line rating on the reel with the line rating on the rod. Line capacity is one of the biggest differences between a surf fishing reel and other reels. That’s because surf anglers make long casts requiring more fishing line. So, a surf fishing reel has a larger spool to hold more line. A larger spool also allows the line to leave the reel more quickly and efficiently to further increase casting distance.
Q: How much does a surf fishing reel cost?
Because surf fishing reels combine sturdy construction with precision engineering, these reels usually cost more than other fishing reels. You can buy a full-metal, anodized aluminum body with stainless steel gears for $400. On the other end of the scale, the Daiwa X30SHA is one of the best values in surf fishing reels. At just $139, the Daiwa includes many of the essential elements of a more expensive surf reel like a free-floating spool, sealed drag, and corrosion resistant bearings at half the price of the other reels in this review. While the X30SHA won’t get every inch out of a cast, it is a reliable reel with respectable performance. So, you can spend $400 on the top-of-the-line surf reel, or get a good reel for a little over $100.
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Final Thoughts on the Best Surf Fishing Reels
As a die-hard surf angler who targets big red drum, my choice for the best surf fishing reel is PENN’s Fathom II SD15 Casting Special. Not only does the Fathom II SD15 include all the advances that make a reel appropriate for surf fishing, but it represents an important recognition of big-game surf fishing by one of the most respected fishing tackle brands. PENN has a long history of building high-performance saltwater fishing tackle at a great price. The Fathom II SD15 takes PENN’s reputation into the toughest fishing environment.