A swivel is a small device with a ring at each end and a pivoting joint in the middle. The linkage in the centre is what allows the line connected to the bottom ring of the swivel to move without impacting on the line connected to the top ring of the swivel.
Swivels generally serve two functions. First and foremost they are there to reduce the opportunity for your line to twist. When casting or trolling lures, sending big baits into the surf or dropping them into the depths rigs will often be moved and twisted around by the water movement, action of the fish, shape of the sinker or contours of the lure. Retrieving this twisted line onto your reel over a period of time can build up and impact on your fishing in a range of ways, for example it can deprive you of casting distance or it can increase your chances of tangle headaches.
The second function they achieve is simply to help provide a link between two pieces of line. They can be used to join your mainline and leader together if you don't trust your line knotting skills or some types of swivels can be used to provide a link for an additional length of line to be connected for hooks or unorthodox sinker placements.
There are many different opinions on the impact of swivel use on fishing. It's valuable to be aware of these opinions and evaluate them based on your own experiences - or what you think you're about to experience - and then decide what might be best for you and your fishing.
Some lure fishos believe that using a swivel can inhibit the inbuilt action of a lure and make it swim against how it was designed to. Depending on the size of your swivel this might occur through the extra weight at the front of the lure if clipped directly to the bib or the extra weight where your main line is connected to your leader changing the angle and tension on the lure.
There are views on the colour of swivel used. Some people will choose black over gold swivels when trolling or casting for fish with teeth such as tailor, macks or wahoo because of the potential for these fish to snap at the reflective swivel rather than the lure which costs you fish and increases your tackle expenses. Others will choose gold all the time because if it attracts fish to a lure that's a good thing so why use anything else?!
On the flipside there are people who suggest that rather than attract fish swivels can spook them and therefore refuse to use them. One scenario might be when you're fishing in clear water and fish are a bit touchy the extra movement or the un-natural appearance of the swivel may deter fish from making a strike.
One final issue to be aware of is the belief that using swivels can obstruct the accuracy of your casting due to an uneven distribution of weight.
Use swivels to join the mainline to the leader and reduce line twist
All these perspectives are one of the great but occasionally frustrating things about fishing - there aren't many absolutes. What works for one person doesn't necessarily work for another, where one angler wants a swivel another doesn't, where one person wants them gold another wants them black, and when you then get past all those decisions you've got to decide which type you want to use!
There are an incredible range of swivels out there, some are a dime a dozen and others are over a few dollars each. In many cases these different swivels have different qualities that you pay for. The following are some of the key swivel types you are likely to come across in your local tackle store. It's far from the be-all-and-end-all of swivel lists but it explains some of the basics of the more popular types of swivels you'll find.
BARREL / BOX SWIVELS
Barrel swivels are the most popular type of swivel and due to their simple design are the generally the cheapest but it's due to this design that you need to be selective of when you use them.
Their design is such that when pressure is exerted on the two rings and they are pulled apart the stoppers inside the barrel of the swivel press up against the base / top of the barrel. This can cause a build up of friction if the action is sustained for a prolonged time for example during long periods of trolling deep diving lures or battles with oversized fish. This can stop the swivel from doing its job leading to increased line twist or cause it to wear and prematurely break.
Clip, barrel and three-way swivels - so many choices, so many situations
There are two alternatives to the barrel swivel that are very similar in their design. A box swivel has an open barrel which allows water to flow around the internals. This can be a good swivel for surf fishing as the open barrel allows the sand to wash out. Crane swivels are also very similar to a barrel swivel but have highly polished internals which reduces any friction and enhances its ability to twist. The crane swivel is the half way mark between a barrel and a ball bearing swivel in quality and cost.
BALL BEARING SWIVELS
Ball bearing swivels bring more technology to the table and make up for the deficiencies found in barrel swivels. As the name suggests these swivels have ball bearings inside to minimise any friction and allow the swivel to twist freely when it is under pressure.
Because of this ball bearing swivels tend to be used in situations where anglers demand a lot from their tackle and need it to perform. The type of fishing where grown men are brought to tears if a fish gets off - ie large surface or bottom dwelling fish which have plenty of grunt behind them. Due to the more advanced workings of these swivels you will find they are also more expensive than barrel and crane swivels. Some of the better quality ball bearing swivels can be in excess of $8 each depending on the size you are looking for which is significantly more expensive when compared to the $2-5 for a dozen barrel swivels.
Written by Ben Derecki for Seabreeze.