Saltwater vs Freshwater Reels: What’s the Big Difference? 

saltwater reel vs freshwater reel

Although most anglers ply their craft in broadly similar ways, there are a few significant differences between those who fish in freshwater and those prefer fishing in the sea.   

Saltwater anglers, for example, must often fish deeper and with much more robust gear than their freshwater counterparts, and they often employ different strategies, tackle and techniques in their pursuit of fish.

But one of the biggest differences between the two boils down to the water itself.  

Most reels are perfectly capable of handling a bit of freshwater inside the gear mechanisms, but saltwater can quickly ruin reels not built to withstand it. Accordingly, most saltwater anglers prefer to use reels specifically designed to withstand salty water.

What Are the Key Differences Between Fresh and Saltwater Reels?  

Fishing tackles, baits, reels, spool with line

Different manufacturers employ different designs and materials in their reels, but most saltwater reels are built with a few key features that help them to withstand saltwater. Some of the most common include: 

1. Materials Used

Freshwater reels are built with a variety of simple metals, which work fine in a freshwater environment. They’ll eventually corrode, but you’ll probably have bought a new reel long before this is a concern.

However, saltwater can corrode most such metals in a very short time, so most saltwater rods are made from special alloys which will not corrode as quickly.

In other cases, saltwater reels are made with materials that are subject to corrosion, but they apply a protective coating that helps them withstand the contact with saltwater.  

2. Sealed Components

Some freshwater reels feature sealed components, but they are standard issue for most high-quality saltwater reels.

Sealed components – including bearings, gear boxes and drag systems, among others – are not as vulnerable to salt-water-induced corrosion.

The seals used essentially function like gaskets, and keep the saltwater from reaching the inner components, where they can cause corrosion and wash away the lubricating grease.  

3. Line and Lure

Saltwater reels are usually designed for heavier lines, tackle and fish than freshwater reels are. There is obviously some crossover between the two different types of reels, as you could probably use the same reel, line and lure to catch a musky or a barracuda.

But you won’t find many saltwater anglers using 4-pound-test line and 1/8-ounce lures, nor will you find many people using 80-pound-test line, 2-ounce sinkers and foot-long lures at the local farm pond.  

4. Cost

Because of the different components and design techniques used in the production of saltwater reels, they often cost much more than comparable freshwater reels do.

This fact causes many fledgling saltwater anglers to try to get by with a freshwater reel, but while this will initially save you money, you’ll just have to pay the piper later, once your freshwater reel fails.

Conversely, if you invest in a saltwater reel, you’re much more likely to be using it years from now.  

5. Reel Types

5 saltwater reels on a boatThere are also differences with respect to the types of reels most often used by saltwater and freshwater anglers.

Freshwater anglers typically use spinningspincasting or baitcasting reels, regardless of where on the lake or river they are fishing. Saltwater anglers, on the other hand, use different types of reels when fishing in different situations.

Most typically use fairly typical spinning or baitcasting reels for inshore angling, while instead opting for specialized, high-capacity, heavy-duty spinning or baitcasting reels for offshore fishing.

Some even use trolling reels, which are designed for fishing far from the boat, in very deep water.  

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, the biggest difference between the two types of reels boils down to corrosion resistance – saltwater reels are simply built to withstand the indignities saltwater imposes better than freshwater reels.

Most of the other differences – aside from the robust nature of saltwater reels, which reflects the size of the quarry – arise from the necessity of protecting the reel from the corrosive water.  

Salt and Freshwater Reel FAQs 

Man fishing on the river

Any discussion of the differences between salt and freshwater reels eventually elicits a few common questions. Some of them include the following:  

Can You Use a Freshwater Reel for Saltwater? 

Technically speaking, you can use a freshwater rod to fish for anything you like, in any water you like.

However, you don’t want to use a freshwater reel in saltwater, unless it packs similar features to saltwater reels, such as sealed bearings and corrosion-resistant materials.

If you don’t you’ll surely see your reel’s performance decline over time and eventually fail completely.  

Can You Use a Saltwater Reel for Freshwater? 

Assuming that you have a light-weight saltwater reel, built to accommodate the line and tackle you intend to use, there is nothing wrong with using a saltwater reel for freshwater fishing.

Aside from the differences in size and heft, saltwater reels are essentially upgraded freshwater reels. You obviously won’t need many of these upgrades to fish in saltwater, but they certainly don’t hurt.

What if You Just Rinse off a Freshwater Reel after Using it in Salt Water? 

Shortly after learning that saltwater can destroy the delicate innerworkings of a freshwater reel, many budget-minded anglers have an obvious follow up question: Can I just rinse off, clean the reel or do maintenance on it after using it to sidestep the corrosion problem?

To be clear, you should always rinse any reel with a gentle stream of cool, fresh water anytime you use the reel near saltwater. This includes reels designed to resist the corrosive effects of saltwater, as well as those that are not built to do so.  

However, because freshwater reels generally lack the sealed bearings, gear boxes and drag systems that saltwater reels possess, damage is almost guaranteed to occur.

The saltwater will begin eating away the delicate components of an unsealed reel while you are still pulling lures through the water, and you’ll never be able to get every little bit of salt water out of the reel – no matter how thoroughly you rinse it.  

Rinsing a freshwater reel after an afternoon of ocean fishing will certainly help, but you are only prolonging the inevitable. Do you want to take a chance on losing a once-in-a-lifetime fish because your reel fell apart?  

What’s the Best Strategy for Anglers who Fish Salt and Freshwater? 

Although you’ll need to invest a little more money to do so, buying a separate saltwater and freshwater reel is the most prudent course of action for most anglers.

You’ll save a bit of money up front by using the same reel for both situations, but you’ll eventually be faced with the prospect of buying two new reels, once your freshwater reel fails thanks to the saltwater.  

Final Thoughts 

As you can see, there are a few minor, yet important, differences between freshwater and saltwater reels.

And while there is no rule preventing you from using either to fish in fresh or saltwater, you’ll be much better served by setting yourself up with two separate rigs.

You’ll not only enjoy superior performance this way, you’ll also save more money doing so over the long run.  

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