June 08, 2023
Any serious angler who spends a lot of time trolling will tell you the importance of line-counter trolling reels. These types of reels are handy for monitoring lead lengths and for replicating the same with other rod/reel setups. Simply put, line-counter reels are essential pieces of gear for the avid troller. But just how accurately do these reels measure trolling lead lengths?
The ugly truth about line-counter reels is that they are calibrated at the factory to function with one specific line diameter. Because line-counter reels work based on how much line comes off the reel with each rotation of the spool, the pound test (line diameter) and the amount of line on the reel significantly affect the readout on the gear-driven mechanical counter.
If a line-counter reel is overfilled or underfilled, the mechanical counter won't even be in the ballpark. The same is true if a reel is loaded with line with a significantly thicker or thinner diameter than that used to calibrate the reel at the factory.
Most line-counter reels are manufacturer-calibrated with 20-pound-test monofilament. When a line thinner than 20-pound-test mono is used, each rotation of the spool pays out more line than the reel was calibrated to display. Conversely, if the line diameter spooled onto the reel is thicker in diameter than 20-pound test, each spool rotation pays out less line than the reel was calibrated to display.
Line-counter reels may not come packaged to deliver complete accuracy with a host of different line diameters and line types, but any line-counter reel can be hand-calibrated to deliver precisely accurate lead lengths time and again.
And it doesn't matter the brand, size or model of line-counter reel or the line diameter and line type to be used. The secret to hand-calibrating a line-counter reel is to spool on precisely the amount of line required to accurately replicate lead lengths repeatedly.
PICK A STANDARD
The first step in hand-calibrating a line-counter reel is determining a lead length to use as a reference. A measured lead length of 100 feet is a good choice, as this represents approximately the middle of the road for lead lengths commonly used in trolling.
Using a tape measure, mark out exactly 100 feet. Mark the zero and the 100-foot locations with a pair of stakes. Next, use a cable or wire tie to attach a planer board line release to the stake marking the zero point. This release will be used to hold the line while walking off leads to compare against the line counter and the actual 100-foot mark.
LOAD THE REEL
Select the desired line type and line diameter and fill the reel to capacity. Most line-counter reels have a mark on the spool to denote full capacity.
This step must be done with a bulk spool of line, and it's critical that once the reel spool is full you don't cut the line. When comparing the numbers on the line-counter reel to an actual 100-foot measurement, you’ll either need to put more line on the reel or remove some. For this reason, using a bulk spool and leaving the line attached to the spool until the calibration process is completed is key.
COMPARE TO MEASURED DISTANCE
With the line release attached to the stake marking the zero, attach the line and to the release and reel up any slack line until the rod tip is touching the line release. Then, zero-out the line counter.
Open the reel's bail and walk away, paying out line until the rod tip is even with the 100-foot mark on the tape measure. At this point, consult the counter on the reel.
If it reads less than 100, the reel has too much line on it and line must be removed from the reel and wrapped back onto the line spool. If the reel counter reads greater than 100, the reel doesn’t have enough line spooled on and more line must be added to the reel.
ADD OR REMOVE LINE
As a reference, every 20 to 25 feet of line added or removed from the reel changes the reel calibration by approximately one foot. So, if the counter on the reel reads 98, the reel has approximately 40 feet too much line on it.
The process of calibrating a line-counter reel requires a little trial and error. By adding or removing small amounts of line from the reel and then comparing what the reel's counter says against a known distance, it's possible to calibrate any line-counter reels with any line type or diameter.
When the counter reads 100 and exactly 100 feet of line is off the reel, the reel is perfectly calibrated. It should take about five minutes to calibrate each reel, though it may take a bit longer your first time around. (See below to watch Mark Romanack's YouTube video, "How to Calibrate Line Counter Reels Precision Trolling Data.")
For most anglers, calibrating once a year when adding fresh line is a good policy. If line on a reel gets tangled and a significant amount of line is lost, that reel will need to be recalibrated with fresh line.
SMALL REEL WARNING
The smaller sizes of line-counter reels, including the 15 and 17 sizes, do not calibrate as accurately as larger 20-, 30-, 40- and 50-size reels. The limited line capacity of these smaller reels also makes them less practical for trolling chores that require lead lengths longer than 100 feet.
Because premium fishing lines are expensive, many anglers opt to load their reels about half-full with an inexpensive, generic-brand line and then top-dress their reels with the desired premium line. This substantially cuts the cost of spooling up multiple trolling reels.