In the world of big-game fishing, no tool takes on a more vital role than the reel itself. This finely machined piece of equipment,
even when coupled with an
adequate rod, converts energy so precisely that a puny 150-pound human can out-brawl 500 pounds of streamlined marlin muscle.
Several reels offer such finesse and power, and all have found acceptance and loyal followings in today's marketplace. You can go out and buy just about any big-game reel on the tackle store shelf and accomplish the job of catching big-game fish. But which reel is best? To find out, we set about conducting a "real-world" test of the most popular big-game reels, with an unknown newcomer thrown into the mix for good measure.
Of course, our test is strictly anecdotal - as opposed to the laboratory bench tests that scientists might like. But to the best of our knowledge, no marlin has ever been caught in a laboratory, and no machine could possibly replicate the extreme conditions you'll find when a reel is fastened to that puny human with a 500-pound marlin jumping behind the transom.
For our test we looked to the charter fleet of Kona, Hawaii, where fishing is a year-round proposition, the marlin and tuna run large, skippers are world-class, and anglers range from first-timers to seasoned pros. We tested lever-drag reels from 30- to 130-pound-test class.
So what's the bottom line? What did our tests reveal? Some reels had tighter tolerances than others; some had better engineering. Some performed remarkably flawlessly, and some have unique features you can't get elsewhere, like lighter weight or unique gear change options. Some are quite expensive and difficult to find parts for; others are more reasonably priced and can be repaired at virtually any tackle shop in the world.
The short answer to the great question of which reel is best is this: It depends.
In the end, your decision might boil down to buying what you know, what you can afford, what you can get serviced locally, what feels best in your hands or on your favorite rod, or simply what your peers are using. But we think that the information gathered here can help you make a more informed decision about the right reels for use in your favorite big-game fishery.
Just as we began the process of testing big-game reels, we were provided with a sample of a new 80-pound-class reel from an Italian company named Alutecnos that proved to be the big surprise of our test program.
"I just can't say anything bad about this reel," Capt. Norm Isaacs of the Sundowner reports. "We never had to open it up; nothing ever loosened up, quit or let go. We just rinsed it off, wiped it down and put it away every day, and it never let us down."
That says a lot considering that Norm and his son and mate, Capt. Darren Isaacs, fish nearly every day. On one of those days, they hooked on the Alutecnos a tiger shark estimated to weigh over 1,500 pounds and coached a charter customer to fight it for 3.5 hours before losing it. Later the same day they landed a tiger of 915 pounds on the same reel. They also tagged and released more than 30 blue marlin with it in the course of testing.
The champagne-gold anodized Alutecnos we tested is a single-speed model that has the tight feel of careful engineering, all the right features in all the right places and the hard-working, dependable daily performance of a reel workhorse. The reel has the standard preset knob, a full-throw drag lever, solid harness lugs, four-bolt rod clamp and functional clicker, and shows no signs of corrosion or deterioration after six months of near daily use.
"I wouldn't make any changes at all," Isaacs says, "but a two-speed model might be nice."
The good news is that there is a two-speed model in the works that should be ready by early 1998, according to the factory. The bad news is that Alutecnos has not yet decided when they will enter the U.S. market.
There may be a lot of old jokes about Italian engineering (remember the "Fix It Again Tony" references for Fiat cars?), but the test performance of the two big-game reels from Italy indicates that some superb engineering is available from the land of pasta and expensive shoes.
Duel reels, built by Antal Marine Equipment in Padova, Italy, were first distributed in America by Raiford Trask's Offshore International in North Carolina, and are now distributed by Seafarer out of Florida. The original Duels were black-anodized, but a Japanese demand for gold reels resulted in a gold-anodized model being introduced recently.
The Duel Double Speed Automatic Reels feature a unique approach to two-speed gearing. Rather than manually switching gears, with Duel you simply wind the crank handle backward to utilize low gear. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but once you do, it is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
"When people really get into it, they can switch back and forth [between high and low gears] in mid-pump," Capt. Darren Isaacs notes. "You can't do that with any other reel."
"I was impressed by the way the rod never straightened out when you changed gears," said Capt. Rob McGuckin on the 37-foot Merritt Lady after he watched a 190-pound yellowfin tuna being landed on a Duel 6/0 reel loaded with 50-pound mono. "It doesn't matter how good you are, no one can maintain that kind of continuous pressure when they change gears on any other reel."
Norm and Darren Isaacs have used a couple of Duel reels on nearly every charter for the last year and a half, and their only complaint is that the clickers are too fragile. The good news is that they are easy to replace in the reel, thanks to Duel's unique unitized construction, which makes reel breakdown, clicker repair, even spool changing a three-minute job.
Duel also designed its drag system to be easily adjustable - and not just with the lever drag and the preset knob. Say you want to use a 6/0 reel to fish 80-pound-test line and want the full range of the drag quadrant to come into play. You simply back off four screws to remove the side plate, remove four more screws to access the drag springs and add two to four springs. (Spares come packed with each reel.)
With nearly every other brand of reel, that kind of drag upgrade requires factory rework or a rebuild by a specialist. The quick-change spool feature is also great for tournament or traveling anglers, who can carry spare spools with preset drag systems and pop them in to change line size (or just to change line) literally in a couple of minutes.
The Duel reels we tested (6/0, 9/0 and 12/0) have proven to be sturdy, corrosion-resistant, dependable performers, with drags that stay smooth and reliable through long fights and through fish after fish after fish, with minimum attention to maintenance or downtime - except to fix the clicker.
The only other complaints we heard about Duel reels is the limited availability of spare clicker parts and the poor response time from the current distributor.
The original Fin-Nor reel led the industry in the incorporation of multi-speed gear boxes on big-game fishing reels, and today no one else in the industry makes a three-speed (or as Fin-Nor calls it, a "tri-speed") gear box. Nor does anyone else make a pair of two-speed 12/0 reels with two different gear ratios (1:1 and 2.5:1 or 2:1 and 3:1).
Today the company not only builds the one-, two- and three-speed reels with the same look they've sported for more than 60 years, but also a new series known as the Fin-Nor Ahab Big Game Reel. We tested them both.
The classic Fin-Nor reels were the first of the gold-anodized reels that have become the standard in the industry today. They are machine-cut from solid, aircraft-grade aluminum, equipped with huge cork and hand-polished stainless-steel drag surfaces, fitted to exacting tolerances and controlled by a comparatively small-quadrant drag lever, with the preset dial at its tip.
Compared to the rest of the reels available today, much of the classic Fin-Nor technology is outdated. Functional, to be sure, but not without its quirks. For instance, few reels are easier to accidentally knock into free-spool, drag tolerances sometimes change in the course of a battle (though admittedly they are easy enough to reset), and the multi-speed reels are cumbersome when it comes to changing the gears.
Nonetheless, Fin-Nor has built a superb reputation for customer service over the years, it is likely that no reel made today has caught as many giant marlin and tuna, and there is still something to be said for owning a reel that has been an industry leader for better than 60 years.
The new Fin-Nor Ahab Big Game Reel has incorporated a sleeker, more contemporary styling, and improved upon some of the weaknesses of its older sibling. For instance, the Ahab drag lever moves over a larger quadrant, it is less susceptible to angler error, it has a center-mounted preset knob, and a one piece side-plate/frame structure promises much tighter tolerances and overall rigidity.
Both the classic Fin-Nor and the Fin-Nor Ahab held up and performed very well in our tests. The exception being that the Ahab 80 Wide, 2-Speed suffered handle failure more than once, apparently due to inadequate thread depth available to secure the handle to the crank arm. It took a powerful angler to wind the handle fitting off, but then 80 Wide reels tend to be fished by powerful anglers.
The gear-change release knob proved to be a little tricky to access and turn by anyone with large or greasy fingers or with gloves on. Despite that, the gear change is very smooth and tight, a far cry from the classic Fin-Nor, which requires a great deal of practice to engage it both quickly and smoothly. The new Ahab also seemed to promise unrelenting, unchanging drag pressure from its new drag system.
"The 50 Wide, 2-Speed is great," Norm Isaacs says. "The weight-to-gear ratio is excellent, the reel is really wide [it holds about 1,100 yards of 50], and there is lots of drag range."
There are some classic Fin-Nors in regular service that are older than many of the anglers fishing them. The new Fin-Nor Ahab showed no appreciable signs of deterioration in six months of hard duty, so there is reason to believe that it will follow its predecessor in longevity, as well as name.
Penn's gold International reels have been around the angling scene for three decades, and no reel company makes as broad an array of lever-drag big-game trolling reels. Penn's International reels are available in two families: the single-speed Penn International Series (12-pound to 80-pound) and the two-speed Penn International II series (30-pound to 130-pound).
Over the years, some of the improvements in the International series have come from the hands of aftermarket tinkerers. Ray Lemme was improving drag systems and Cal Sheets was building two-speed conversions into Penn Internationals in California in 1987, and Jack Erskine in Australia was converting and upgrading Internationals in ways that Penn later duplicated in production reels.
More recently, improvements to the frame structure of all the Internationals (including a unitized, one-piece frame) have greatly improved the performance and reliability of the International series. Penn's HT-100 drag material is a proven performer and lies at the heart of every Penn International lever-drag system.
The fact that there are so many Penn Internationals in service, and that there are some apparent differences between some of the makes and models in terms of performance and reliability, made rating these reels more difficult than any of the others we tested, but here is some of what we found.
The Penn International II 130ST reels were judged to be dependable and reliable over the course of our testing, though they were described by some as heavy and bulky (50 ounces heavier than the Duel 12/0 Wide with the same line capacity).
In the 80- and 50-pound-class reels, some reels needed regular drag adjustments, and some felt the Penn International II's shift mechanism was more difficult to engage than some of the other two-speed reels tested.
However, test skippers appreciated the fact that Penn parts and service are available almost everywhere in the world, and the wide product range offers many different use options. For instance, marlin fishermen often choose the Penn International 50S and 80ST but use the next lighter line class to assure plenty of line capacity and to access the larger drag surface area.
Penn boasts more world records than any other manufacturer, and the American-made reels are generally more affordable than comparable models.
Anyone into bicycles is probably aware that Shimano is the largest builder of bicycle componentry in the free world, and that means they have a lot of expertise in gear shifting and precision manufacturing. That expertise is clear in the Shimano Tiagra and TLD Two Speed series reels. These reels shift like a dream every time, regardless of the load.
Shimano got started in lever-drag reels with its black Beastmaster series, which the company no longer manufactures. When Shimano introduced the gold Tiagra line, it did several things very well. The fit, finish and close tolerance engineering of the Tiagra reels was mentioned by nearly everyone who tested them. Shimano also added a unique "Hydrothermal Drag System" that adjusts the drag setting when the drag surfaces heat up, and which is said to keep the drag within 10 percent of the original setting. Not everyone we talked to was sure that feature worked as advertised every time, but few complained about the consistency of the Shimano drags. Everyone loved the fine drag adjustment available from a 180-degree lever drag throw.
The Tiagra series also includes a nominal 50-class reel (50W LRS) designed specifically to fish 80-pound line, with the long-range tuna fisherman in mind.
For those seeking lighter reels, Shimano also makes the popular TLD series, which includes the TLD-20II, TLD-30II and the new TLD-50II - the only two-speed reels with graphite frames. These TLDs are designed primarily for comfortable stand-up fishing on 20-, 30- and 50-pound-test line. We judged the new TLD-50II to be solid enough to pursue most game fish, and with its weight at 56 ounces, you fight the fish instead of the reel. There is also a Shimano TLD-50II LRS, with the drag preset for 80-pound-class line, for the long-rangers.
We've heard few complaints about either the Tiagra or the TLD series reels, and many great game fish have been caught on them, including Stewart Campbell's light-tackle blue marlin world records.
We were also told that the Shimano clicker "is loud enough to wake the dead," and seems to stay that way over time. We know several skippers who fish the Shimano Tiagra 80W packed with 130-pound line because they like the reels and the company makes no reel for that line class. In their opinion, the 80W seems to be up to the task.
Objective testing of big-game reels in the real world of big-game fishing is all but impossible, but we took a bunch of reels, subjected them to the normal daily use and abuse of the charter industry, and then stood back and tried to analyze the results as objectively as we could.
In the end, all of the reels proved to be worthy of the fishery they were designed for.
For more information on manufacturers of big-game fishing reels, see "In This Issue" on page 146. - Ed.
A Reel Comparison
In the world of big-game fishing, no tool takes on a more vital role than the reel itself. This finely machined piece of equipment,