Gone fishin’: A fisherman weighs the reel options

Ken Berkov of Vineyard Haven cleans fluke and sea bass at Lagoon Pond ramp following a successful Tuesday morning. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

My wife thinks the primary purpose of my post office box is to collect fishing and hunting catalogs. I do receive quite a few. If I had any engineering skills, I could figure out how to build a house from catalogs, and be featured on a morning news show reserved for useless chatter and inane reports.

I enjoy thumbing through catalogs. I have amassed quite a collection for our bathroom library. I like to read about new products, and find it reassuring that some gear continues to stand the test of time.

I also find it astonishing that there are spinning reels for surf fishing that now sell for about the cost of a stainless steel German dishwasher.

These reels are marvels of engineering, built to the tolerances of a Swiss watch, and boast the type of finish you would find on Donald Trump’s cutlery. And they cost about the same as a good compound bow or usable shotgun.

For example, the Shimano Stella saltwater reel, in the smallest size, weighs about a pound, has a mono line capacity of 195 yards of 12-pound test, and will set you back $1,000. Gasp! Add several hundred dollars and you can purchase a reel that weighs just under 2 pounds, with a line capacity of 700 yards of 80-pound braid — that means you could fight a fish off East Chop while sitting on the Lookout’s porch in Oak Bluffs, more than one-third of a mile away.

For many years, Van Staal was the name most associated with high-end reels. Now they seem like a bargain. The Van Staal 150 weighs 12 ounces, and has a mono capacity of 390 yards of 10-pound test. It sells for about $700. Or about the cost of two decent golf clubs.

There are some solid arguments to be made for purchasing a high-end reel designed to last a lifetime and stand up to abuse — particularly for hardcore fishermen who can expect to subject their equipment to regular exposure to sand and saltwater.

Doug Asselin, who can be found prowling the rocks and beaches in search of bass when he is not behind the counter at Dick’s, said it comes down to a simple equation: You get what you pay for. “The biggest difference is the components, the actual materials the reel is made with,” he said.

Even at the high end, there are differences. Doug said the Stella is not made for the sand and surf. It is for tuna and boat fishermen.

“Who buys Van Staals?” I asked.

“They are going to be guys who are fishing the surf, and fishing the surf hard,” he said. For example, the kind of fisherman who might make the walk to Squibnocket Point. “The Van Staal is for that guy that spends enough time fishing, like I like to say, underwater,” Doug said. “And I can attest to that Van Staal.”

Doug added, “I’m cheap, and I can’t even fathom that I spent almost a thousand dollars on a reel.” Doug owns the VS 250, a bail-less model. “I love it, I love it, I love it,” he said.

Peter Sliwkowski, owner of Larry’s Tackle in Edgartown, said he has been a fan of Van Staal almost from the time they hit store shelves when he was a consumer, and not a tackle shop owner.

As with any fine tool, Peter differentiates between the Stella and Van Staal based on the intended purpose. He describes the Van Staal and its gear ratio as “the weapon of choice” for the hardcore bass fisherman. “The combination of just a water-sealed reel, a great drag system, and just the feel of it, it really does well for fishing slow — for the hardcore striper fisherman,” he said.

The Stella is for the fisherman looking for high speed. “When the albies are here, that’s when the Stellas come out,” he said.

Peter compared the Van Staal to a Mercedes SUV and the Stella to a Ferrari, which sounds like a pretty good description. He said the Shimano is a great reel, but more suited to boat fishing, where it is less likely to end up in the water.

Reaching a human in a tackle company to speak about their product is not easy. Shimano sent me to hold heaven. I emailed Van Staal. But I was able to receive a call back from Tony Dubek, a product specialist at Penn.

Penn now has the Torque, a reel in the $700 range. It also features a sealed housing and elegant finish. I am envious of people who can make the leap and plunk down a wad of cash for a fine reel. Still, I am not ready to leave my old black Penn 704Z, an American tradition in spinning reels, behind. It’s like an old bird dog; it may be tired and have creaky gears, but it can still haul in a big striper even after more than 20 years of use.

The 704 first came out the year I graduated Boston English High — 1969. It was known as the “Greenie,” because it had green sideplates. It was discontinued in 1978, and reintroduced with black sideplates as the Z series. Penn stopped manufacturing it about 10 years ago.

Two years ago, Tony said, Penn brought the 704Z back in response to an online petition from fishermen who loved its simplicity and ruggedness. The company tracked down the old tooling, and was back in business. The reaction has been positive. “Guys are excited; it brings back some memories,” he said. At $200 retail, the price doesn’t, for a reel that once cost about $50.

The reels are manufactured in Philadelphia, Pa. Interestingly, the major market for the 704 has always been the Northeast, and to a lesser extent the Southeast.

Cooper Gilkes, owner of Coop’s in Edgartown, sells plenty of high-end reels, but remains fond of the 704. “It’s a standby, take-apart, break down, put back together, no-frills reel,” he said. “I’ve still got two of them I had when I was 20.”

My old 704Z is loose and pitted. But I have caught some big fish on that reel, and that includes a 49-pounder, my biggest bass ever. I figure it, like me, still has a few fish left in it.

Weekend action

It is hard to say what the weekend fishing action will bring. Doug at Dick’s recommends Chappy or South Beach as the best bet for daytime bluefish action. Peter pointed the way to Chappy as well. East Beach, Cape Poge, and the Gut, he said.

Coop said Lobsterville and Squibnocket are producing fish. He also said he saw a group of fishermen trying to pull a big ray up on the beach by the tail near the jetties on East Beach, and cautioned the fishermen that they were asking for trouble. The ray can inflict a serious wound with its barbed tail. “I know how fast that tail can move; it was not a good scenario,” Coop said.

The fishermen heeded Coop’s advice, always wise, and let the ray go.

VFW fluke derby

It is time to let Deflategate and soccer and the Red Sox slide behind you, and rig up the fluke rods, and begin to prepare for the VFW Post 9261 Martha’s Vineyard Fluke Fishing Derby Saturday and Sunday, July 11 and 12.

The team competition is always a hard-fought affair. The awards ceremony and barbecue follows the final weigh-in Sunday at the VFW on Towanticut Avenue in Oak Bluffs. There are prizes for the biggest fluke and sea bass. Kids 12 and under enter free, but must register. Adult registration is $20; teens and seniors are $10. Weigh-in is 4 to 6 pm at the VFW. There is also a team competition. For more information, call organizer Peter Hermann at 774-563-0293. Register at local tackle shops.