Fishing eventually became something that tempted me to skip school, but my parents initially used it to reward me for doing well in my studies. When Mrs. Ferry awarded me a report card with straight A’s in the third grade, my dad got me my very first surfcasting setup—it was also my first rod and reel that didn’t have a push-button casting release and a cartoon character on the packaging. That day in mid-June, Dad took me to the Sea Gull Shop at the south end of Ocean City, New Jersey, a combination beach gear and tackle shop, and we purchased a Penn 704z.
Some 30 years later, I still have the reel. It’s caught kingfish in New Jersey, stripers on Cape Cod, and bluefish everywhere in between. Though I seldom fish it anymore, the reel still performs beautifully, a testament to its simple yet rugged design—fewer parts means fewer things that can break. On a couple of occasions, the drag stuck or the gears began grinding, but whenever that happened, we took the reel to the Penn Reels factory right in our hometown of Philadelphia. Within a couple weeks, we’d have it back, working like new with the broken parts returned to us in small white envelopes that, for unknown reasons, I also still have.
Penn Reels had been made in Philadelphia for more than 60 years by the time we got that 704z. The reel was an evolution of Penn’s first spinning reel, the Spinfisher 700, which was introduced in 1961. By then, spinning reels, also known as fixed-spool reels, had been around for nearly 30 years, but even by the 1960s, serious anglers regarded them as inferior to conventional reels, calling them “Coffee Grinders.” Before releasing their own spinning reel, Penn wanted to make sure their popularity was going to last.
Penn exercised the caution and commitment to quality that its founder, Otto Henze, used to establish the company in 1932. Henze had immigrated to Philadelphia from Germany in 1922 and found work as a machinist with the Ocean City Reels Company. Ten years later, he broke out on his own to create the Penn Fishing Tackle Manufacturing Company. He acted as president until he died, suddenly, in 1948. His wife, Martha, took over as president of the company until 1963, when son Herbert took the reins. Penn remained in the Henze Family in Philadelphia until the early 2000s.
The Spinfisher 700 underwent some changes throughout the 1960s to make it more resistant to being dropped on the rocks. With the addition of a one-piece rotor cup, it was renamed as the 704 Spinfisher. The early run of those reels were a mint green in color until the late 1970s, when Penn changed the 704 from mint green to the now iconic gold and black. The “greenies” are highly sought-after collectibles, though many of the fishermen who have them keep them in rotation. It was around that time when the reel became the “704z,” though the parts remained interchangeable for as long as the reels were being made, meaning fishermen could keep their early Penns working as long as they wanted.
There were a number of models in that Spinfisher line, from the freshwater-sized 722 to the large 706, but over the years, as competition increased from reels made overseas, Penn winnowed down the line, finally mothballing the 704z and 706z series in the early 2000s. At that time, demand for the reels had waned and Penn was moving the manufacturing of their more popular spinning reel series overseas. They briefly brought back the reels in 2013 due to a demand on social media and fishing message boards for new parts and for the reels themselves.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that when I went charging out of the Sea Gull Shop and saw the gold handle and spool of my first serious fishing reel glinting in the early summer sun. I felt the hard-plastic torpedo grip in my left hand, and I turned the handle to listen to the click-click-click of the 704z’s anti-reverse doing its job. It’d be few more years before I heard the even sweeter clicking of the silky smooth drag paying out line to an angry striped bass, but on that day, with a new reel, a brown bag full of pyramid sinkers and Corky’s kingfish rigs, plus a sandwich bag full of bloodworms, I felt ready to conquer the surf.
With the fall run about the get underway, I could use some of that 9-year-old’s confidence. I might just have to dust off that old reel, tape it to a similarly dusty Lamiglas GSB 1321L, and take it for a spin.
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