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The spinning reel, as we know it today, was primarily developed in Europe during the middle of the 20th century. While there have been a handful of American designed and manufactured spinning reels, most have been relegated to history, musty basements and yard sales. One line of American spinning reels, however, has stood the test of time and still has a die-hard following today---the "American Classic" Penn Spinfishers.

     If we roll the clock back about a hundred years or so, there were very few surf fishermen, and most used no reels at all. Before the invention of the automobile, one had to live fairly close to the shore to engage in fishing. Folks who lived more than a few miles from the shoreline didn't have much of an opportunity to fish, except on their vacations. You had two ways to reach the shoreline if you live away from the coast-horseback or horse-drawn vehicle, or by railroad. While outfits such as the New Haven and Long Island Railroads did run "Fisherman's Special" trains, this wasn't something the average workingman could often treat himself to. Also, leisure time wasn't what it was today. So, fishing from the surf wasn't widespread. Those who could fish did so to put food on the table, or to take fish to market. The method most anglers used was the "heave and haul" handline. Reels were used only by the relatively affluent, the gentlemen who belonged to the various "bass clubs", in places like Cuttyhunk, Martha's Vineyard and Montauk. Most of these reels were very primitive, and all were what we would call "conventional" reels today. Most lacked a star drag. You put the brakes on a fish by a piece of leather attached to the reel's frame-this was called a "thumb stall". Many reels were also "direct drive", which meant that they lacked the anti-reverse devices we have on today's reels, and the spool turned directly off the handle-one turn of the spool for one turn of the handle. By the 1920s and 1930s, geared reels equipped with anti-reverse and star drags were becoming common. Some of the better-known names were Von Hoffe, Shakespeare and Penn.

     Most reel historians feel that the grandfather of all of the later spinning reels was the Luxor, made by a French company, Pezon et Michel. It was developed in the 1930s and made its way to the US in the post-war period---usually in the hands of servicemen returning from overseas. These were heavy-duty reels with a strong gear train. While they never sold here in the numbers that Mitchell and some others racked up, they developed an almost cult-like following among the hardest of the hard cores, the New Yorkers who fished the rough waters around Montauk Point on Long Island. Even into the 1990s, the standard outfit of the Montauk Regular was an 11 foot yellow Lamiglas surf rod with a Luxor (or as later models were labeled, the Crack) 300 taped to the reel butt. In fact, the modern Van Staal shares the same internal design. For all the precision machining that goes into them, and the better metals used in their manufacture, the Van Staal is nothing more than a modernized Luxor.

     The most successful of the European imports-as all of the first spinning reels were-was the Mitchell line of reels. They were imported into the US by Garcia, and they sold a ton of them. Many feel that the mid-sized Mitchell 300 is the single best-selling fishing reel ever, even topping the Zebco 202 in numbers sold over the years. The size used most often in the surf was the model 302. It was a well made, durable reel, and many youngsters who started fishing in the 40s, 50s and early 60s under the watchful eyes of their dads caught their first striper and bluefish on a Mitchell 302 (yours truly included). Other European reels, like the Alcedo, Ru Mer, Dolfino and others, never came close in sales to Mitchell.

     Spinning reels were a tough sell to the old guard, the guys who'd been plying the surf with Penn Squidders and Surfmasters since the 1930s. They hooted at these "toys" and the "pilgrims" who used them. The term "coffee grinder" was thrown around frequently. However, to people just moving into fishing, they were a Godsend. It shortened the learning curve to one or two sessions. In the post-war era, many people discovered surf fishing, and there's no doubt that many would probably not have stuck with it if they had to suffer through educating their thumbs to fish conventional reels. Every man---and quite a few women-became competent casters overnight, rather than over a few months of cursing and picking out backlashes. Clearly, the spinning reel was here to stay.

     Some American companies did beat Penn to the punch in introducing home-grown spinning reels. One of the better made early American line of reels was made by the Langley Reel Company of San Diego. Another company that got in on the ground floor was Pflueger. Other American companies, like Shakespeare, imported some European models and re-badged them under their name. However, these reels never made it big as commercial successes. Mitchell still ruled the roost, and it was left to Penn to carry the American flag into the spinning reel wars.

     Penn was a product of its founder, Otto Henze, a German immigrant who started out as a machinist for the rival Ocean City reel company. He started Penn in the early 1930s, in Philadelphia, and the company reflected his conservatism. Never one to rush willy-nilly into producing something just to keep up with the Joneses, Penn moved judiciously into the spinning reel world. The Henze family would never want its company's name associated with a piece of junk-even Penn's "bargain" reels, like the Delmar and Sea Boy, were made to last. So, Penn moved with typical conservatism in developing its spinning reel line-partly, to see whether the spinning reel market was a passing phase or here to stay, and when convinced that it wasn't a passing fad, to develop a reel worthy of the Penn name. Then finally, in the early 1960s, Penn released the forerunner of the current Spinfishers, the model 700, followed by a similar model, the 701.

     The Penn 700 Spinfisher was very much the same reel as the current model 704Z, but with one major difference. Rather than having the 704's one piece rotor cup, it had a solid steel cup for the spool, and a rotating separate "flyer" that wound line onto the spool. After several years, the shortcoming of this design became apparent---angler who fished on rocks were finding that if the dropped the reel, or took a hard fall against the rocks, the flyer could get dented and bind the spool. So, they took the basic 700 design, crafted a one-piece cup and rotor, and re-named the reel the 704 Spinfisher. The original 700 was forest green, but they gave the 704 a lighter, mist-green color.

     What made the 704 an instant success, and which made it into the American Classic spinning reel, was its very simple design, and use of strong material in construction. Popping the plate cover off any 704-from one of the earliest of the mid 1960s to one just off the Penn assembly line today-reveals something ingenious in its simplicity. It has one bearing, whose main purpose is to support the main shaft. The handle turns the main gear, which accomplishes the two things a spinning reel has to do. The main gear engages a pinion gear which turns the rotor cup allowing the bail to retrieve line onto the spool. The main gear also has a small brass grommet on its face, and a brass block that screws onto the back of the main shaft fits onto this grommet, causing the spool to oscillate and spool line evenly. The only other internal moving part is a spring loaded anti-reverse dog, which engages a ratchet underneath the main gear, preventing the handle from turning backwards when the anti-reverse is switched on. That's it. Basic, almost elegant simplicity of design, fairly fool-proof, and easy to repair in the field if necessary (it rarely is). The reel isn't built to tight tolerances, so it can handle some gear corrosion, or sand between the rotor cup and spool, without jamming.

     Penn developed a whole line of Spinfishers. The next model was the mid-sized 710, which is the reel that holds the current IGFA All-Tackle striped bass record. Then came the smaller 712, the freshwater 716, and even some ultra-light models like the 722. At the other extreme, there was the huge 706, developed for the Montauk crowd and others who fished brutal surf conditions, featuring a manual pick-up instead of a bail and a large, round handle. Sadly, all but the 704 and 706 have been discontinued, although thousands of the smaller reels in the line still serve their owners well.

     Sometime in the late 1970s, Penn made some minor cosmetic changes to the Spinfisher line. The color schemes were changed from green and white to black and gold. While some people still put a premium on the "greenies", I've had both versions apart side by side, and compared each part, and I can find nothing to distinguish one from the other.

     Much has changed in the tackle world since the introduction of the Spinfishers. Intense Japanese competition has eaten into Penn's market share. Penn has itself developed more modernized spinning reels, like the SS and Slammer series. Most significantly, ownership has changed, and Penn is eliminating many of their old stand-by models with each passing year, while moving more and more of its manufacturing overseas. How long will the American Classics survive? No one knows what the future holds, but Penn still sells virtually every 704 and 706 it makes. As we sit with fingers crossed over the future of a reel many of us grew to love and rely on as much as the GI relied on his M-1 carbine, we're comforted by the fact that so many of these workhorses were made and sold that the used Spinfisher market may never dry up in our lifetime.

     I hope my love and appreciation for these showpieces of classic American simplicity of design comes through. These are the reels I'd want to have with me if my life depended on me catching fish. In all the years I've used them, they've never let me down. Forty years plus of building a solid, basic tool, and they're still going strong. Way to go, Penn.


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