Skipping Bail

Instead of being mixed in with all the other spinning reels under the glass counter at Harry’s Army Navy in New Jersey, the Fin-Nor Ahabs sat in their own case trimmed with faux teak and illuminated by tiny interior lights. The reels were presented like Rolex watches, and with price tags north of $300, they were the most expensive spinners in the joint.

For a year, I squirreled away money earned washing cars at a dealership to buy a Fin-Nor Ahab. In 2000, I was a senior in high school, addicted to the striper surf and tired of replacing cheaper reels that inevitably broke down after a few months of hard plugging.

The market is awash with spinning reels of all sizes and price points. If you want a reel to last in the saltwater environment, however, you’ll have to pay up.

Brian Grossenbacher

When the day finally came, I strolled into Harry’s like a gangster with a wad of cash. I wasn’t there to drool over those Fin-Nors this time, and as soon as I got one in my hands, the heavy weight of that Ahab made it feel dependable. And it was.

For seven years, my precious reel kicked butt and took names, from the beach to offshore. Its eventual demise would not be a result of a fatal injury, but rather, how I believe spinning reels have changed for the worst.

I’m a vintage-tackle enthusiast. My office is cluttered with old reels, lures and miscellaneous fishing paraphernalia from bygone eras. I’m always on the hunt at flea markets, garage sales and antique shops. If you spend enough time rummaging through this stuff, you start to see a lot of repeat merchandise. Old Mitchell 300 spinning reels are incredibly common, as are Penn 704 and 710 models. These were some of the best-selling reels of their time, and while it’s easy to say that’s because there were fewer choices decades ago, there’s more to their success and longevity than a lack of options.

French engineer Maurice Jacquemin is arguably the father of the modern spinning reel, having developed the first Mitchell 300 in the early 1940s. The design remained largely unchanged through the ’80s, which is why there’s a strong likelihood you’ve fished a 300 if you’re older than 40. My grandfather used them diligently, and my dad gave me one of his old Mitchells as my first spinning reel. I beat it to death, but it took all the punishment a 5-year-old could dish because it was made well.

The French-made Luxor was the precursor of today’s ultra-smooth spinning reels.

Joe Cermele

Reels like the Mitchell 300 and Penn 700 series were affordable and tough. Even if one had an issue, parts were readily available at mom-and-pop tackle shops, and there was so little under the hood compared with modern spinners that you didn’t need an engineering degree to clean, maintain and repair them. I stopped trying to fix spinning reels years ago because I always ended up with spare parts and a useless reel. Finding someone to repair a reel these days is more difficult than locating a working pay phone, and part of me believes it’s because many spinning reels are designed to be disposable.

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As reliable as old reels may have been, they were clunky and retrieved line at a snail’s pace. Grab a spinning reel off the shelf nowadays, and regardless of price, it’ll be sleeker, smoother, faster and lighter than an old “coffee grinder” Mitchell. But is it built for the long haul? Of course, that depends on how you fish.

Having spent many years reviewing gear for various publications, I’ve gotten my hands on boatloads of spinning reels. I also get asked for recommendations all the time, which is tricky. If you’re a casual angler who only gets out a handful of times per season, a $50 reel could last decades. If you fish hard, go after gamefish that really pull and don’t particularly coddle your gear, a $50 reel could meet its end after a couple of bull reds or bluefish. When that reel goes kaput, are you going to make the effort and cost to have it repaired? Probably not.

With the heavy drag and line capacity of high-end spinning reels, no game fish is off limits.

Brian Grossenbacher

This inevitably leads to a question: How much do I need to spend for a spinning reel that’s going to perform for years? If you’re not willing to shell out at least $250, you can pretty much expect it to conk out after one season of heavy use. I base that assumption not on conjecture, but on years of questioning why a reel I’ve hardly used is already grinding, slipping in and out of anti-reverse, or hiccuping when the drag engages.

People love to scoff at Van Staal, Shimano Stella and other reels that cost upward of $1,000, but with that price comes the same peace of mind I got spending $300 on that Fin-Nor nearly 25 years ago. Most people I know who own these reels aren’t looking for a status symbol; they fish hard and consider them an investment. A high-end reel can be relied upon and easily serviced by the manufacturer.

I had to retire my Fin-Nor when a gear failed following a decade of torture. By then, Fin-Nor had been sold to a larger company that no longer stocked or produced parts for models made when the company was independent. I reluctantly accepted an offer of a new Ahab, and while the reel looked similar to the original, it was not the same. The new one had a bit more plastic and a little less metal, and it was noticeably lighter. The sexy, original wooden handle was replaced by a plastic power knob.

The next-generation Ahab cost less than $200, and while it wasn’t bad, it didn’t feel special. It wasn’t my new baby. That old girl, wounded as she may be, sits on my office shelf, reminding me of her dutiful service and all the fish she helped me catch.