Bass Crash Course: How to Properly Tune a Baitcaster
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Bass Crash Course: How to Properly Tune a Baitcaster

Jul 18, 2023

One of the reasons that I've been so drawn to bass fishing over the years is the variety of techniques used to catch them. For example, one day it may be firing a spinnerbait at shallow cover, followed by bombing a crankbait offshore or perhaps pitching a jig into shallow bushes. Each of these techniques require different approaches to presenting, or casting, the lure.

If you’re one of the millions of new anglers to recently join the bass fishing community, the intent of this series is to educate you on the various casting techniques to expedite your enjoyment out on the water. Whether you’re casting overhand or sidearm or pitching to shallow cover, good casting technique is aided by properly adjusting your baitcasting reel, as well as matching the lure to the proper rod.

The baitcasting reel is the foundational piece of equipment in bass fishing, yet it often causes the most consternation among new anglers due to the possibility of backlashing the line into a dreaded “bird’s nest.” However, a basic understanding of properly setting and adjusting both the reel tension knob and the reel brake will have you quickly advancing to mastering the baitcasting reel.

The baitcaster is the preferred reel in bass fishing for a few reasons. Among them, it offers improved accuracy and softer lure entry over a spinning reel due to the ability to “thumb” the spool as the lure nears the water. While a spinning reel offers the ability to better handle lighter lines used with smaller lures of less than 1/4 ounce, a baitcasting reel can better handle the heavier lines and lures that are often used when fishing for bass. Additionally, the greater amount of line picked up with each turn of a baitcasting reel’s handle makes it more efficient than a spinning reel when retrieving fast-moving lures such as crankbaits, buzzbaits and spinnerbaits.

Dealing with backlashes is part of the learning curve with baitcasting reels, and it’s something even experienced anglers encounter from time to time. The backlash is simply a result of the spool unwinding faster than the lure as it leaves the rod tip, which pushes the excess line into loops within the reel as the spool continues to turn at a high rate. The backlash often occurs immediately upon releasing the lure, but it can happen at any point during the cast.

Two adjustment settings on every baitcasting reel are the spool tension knob, located under the star drag and cranking handle, and the brake, located on the palming plate opposite the reel handle. Think of the spool tension knob as controlling the initial burst of energy as the spool is released on the forward cast, while the brake controls the spool as the lure approaches the water.

The tension knob is the primary control mechanism for either limiting or increasing the spool’s rotation. To set it according to the specific lure you're casting, reel the lure to the rod tip, press the thumb bar and hold tension on the spool with your thumb. If the lure doesn’t freefall, the tension knob is too tight. With the thumb bar still disengaged, back off the tension knob until the lure starts to fall in a controlled descent.

This is a very simple and general way to get the initial setting for the lure weight, realizing that as you get more comfortable with casting the reel, you’ll likely back off the tension knob even more. Tweaks to the spool tension knob may be necessary through the course of the day to account for variables such as wind, lure changes and casting distance.

It’s often tempting for new anglers to overtighten the tension knob to prevent backlashes; however, if the tension knob is too tight, you lose considerable casting distance and will likely try to compensate by casting harder, thereby making matters worse.

On the reel’s palming plate is either a magnetic brake, a centrifugal brake or a combination of the two. Think of the reel’s braking system as the means of “fine tuning” the rpm of the spool throughout the length of the cast. Reading the owner’s manual is the best way to get the specific adjustments necessary to your reel; however, tuning a magnetic brake is usually as easy as turning the dial on the palm clockwise or counterclockwise to bring the magnets closer or farther away from the metal spool. The closer the magnets are to the spool, the more they limit its rotation. Adjusting a centrifugal brake requires removing the palm plate and manually pushing in or out the number of desired “brakes” on the spindles. Increasing the number of brakes applied during the cast causes increased friction to the spool housing, slowing the spool’s rpm.

As you start casting the lure, make any adjustments to either the spool tension knob and/or braking system in small increments. Generally, if you notice the spool trying to backlash immediately after releasing the lure, turn the spool tension knob a click tighter until the issue is resolved. If the line “overruns” toward the end of the cast, a small adjustment to tighten the braking system usually offers the needed fix. Neither the tension knob nor the brake totally replaces the use of your casting thumb, which is used to feather the spool as the lure nears the water. A reel that’s optimized for casting performance shouldn’t need much, if any, thumb pressure during the cast. Once the lure is headed downrange, the thumb remains hovering over the spool with gradual pressure applied to slow the spool just prior to the lure landing in the water.

A final note addressing proper baitcasting equipment must include the importance of matching the rod to the lure weight. Most rod manufacturers have a recommended lure weight stamped on the side of the rod that helps the angler match the lure with the power and action of the rod. For example, if trying to cast a 3/8-ounce spinnerbait on a baitcasting rod intended for 1/2- to 3/4-ounce lures, the rod will likely be too stiff to properly flex or "load" in the back cast and won’t propel the lure very far. As a result, the angler may try to compensate by exerting too much "power" into the forward cast, causing more backlash issues. Lures that are considerably heavier than the recommended weight ranges on the rod will overpower the rod during the cast, causing the lure to continually go offline.

Nothing replaces repetition for learning the basics of casting. However, if your equipment is not working for you, it’s actually working against you in your efforts to make a proper cast.

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