How to Choose a Bowfishing Reel: Beginner's Buying Guide

As with any sport, it’s extremely easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of gear options. Bowfishing is no exception. There are several different types of bowfishing reels available.

Just ask around and you’ll learn that there are many opinions about choosing a bowfishing reel, but the truth is that any reel that gets you out on the water is the best reel for you. Any upgrades you choose will only serve to enhance the experience. With this quick guide, you’ll be able to get on the water with exactly what type of bowfishing reel suits you best.

Drum Reels

A vintage Fred Bear bowfishing reel

Drum reels, sometimes called handwrap reels (for good reason), are about as low tech as they come. Draw back your bow, release your arrow, then manually wrap the line around the outer diameter of the drum when you’re ready to retrieve it. 

What these bowfishing reels lack in technology they make up for in cost savings and simplicity. Drum reels can typically be had for less than $20. These reels will last for years and years because they have no moving parts. In fact, there are still many old Fred Bear bowfishing reels from the 1980s on the used market today. 

A diagram of a bowfishing bow and reel setup

There are a few different styles of drum reels to take into consideration. The two main categories are screw on and strap/tape on. Screw on reels mount directly to the front of your bow; they typically thread directly into the front stabilizer hole (above picture). A few more pictures of bow components are shown here. 

Strap/tape on bowfishing reels are for one piece bows without a mounting hole. This type of drum reel is ideal for traditional bows. The thing to keep in mind is that the reel needs to be mounted as far outside of the working part of the limb (riser) as possible. These will come with metal tabs that you can bend and custom fit to your bow. To secure the reel to your bow, you can use either tape or straps (typically elastic or velcro is used). Any old tape will work fine, but you can find a waterproof tape if you want it to last longer. Pro tip: wrap one course of tape first so the metal tabs don’t damage your bow. 

A final note: if you want to try bowfishing without spending any money, you can make a “homemade” drum reel with a recycled soda bottle affixed to your bow. This is how many archer-anglers first got into the sport.

Spin Cast Reel

A spin cast bowfishing reel in use

A spin cast bowfishing reel has all the hallmarks of a traditional fishing reel; they have a spool to hold the line and a crank handle that allows for quick retrieval of the line. These bowfishing reels mount to a reel seat, which will typically screw directly into the threaded accessory hole on the front of your bow. Spin cast reels use a drag mechanism to allow for retrieval of the line. Without drag the line will flow freely off of the spool. Spin cast reels specifically made for bowfishing allow line to flow freely off of the spool when your arrow is shot. The drag will only engage when a trigger is pulled. 

Some spin cast reels require a button press before the shot just like a standard fishing reel requires a button to be pushed before a cast. For button style bowfishing reels, if you forget to push the button there will be tension on the line and you will likely snap the line, or worse the arrow could snap back and hit you. Trigger style spincast reels are much preferred to the button style since the user doesn't have to remember to push the button prior to every shot. RPM and Megamouth both make these types of bowfishing reels.


Retriever/Bail/Bottle Style Reel

A retriever style bowfishing reel

Retriever style reels are made specifically for bowfishing and excel when used for retrieving small to medium size fish. These reels mount to the holes where a sight would typically be mounted. Sights are not normally used for bowfishing since most of the shots are made quickly and rely upon instinctive shooting. 

Retriever reels bail the line into a bottle instead of onto a spool. Drag is applied to the line by pressing on a manual lever. When there is no pressure applied to the lever, the line is free spooling so there is no need to remember to push a button. Often times the manual lever does not provide enough drag to pull the line in if the fish are large. For experienced bow fishermen, these are the preferred choice of bowfishing reel due to their ease of use and low maintenance. AMS, Cajun and several others make these style reels. 


The Bottom Line

There are always new products being released but keep in mind that the best reel is the reel that gets you out on the water. Let us know in the comments what type of bowfishing reel you prefer!




I made my own handreel from some Delrin and am using that on my recurve fishing rig. FREE!



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steve cacciola

steve cacciola

i do not like bottle reels,for many reasons when the first came out, back in the had so much line to reel back in when the fish are with in 10 ft. you had all that line on the water in the way of other shooters..also you had only one hand to fight and bring in big fish.especially BIGHEAD.i have always like the spin cast reels,my choice was the synergy 4003.a very tough reel.of course they are not made no more,so i bought as many as i could from walmart and ebay.i have about 20.i just saw the RPM REEL.i like that button release.i might have to purchase the way,i do like your bowfishing gloves.i will purchase more for my customers,this upcoming if it would stop all have a bless day.

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