Have Zebco, will travel

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Submitted photo.

Mark Fiorentino with his Florida peacock bass.

I fish a lot, sometimes alone, sometimes with my kids or friends. Sometimes in local bass tournaments, I’ve traveled great distances to fish, working to fulfill my dream of fishing in every state with my son.

And everywhere I go, people react to my gear.

Usually the reaction is conveyed subtly by a raised eyebrow, sideways look or smirk. Occasionally, it’s conveyed by direct verbal assault: “Are you kidding me? No one over eight uses a Zebco reel. Except for entertaining kids and catching tiny panfish, they’re worthless.”

I’ve been tempted to correct people. But, like most fishermen, I’m reluctant to pass on my best secrets. Especially to someone who is smirking at me.

I’ll say it here, though. Zebco makes a number of great spincasting reels. They’re affordable, durable and easy to use. Most look just like the ones you used when you were a kid: they are close-faced, cast by pushing a button, and contain a small wheel you turn with your thumb to adjust the drag. And don’t kid yourself, they work for a variety of different fish. I’ve caught everything from brown trout to largemouth bass to northern pike on my favorite Zebco model.

You’re smirking, right? Fair enough, but read on. What follows is the first in a series of true stories recounting my adventures in pursuit of big fish armed only with my Zebco. The plan is to travel the country, carrying my reel, wiping away smirks.

Our first stop is Lake Osborne, Florida, where I fished in 2016 after attending the International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades (ICAST) in Orlando. Lake Osborne is part of the very limited range for peacock bass in the United States.

Here’s what you need to know about peacock bass:

1. They are aggressive predators, but often will only hit baits cast right on top of them.

2. They primarily hang out in places that are hard to reach: under docks, behind pylons and between submerged rocks.

3. When you hook one, all hell breaks loose. The fish use all of their substantial strength to head straight for the closest obstacle in an attempt to tangle and break your line. If that doesn’t work, they employ sudden, violent changes in direction, heading straight down, then up, or left, then right.

In short, they are very difficult to hook and land. You need a reel that allows you to cast with great accuracy. The reel’s drag system must allow you to change tension on the line quickly and smoothly because, in very short order, you have to alternate between pulling the fish away from structure and giving it room to run, all without breaking your line.

I headed to Lake Osborne with a Zebco Bullet. The Bullet is a new reel just recently available on the market. It is designed to cast heavier line and to retrieve faster than other Zebco models.

I got the Bullet at ICAST (where it was being premiered to fishing industry representatives) after telling my story to Josh Denton, a Senior Product Manager for Zebco Brands. When Josh heard we were planning to fish for peacock bass, he said: “Why don’t you take a Bullet with you and see how it works.”

I’d like to tell you that it was a difficult decision to leave the reel I brought on the trip, my trusted Zebco Omega Pro in my suitcase, but it wasn’t. As I’m sure you can imagine, I could barely contain my excitement at the opportunity to try out a new Zebco reel.

Dave, our Lake Osborne guide, didn’t share in the excitement. When he saw what I intended to use, he said: “You fish from the back of the boat. Your son Gage can fish up front with me, using my gear”.

He was smirking. But his smirk was a little different. Part mocking, for sure, but also part disdain. Guides often don’t want clients using their own equipment. They make more money when clients catch fish, and they don’t want to risk success on a client using gear they think is inadequate or inappropriate. Dave, who once fished on the professional bass tournament tour, was having none of my ZEBCO reel.

When my first cast went a little high and landed on top of the dock instead of under it, his smirk grew more dour. When I lost an unseen fish by failing to set the hook properly, it grew more dour still.

Meanwhile, in the front of the boat, Gage quickly mastered Dave’s instructions. It wasn’t long before he had landed a number of nice peacock bass, and Dave loosened up a bit. He turned his attention to me.

“We are coming up on a point, with a buoy anchored just off the end. Between the buoy and the point’s tip, there is a small area of deep water. There will be a good sized peacock bass in that spot. But, if you cast too long or too short, you’ll get snagged in the rocks. And if, by some unlikely chance, you hit the spot, the fish will strike quickly. You have to set the hook immediately and pull him away from the buoy, or he’ll wrap your line around it. If by some extremely unlikely chance you get him clear of the buoy without breaking your line, he’ll make a couple of fast runs back and forth. You’ll need to let him run, but not too far.”

He was smirking.

At first I thought he was just making fun of me with his extremely detailed instructions. But, we were on the point, and with a moderate breeze moving the boat along, I didn’t have time to think or respond. I just pushed the Bullet’s button, swung my arm in an arc parallel to the surface and cast the bait in the exact spot he suggested.

WHAM! Just as Dave predicted, the fish attacked my bait as soon as it hit the water. I yanked the tip of my rod over my head, trying to simultaneously set the hook and pull the fish away from the buoy. The rod doubled over,and I thought for sure the line would break.

The fish was clear of the buoy but we were locked in a dangerous stalemate: the fish and I each refusing to give an inch of line. I kept the rod tip high and held the reel’s crank handle steady.

Then, disaster. The line went slack. Damn! I know Dave said I needed to let the fish run as soon as I got it clear of the buoy, but it never gave me the chance.

Slowly, I turned the crank handle, looking to bring in my fishless line and dreading the smirk I was sure to see on Dave’s face. After a few cranks, the line went tight again. The fish was still on. It had been swimming toward me, but now it was turning and preparing to barrel away in the opposite direction. I had a split second to brush my thumb over the drag’s adjustment wheel to release some tension from the line.

I let him run, but not too far. When instinct told me he had gone far enough, I thumbed the drag back a little and used the rod to rein him in. We dueled back and forth like this for about a minute: loosen, run, tighten-rein; loosen, run, tighten-rein. Eventually, the fish tired to the point where I could grab him by the lip and lift him in the boat. I had caught my first career peacock bass, beautifully colored and weighing about three and a half pounds.

With each fish I caught that day, Dave’s smirk got a little smaller and a little less dour. When we were done, he said: “I may get a couple of those Zebco reels for the boat…you know, for clients who have young kids.”

He was smirking, but this time the meaning was clear: he wanted one of these reels.