As I suspected, he told me that he was looking to put together a surf fishing outfit and wanted to know what the best reel was. I smiled and told him that the best reel and the reel he wanted were vastly different. A quick look at any of this year's saltwater tackle catalogs will reveal there are nearly two dozen models of spinning reels designed for saltwater use on the market now, ranging from under $100 to nearly $900 and just about every price bracket in between. Some of these reels are as fine an example of today's engineering skills as one will find. A few actually approach pure perfection. My friend's befuddlement is easy to understand.
For boat fishermen choosing the spinning reel to put on your light tackle is mostly a matter of budget, you go with what you can afford. The Shimanos are a layup. If you can afford a $700 reel, then the Stella’s are as good as you’re gonna get. If you are on a tighter budget, the Sustains are really a bargain at $300, and the Stradics, for about $150, are nearly as good or better than almost any other reel on the market at any price.
But the environs of surf fishing present a unique set of circumstances effecting how a reel will be expected to perform. If approached logically, you can quickly narrow down the selection and make the right choice of reel for your personal surf fishing circumstances much clearer. (I'll preface the following by saying I am receiving neither remuneration nor tackle gifts of any kind from any tackle manufacturer.)
Back to my co-worker. He’s an older gentleman and a native East Ender so he's been a fisherman all his life but the demands of work and family have distanced him from serious dedication to surfcasting for many years. He is now primarily a fly fisherman who makes a couple trips to the Bahamas each year but still harbors a love for the surf and early mornings. So he is going to put on his waders perhaps a couple dozen mornings a year, climb into his family SUV and take a ride to the beach. The days he goes will surely be calm days weather-wise. About half those mornings I figure he probably won’t even get out of the truck unless the fish are showing (sound familiar?) He’ll just watch the sunrise and drink his coffee. When he does fish he is not going to be forging waste deep into the suds where he'll get doused every couple minutes but a couple of run-ups will no doubt catch him off guard. With a daughter in college he doesn't have lots of money and can’t spend hundreds of bucks on a reel. He doesn’t need an indestructible reel, just one that will hold up in the suds and if maintained properly and rinsed off with freshwater after it is used, will last through years of use and be able to whip a few feisty fall stripers. With these factors in mind, my answer to him was easy: go online and find a new, still in the box Penn 704Z. It’s the best reel for his purposes. Here's why…
Surf fishing at any level presents some tough conditions for a reel to endure. The ugly conditions that draw striped bass into the surf and attract the hardcore fishermen who lust after them, can destroy the wrong reel in short order. Even a mild wave run-up can jam up a reel with sand and salt.
Serious surf rats have always put their equipment through paces that few tackle manufacturers took into account with their designs until recent years. Two decades ago the spread of wetsuit-clad fishermen venturing beyond the surfline, making their reels effectively SCUBA gear, set a new bar for durability and spurred a few skilled craftsmen to alter reels to suit these most extreme conditions.
The Penn Z-series and its predecessors, the Cracks and Luxors, were a favorite choice because of their inexpensive price, durable construction and simple, easy to tinker with construction. With marine grease packed into the gear casings and large holes drilled in the rotor cups to allow sand-laden water to drain out without jamming the reel, they could survive just about anything.
In the early 1990s somebody finally caught on that there was a market for a reel specifically designed to stand up to the rigors of surf fishing. Rob Koelwyn introduced the Van Staal reels, modeled after the legendary Crack 300s and incorporating the features of the modified Zs. The VS reels were expensive. Debuting at more than $400 they were, by far, the most expensive spinning reel on the market, but with completely watertight gear casings and open rotor cups they were also just the kind of battlewagon reel that surf fishermen had long needed and they soon became the most popular reel on the beach. The success of the Van Staals showed other reel manufacturers that fishermen would pay top dollar for a spinning reel if it delivered the quality. Soon afterward the big reel manufacturers-first Fin Nor, then Shimano and most recently Daiwa-were pumping out high-priced, high-tech models.
Today there are a lot of really nice reels out there. The Shimano Stella, the Daiwa Saltiga and the new Accurate TwinSpin all top out over $650 and, believe it or not, the price is justified. They're amazing reels. Riddled with ball bearings and machined as carefully as airplanes. The drags on the higher end models are nearly flawless and the tightness of their gearing is unparalleled. But they should never see the top of a surf buggy. These skirted spool reels are designed to stand up to the drag smoking runs and bulldog power of fish like permit, amberjack, trevally and tuna. Regardless of their price tag they are not designed to be submerged in water, sandblasted, banged into rocks and stored on the roof of a truck during a noreaster. Cost doesn't necessarily translate to durability. You wouldn't drive your Ferrari down the road to North Bar would you?