While there's no substitute for 80- or 130-pound-class muscle to tame monster marlin and tuna, scaling down one's equipment offers advantages when chasing anything less than granders. Light, easy-to-handle outfits represent no sacrifice in performance and let anglers concentrate on fighting fish rather than struggling against their own tackle.
Jeremy Sweet, reel specialist for Shimano, points out that advances in braided-line technology have spurred the small-reel market. Superbraid's thin diameter means we no longer need reels with very large spools to hold several hundred yards of 50-pound line, for example. "More and more anglers are having fun with stand-up tackle, and braided line allows them the comfort of using a smaller reel. When braided lines first came out, they had a flat shape and tended to dig into themselves on the spool. They weren't much of a pleasure to fish with," he says. "Now braids are round and perform very well. This factor definitely contributes to the growing trend for more robust yet small reels."
Long-recognized names in the tackle industry, as well as relatively new companies, offer a wide range of lever-drag reels in the 20-pound-and-under category. Aluminum bodies provide the strength and rigidity that enable manufacturers to build reels to exact mechanical tolerances. The metal will not flex under pressure, so gears stay aligned and handles turn smoothly when battling stubborn fish on heavy drag settings. Constantly evolving drag materials also deliver stopping power while dissipating heat to ensure smooth operation.
All this technology comes at a cost, however. Metal-bodied reels usually carry higher price tags than graphite models and require regular doses of tender loving care. Shimano's Sweet recommends that owners of aluminum-bodied reels send their tackle to the shop for full teardown maintenance at least once a year.