The Penn 49 Reel Series: Funky, Fun and Functional

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Cap'n Larry's Fish Cleaning Table  The Chesapeake Today photo by Larry Jarboe
Cap’n Larry’s Fish Cleaning Table The Chesapeake Today photo by Larry Jarboe

Otto Henze, a German immigrant and master machinist for the Ocean City Reel Company in Philadelphia, started his own manufacturing company in 1932.  His quality work and personal investment was the origin of the Penn Reel company. In 1939, Otto engineered the #249 narrow spool reel which was a super knuckle-buster with no drag.  These antique reels can be found on eBay for reasonable prices.  However, this humble seed of the Penn 49 series would be best left over the mantle piece rather than being brought on board a boatJust a couple years later, in 1941, Mr. Henze created the #49 narrow spool reel with a star drag.  Soon, a two lever standard option was included that not only allowed the reel to either free spool or crank.  A separate lever allowed the balanced handle to spin while releasing line.  The narrow spool and the semi-free spool option made the Penn 49L reel the #1 option for wire line trolling captains for more than thirty years.  For a short while, there was a 149 model with a single engagement lever but the two lever arrangement was best for wire line deep trolling.

Jarboe State Senate bumper
Jarboe State Senate bumper

I saw my first Penn 49 reels on Capt. Bill Dixon’s charter boat back in the Sixties.  Capt. Bill fished out of Town Creek.  He used these reels with wire line to bump bottom as he trolled for Striped Bass, Bluefish, and Sea Trout (Weakfish as the Spotted Trout were most uncommon in the Bay back then).
Cap’n. Bill was smart enough to know that the big diameter spool of his 49L Penn reels would fatigue the monel line less than a smaller wide spool.  Also, the narrow spool helped keep the line from building up on one side without need for a level wind.  Level wind big game reels were and are prone to mechanical calamity.

Penn 49 Reels
Penn 49 Reels

I remember very well Capt. Bill Dixon showing me the features of his deep trolling reels and the importance of reeling the line in steady, gently directing the wire on evenly.  Kinks in wire line were and are a very bad and expensive thing to happen.
A few years ago, John Joy gave me a couple 49 reels to put a single good one together.  Somehow, they made it to a cardboard box to rest in hibernation.  Then, two years ago, in the Norfolk Canyon fifty miles off Virginia Beach, I watched another angler named Bill use a 49 series Penn Reel to crank up Blueline Tilefish, three at time, from waters over 300 feet deep.
While I was catching smaller tiles with a, now, old school Electra-Mate electric reel conversion on a Penn 114H Senator.  Bill was using his obsolete hand cranking narrow spool reel full of braided line to catch the best fish of the day.  Even the Asian guys on the stern with their high priced Japanese electric combos could not compete with Bill and his old Penn 49 on a Shakespeare Tiger rod.  And, the electrics tangle more often with other anglers.  Tangles are greatly reduced on deep drop party boats if the fishing line is initially hand cranked about ten feet off the bottom before the electric winch is engaged.
Chesapeake Sure Fire TipsSo far, this year, there has been no deepwater trip from Virginia Beach for me.  Other than a short stint in the Keys where the weather is warm and sunny as I am regularly reminded by my wife who is now retired there for six months and a day, January was a Chesapeake fishing washout.  February could be equally miserable.
Instead of pursuing fish, I have taken to pursuing Penn 349H reels on eBay.  This particular incarnation of the Penn 49 series only had one lever which is better for my needs with manually operated deep drop reels and braid trolling combos.  The last of the 49 series were the Penn 349 models (349L, 349H, and 349HC) which were excellent American made tuna and deep sea reels.
So, far I have two in my soon to be working collection with two more in transit.  One of the reels has a Newell Wahoo Special kit that added a wider spool and lightweight crossbars to make a poor boy’s Penn Senator.  Carl Newell was a reel modification specialist who later built his own reel company.  His story is worth a future article on his own merits.
The 349H reels have a much higher gear ratio (3.25 to 1) than the slower 349L reels which were about two to one.  The two lever Penn 49 reel that reigned supreme for wire line trolling only had a 2 to 1 ratio which means the spool turned twice for every single turn of the handle.  The 49 reels were discontinued in 2006.
Also, the 349H reels are generally burgundy or maroon in color while the slower 349L’s are black.  The 349HC is a high speed, fairly uncommon reel with two engagement levers.  The 349HC carried the most options and the highest price tag, around forty bucks.
If the price is right, I also bid on 349L’s as those will be fine for many years of trolling for predominately Striped Bass in the Bay and Dolphin down the coast.
My favorite 349 of the present collection that will one day grace the decks of my future six passenger charter boat specifically designed to carry wheelchair bound and disabled fishermen is a black 349L that I picked up for 35 bucks including shipping.  This reel was owned by a former aeronautical engineer in Texas who passed on the joy of fishing to his daughter.  Linda looks forward to another generation of fishermen enjoying her father’s quality all American made product   Also, this black model spins at the higher 3.25 to 1 ratio.  Likely, the Texas engineer modified the gears to achieve a similar outcome to what I am looking for.  What outcome is that?
Can a simple, low maintenance reel meet the demands of hoisting monster Blue Catfish from the depths of the Potomac River, pull trophy Striped Bass off the side  of the Ship’s Channel in the Chesapeake Bay, drag Blueline Tilefish to the surface from the depths of the Norfolk Canyon, dig out big Black Groupers from the edge of the Gulf Stream, or hoist up Amberjacks from the Hump offshore of Islamorada?
Loaded with eighty pound test braid, an antique Penn 49 series reel with real American bearings (not the Chinese junk) can do that and a whole lot more with the help of an aged fisherman.  Old fishermen don’t die.  We just smell that way.  Larry Jarboe –

  • He used these reels with wire line to bump bottom as he trolled for Striped Bass, Bluefish, and Sea Trout (Weakfish as the Spotted Trout were most uncommon in the Bay back then).

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