Backreeling: How And Why

Backreeling is often considered a tactic of the past, but for those that want more control over angry, fighting fish, this is a skill still valuable today!

Backreeling. It’s such a simple concept. Tighten down the drag of your spinning reel so line will not slip from the spool no matter how hard a fish pulls. Then flip the anti-reverse switch to the “off” position. You are ready to backreel your next big fish on light line!

So why back reel? To be in control your destiny!

Rather than letting some mindless drag system to allow fish to pull line from the reel, you decide when to feed line by turning the handle backwards. When executed properly, backreeling greatly reduces the chance of breakoffs during battle with larger-than-normal fish.

There is also the advantage of holding a surging fish in check, letting the rod absorb an attempted run which otherwise results in your quarry reaching a snag where it could successfully entangle your line.

The idea of backreeling goes back to an earlier time when spinning-reel drags were far less reliable than they are today, and early monofilament fishing line was, well, inconsistent in break strength.

My introduction to the tactic came in the early 1970s when I started reading every fishing magazine I could find. Several angling writers for the original Fishing Facts Magazine frequently mentioned back reeling when using spinning outfits spooled with light line. What they said about poorly functioning drags resonated with me based on my limited experience.

After purchasing a Mitchell 300 with an entire summer of grass-mowing money, I had discovered what happened when you relied on the reel’s adjustable drag. A large unseen fish takes your bait, turns and runs. The drag begrudgingly feeds line in a jerky fashion to the fish. Too often the drag would unexpectedly stick or seize up. Before you can open the bail to feed line to the fish, the monofilament snaps like a rifle shot.

It wasn’t long before I switched to Zebco Cardinal 4 spinning reels. While the Cardinal 4 was smoother winding and lighter in weight than the Mitchell, the rear drag on a 1970 era Cardinal was as fickle as my previous reel. So I screwed the drag adjustment knob all the way down, switched off the anti-reverse and started back reeling. Forty years and at least 40 reels later, I’m still backreeling when using spinning outfits spooled with 2- to 8-pound-test line, which is roughly 75 percent of the time!

Although back reeling appears to be a dying art, I occasionally encounter a younger angler who has taken it up, such as Pete Cartwright, founder of SmalliesOnTheYough.com. “I started back reeling 6 years ago because I was upset over the number of big fish I lost on light line. When you use the drag, the fish is in control of the situation. But with backreeling, you control the fish, and you actually wear the fish down quicker. No, I would not attempt to backreel speed demons like steelhead and salmon, but bass and other species are fair game with this technique.”

Granted, the drags on higher-end spinning reels today are far superior than they were when I was young … but control of the fish by backreeling is as vital today as it was 40 years ago. It’s hard for many anglers to understand this unless until they are willing to practice and implement the technique.

However, to be successful at backreeling you must use a lighter-action forgiving rod, employ a sweeping hookset, and recognize at which to point turn “off” and turn “on” the anti-reverse switch. Of course you must also develop the “feel” of when to feed the fish line and when to check it—that only comes with experience.

Turn By Turn

Regardless of any formula for adjusting the drag on a spinning reel, for most anglers it is pretty much a guessing game. Setting the drag too loose will not provide a solid hookset and will allow fish to take line at will. Setting it too tight is a sure path to a broken line. When using lighter than 10-pound test, these problems are amplified.

OK. Instead of depending on the drag on your spinning reel, you’ve decided to try backreeling when using light line. Rather than a stiff heavy-action rod, you’ve selected a rod with a more forgiving bend and a light-line rating. Now follow these steps for successful back reeling.

  1. Turn the drag adjustment knob on the spool clockwise until very tight.

  2. While casting and retrieving a lure or live bait, leave the anti-reverse switch in the “on” in order to obtain secure hooksets. If left in the “off” backreel position, the reel handle may slip from your grasp during the hookset thereby allowing line to overrun on the spool.
  3. With light line and a forgiving rod blank, the hookset must be a firm sweep as opposed to a drop-the-tip slackline snap generally used with heavier line and stiffer rods.
  4. When the rod reaches its apex during the hookset and you feel the weight of the fish on the line, reach underneath the reel body and turn the anti-reverse switch to the “off” position. You are now ready to backreel line to the fish as necessary.
  5. In playing any fish, keep the rod arched and apply steady pressure on the fish. Allow the bend in the rod to do the work of wearing the fish down. When you detect the fish initiating a run, be ready to turn the handle backwards while maintaining smooth pressure on the line. Only feed line to the fish when you sense the power of the run may be strong enough to break the line if you do not. Make the fish work for every foot it gets from the spool. Recover line when the fish slows or stops. Gradually work the fish to the boat, but always ready to backreel should the fish make final surges near the boat.
  6. If you are confronted with landing the fish on your own, you must return the anti-reverse switch to the “on” position before removing your hand from the reel handle and reaching for the fish or for the net. Failure to do so will allow the reel handle to rotate out of control and likely result in loss of the fish.

    Here’s how pro angler Mark Courts backreels big smallies.


North American Fisherman Top Stories