Feeling a little foolish, I stood in the cockpit of the big convertible as anglers around me threw huge topwater poppers, some hooking impressive fish. My right hand grasped a very pricey and brand-new reel filled with 50-pound braided line on a matching rod, while my left hand held the reason that reel - which I'd just schlepped a few thousand miles - would be useless on this fishing trip. I looked at the metal knob that had snapped off at the handle when I reared back to set hooks. Fortunately, I'd brought other reels but had looked forward to trying this one.
The metals that make up saltwater reels and how they're processed and put together have become a whole lot more important in the past few years. That's because how anglers are using (and abusing) them has gotten a whole lot more demanding than anyone ever dreamed.
Why? In a word: braid.
If you were a reel just off the shelf and headed home with a new owner, you might be thinking, "Please, tell me this guy just fishes monofilament - don't put braided line on me!"
Superbraided (gelspun polyethylene) lines are, of course, much stronger than mono for their size (diameter). That has exploded many of the conventions about reel size that have stood for decades. For instance, even good-sized spinning reels seldom held mono testing heavier than 20 pounds, and only a couple models could accommodate enough 30-pound line on the spool for serious saltwater use (and that would be pushed to the limit by the strain of such heavy line).
Now, saltwater anglers around the world are calling upon spinning reels of the same size to perform flawlessly not with 20- or even 30-pound, but with 50- and 80-pound lines (some even go heavier). Thanks to the far thinner size of braid, it's entirely possible to get 300 yards or more of such heavy line on many larger spinners. But are they designed to take the strain?
Ditto the load on conventional reels, which seem to get smaller and smaller each year. Now even two-speed lever-drag reels come in tiny packages yet are asked to stand up to braided lines of the strength traditionally reserved for big-game trolling reels many times their size. "You can put 100-pound-test on a reel never designed for it, thanks to the small diameter of these lines," says Bill Liston, Daiwa's vice president for Eastern operations.
Add to this the increasing popularity in many waters of working weighty metal jigs and tossing heavy topwaters. That requires reels on the one hand to provide high-speed retrieves while on the other hand to hold up under enormous stresses of cranked-down drags intended to stop big fish from running into or around structure.
Just such demands have triggered what one reel company executive calls "a huge shift in reel design."
The use of braided lines really forced that evolution, says David Martin, Penn Reels CEO. "There's been a real pop in innovation after many years with no major shifts in reel design," Martin says.
But, of course, not all reels have so evolved, and, among those that have, some are more equal than others. Knowing the materials and methods that go into major components such as frames and spools can help anglers better understand reels and make smarter choices for their needs. But deciphering a combination of industry jargon and marketing hype can make that a tough go. Check out the box of almost any reel, and you'll see claims of "aircraft-grade aluminum" or note that it's variously machined, die-cast or forged. You'll see terms like "aluminum alloy" trumpeted and references to stainless steel and titanium parts. And so forth, and so on; so what does it all mean?