HuntnFish has spent many years on the water fishing and has caught nearly every species of fish in Washington State.
To be completely honest, the title of this article should really read:
Best Trolling Reels which also happen to come with a Line Counter option
Line counters themselves are pretty simple in nature, and fairly similar across various different reel manufacturers. However, while there are no best line counters, there are certainly best reels that happen to have one.
But first, let take a look at how a line counter reel can help put more fish in the boat.
Fish are Lazy
I suppose its not appropriate to make such a blanket statement about a huge number of species. Certainly a sailfish or tarpon would take offense to that previous generalization. But as a rule, fish are lazy opportunists.
Its comes down to survival. A fish knows it needs to eat more calories than it expends. Why chase small bait up and down the water column day after day when you can let the food come to you? After all, this is the same thing going through my head every time I pick up the phone and order a pizza.
Trout sit in pocket water behind boulders and let bugs drift down stream to them.
Bass hide in the shadows under docks and logs, waiting for minnows or frogs to make a wrong move.
Saltwater predators follow kelp patties which attract and house numerous types of baitfish.
So what does this mean for fishermen? Well, it means in order to give yourself the best chance of catching fish, you need to take your rig to the fish, rather than sitting and waiting for the fish to find you. In short, we're trying to be the Domino's Pizza delivery, or Ice Cream Man of the fishing food chain.
How Line Counter Reels Work
Line counters are pretty straightforward. They're really just an odometer for a fishing reel. As you let line out behind the boat, the spool drives a series of gears which turn a dial, indicating how much line you've let out. At any point, you can reset or zero-out the dial to set a new start point.
They're not perfectly accurate, as they don't account for certain variables like line tension, amount of line on the reel, and line diameter, but they're much better than any of the alternatives (counting pulls, counting level-wind passes, dead-reckoning).
Advantages of Line Counter Trolling Reels
Line counters provide a number of benefits while trolling:
Stay in the Strike Zone
The biggest benefit of line counter reels is it means you'll be spending more time with more rigs right in the sweet spot. Have one lure hook up at 65' on the line counter? Great! Now quickly adjust your other rigs to 65' and go catch his buddies.
If you know exactly how much line you have let out behind the boat, it becomes much easier to gauge what depth your lure is running at.
Trolling Spread Management
When trolling with multiple lines behind the boat, staggering the amount of line on adjacent rigs can help reduce the number of crossed lines and tangles.
Each time you check your lure, or better yet, reel in a fish, you'll want to get your line back into the strike zone as quick as possible. If the fish struck at 100' of line out behind the boat, just flip the reel into free-spool and let line spool out until the line counter hits 100'. This is much faster and more accurate than pulling line off the reel by hand and counting number of pulls.
Easier for the New Guy
If you're taking a friend fishing, its much easier to tell him to let the line out to 80' than to instruct him to pull 40 equal length pulls of line off the reel. Your new crew can be setting lines back while you drive the boat. Its also easier to glance over and double check where they set the line, which is not possible if he was counting pulls. This is why guides will almost always use line counter fishing reels when pulling a trolling spread.
Know when to "Get the Net!"
As you're reeling in the fish, your line counter will let you know how much line is still out between you and the fish you're fighting. By the time it says 20', you better have the landing net ready.
This is very helpful when fighting multiple fish in the boat at once. With line counters, you'll know which angler is likely to have the first fish boatside and ready for the net.
A Couple Coho Caught Using a Line Counter Reel
Drawbacks of Line Counters
The most notable drawback of line counter reels is casting. Casting is definitely not advised with a reel equipped with a line counter. It will reduce casting distance, potentially damage the line counter beyond repair, and often result in a monster backlash. Line counter reels are designed for trolling.
They also work great for vertical jigging as well. Just please don't try to cast with one.
Almost all line counter reels are built for right-hand retrieve. There are very, very few left-hand retrieve line counter reels. If you need a left handed model, good luck.
How to Use a Line Counter Reel Effectively
Remember, what we're trying to do here is take as many lures to the fish as quickly as possible. If you haven't located the fish yet, drop the rigs back to various depths: a shallow line, a mid-depth line, and a deep line. Many fisherman will talk about covering as much area as possible when locating fish in a lake. By staggering the depth of your presentations, you'll not only be covering surface area, but also various depths. Now you're covering lake volume, not just lake area.
If you find willing biters at a certain depth, just read off the line counter reading and adjust your other rigs to target the same depth. On countless occasions I've been fighting a fish and yelled the line counter depth to my buddy to make a quick adjustment, resulting in an immediate double hook-up.
In addition to trolling, line counters are a golden ticket for jigging to suspended fish. Sure its easy to jig to fish belly down on the bottom, anyone can find the bottom, but how about targeting a school of walleye suspended in the thermocline at 20'? Or mooching a herring to the bottom of a suspended school of baitfish for aggressively feeding salmon? Both are made much simpler with a line counter.
Another great use of line counter reels is preventing snags when jigging in very rough structure. A lot of time can be lost snagging gear, breaking lines, re-spooling, and retying jigs. Instead, drop your jig down, take a good mental note that the rocks are at 140', reel up a few cranks to 135', and leave it there. On the next drop, just take it back to 135' and call is close enough. This can be a life saver when fishing with inexperienced guests who always seem to have a knack for losing your gear in the rocks.
Walleye on a Line Counter
What to look for in a Line Counter Trolling Reel
First off, line counters only exist on trolling/casting reels. Don't go looking for a line counter spinning reel, you won't find one, and there's good reason for that.
Furthermore, not every trolling or baitcasting reel comes with a line counter option, in fact most don't. By filtering your search for a line counter reel, you've reduced your options considerably. Since line counters are designed for a couple specialized types of fishing, the market is not huge, meaning reel designers and manufacturers are not necessarily incentivised to invest in producing new models. This means a large number of cheaply built options, and not a lot of reliable ones.
Most importantly, we're not looking for a fishing reel with the best line counter, we're looking for the best fishing that happens to have a line counter.
Reel first, line counter second. It doesn't matter if you know how deep your line is if your level-wind is seized and your drag stack went limp after a week of fishing.
If the reel is designed and built with quality and reliability in mind, its safe to assume the same level of quality went into the line counter.
Best Entry Level Line Counter Reel— Penn Warfare
Back at the fishing shop, customers were often looking for a reliable line counter option that wasn't going to break the bank. It makes sense. Unless all of your fishing is long line trolling or deep water jigging, its probably not going to be your go-to fishing reel on every trip. For the local salmon fishermen, it was often that they spent 90% of their time trolling on down riggers (no line counter needed), but wanted have a seperate bait rod at the ready to quickly target salmon feeding at a specific depth.
With that said, they also wanted to be confident that reel would preform when called off the bench.
If you're looking for the best middle ground of performance and affordability, the Penn Warfare is the perfect match.
For well under $100 Penn has created the perfect product for the "I occasional need a line counter niche". Fifteen pounds of drag, plenty of line capacity, and an anti-slip spool. Its a stripped-down, no-frills, get-the-job-done kind of fishing reel.
The Warfare was particularly popular with the local saltwater fishing guides, wanting a dependable reel they could put in their customers hands, able to quickly get everyone to the same depth and get the fish back to the surface. And when the butter-fingers client dropped a rod over the rail in excitement, they weren't out $200.
The Warfare line counter comes in a variety of sizes, so you can match your target species. Bonus points, its one of the only line counter trolling reels that comes in left-handed models.
Best of the Best Line Counter Reel— Shimano Tekota LC
Earlier I said we're looking for the best reel that happens to also have a line counter. When it comes to trolling reels, the Shimano Tekota is one of the best by any standard.
The Tekota LC has been my go-to reel for a kayak trolling line counter for salmon for the last three seasons. Its gone head to head with countless hard pulling Chinook, finessed some acrobatic boatside coho, and even survived being dunked in the saltwater on multiple occasion.
Whereas most other manufacturers only provide line counter options on one or two sizes across a line of reels, Shimano offers a full range of line counter options with the Tekota, from the 300 size all the way up to the monsterous 800 size. You won't need to worry about buying too much or too little reel just to get the line counter model.
An aluminum frame and side plates ensures durability and stiffness, while also keeping weight down.
Eighteen pounds of drag puts it competitively high on the drag force spectrum for conventional reels, with a whopping 24 pounds of drag for the 700 and 800 size models.
The Tekota LC is a top-of-the-line fishing reel first, and a line counter second, just the way it should be. There really isn't a better line counter trolling reel.