Tuesday 7 May 2013

Reel Value

In the world of salmon fishing there are few more seductive items than a beautifully engineered premium reel.  The temptation to spend one's hard earned pounds on a future family heirloom (that's another justifying argument!) is immense.  This is not about form, function or fishing quality, but more about the lasting joy of possession of quality.  The makers of high grade sporting shotguns know all about this psychology.  Of course, unless you fish for tarpon and permit in the crystal oceans to experience 300 yard runs and melting backing, you are unlikely ever to test your reel to any sort of destructive limit.  I've been there just once: when bass fishing as a teenager, a tope or small blue shark ate the fish that had just taken my sand eel and thus became attached to me for long enough to remove all 250 yards of line from my reel whilst doing horrid things to my thumb.  And all of that pleasure and pain was achieved without spending thousands on flights, hotels, guides or an Abel reel.

My father was so successful at drumming into me that the reel was only a small part of the system that I suspect I'd feel really guilty buying an expensive reel, even if I could afford one.  A recent bequest from an aged aunt allowed me to climb a few steps out of the bargain basement, but otherwise my entire salmon reel buying life has been spent in the cellar.  Down there I've learnt a bit about what works and doesn't; what lasts and doesn't; and what's value for money.  Without doubt the most important thing I've learnt, or re-learnt, is that if you have a little bit of extra money, put it on the rod, not the reel.

When I inherited my father's and grandfather's kit, it included a hefty Young's reel of great antiquity and even greater weight.  I didn't like it, and as I'd got 2 rods for nothing, felt I could justify buying a new reel.  From this point onwards I have no choice but to breach my usual 'no brands' policy, because I can't see a way of doing this article generically: I can only talk about what I know.

Vision Koma

I took advice from several experts.  Brian at Farlows was adamant: for people like me fishing one week per year, the Vision Koma represented the best combination of design, function, durability and price (then around £70).  After 12 years he's been proved absolutely right: this trusty die-cast workhorse has been dropped, bashed, dunked, drowned and fished stupid.  The soft grip handle is a thing of joy.  Koma has played and landed lots of fish, still works perfectly and has never let me down.  However, the price of reliability has been conscientious maintenance, based on a good understanding of the intrusions of value engineering in the design.

These centre on the braking system and its enclosure.  You can see that the enclosure comprises a push-fit plastic cover, which is protective but not waterproof or sealed.  This means that as soon as you get home after your week, a full strip, dry, clean, lubricate and re-assemble is essential.  If you don't do that, within 2 years the clutch and brake assembly will solidify (ask Philip - that's what happened to his Grey's of similar design and price).  Please do not try improving the sealing with Vaseline or silicone grease because it will surely wind up in the brake and render even a stickleback unstoppable.  So if you're buying a budget reel, always look at the enclosure and keep the bit of paper that shows how the bits go back together!  The Koma is very simple to strip and assemble once you've got the hang of the circlip that holds the clutch on the spindle, which in free flight will cover the width of the kitchen and disappear into the only gap in the units.

Loop CLW

For my second reel I experimented with composite construction.  I'd just bought my first new rod - a Loop Classic Spey 14' ~9/10 - and the seller was keen that I should match it with one of the new Optis.  In the event he didn't have one in stock, so I saved nearly £100 and bought the CLW.  It's not pretty but it's the closest thing to indestructible that I've ever owned.  Test 1 involved shutting it in the door of a pickup truck; Test 2 involved a drop from height onto concrete; and for Test 3 the kitchen scales fell upon it whilst dis-assembled.  There's now one small chip on the spindle support while externally it's still unmarked.  The brake is first class (probably derived from a much more expensive model) and fully sealed: I've done no maintenance beyond basic cleaning on this reel in 5 years.  The easy grip handle is great.  My only complaint is that the CLW doesn't have any 'feel' or character: it just works perfectly in a very bland Swedish sort of way (the Volvo estate syndrome - I had 8 of them when the children were growing up).  If you don't like maintenance or fiddling with kit, and have never lifted the bonnet of your Volvo, then this is the reel for you.


Some years ago I felt the need for a small rod for lesser rivers and low water conditions.  The Switch rods then on the market didn't impress, so I bought a little 12' #7 Vision GT4 Lite, which has proved to be one of life's gems, 6 ounces of peach essence.  There's a bit of a gap in the budget reel market in the #7/8 range (note a #7 Windcutter doesn't fit on a normal #7 reel because it's much longer).  The seller pointed me towards the Vision Konic, which he described as having all the virtues of the best Lamson reels without the cost.

He was absolutely right.  The Konic is value engineering at its best.  It's well cast, minimally machined and economically finished with a bullet-proof coating.  The brake and bearings are beautiful and completely sealed.  Maintenance is limited to the annual light smear of grease on the spindle.  It's not without flaws: the handle is too slim and smooth for my taste; and the brake adjuster shown in the next photo (on a Guru) is not easy to grip with cold wet fingers.

We need to remember that even at this economy level, the Konic is twice the price of the Koma or CLW.  The next step up the Lamson scale, the Guru, is double that again.  Putting the Guru and Konic side by side is instructive, because under the skin they start as the same reel.

Here are the 2 frames.  The underlying design is identical.  The differences are the metal that has been machined away to produce the Guru's slimmer spokes and frame; the much finer surface finish; and the clever protective coating.  There's a golden rule in engineering: cost is directly related to the weight of metal that winds up on the floor.  Here you see it in practice.  Otherwise the brake and spindle assemblies are the same very high quality.

You see the same features in the spools.  If you look closely you will note small differences in the spindle mounting and the click device, but these are owed to size rather than design.

I bought the Guru because my aunt's generosity allowed a certain uncharacteristic extravagance in the form of a 13' #8/9 custom built by Charles Burns in York to match the fishing on the Ure that is occupying more of my free time.  It seemed only sensible to memorialise her spending habits!  It is indeed a very pretty reel, a joy to own and behold, but in truth it works no better than the Konic from which it was born.


So what do I draw from all this:
  • The Koma is hard to beat on every score.  Any reel that's cheaper has had some significant material quality and engineering taken out - spindle, bearings, clutch or brake - which will come back to haunt you after 4 or 5 years.  But you must look after the Koma if you want it to last a decade and more.
  • If you're a very rare non-fiddling angler with a streak of clumsiness and bad luck, then  a composite reel with a fully sealed brake is just right for you.  However, I see no sense in having composite construction and an unsealed brake, which negates the advantages.
  • The Konic stands out for its real value engineering, with top quality components where they matter.  This is a premium design engineered down to a price.  Although that price is double the Koma, the overall package actually rivals the Koma for value for money.
  • The Guru is the cheapest way of getting something that looks like a £500 reel for half the price.  But it's not great value for money, and in the absence of gross charity from my readers I'll stop at one.
  • Always keep spare circlips.
  • Father and grandfather were right: the reel is the least part of the system.

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