Tuna are fast, muscular, and powerful. Larger tuna in the 100 lb+ range can fight for hours at a time – presenting a serious challenge for even the toughest anglers. The amount of force generated during a prolonged battle with a big tuna places severe stress on your rod and reels, so you’ll want to make sure they’re up to the task!
I got my first taste of tuna fishing on a trip to Costa Rica a few years back. We had absolutely no luck all morning – until out boat captain spotted a group of seabirds diving into the water. Before you know we were on top of a school of Yellowfin, hooking several of them at the same time, and frantically trying to get them all into the boat. What a rush!
When it comes to tuna fishing gear, the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ certainly holds true. Experienced offshore anglers are fond of saying: Do it right the first time, you’ll spend less in the long run!
With so many makes and models, picking out the right tuna reel can be a challenging task. I’ll break down some of the best tuna reels for each fishing technique, how to pick the best one for your needs, budget, and personal preferences.
Quick Answer: 7 Best Tuna Fishing Reels
- Best Overall: Penn International VIS 2 Speed Fishing Reel
- Best Tuna Spinning Reel: Shimano Stella SWB
- Best Tuna Trolling Reel: Shimano Tiagra
- Best Conventional Jigging Reel: Avet HXJ Two Speed Reel
- Best Tuna Popping Reel: Shimano Saragosa SW
- Best Value: Penn Fathom Lever Drag Two-Speed
- Tuna Rod & Reel Combo: Penn Squall Level Drag Conventional Reel & Rod
Top 6 Tuna Reels – Reviews
How to pick the best tuna reel?
With so many features, makes, and models, choosing a tuna reel can be a daunting task. I’ll break down the important features and factors you need to understand when choosing the right tuna reel for your needs.
There are three main tuna species targeted by anglers in the US, Mexico, and the Caribbean: Yellowfin, Bluefin, and Skipjack.
Yellowfin are highly sought after by both sport and commercial fishermen. They’re powerful, put up an incredible fight, and are one of the best tasting fish on the planet. They range from 10 – 15 lbs. for juveniles, sometimes called ‘footballs’, up to 200 lbs. or more for mature adult fish.
Depending on your location, Yellowfin can vary significantly in terms of size and weight. In California, most Yellowfin taken weigh between 30 and 50 pounds, but 200-pound fish are occasionally caught. This means you’ll need to match your reel and tackle to the size Yellowfin you’re targeting.
Bluefin is another highly sought after tuna species, and grow significantly larger than their Yellowfin cousins. Fully grown adult Bluefin typically weigh in the 500-pound range, but fish over 1000 pounds have been caught.
When you’re targeting Bluefin, you’ll want to beef up your tackle and reel to match their size. Generally the largest reel sizes with 50 lbs+ max drag work well for Bluefin, although juvenile Bluefin can be caught on lighter tackle and reels.
Skipjack is a smaller tuna species common to tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate waters. In the western Atlantic Ocean, they’re found from Massachusetts down to Brazil. In the Pacific, they’re found all along the west coast, as well as around U.S. pacific islands.
They’re significantly smaller than the other two tuna species, weighing just 40 pounds when fully grown. While they’re not as popular among sport fishermen as Yellowfin or Bluefin, they’re abundant, taste great, and can put up a great fight. When you’re targeting these tuna, you can use much lighter reels, tackle, and tuna rods.
There are two main reels used for catching tuna and other large offshore species: conventional reels and spinning reels.
Conventional reels look a lot like the smaller baitcasting reels that most anglers are familiar with, with a few important distinctions. Conventional tuna reels are designed for trolling bait, bottom fishing, and pulling large fish up from the depths. Their design is more about power, line capacity, and transferring maximum pressure to big prey with minimum stress on your equipment.
Unlike many baitcasting reels, many conventional reels lack built-in backlash protection and require you to use thumb control to prevent backlashes. You can still cast effectively with conventional reels; it just requires a little practice. If you plan to fish primarily by trolling or deep dropping, then a conventional reel is the way to go.
Spinning reels for offshore fishing are essentially beefed-up versions of the spinning reels most of us are familiar with. They feature heavy max drags, rigid bodies, and large line capacities for fighting with tuna and other offshore giants. They also typically have excellent water resistance – preventing saltwater intrusion and corrosion.
Spinning tuna reels are ideally suited for jigging, casting poppers and baits on the surface, and even bottom fishing.
Drag is an important consideration whenever you’re dealing with large, muscular, and powerful fish like tuna. Large tuna have enough strength to overpower inferior reels, so you’ll need a fair bit of drag when targeting them.
Reels come with various drag systems (lever drag, star drag) as well as max drag ratings. Generally, when you’re targeting tuna up to around 100 lbs, you can use reels that put out 20 lbs. of drag. If you’re targeting big fish over 200 lbs, you’ll need a reel that can reliably produce 30 – 40 lbs. of drag.
Keep in mind that max drag is an indication of the absolute maximum drag a reel can produce, but it’s not the ideal drag for that reel.
You want a max drag that’s higher than the intended drag settings by a factor of 1.5 or so. So, if you’re planning on using 20 – 30 lbs. of drag, you’ll want a reel with a 40 – 50 lbs. max drag. It’s kind of like towing capacity in a pickup truck – if the max capacity is 13,000 pounds, loading the bed up with 12,999 pounds will increase the chance of failure over time.
Most manufacturers recommend setting the drag to 1/4 to 1/3 of your line strength for trolling. So if you’re fishing with 80lb test, you’d set the drag to 20 to 30 lbs. This is just a general guideline though, and you can play around a bit here.
2 Speed vs. 1 Speed Gears
Heavy-duty conventional reels generally come in either 2-speed or 1-speed configurations. 2-speed reel allow you to toggle between a high gear for quickly reeling in line, and a low gear for a slower, more powerful retrieve. Having two gears is especially useful when fighting large, powerful fish like tuna. You can use the high gear for quickly retrieving baits and lures on the surface, and the low gear for extra power once you’ve hooked a serious cow!
1-speed reels have only a single gear, so they lack the versatility of 2-speed reels. While 2-speed reels used to be available only in the highest-end reels, manufacturers are making them in increasingly affordable options.
I’d generally recommend going with a 2-speed reel, as they’ll give you more options when fighting big tuna, and you can easily find a solid 2-speed for just a few bucks more than a similar 1-speed.
Picking the right reel size is largely a function of the fish you’re targeting. If you’re fishing for smaller 30 lbs. tuna you can get away with pretty much any decent saltwater reel. Once you step up to larger fish, you’ll want to make sure you’re matching the reel size to the fish.
Also, consider the line capacity when picking out a reel. If you’re planning to fish in deep water, or you’re fishing from an anchored boat, you’ll want to go with a reel with a larger 750+ yard capacity.
Lastly, your budget will probably plan a major role in choosing a reel. Tuna gear isn’t cheap, so if you want a top-quality reel, get ready to drop a good chunk of change.
Keep in mind that a high-end tuna reel is a long term investment – it will pay dividends over time. These reels will outlast and outperform cheaper models by many years, paying for themselves over time. Also, if you want to resell them at some point, they tend to retain their value and sell for close to retail prices.
If you can afford to splurge on a high-end reel, you’ll get a piece of equipment that’s smoother, lighter, longer-lasting, and more comfortable to use. This results in more tuna in the boat!
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I’ve loved being in the outdoors for as long as I can remember. I grew up fishing, canoeing, and camping throughout the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. It’s what lead me to start this site and share my passions for fishing, diving, kayaking and more. Nowadays you can find me writing about my passions or (preferably!) preparing for my next outdoor adventure.