Merwin: Baitcasters Then & Now

Here they are, 50 years of baitcasters. I was rummaging in the basement last night and found an old Shakespeare baitcasting reel, very similar to the one I was using when first learning to fish such reels back in about 1955. Next to the old reel is a new-for-2010 Orra SX model from Abu Garcia. This looks a little like a new Corvette parked next to an old Model T.

It's an interesting comparison, mostly because of features the old model does not have compared to the new one. The old Shakespeare is direct-drive--meaning no free-spool feature--so that the gears, level- wind, and handle all spun along with the spool when a cast was made. There are no cast controls, such as centrifugal or magnetic brakes. As with new reels, there is a spool-tension knob on the side plate, which could be used to control backlash at least somewhat. Most significantly, there is no drag on the old reel. To control a fish back then, I and the rest of the world used thumb pressure on the spool.

This all sounds very primitive, but worked just fine at the time. I have happy memories of tossing a half-ounce River Runt with a reel like this, terrorizing the bass in every pond that was within bicycle range.

New baitcasters are marvels of engineering evolution. The compact reel frame is precision die-cast, there's a superb star drag, centrifugal brakes help dramatically to avert backlashes, and the low profile fits more neatly in the hand. Although I haven't calculated this, I'll bet the prices of the two reels (in inflation-adjusted dollars over time) would have been very similar.

I get a little wistful, sometimes, fishing with new tackle and thinking about how it would have been to have had such great gear back in the day. Hell, I bet I would have caught at least 30 I.G.F.A. records with that stuff, and been on the cover of Field & Stream! (Well, maybe not the cover.) And I sometimes think it's too bad that today's young whippersnappers who start to fish with high-tech gear didn't have to learn on the older stuff, back when men were men and baitcasting reels were a real pain in the neck....