The question is, which is better for throwing the surface iron, a newer high tech model or a hot-rodded classic star drag reel? And of course, the answer is – it depends. Rather than lingering on without answering – it depends on whether the reel ends up living on a crew stick out on deck every day, ridden hard and put away wet, jammed in the galley or up on the sundeck rack — or gets taken home, gently misted with distilled water, wiped dry and set on a shelf for the week, or month before it’s net trip to sea.
The newer reels are much easier to learn to launch an iron with, but tolerances are tight, components light weight, cast control effected by the generation of eddy currents in an aluminum drum on the spool set inside a similar magnetic drum on the frame. Just a speck of corrosion from that mag, ends up difficult to remove but ever reminding you of its presence.
Sometimes free-spool just isn’t that free, and it takes a hard cast or two to kick it free, moving that magnetic crumb aside. But the advantages of these reels are well worth the actually minimal care needed — especially for the average, even the hard-core angler.
However, for a crewman, skipper or deckhand, the simplicity of old-school engineering of the retro-reels, their robust resistance to damage, continual exposure to salt and the elements and being generally slammed around can be a worthwhile advantage. Then there is the cachet of the black or red reels, customized with solid bars, stand, aftermarket spool.
Although, with practice, one can get similar casting performance out of either kind of reel, the skill level required to get it from one of those old school hot-rod reels is considerably higher. It takes a ton more practice to achieve.
Instead of cast control it’s thumb control. The thumb works the top of the line, at least for the first seconds of the cast, and that too is an issue.
Old school reel tolerances, even hot rodded, are still very loose compared to what’s on the market today. Even souped up versions with custom bushings will eat 12-pound, even 20-pound mono. Braid? Forget it.
In fact, those old school reels with bushings offer tighter tolerances than with bearings. For this reason, I fished plastics with a Penn 100 for years, despite its painfully slow line- winding abilities.
Finally when I was about 19, I was able to cast hard enough the small diameter spool would spin so fast the light oil used to achieve long casts wasn’t heavy enough to keep the shaft from seizing in the bushing as the first few feet of line flew out.
From there I switched to ball-bearing built Penn 146 width Squidder, the narrow one. However, any loose loop from even the most modest backlash ended up caught between the spool and frame. No matter how much custom nail polish work one put into closing those gaps, the issue was never quite fixed.
You see, the axis of the spool would actually shift a tiny bit depending on how much tension was on the bearing, and in which direction. Thumbing a cast pushed the spool back while tension on the line, while winding pulled forward.
But there were better bearings to be had, and guys like the legendary Dave MacVicar found them. This helped. Carl Newell offered custom bushings for reels like Penn’s popular 500 series. The narrow 501 version was the best for calicos on the surface plug, while the middle width 99-sized version was better for the bigger iron biters.
One of Newell’s first mods were custom support bars. Those who fished hard found the stand screws would work loose almost daily, and these bars helped fix the flex that caused it.
Then Newell came out with a full conversion kit for the Penn 500 series, the 300-C, spacers, ball bearings, bars, side plates, aluminum spool, then graphite. Only the internal guts were Penn. This was the first black reel.
Ultimately Newell would produce a full line of complete reels, beefed up internal gears, stainless, stuff was e-clipped in place so it didn’t spring apart as soon as the bridge was removed.
These reels could be ridden hard and put away wet daily. Cosmetics may suffer, even the aluminum of the bars eat away from the stainless rings and screws, and they’d still kill fish.
Ultimately, other reel manufacturers got the West Coast clue and started building solid frame reels, Other aftermarket components makers developed their own versions, like Tiburon’s one-piece frame conversions.
Some would take the 300-C side plates with Penn guts and pair them with the 99-sized Tiburon frame.
As for bass reels, MacVicar took the old-school reels into the high performance corner. Because mono is heavy and that weight stole distance from the cast, wasting energy im parted to jig in spinning the spool, which was then required to be thumbed away, he customized spools with an aluminum spacer.
Then the spool was mostly air under the aluminum tube spacer and only held a little more line than anyone could cast. This took reels like the Squidder and the 501 into the realm where the newer low pro- file reels have now reached.
My longest measured toss was with an old-school 501-width 300-C and Calstar 540. At 130 yards it spanned the space between the Ventura Harbor Patrol dock, across the turning basin to the rocks on the other side. There was no way to see it when it hit and we only know it made it to the rocks because I finally snagged the wall and pulled the line tight until it lifted out of the water before breaking off.
However, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen similar distance with my Daiwa Proteus and Lexa 400. This rig is lot easier to learn to run and takes a ton less strength and practice.
Nevertheless, neither was with the surface iron. It takes a small heavy of about 2 to 3 ounces to get anywhere near that kind of range. Distance with the surface plug is quirky, depending on how the wind direction and how the jig ends up sitting in the air as it flies.
You want the treble hook to fold back on the flat, tail up, belly down, sailing — not spinning. The line takes on an “S” shape in the air, arching high out far, then falling flat from the rod tip closer in. A decent toss is maybe 60 yards with an 80-yard plus launch being eyebrow-raising worthy.
Today, the place to go for retro-reel hot-rod gear and advice you can’t find in your local shop is Alan Tani (alan-tani.com). He and his crew of contributors can hook you up with stuff from bearings to bridges, after-market T-handles that transform you old Shimano TLD 2-speed into a light weight tuna taming lip ripper.
If you’re working deck, go for building out a swap-meet retro-reel if you dare. If you’re fishing once a week or less, I’d go for the latest high-tech gear and take care of it like the meticulously engineered and finely tuned machine it is.
Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California partyboat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Dr. Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He serves on the Ground- fish Advisory sub-Panel of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the Santa Barbara Harbor Commission, The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and the CCA-Cal State Board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org