Reel Time on the Water

By Beacon Staff

I was in Chicago recently for a newspaper convention, and while wandering the streets looking for the right joint to try a deep-dish pizza I stumbled onto a fly shop.

I like fly fishing shops and I’m always curious to visit the local hangouts. Big-city stores are another matter, however. The mountains that surrounded the shop in downtown Chicago were office buildings and hotels rather than the river-producing peaks of Montana. Big city shops like this are different from shops out West, which are geared toward working anglers headed out to fish. Urban fly shops are more like outfitter/travel agents for clients preparing to escape the city for some exotic locale, such as Montana.

I had skipped lunch so I would be ready to eat once we found a pizza joint, so the hunger pangs necessitated a brief visit to the fly shop. By the way, I include myself in the tribe that believes Chicago-style deep dish isn’t actually pizza, but more of an Italian-American upside-down pot pie. And that’s a good thing. But if you don’t hold the slice in your hand folded while you eat, it’s not pizza.

I checked out the stuff in the shop. The fly selection was meager, leaning heavily toward warm water species such as muskie, or streamers and egg patterns for targeting the introduced Pacific salmon and steelhead trout now abundant in Lake Michigan. There was a wall of rods, and a nearby rack with reels. I fondled a couple of reels, which were impressive, almost like art objects machined from aluminum alloy.

It was an Orvis shop, and Orvis gear is certainly nice, but I have to admit it’s always left me a little flat. I’ve got a couple of the company’s reels in my gear bag, and fish with them. But Orvis products have always seemed a little like a Lexus: I know its a great car, with great engineering, but it just seems a little cold.

Some of that may have to do with the fact that I’ve never been much of a gear head. If old and cheap gets the job done, that’s usually been good enough for me. And it’s always been hard to get turned on by fly reels, regardless of maker. The old adage with trout anglers that the reel is only there to store line is more than a little true. I’ve caught plenty of fish on old-school small-arbor reels with crude click-and-pawl drags. Just set the drag light and palm the spool with your free hand. For most trout fishing that’s plenty of reel.

Bigger fish necessitate more sophisticated hardware, however.

The first high-end reel I ever got my hands on was an Abel. I was fishing with Steve Abel, the guy who may be more responsible than anyone for the development of the high-end machined fly reels that are now common.

This was back in the 1980s and Abel was doing a lot of saltwater fly fishing. But that mindset of reels as mere line-holders meant that most of the equipment on the market wasn’t up to the task. So Abel started machining his own reels out of aircraft-quality aluminum billet and an industry was born.

Fighting small trout on the reel may be playing it a bit cute, but the mako sharks Abel was targeting back in the 1980s were something different. Those fish quickly got into your backing, and usually broke off once they got in the air.

That’s right, air. I once watched as Abel hooked a mako that looked to be about 100 pounds. When Abel set the hook that fish ripped off about 100 yards before any of us could say “Holy poop!” or something to that effect. Then the shark cleared the water by a good 10 feet on four successive jumps, appearing almost to bounce off the water’s surface the leaps came so quick. On that last jump it finally broke off.

There’s only so much even the best reel in the world can do when faced with that kind of animal athleticism.

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