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My Favorite Old Reel - Fishing With the Zebco 33
Coming of Age with a 202
Some of my earliest memories are of fishing from a small lake where Dad was stationed at Meridian NAS. This was back in the mid-1960s. For most of my young childhood, I used a cane pole and bobber. Lots of fun, and I still like them. But I came of age the day Dad said "Do you want the cane pole, or the rod and reel?" He said it so nonchalantly, like it was just any old question. I wasn't sure what was up, but no way would I turn down a chance to fish like Dad! So we baited up the hook, he showed me how to cast, and I was fishing with my first bait casting reel. Then we waited... and waited. Me, standing there at the waters edge, wondering if I'd made the right choice. Until something grabbed the end of my line, and pulled. Wow, did it pull. Back then I was really little. This fish must have been bigger than me, and I was forced to take a step toward the water. Another step. That fish was about to catch me, and I started hollering for Dad. He got there just in time, and together we fought that big old fish for a while. My line broke, and we never got to see the fish. Dad 'n me stood there, caught our breath, then grinned at each other and cast out again.
Catch and Release... Little Sister Style
You know, that unseen fish hooked me better than I hooked him. I loved fishing from then on. And the reel it happened on was the Zebco 202. Maybe just cheap fishing tackle to you, but to me, it was a way of life. Dad was a career Navy man, so we moved every now and then. He's taken me to a lot of different places. In Florida, he was stationed at Cecil Field. Back then, there was a runoff from the golf course lake. They called it the Snake Pit. No, that wasn't just a colorful title. Once we saw a snake fighting with an eel. Always, there were snakes somewhere in the visit. But boy, the fishing was worth it. After a good rain, you could pull 2 to 4 pound catfish almost as fast as you could get your line back in. Even my little sister caught fish. She was still small enough to use a cane pole, but my trusty Zebco was always with me. There was a super-big culvert the water poured out of. I'd shimmy out to the edge, and drop the line straight down. The current was so strong, it would carry my hook as far as I'd let it. Other folks might panic seeing their kid hanging out over the water. But Dad never stopped me from being a kid. Or from growing up.
We'd keep all the fish we could. Get some real nice meals out of every trip. Eventually, they closed public access to the Snake Pit. Rumor said that the base commander fished there with his private friends, and didn't like to share with the 'hired hands'. I don't know if that's true, but it made good telling back then. Just across the way from Cecil Field, there was another military installation. I no longer remember what it was, but Dad had to show ID to get in. Here was some of the clearest water you could imagine. It looked about 10 or 12 feet deep, and you could see all the way down on a sunny day. Huge fish, just hovering in the middle of empty space. Little ones, darting from cover to cover. I'd try to tempt the big fish with every bait imaginable, but they mostly ignored me.
When I was maybe 10 years old, my sister Karen about 5, Dad took us to a great place. The fish were biting fast, and we had a large bucket to put them in. After maybe an hour of great fishing, Mom turned around to see Karen catching the fish from the bucket, and throwing them back in the lake... I guess you could say it was my first introduction to 'catch and release'.
Maybe That One Was a Bit... Too Small
After Dad retired, we moved to Mom's family home by the Satilla River. For a young boy just turning 15, the freedom of the river was the greatest thing on earth. I lived on the Satilla. Raised my own Red Wigglers. Personally, I've always preferred them to any other bait. We'd get all kinds of fish. Redbreast, Bream, Catfish, Bass, Gar, Mudfish, Stumpknockers, Warmouth, Speck. Eels every now and then, and always the turtles trying to steal your bait. By now, my rod was getting a bit worn. The tip was broken and shredded, and it was missing a guide eye for the line, but my little 202 was still reeling away. Parts had occasionally worn out, but Dad always knew how to fix it. Over time, I learned too. Even so, it did wear out. At the end, the drag wasn't working. If a big fish got on, and the line was about to break, I'd click the release and let the line stream out through my fingers. When he'd change direction, it would be time to start reeling again. In this fashion, you could tire a big one out until he could be brought in.
On the Satilla, fishing was a family way of life. Pretty much all Mom's family fished, and I spent many happy years catching fish with her, and Mom's Mom, who was "Nanny" to us grandkids. She taught me lots about fishing. I've seen a water moccasin grab a catfish on her stringer. Nanny grabbed the other end, and pulled back 'till the snake gave up. Nothing got in her way when it came to fish. She used to say if it was big enough to be hooked, it was big enough to eat. One day one of us kids brought home some so small, they slipped down the drain when we started to clean them. After that, her advice was to pick'em a bit bigger.
The Search for Adventure
Sometimes Mom would go fishing with me, and we always had an adventure. One trip, paddling up the river we saw half of a dog floating in the water, a gruesome reminder that there are gators in the water. We never worried too much about the gators though. We'd often gather up some kids, and go swimming. As the oldest, it fell to me to test the water. If I swam out, and nothing got me, it was okay for the younger kids to go in. I loved to wait until they were waist deep in water, then scream and go under. Or to go way upriver, duck under and let the current carry me to somebody's feet. Grab the ankle, let go, and come up further downriver. So I had a mean streak... those kids all grew up just fine. Mostly, anyway.
Mom and I've seen eagles nesting in tall pine trees. At any time you might see deer, rabbit, woodpecker, wild boar, maybe even bear. Once while canoeing on the Satilla, I saw seven deer clashing antlers, and galloping up and down the riverbanks. My Zebco was right there in the boat. Through thick and thin, it had a part in most every adventure. Seems the best ones always started with the search for a good fishin' hole.
For Me, the Perfect Reel Will Always Be Zebco
When the sad day came that my Zebco 202 just wore itself out, it had many years of happy memories. So my next reel was another Zebco. I wanted a stronger reel, being a young fella. Equated a bigger stronger reel with bigger fish, the way most young guys think bigger and stronger must be better. Got a Zebco 808. It was a good reel, but came to feel overpowered for me. Not as fun with the give and take. At this point, I played the field. Tried several styles and brands, but none of the other reels measured up. I had Zebco in my blood, in my history, and in my heart. When it was time to come back, a sweet little Zebco 33 caught my eye. It turned out pretty good, but occasionally would slip. You'd be reeling along, and suddenly the handle would spin freely, and the line just slack in the water. Well, that's a real bad thing. As long as you keep the line taught, it won't happen. But still... Slightly disillusioned, I started looking for a new reel. The 33's were working well, but often people would go fishing with me, and many didn't have their own gear. So I was adding to my collection, while looking for that perfect reel for my own use. Tried a 600 for a while, but it was a bit too light. Somewhere out there, had to be a fishing rig that was neither too heavy, nor too light.
When I found the Zebco 33 Classic, I stopped looking. It had all of Zebco's strengths, and no flaws. Great for smaller fish, but wow, could it handle the big ones. Versatile, reliable, never gave up. No tangles, baitcasting brought to perfection. I bought a couple. My favorite rods were bought from Cabela's, they collapsed down to about 10 inches in length, but expanded to a good 5 1/2 foot rod. My ex broke one of the rods, but the other is still good. And both reels are still going strong. Heck, so are the original Zebco 33's. It's been more than 20 years, and those reels are great. I wouldn't trade my favorite Zebco 33 for any other equipment. I don't get to fish as often as I use to, but just in case, my 33 is in the car trunk, ready for that next adventure.
If you're looking for a good reel... for yourself, or a son or daughter (yeah, Karen had one too)... if you want to build some memories, and have some fun... for my money, you can't go better than a good old Zebco. My life wouldn't be the same without it.