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Vintage ultralight spinning reels: The best ones

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Why a Vintage Ultra Light Reel?

With all the advantages that modern Ultra Light Reels have (smoothness and speed of gearing, corrosion resistance, better line rollers, smoother drags, etc.), many of us come back to a few old vintage favorites. Besides the hard to quantify satisfaction of using something with hand made craftsmanship and no computerized technology, why do we use them? The new reels have lots going for them but they also do have some real world disadvantages;
1. Too much chrome, gold and sparkle for pure function. A lot of these things gets boat rash or flakes off, falls off, or cracks or peels..........all of which detracts from the appearance of the reel once there is a lot of usage on them. On vintage reels with simpler but more durable finishes, the reel can take on "character" and can actually even look better up to a point, with lots of use. The look of a well worn Micron is far better than a modern reel with a decal missing or some inscriptions marred by boat rash.
2. Many of the newer reels have very long reel stems that makes it difficult to easily touch the spool edge. Why is this important? With very light lines like 4 lb test, the best way to hold the line for casting is to simply touch the edge of the spool and flip the bail over. The line will come to rest between your finger and the spool edge without having to fumble with it, and on the cast you simply point your finger at the moment of the cast that you want to release the line. With very light lines/ lures this works far better than to hold the 4 lb line around your finger and letting go; the feel is too light to have good control using this standard technique and with the method described, casting is much more accurate.
3. There are far too many plastic and graphite parts on many of these reels, with self tapping screws going into graphite bodies, not the best construction for a decent reel. The number of tiny parts, many plastic, also seems excessive on many reels with parts falling off, cracking or being easily misplaced on disassembly (tiny washers) . Simpler is better in the long run. Vintage reels can be virtually all metal and therefore all screws go into machined threads rather than self tapping holes. The new bail tripping mechanisms can also require much greater inertia than the old spring and trip lever arrangements of old, and many of them are much less reliable because they are forced to move the bail cam past a threshold in the spring action in order to turn the bail over (this requires much greater forces to complete its action, than the older trip systems). How many modern reels do you have that fail to flip the bail over completely?........ quite a few I suspect, as I have had to tinker with the tripping mechanisms of the reels of many friends in order to get their bails to function correctly. However, the tradeoff in unbreakable compression bail springs in new reels vs the inevitable coiled bail spring breakage in vintage reels (albeit w/ more reliable trip mechanisms), does heavily favor the new unbreakable compression bail springs, no argument here.
So which are best? In the end, we will all have our opinions and favorites, sometimes for sentimental reasons. The best actually depends on the level of involvement you are willing to devote to maintaining a vintage reel and also your skills in tinkering with them. The best for many will be the MIcron, but the guy's using them will all admit to spending a lot of time keeping them going and searching for parts. A suggestion for the best reel to acquire for the average guy who just prefers a vintage reel but does not have the time or inclination to waste efforts on them, will be made at the end but all of the reels described here are probably the best of the best.......... at least among the most well known of vintage reels.
Pros/ cons of the best vintage models;

1. Alcedo Micron: By far the best for many reasons, but the best reels were the early models from the 1950's. Gear, ball bearing, fit and finish were all much better with these earlier reels, with the only detriment being the tiny screw threads on the older handle knob screw; they broke easily. Later models had a stronger screw thread. A sharply bent reel stem and a larger pinned-on emblem (not glued on, those fell off) will identify these earlier reels. The people not impressed with Micron build quality are looking at the newer models, some of which had far cheaper aluminum drive gears vs the brass gears of the older reels. Everything was built better with the older reels. The problem with Microns is that they are difficult to work on without breaking/ damaging parts and only those with high skills in repairing reels should have one as the parts are hard to come by. Some special tools are also necessary to work on these reels correctly. If you are good with reels, like tinkering with them and are also willing to hunt down parts these reels are great. Expect $100-150 for a mint reel and $ 50-$100 for a lightly used one.

2. Cardinal 3: Great reel but they command very high prices; expect $100-$250 for a mint one and $65-$100+ for a lightly used one. This reel was greatly loved for something very few of the other vintage reels had; extremely smooth gearing. It is considered by many to be the best, but I find them bulky and awkward, the reel bodies seemingly too bulky for the size of the reel. Lots of plastic parts too, for what ends up being a very expensive reel. Another huge disadvantage is that these painted reels look awful after hard use. By contrast the Micron has a very durable anodized finish that wears extremely well and a well used reel still looks decent.

3. Orvis 50A: Quick Microlite: These reels are very close in build quality and ease of use. The orvis is probably better, but both are very good reels. Once again parts can be an issue, but very little wears out with these reels. The early versions of the Orvis had very fragile bail systems, but the later models were much better in bail construction. The Microlite was the early version of the Ultra Light Quick reels, and is a very nice reel, but later versions became more and more disliked as they became bulkier and lost the delicate feeling of the early Microlite model. Most much prefer using the original Microlite version of the Ultra Light Quick models. Expect $75-$125 for a mint reel and $ 40-$65 for a lightly used one, for both of these reels.
 
4. Mitchell 308/ 408: These reels are probably the most popular amongst the vintage crowd, but there are some significant detractions about these reels. First of all the Mitchell 308 is almost useless for casting artificial lures as its retrieve rate is too slow. Maybe it's OK if you mostly fish with bait, but using lures with the 308 becomes a chore. The small diameter spool coupled with a less than 5:1 gear ratio makes for a rather slow retrieve. Though somewhat heavy due to it's large brass drive gear, the 408 has a very fast retrieve and is a much more desirable reel for lure fisherman than the 308 is. Both reels have cheaper build quality than the others described here, with too many plastic parts...........the oscillation slider is plastic and breaks easily if reel is dropped, and this disables the reel. There are poor tolerances on some of the parts, most notably the rotating head ball bearing, the bail spring pre-loading is a tad too weak and the spring breaks too often ( about 2-3x more breaks than with Micron). The level wind arrangement also seems to allow for more birds-nests than with the other reels, by allowing more line to spool in the middle of the arbor rather than spool evenly. The enamel finish wears poorly and a worn finish makes these reels look pretty bad. Because so many are around they can be had for a fairly low price: $75-$100 for a mint reel and $35-$50 for a lightly used one.
 
5. Penn 716/716Z: This reel probably has the most durable and tough construction of any of the reels mentioned here, but that is precisely the problem with this very well built reel. While the build quality is certainly there, the end result is not quite the kind of ultra light reel most of us want. All of the above reels in perfect working order feel like fine instruments; smooth, delicate and a pleasure to use. But the 716 feels like a scaled down version of their big saltwater surf models, the 700/ 704/ 710 series of reels. It lacks the feel of finesse that the other reels have. The reel is heavy for its size, the bail feels clunky, and the handle feels too long and has a saltwater style knob. In use it feels like a Penn 710 only smaller, and takes the pleasure away from casting and retrieving tiny lures. Also like the Cardinal and the 408 the enamel finish is prone to wear; chipping, flaking and bubbling. This makes the reel look terrible if one uses it in a rough way and the aluminum showing beneath the enamel ruins the look of the reel very quickly. The Quick Microlite has a textured enamel finish but seems to wear like iron. The Micron and the Orvis 50 have anodized finishes that are very tough and cannot be chipped or flaked off. It has to be worn off so the reels look fine even with tough use. You may be fine with the 716 if you mostly fish with bait, but lots of casting and retrieving with tiny lures will be much more enjoyable with any of the other reels, rather than with the 716. This is a rather expensive reel going for around $75-$100+ for mint reel and $40-$75 for a lightly used one.

In summary, probably the best reel for most people wanting to use a vintage ultra light reel is the Mitchell 408. It will break more often than the others, but is extremely easy to work on and repair, with no special tools needed for servicing. Further, parts are inexpensive and easily available and the reel is a very serviceable ultra light reel. The 408 is a good, very manageable vintage reel to use and maintain, but just be sure to procure a few extra bail springs and be sure you have a screwdriver in the field in order to replace a broken one.
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A modern "vintage ultra light" update: Daiwa Whisker SS700/ SS1300 reels:

This update is to suggest two ultra light reels that are not really vintage but are an older design that does incorporate a lot of the modern design aspects that normally make a reel undesirable. However, the designers of this particular series did a very good job of engineering with graphite and the reels are durable, incredibly light, supremely serviceable and thus difficult to ignore. Not exactly the reels for those looking for true vintage reels, but absolutely great for those seeking a simpler and more reliable reel than current reel lineups offered by manufactuers.The reels have a lot of shiny gold parts, a ton of inscriptions and emblems and lots of plastic parts, but the plastic parts seem to hold up well and the graphite body and rotor are well designed, non-corrosive, durable and because they are not painted show no wear. The reel bodies have self tapping screws to secure various parts but the tread depth is much deeper than most reels with graphite bodies, so these self tapping threads hold up well. They are exceedingly light for their sizes, as the bigger parts are made of graphite; 7.0 oz for the SS700 and 8.4 oz for the SS1300........these are incredibly light weights when comparing them to other similar sized reels. This is especially so because the reels are also very durable. The bail cams are attached by pins and circlips rather than screws because the designers didn't want to risk self tapping screws coming loose on these critical parts. The bail also has a bail spring that can never break as it works by compression and this type of spring simply will not fail, a huge advantage in the field. Another very significant feature is the external bail cam trip that has a rubber roller to cushion and reduce the friction of flipping the bail back over after a cast. There is greater leverage in this design to flip the bail over and it is an absolutely failure free design, in terms of turnning the bail over after the cast. Many modern reels eventually develope bail troubles due to the bail cam trip mechanism failing. The spool incorporates a design used by competition casters to reduce friction during the cast, so the spool arbor is tapered narrower at the front to allow lthe line to spool in a slight cone shape which lets the line coil off the end of spool during casting with minimum drag. Concentric rings are machined onto the arbor to allow the initial wraps of line to "grip" the arbor, preventing line slippage on the arbor because of the tapered design. A "long" spool design further reduces drag by minimizing the loss of diameter of the spooled line during long casts. All these things combine to genuinely increase casting distance. It is hard to believe that these things would make a difference in casting distance, but they really do. The spool rides on a worm gear to slowly reciprocate up and down, and this lays the line down much more compactly when reeling in. Gear ratio is high at 5.1:1 for the SS1300, but a slower 4.9:1 for the SS700. A small spool diameter for the SS700 greatly magnifies the difference in retrieve rates, and is one of the main reasons the SS1300 is a better reel. The SS1300 is small and light enough to be a true ultra light reel but it's larger spool diameter makes it able to handle mono lines heavier than 6 lb test very well. It has a spool diameter only slightly smaller than that of a Mitchell 300 so it can handle lines up to 10-12 lb test without difficulty, yet it can also handle lines in the 4-6 lb test range extremely well as the Teflon drag is very smooth and sensitive. In fact the reel can be used for 99% of all freshwater fishing all the way up to 10-15 lb stripers and 25 lb Chinooks by using braided spectra lines, making it the most versatile spinning reel for all freshwater fishing. Very few reels are as light, durable and reliable.......quite a lot to say for a single reel and a SS1300 will be all you need in freshwater if you have enough spools. The SS700 is fantastic for purely ultra light duty but the spool diameter and capacity limit its function to ultra light duty only. The reels in this series are even more attractive because they were introduced in the 1980's and are still in production in the exact same design. Testamony to a greatly appreciated reel over the years, and this makes it certain that parts will be available for decades since so much is already out there......a huge advantage if you only need a part or two to keep your trusty reel going years from now.
There is however, one huge negative to these reels; price. A good used reel from Ebay will go $45-65 and a mint/new one $80-100+. The reels do not appear to be difficult to maufacture so the pricing seems excessive to me, especially considering their graphite construction.

 

 

 

 

 
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