If you’re reading this, then you’re no longer asking yourself whether bowfishing is your new sport of choice. Instead, you’re probably more in the range of “how am I going to solidify my position as the apex predator in my neighborhood?”
If you’ve already chosen the best bowfishing bow, then choosing the best bowfishing reel to upgrade your fish-hunting platform is a great next step on your journey.
Like reels for traditional rod fishing, there are several different types or styles of bowfishing. Understanding their strengths of each is key is a first step in making your selection.
Considerations such as your own bowfishing skill level, the body of water you’re fishing, the style or styles of fishing, and the budget at play will all factor in your reel selection.
Bowfishing Reel Types
By now you hopefully have a basic understanding of how to bowfish, so there should be no surprises on the mechanics between the bow, arrow, and reel.
When it comes to different reels used in bowfishing, there are basically three different kinds—although to be fair one of them isn’t technically a “reel” as much as just a spool.
Hand-Wrap/Drum Bowfishing Reels
The first is the hand-wrap or drum reel, the one that’s technically not a reel. These modified yo-yos are decidedly low-tech and as a result are budget-friendly. They consist essentially of a line run around a spool with an integrated bar to help with spooling and release.
The line is literally in your hands with this type of reel. Many bowfishers believe that their price tag is their only redeeming quality. But for others, they’re decidedly old school cool.
And, we should note from years of experience, simpler pieces of gear featuring fewer moving parts have just fewer points of failure. In other words, KISS. And fewer points of failure in the field mean fewer breakdowns, which is always a benefit in the field.
Spincast Bowfishing Reels
The next variety of reel is essentially the same sort of spinner or spincast reel you’d attach to a rod and use in traditional casting. These reels move you up a price point from the drum reels, but, oh boy, do they move you down in terms of time and energy spent reeling in.
Another bonus is that they’ll likely include a drag system to more effectively fight your fish. For that reason, many bowfishers select these reels when going after prey that are up for a good fight.
While many bowfishing spinners could technically work ok on a rod, we don’t recommend a general, rod-mounted spinner with a bow for a couple reasons. First, bow reels have modified casing so that the line can leave the reel more easily and reel in with less tangling. That means a different shape of the dome in the casing and a larger hole.
Retriever Bowfishing Reels
The third device bowfishers use is known as a retriever. These store the line loosely in a protected, enclosed bottle and release with little resistance.
Chances of snagging as you retrieve are pretty much zero. That’s a huge plus for many anglers. As you might expect, retrievers are considered the best of the best technology for most types of bowfishing. Their price tag also happens to reflect that.
For some time, certain anglers criticized these retrievers because if you hit a fish in a non fatal area, they made it difficult to fight and reel in. Switching the action between letting the line free and then beginning to start reeling in wasn’t incredibly user-friendly.
Recently, however, companies have solved the issue by implementing a trigger-like device accessible via the grip. This trigger activates a brake on the line bale so you can instantly apply friction to the line the without needing to change your hand positioning.
Top 5 Bowfishing Reels
The following represent some of the best options for bowfishing reels around.
For those just getting into bowfishing or others going for style points, Fin-Finder has put together a solid, simple, well-constructed drum reel. This product has no frills and works with just about any budget.
The Fin-Finder attaches to standard stabilizer bushings, meaning some users have even attached it to a slingbow. Also included is 80 feet of line, which at a few feet over the others is a nice bonus
While it’s a generally well-liked product, some users have found issue with the metal line retainer, recommending instead that the metal line retainer be replaced with a less brittle plastic version.
Moving up a notch, Muzzy is a trusted Made-in-the-USA brand and their bowfishing reel is a favorite among many anglers.
The retrieve, aka the thing you crank to reel in the line, can attach to either side, meaning there are no hang-ups with left and right handedness. An integrated reel seat mounts the reel to the bow with a single bolt.
One feature that jumps out is the Muzzy’s switch activation system allows to be locked into shooting mode. Replacing the traditional depressed switch with a left-right lever, this gives the bowhunter a positive visual confirmation that the reel is ready to shoot vs. ready to reel. Like a gun safety, this helps minimize dry firing.
The 1069 XD Pro also comes with 150 feet of 150 lb test tournament line. This is roughly double the length of any of the other offerings. As such, many reviewers have halved the line to save
Another big name in fishing reels, Cajun has put together a nice bowfishing product with the Spin Doctor.
Optimized for bowfishing, it has a larger hole and an extended casing covering the to allow for a nice, fast release. Some reviewers also appreciated the reel’s oversized button.
The real secret sauce behind this real is it’s sturdiness. Bowfishing gear tends to take a harder beating compared to, say, dock fishing. The Spin Doctor is completely aluminum, compared to products from other manufacturers that have some plastic body components. Not so with the spin doctor.
This reel has two metal pickups (the devices that ‘pick up’ the line after it’s released to reel it back in). Most spin casters have just one, meaning the second one on the Spin Doctor can act as a failsafe if the other breaks.
The Spin Doctor also sports 150 feet of fast flight line, although some reviewers questioned the quality of the included line. If you go for the Spin Doctor, think hard about replacing the line.
The AMS founders reportedly invented the retriever reel in 1979 with a used shampoo bottle. They’ve come a long way since then. Today, they remain one of the preeminent brands in bowfishing.
The 610 Retriever Pro is AMS’s entry-level retriever reel, falling below the Retriever TNT and the Retriever Pro Big Game reels. But it’s no slouch compared to the rest of the field.
Once you hit a fish, you engage the reel by pulling in the trigger and start reeling. The device also has a drag system (as opposed to a brake) and comes with 75 feet of 200 lb line. Reviewers were impressed with the quality of the included line, which is rare.
The only downside of the AMS 610? Price. As one reviewer summarizes, “It’s really the best option I have used thus far but just hurts coughing up the near 100 bucks.”
Unlike some spincaster systems, the 610 Retriever Pro is handed so make sure you pick the right side.
Cajun’s take on the retriever is in many ways similar to AMS’s, with a few variations. Instead of using a trigger to engage the line and begin to reel in, this device comes with an oversized brake lever that allows you to pinch the line and hold it while reeling in. Some prefer it for this feature because it allows you to more easily win a tough battle.
Cajun also sounds like a company very responsive to user feedback. They beefed up the bracket hardware for the 2017 model year, recognizing that prior units were taking a bit of a beating.
The company also recognized that line feeding issues can crop up as folks change out their lines over time. As a result, Cajun also made the ceramic eyelet feeding the line out into an adjustable solution.
The standard 75 feet of 250 lb line is included, which it should be noted was the heaviest included line among our bowfishing reel finalists.
One downside of the Cajun Winch is that it appears there’s no left-handed model (no surprise there) so lefties should approach the product with caution.
At the end of the day, there’s a time and a place for all three kinds of reels mentioned above. Making the right decision is will require some thought regarding where you’re headed and what kind of fish you’re after.
It’s also going to take some time on the water. Some bowfishers take years of experimentation before they land on the reel that suits them best, often with many rounds of DIY customization.
Don’t be afraid to take a gamble on a rig that seems to suit you best, and be prepared to learn as you go!
About the Author
Norm Alioto is the associate editor for FishingTech.com, helping fishing enthusiasts discover the best trolling motors, fish finders, and pedal kayaks. Norm grew up fishing halibut, striped bass, and rockfish along the eastern shores of San Francisco bay.