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Posted 17th August 2022

What is an Overhead Reel For?

What is an Overhead Reel For?
What is an Overhead Reel For?

By Robert Thornton

In a world where spinning reels or ‘eggbeaters’ are affordable and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, baitcaster or ‘overhead’ reels may seem obsolete. There’s no point learning to use a baitcaster or overhead when spin tackle is so versatile these days, right?

Some people live by this rule, but the truth is if you want to develop your skills, getting familiar with these reels is an important step. There are many techniques and applications for which baitcasters and overheads are the preferred tools, and sometimes even the only option!

For anyone not familiar, a baitcaster is a reel designed to sit on top of the reel seat, and is primarily used to cast lures or ‘baits’ (in the US lures get called ‘baits’). Overheads are a similar design, however they are usually larger, have a high line capacity, and are intended for trolling, or feeding out big baits. There are also modern overheads that are built for deepwater jigging. The design of each allows the angler to stay in direct contact with the lure or bait, but we’ll return to this later.

Daiwa have always been at the very forefront of baitcaster and overhead technology, and now they have expanded that range to include affordable, entry-level models. If you were ever thinking about stepping into the overhead paddock, now is definitely the perfect time!

This article isn’t going to provide a step-by-step guide to casting with a baitcaster or fishing with an overhead, as this information is already readily available elsewhere. Rather, we will look at when to use them, and importantly,why.

Meet the Baitcaster

With baitcasting technology dating back to around the 1600s, it’s fair to say that their design has changed a bit since then! In fact, even in my own 20 years of using these reels, they have gone through a few stages.

Tournament fishing in the US through the ‘60s and ‘70s contributed to their popularity for casting lures, particularly for freshwater species. Once similar tournament series began popping up in Australia in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, baitcasters became more available downunder and anglers everywhere got to see how and why they are such useful tools.

Earlier baitcasters were generally round-sided without anti-reverse features, however Daiwa became a market leader in producing ‘low-profile’ baitcasters that could cast lighter lures, especially around the turn of the millennium. Their flattened design made them more ergonomic, and the delicate cast-control features meant they offered a level of comfort and command unrivaled at the time.

Nowadays anglers can choose from a huge range of designs built for anything from flicking small crankbaits in a bass stream, like Daiwa’s Tatula 100 series, to hucking dinner plate-sized swimbaits at metre-plus Murray cod with the Ryoga series.

However there is a myth that still plagues the fishing world that these reels are difficult to use, temperamental, and only used by the ‘elite’. Granted, using them can be a bit more of a challenge, however common gripes such as bird’s nests or backlashes can be curbed with practice, and spooling them up correctly. Spooling the line on properly will ensure smoother casting, and the staff at most tackle shops will happily do this for you!

Practice can be done anytime and anywhere there is space to throw a cast, whether it be in the backyard, the pool or a local park. Becoming familiar with the cast control features of the reel is important too. Asking the staff at the tackle shop, going online, or just experimenting yourself will allow you to personalise it to your own fishing style and avoid common baitcasting blunders!

Once you’re adjusted and settled into your new tool, it’s good to understand why baitcasters are preferred over spinning reels under certain conditions.

I have found in my own experience that casting moving lures around structure, while perfectly doable with spin gear, is definitely the realm of the baitcaster. Given that working lures such as crankbaits, spinnerbaits, chatterbaits and weedless swimbaits requires an angler to ‘feel’ the structure as they work their lure through it, it makes sense to be in direct contact at all times.

A spin reel works by turning the bail arm and roller, which ‘spins’ and feeds the line onto a spool at a perpendicular angle to the handle. In this process, there are many moments where direct contact may be lost momentarily. This is why you see many bait anglers with their forefinger hooked around the line below the line roller to feel for bites!

A baitcaster on the other hand works by driving gears that turn the spool, which is in the same orientation as the handle. This means that when straight retrieving, everything the lure does can be felt more easily through the angler’s hands. This allows the angler to adjust their retrieve if they feel a bite, and stop or speed up if they can feel the lure getting snagged.

Baitcasters are also good in any close-quartered situation where dirty-fighting fish need to be turned away from structure. As well as generally having higher drag capacities, baitcasters also offer anglers the simple option of putting their thumb on the spool for extra drag pressure.

Spin reel users can cup their hand around the bottom of the spool in a similar way, however in this position, line cannot be gained unless the hand is taken off the spool and put back onto the handle. On a baitcaster, a thumb on the non-winding hand can be lifted on and off as the angler gets opportunities to win line back.

Other pros of baitcasters include accurate casting, which is thanks largely to the mobility of the thumb on the spool to control the lure’s trajectory. Anglers wishing to ‘skip cast’ their lures will also find this is a handy feature, as skip casting with spin reels (while possible) can see lures bouncing off the water willy nilly and not into the nook you were aiming for.

Look Out Overhead!

‘Overhead’ is a term coined by Australian and New Zealand anglers, and specifically refers to baitcaster style reels that have larger gears, are usually round-sided, and are put to work in deep offshore environments. The term originates from the fact that the reel is mounted above the rod.

Once again, spinning set-ups can stand in for a lot of tasks that are traditionally reserved for overheads, but there’s a few key reasons why they often don’t.

When fishing in the deep blue, spin reels are preferred when retrieval speed is an advantage. For instance, casting lures to fast-moving predators, or fast jigging with heavy knife jigs. When cranking power becomes a necessity though, overheads come into their own. Because overheads generally have lower gear ratios, anglers will have more power when winding under load. Using a spin reel to turn a big reef fish away from its jagged lair might feel a bit like trying to hill start the car in third gear, compared to the ‘low range’ capabilities of an overhead. Overheads such as Daiwa’s Saltiga BJ (Bay Jigging) reels are designed with this in mind, as micro-jigging requires anglers to turn dirty fighting species from the get go.

Another advantage of the overhead is a lever drag system, which some overheads are built with, like the Saltiga LD series. A lever drag is a small lever system that allows the angler to adjust the drag by simply moving a lever on the side of the reel. These are very useful when playing large gamefish, where constant adjustments of the drag are necessary, especially when the fish nears the boat and the probability of line breakage increases.

On the topic of breakage, most larger overheads are not built with a levelwind, which is the component on most baitcasters that distributes the line evenly across the spool. Some overheads, however, such as the Saltist Level Wind series, have kept this component. To game fishers, a level wind is just one more thing a heavily taut line can snap on, and users will opt to distribute the line using their thumb instead. Line rollers on the bail arm of spin reels are notorious for being the spot where lines break.

Another reason game fishing boats like to use overheads is because they generally have more line capacity, which is useful when chasing species like blue marlin, which can dump a few hundred metres of line like it’s nothing.

Anglers fishing with large baits, either on the bottom or drifted unweighted will tend toward overheads due to the ease in knocking them in and out of gear. Rather than occupying their whole hand to open and then close the bail arm of a spin reel, overhead users can simply use their thumb to feed out line without adjusting their hands at all. This can be especially handy when big fish are really on the bite – if you’ve ever had a fish eat your lure or bait while the bail arm of your spin reel is open, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about!

Overheads also share some of the advantages enjoyed by baitcaster users. With smaller overheads, anglers can apply extra drag pressure using their thumb if needed, however this is not recommended with heavier gear and larger fish, unless you want to lose the skin on your thumb!

The direct contact that baitcasters offer is applicable to overheads, and is the reason why many choose to use them when bait fishing for large species offshore. With heavy lines, fast currents and strong winds – standard features of offshore fishing – being able to feel exactly what’s happening on the business end of your rig is very important. 

Expand Your Horizons

If you’re thinking about adding a baitcaster or overhead to your collection, make sure you have specific applications in mind, as both can be extremely advantageous if used with a methodical and targeted approach. Spinning reels are amazingly versatile tools for an angler, but there are still some tasks that demand more specialised equipment.

Learning to use these reels won’t just expand your skill set as an angler, it will also open doors to new and exciting opportunities and allow you to tangle with fish you might not have been able to before.

Don’t be scared to have a go. All baitcaster and overhead users had to start their journey and learn from mistakes at some point, and with the wealth of information out there and the best gear available right here, why not start now?



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