I've stayed quiet on this topic because I haven't seen a best reel or worst reel, and a bad reel doesn't get the chance to mess me up fishing, because I always take one of my good reels.
But there are things that just put a reel into the "bad" category.
- Finicky drag. If the drag changes without you adjusting it, it's bad. Freespooling is the ultimate problem
- Overly delicate reels. I am going to drop a reel or bang it on a rock at some point. Battle scars are fine, but it still has to work.
- reels that are prone to getting the leader stuck behind the reel, or out in front of the reel. Since this only happens in storage, I'm less worried about it if it is easy to get the spool off to fix it.
some examples are,
the Ocean City 76. The drag can be stronger than many other vintage reels, The felt pad disk drag works well, but the adjustment causes problems. Tightening and loosening the drag will back out the screw and you end up with freespooling. It also is a prone to getting the leader stuck between the spool and the cage, and the spool is a bit difficult to get off. I like them in concept, but I don't have time to fiddle with them.
Martin Tuna Tin reels. The stamped frame models. Even for cheap reels, they loose on the durability point. A dig will set them out of true and they start scraping. And though I haven't had a line on one recently, I also remember fighting with stuck leaders on them.
As for the best reels are ones you don't have to think about. The Ross (and now Abel) sealed disk models just work. Low maintenance (keep them clean). They will get battle scars but they keep working. When you tighten the drag, it stays tight, It is quick to adjust and they can be dialed back for low startup inertia. I fish plenty of other reels, Young, Medalist, Marryat, Abel big game, Daiwa hardy clones, but if I am going on a trip and need a single reel, it is usually a Ross Gunnison or San Miguel, J Ryall, or for bigger waters the Cork Drag Abel Big game (though I am in the market for a Ross Evolution R Salt to replace this).
I don't know if my rambling has helped anyone else, but it has certainly helped me understand my preferences.