Volume 14, Issue 32 ~ August 10 - August 16, 2006

The Sporting Life
by Dennis Doyle

In Praise of an American Masterpiece

Tracing the lineage of the bait-casting reel

I saw the surface heave under the dock in the gleam thrown by the solar lights that dotted its length. The size of the fish that moved that much water had to be impressive. It pretty much shot my pulse rate into the aerobic zone.

The electric motor quietly inched me forward into range. Picking up my rod, I clicked the Ambassaduer casting reel into free spool. This was going to be tight. I had about a four-by-three-foot target to hit. At night from about 60 feet away, that’s not a lot of space to put a six-inch, one-and-a-half ounce, soft plastic shad. I knew the tackle was up to it, but was I?

Flexing the rod with a quick backward movement of my wrist, I fired the bait toward the dock with a low sidearm cast. Barely glimpsing the lure as it arced toward my intended target, I could adjust for distance by increasing my thumb pressure on the rapidly turning spool and to a certain extent move the lure en route to the right or left. But I had to make those decisions within hundredths of a second.

It was probably just luck, but the lure struck the water precisely under the dock edge, skipping five feet farther back into the darkness with the force of the cast. I immediately started the retrieve, and just as immediately the line stopped dead. I thought for a moment I had hung on an unseen crab pot. Then the line pulsed as a large fish started a headshake.

I had the drag set as tightly as I dared, which is pretty tight with 20-pound test mono, but it didn’t deter this beast for a second. The reel drag howled as line peeled off and an obviously hefty rockfish headed for deeper water, churning a frothy white wake. I couldn’t stop this one; it was hauling freight. It had also gone the long way around, putting my mono across at least two dock pilings. A quiet ping, and it was gone.

My pulse refused to come under control as I cranked back the now-slack line. But the reel made its comforting purring sound through its worn gears.

This wasn’t the first fight the Ambassaduer and I had lost, nor the last one we’d fight. The reel had certainly done its job, and I had pretty much done mine. A fine fish had just beaten us. That’s a good feeling in its own way; it’s not a sport if you always win.

That beat-up red fishing reel descends from the long and fascinating lineage of the bait-casting reel.

The first fishing reel was developed by the Chinese sometime in the 12th century. Over many hundreds of years, its use spread throughout the world, but it remained basically unchanged as a device for storing line not in use.

About 1820 George Snyder — an American watchmaker and avid black bass fisherman from Paris, Kentucky — designed a fishing reel to cast and retrieve a bait. That changed everything. Baits could now be presented to the fish wherever they lurked. Lures could be worked through previously inaccessible water.

The bait-casting reel, also known as the bass-casting reel, was embraced by the best of the Kentucky bass anglers. Numerous skilled craftsmen modified and improved Snyder’s original creation. The invention soon spread throughout the country.

Demand for the new reel was overwhelming. Companies such as Shakespeare, Pflueger, Heddon, vom Hofe and Meek created and manufactured some of the finest reels of the period, still highly prized by knowledgeable collectors. The bait-caster ruled the nation’s waters for the next century.

In later times the spinning reel, with its ease of use and light-lure functionality, captured the majority of the angling market. Even so, the casting reel has maintained a fiercely dedicated following. Its accuracy and ability to handle heavy line and large lures remains unsurpassed.

The direct descendents of George Snyder’s original design can still be found in the exquisite instruments produced by Abu of Sweden (Ambassaduer Reels), Shimano and Diawa of Japan, Shakespeare, Pfleuger and others. The bait-casting reel is now made all over the world, but it remains in its heart an American masterpiece.

Fish Are Biting

From Swan Point to the Sewer Pipe, anglers have been scoring on very nice rockfish on the Eastern Shore. Trolling has experienced the most success followed by live-lining, deep jigging and chumming. Breaking fish are also showing in the mid-Bay, some of impressive size. The Western Shore bite remains frustrating, though the fish are everywhere.

Large perch are being located with regularity. Bluefish are still showing up, mostly in the Eastern Bay though some have been reported at Chesapeake Beach. Fall patterns are emerging; it will soon get much better.

Fish of Note: An impressive 80-pound black drum, 49 inches long with a 36-inch girth, was checked into Anglers last Sunday. Caught in the Eastern Bay by Mark DeHoff on 14-pound line, the fish hit a soft plastic jig.

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