Unless you’ve been living under an overturned driftboat for the last decade, you’ve heard the name Jesse James and seen the iron cross logo of his world-famous company, West Coast Choppers, plastered on everything from belt buckles to bikinis. Jesse’s wizardry with designing and building custom motorcycles sparked the ever-growing chopper boom that has infected the country and reality TV. So what happens when you take the precision engineering ability of a guy like Jesse and combine it with the flyfishing know-how of a seasoned Alaskan guide? You get the Jesse James .44 Mag reel.
I’ll fess up: I’m a sucker for anything aesthetically different, so I took one look at the spiderweb frame on this 7/8 reel, and thought it was very rock n’ roll_._ Of course, you can’t judge a book by its cover. This reel was touted as having a sealed, waterproof drag system and being machined top to tails from bar-stock aluminum. I couldn’t think of better test subjects than some bright Salmon River steelhead which, upon being hooked, try to get back to Lake Ontario as fast as they can.
This reel is pretty light for a 7/8, weighing in at 5.5 ounces. I loaded it with Rio Atlantic Salmon & Steelhead line, and did, however, notice one foible out of the gate. On average, 7/8s from other brands hold 200 yards of 20lb. backing versus the 120-yard capacity of the .44 Mag. In my opinion, the spool could be deeper. Luckily, none of the fish I hooked drained the reel, and though I’d say 120 yards is fine most of the time, it’s always nice to have that extra 80 yards when you’re talking steel, bonefish, or false albacore…just in case.
Slight lack of backing aside, the drag performed flawlessly with no hiccups during long runs. The first fish was fought on a dry reel. Before I hooked the next, I gave it a solid soak to check the sealed drag and it purred just the same. The no-click intake also helps make this reel smooth. In terms of construction, I think the reel will prove to be a workhorse that can hold its own against any brand using similar material. And here’s something to keep in mind: scoff at the spiderweb if you want to, but in the natural world a web’s design makes it quite structurally strong.
So how does designing a fly reel compare to building a custom chopper? Jesse–who grew fishing in Southern California and Mexico, by the way–was kind enough to give me a ring to talk about working with partner and guide Mark Mahoric on this new endeavor.
JC: What prompted the jump into the fly reel biz?
JJ: Mark first hit me up probably 6 or 7 years ago. He was a big fan of West Coast Choppers and said he knew of a machine shop in Anchorage. Mark told me he had a really cool design idea for a reel and wanted to use some of my design elements. At first I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to put my name on, but the more we talked, I kinda realized that all my manufacturing knowledge of making complicated parts was what he needed, so we just started working together. We’ve become really good friends since then. I’ve got to hand it to Mark, he tested the reel for a good 4 years before he ever released a product. That’s important to me because I don’t want people thinking I’m slapping my name on a product just to make money. If I was going to design reels, they had to be better. They had to be perfect.
JC: As a designer, what was the most important aspect of creating a quality reel?
JJ: When I came into the motorcycle industry 20 years ago, everything had been the same since the 70s. No one ever thought to put world-class, race car, aircraft-style fabrication towards these motorcycles. They still look as aesthetically pleasing, but now they’re super light-weight and super well-manufactured. Basically the same thing applies to these reels. There is so much more action and motion in flyfishing than in conventional fishing. You’re working the rod back and forth for hours. If it’s not light and easy to use, then it doesn’t work for me. It’s all in the feel. When I hold a reel in my hands, it needs to feel precision.
JC: What did the research and development of these reels entail?
JJ: I didn’t grow up doing a ton of flyfishing, so the first thing I did was buy a few reels and pick them apart. I looked at all the parts and started sharing notes with Mark on what I thought we could improve. If I build a bike and my design fails, there’s a good chance the customer’s gonna die. If a fly reel fails it’s not that critical, but because I’m used to creating products with that level of seriousness and such high tolerances, I treated the reels the same way. Seeing that Mark is a guide, he was the perfect tester. If you want to brutally put miles on something, having different clients use the reels every few days is awesome. We didn’t use the customer as our R&D department, and we didn’t want to bring it out before it was ready.
JC: _What’s next for Jesse James Reels?
_JJ: I’m pushing for a conventional reel. Flyfishing is kind of a niche market, and I think it just keeps growing, but I’d like to make a cool, bitchin,’ super-nice bass reel. We’re actually in the midst of working on it now.
Until Jesse and Mark roll out their conventional line, you can choose from their 4/5, 7/8, and 11/12 model fly reels, which range in price from $300 to $525. They’re currently available at Jessejamesreels.com, but may pop up in your local fly shop in the near future.