Baitrunner Reels VS Big Pit Reels for Carp: The Great Carp Gear Battle

by Will Muschett

Baitrunner vs Big Pit


Having the proper tackle when you are pursuing a specific species is a huge determinant as to one’s success. This means that having a suitable rod, reel, line weight, and terminal tackle for the fish you are pursuing makes for a more successful and enjoyable angling experience. Let’s focus on a REEL key component that has many entry-level carp anglers scratching their heads: choosing the right reel for their style of fishing. There are so many options out there—and that’s before you consider the number of centrepin and fly reels that are suitable for carp fishing. Rather, let’s take a look at two styles of reels marketed to carp anglers all over the world: the baitrunner/free spool and big pit style reels.

I personally own quite a collection of reels specifically for carp and have examples of both styles, although I do have a clear bias, which I will elaborate on later. For now, let’s get down to business.


Baitrunner is actually the patented name of a mechanism that’s design is owned by Shimano, who first began building this mechanism into their Triton Sea Spin reels in the mid- to late-1980s. After it was discovered by carp anglers in the U.K., Shimano introduced the first Baitrunner Reel in 1987, which was marketed to freshwater anglers. (I’m proud to say I own one of these reels!)

The Original Baitrunner from 1987. I’m proud to say I am an owner of the OG!

The reel essentially changed the carp game overnight, as angler’s went from having to fumble with incredibly finicky drag systems or back-winding to having a preset drag system that disengaged at the turn of the handle, allowing you to apply drag to a running fish immediately. The entire process was made possible by a lever located at the back of the reel, which would allow you to engage the “baitrunner” mode. Once the switch was engaged, the spool would spin freely. How freely would be determined by the angler via a secondary drag located at the rear of the reel.

Over time, Shimano has made this reel more advanced and user friendly with more response drag systems, more respectable line lay, etc. The internal mechanism, however, remains much the same as per patent. Many other companies such as Daiwa and Okuma have their own version of a “baitrunner” style reel: Daiwa with their “Bite n’ Run” technology; Okuma with their “Baitfeeder”; and the list goes on. Regardless of which brand you end up with, all of these “free spool” style reels aim to accomplish the same thing.

Check out Ang and Pete using baitrunners from a boat here.

Good Idea / Bad Idea

My first carp reel was a “free spool” style reel, and it suited my fishing perfectly when I was first starting out. This was mainly because I was fishing relatively close in—anywhere between just under my rod tip and maybe thirty yards out. The baitrunner lever was great for helping me to quickly set the hook on a running fish rather than fumbling with a standard spinning reel drag system. I exclusively fished with “free spool” style reels for the first year and a half, and landed a ton of fish. Personally, I feel that if you intend only to fish smaller waters such as ponds, creeks or the margins on any system, then a “free spool” style reel is a perfect option for you.

So when and why did things change? Well, that was when I had a catastrophic failure of the “free spool” system in one of my reels, and it was 100% my fault for putting it into a scenario that I now know was doomed for failure.

So where and when is a baitrunner not a good idea? Well, simply put, the kind of conditions I put my one reel under! You see, most baitrunners are smaller reels and not exactly ideal for distance casting. Therefore, one should also infer that they aren’t ideal for fighting fish at a great distance.

A perfect “intimate” swim for a smaller baitrunner or standard spinning reel.

The reason we can infer this is based on the simple principle that as you work your way through your spool’s line capacity, drag becomes tighter, whether you like it or not, and that is simple physics. It’s much like trying to turn the wheel of a car from the centre rather than its circumference.

You must also remember not only to set your baitrunner each time you cast out, but also to reset your primary drag after each fish before recasting. (Trust me, you might think that’s common sense, but this has presented a problem to a great many of us!)

A Free-Spooling Tragedy

Now for a tragic story: I was fishing on a river swim with a couple of friends, and we began seeing signs of fish (namely breaching) out at around 100 yards. Without a second thought, we all relocated our rigs out to that particular line. I suppose you can say that, in the fine words of Dr. Ian Malcom in Jurassic Park, I was “so preoccupied with whether or not [I] could, [I] didn’t stop to think if [I] should.” I should have been cognisant that:

  1. My spool wasn’t fully loaded prior to the session;
  2. I was running braid (meaning no forgiveness);
  3. There was current involved in the equation;
  4. I hadn’t reset the primary drag loose enough given the previous three variables.

The result was heartbreaking. I heard a horrible grinding noise as the baitrunner system disengaged, and I realized that I had completely pooched a once-beloved reel. So learn from my mistake; although these smaller-bodied “free spool” reels do indeed boast a rather large line capacity, they aren’t designed for long-distance fishing. Instead, enjoy using “free spool” reels on smaller intimate waters such as a pond, creek, canal, or—if you are fishing the margins (close to shore) or within, say, that first fifty yards—on still water.

A dark pond common stalked out of a tight quarters swim.


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