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December 03, 2001

Line-counter Reels

Why do I need a gadget to tell how much line is out? Counting pulls while stripping off line gives a fair indication of my bait's depth. What difference can it make if I'm off by several feet?

The guy at the computer store must hate me. He keeps trying to sell me a new machine because my once top-of-the-line model has become ''slow, less agile and short of memory.'' Sometimes I think the man's referring to me when he uses such terms, but after clarifying that we're only talking about replaceable hardware, I tell him I'll replace it when absolutely necessary. Who needs extra bells and whistles when my computer serves primarily as a tool for e-mail and word processing?

That same preference for functional practicality has always influenced my choice of fishing tackle, too. I never considered using a line-counter reel because the idea seemed kind of hokey: Reels serve as tools for fighting fish. Why do I need a gadget to tell how much line is out? Counting pulls while stripping off line gives a fair indication of my bait's depth. What difference can it make if I'm off by several feet?

Then, on a recent trip to Alaska's Kodiak Island, I took a couple of line-counter reels just to see what they could do. Now I'm a believer in the practical application of these marvelous tools.

Digital Precision
My first surprise with the Daiwa Sealine-X 40HC came when I spooled up. Prior to placing line on the reel, the user must tell the microprocessor (via a three-number code) the mono size. Knowing pound-test allows the counter to compute line diameter and produce more accurate readouts. Still somewhat dubious of the manufacturer's claims, I punched in the proper code and filled 'er up with 30-pound Ande.

On our first drift for halibut, the depth finder read 70 feet. ''Let's see what this baby does,'' I thought, pressing the button to turn on the reel, then hitting free-spool. When my 6-ounce jig touched bottom, the reel's digital LCD window read 73 feet. Why the difference in readouts between the sounder and the reel? My rod tip hovered about 3 feet higher than the hull-mounted transducer.

''Try to keep the jig between 1 and 5 feet off the bottom,'' the skipper said. No sweat. I'd just let the jig tap bottom, then watch the counter while reeling up a couple of feet - that is, exactly 2 feet - or any other distance I decided on. I could always tell precisely how far off the bottom my jig was dangling.

Analog line counters resemble car odometers attached to a reel, clicking off numbers as the spool revolves. Since they can't be programmed to account for differences in line diameter, analog models lack the impressive accuracy of digital line counters. But they still enhance fishing performance, providing a reference by which anglers can consistently return a bait to the same depth or distance from the boat.

When we decided to give the halibut a break and started trolling for salmon, I broke out a Shakespeare Tidewater 30LCL freshly spooled with 20-pound Sigma monofilament. The reel's analog counter helped me put plug-cut

herring the same distance behind the downrigger ball each time I changed baits, with no guessing, no eyeballing, no saying, ''I think that's close to where it was.''

Count the Ways
Eager to hear about other tricks to use with line-counter reels, I called Capt. Bob Clement (334-666-4446), a charter skipper from Dauphin Island, Alabama, who also competes in the Southern Kingfish Association's Pro division. Clement and his wife, Julie, fish as a team and always carry line counters aboard their 31-foot Fountain, 401K.

Successful experimentation with the line counters led Clement to make the switch two years ago; now they're his reels of choice. Clement uses Daiwa Sealine-X 40HCs and the slightly larger 50HCs. ''The counters are inconspicuous, built into the side of the reel, and we've found them to be exceptionally accurate,'' he says. ''We change line frequently to match conditions, typically using 30-pound mono in the Gulf and 15- or 20-pound in the Atlantic. Simply punching in the right code for the line guarantees accurate readings.''

The first and most obvious benefit comes when setting out the trolling spread. First, put out the long line. But how far back does it go? ''There are different techniques,'' says Clement. ''Many anglers count, one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, and so on, as the line peels off the reel. I used to just let line out until bait placement looked about right. Now I know that my long line rides between 190 and 200 feet back. Then I position other baits accordingly. For example, the next one goes back 150 feet.''

Digital accuracy allows Clement to arrange perfect spreads every time. ''Line counters tell me exactly how much line I have out before attaching to a downrigger clip. Big, strong blue runners make excellent live baits for smoker kings, but if they swim near each other when deployed on downriggers, they tangle lines badly. Line counters help me precisely stagger the baits and avoid nasty tangles,'' he says.

Line counters prove beneficial not only when setting out the spread, but also when maintaining it throughout the day, especially when more than one angler occupies the cockpit. How often have you retrieved a line to check or change a bait, then turned to your buddy to ask how far back to position it? And how often has the answer been something like ''about medium-long'' or ''kinda short.''

''What does that mean?'' asks Clement. ''Each person has a different notion as to 'long' or 'short,' so they're guessing when dropping baits back into the spread. In this situation, I tell my angler to put a bait 190 feet back, and that's exactly where it goes, thanks to the line counter.''

Informed Decisions
After a hookup, line-counter reels help anglers make highly informed decisions concerning strategy. Clement explains, ''During a big king's initial run, it seems like the fish will strip a reel in 10 seconds, but those Daiwas hold 300 to 350 yards of line. A screaming run by a kingfish consumes about 300 feet, so you usually only lose half a spool. With line counters, you have a good idea of how much line's left after a fish makes a run, so you know whether to hustle and start cutting lines or stay calm and bring in the other baits before turning to chase the fish.''

Fighting fish in a crowd or near structure often leads to hair-raising moments as fish streak toward potential cutoffs. Line counters are great tools for fishing around oil rigs, says Clement. Knowing the distance to a hooked king lets you know when to increase pressure to try to turn the fish before it reaches an obstacle.

Making bait presents another scenario in which line-counter reels shine. Clement uses sabiki rigs to jig up hardtails (blue runners). ''If they're not at the surface, we find bait by using our color sounder. Once we mark a school, say at 40 feet, it's easy to put the Sabikis right in front of the baitfish.''

Clement's only complaint about line counters is that they're not available on all reel sizes. He says he's trying to convince Daiwa to put line counters on its larger models so bottomfishermen could benefit from pinpoint presentations. ''A short while back, I was fishing for red snapper with some friends,'' he says. ''We eventually figured out that the sows were holding about 40 feet above the structure. If we'd had line counters on our 4/0 reels, it would have been much easier to keep our baits in the strike zone.''

Experiencing firsthand the many ways in which line-counter reels contribute to more efficient angling makes believers out of Clement's anglers. ''People who fish aboard 401K often go out and buy line counters after seeing how we use them,'' he says.

Don't think of line counters as frivolous add-ons. Try them out; you'll discover them to be useful, practical fishing tools.