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  • Patrick Durkin

Venerable Mitchell 300 Reels Take Anglers Back in Time

Updated: Nov 7

While leading a tour through his fishing-tackle manufacturing building in the mid-1990s, a sales/advertising representative snorted dismissively when asked about the Mitchell spinning reels lineup the company recently acquired.


“All you have to know is that the average age of guys using Mitchell 300s is 64,” the rep said. “That’s not a demographic looking to buy.”


I swelled with pride, even though I had just turned 40. If old guys were still using reels they bought as young men or teenagers, my Mitchell reels should last till I’m 64, too. And so here we are, two years past that goal. My reels still include seven Mitchell 300s, a 301 lefty, a 308 ultralight, and a 306 for big fish.


Boys of the 1960s and 1970s yearned to retire their Zebco 202s for a Mitchell 300, and envied every friend who got theirs first. I bought my first Mitchell in 1969 at age 13 by hawking golf balls for my dad’s friends, and earning 50 cents each for a pristine Titleist, Maxfli or Spalding Dot. I guess my yearning for that reel inspired my entrepreneurial spirit, even if I couldn’t spell or define such urges.


I bought the Mitchell 308 about six years later in 1975 at age 19. I know such dates with certainty, because both reels survived the fire that destroyed my dad’s first pontoon boat in 1978 when I was overseas in the Navy. All that survived of my Garcia rods were their reel seats, still gripping my Mitchells.


Odd, Dad never offered to replace my incinerated rods, even though he never asked to use my rods and reels while I was deployed. In retrospect, that’s fair. I never asked to borrow his rods and reels when I was a kid. Nor did I offer to pay for the repairs when breaking off his rod tips or grinding sand through his reels’ moving parts.


Rob Dresen, 58, of Merrill, knows what I mean. Dresen has five Mitchell 300s, three of which were his father’s; and one Mitchell 308A, which he uses for panfish. He keeps his dad’s reels on the original rods, and mostly considers them retired. Meanwhile, he’s used his own 300s to catch everything from perch on Lake Mendota to salmon in the Sheboygan harbor off Lake Michigan.


I respect that versatility. I bought most of my Mitchell reels as an adult during the 1980s. One can never have too many, y’know, given that I designated various rigs for panfish, walleyes or salmon; and made sure I had enough extra rod/reel combos for my wife, too.


At some point I set aside two 300s for repairs, and replaced them with newer versions. I never considered discarding them. I intended to get them repaired someday. That finally happened about a year ago after I heard about Mat’s Reel Repair on Highway 45 in Eagle River.


Mat Hegy, the shop’s owner, said he could repair and refurbish my aging fleet. He rightfully boasts that his shop is one of a scant few in the nation that repairs any reel; antique or contemporary, or saltwater or fresh. That’s because Hegy has amassed one of the country’s largest inventories of reel parts, including those for old Mitchells.


And so I removed my 10 Mitchell reels from their rods one day in late July 2021, packed them into a box and stopped by Hegy’s shop while passing through on business. I asked Hegy to clean and lubricate them all, and repair or replace any parts he deemed suspect.


Thankfully, Hegy didn’t charge extra when I asked to watch and photograph the first job. He also didn’t doubt me when I said at least one of my Mitchell 300s was over 50 years old, and that I bought it new.


“Yep. These old Mitchells are all brass and steel,” he said. “They usually just need a good cleaning, and they’ll probably outlast both of us before they need more work.”


Will guys like Hegy be working on today’s new reels 50 years from now?


“Probably not,” Hegy replied. “Today’s reels are mostly about being lightweight and ergonomic. When they break, people throw them away and buy something even better.”


Are these old Mitchells worth anything?


“No, if you want one, it won’t cost much,” Hegy said. “And if you’re trying to sell one, you’ll get about what you paid 50 years ago; about $20.”


In other words, it cost more to get my old Mitchells refurbished than what they’re worth. I’m OK with that. I mean, these aren’t rare gems. When Mitchell reels were the pride of France and various manufacturers from 1939 to 1989, anglers worldwide bought over 30 million Mitchell 300s alone. Mitchell also made at least 200 other models of fishing reels during its five-plus decades, most of which resembled bigger or smaller versions of the 300.


In fact, even though I consider myself a Mitchell reels geek, I’m merely asteroid dust in the greater Mitchell spinning reel universe of nerds. To find legitimate Mitchell nerds, check out the Mitchell Reel Museum, https://mitchellreelmuseum.com, an online information source “for all things Mitchell since 2006.”


The website’s creators, Wallace Carney in the United States and Mike Read in England, say this about their mission: “As Mitchell fishing reel collectors, our moral duty is to preserve the history and integrity of Mitchell reels and the company that started it all, Carpano and Pons; as well as Garcia, Arca, Albatros, Balzer, Milbro and many others! … This site is dedicated to the millions of men, women and children with precious memories of the most beloved fishing reel ever made, beginning with the Mitchell 300.”


And then there’s Jerry DaSailor and Frank DeRasmi, who administer the Facebook page “Vintage Garcia Mitchell Spinning Reels for its 3,700 members; and Joseph Manduke, who administers the Facebook page “Mitchell 300 Reel Lovers” for its 1,400 followers. Aficionados join these groups to post photos of reels they’ve refurbished, help each other find old parts, estimate the worth of obscure Mitchells, and generally geek out over classic Mitchells they liberated from the unknowing, unappreciative or somehow unworthy.


No matter their place in such circles, lovers of the Mitchell 300 respect its heft, its growling gears, and dawn-to-dusk reliability. Mitchell reels have grit, character and a distinguished profile. People notice their egg-shared gearbox anywhere.


Hegy gets all that.


“It’s like a comic strip I remember that showed an old man walking toward water with a fishing rod,” he said. “In the next panel he reaches the lake and casts. As his bait flies out over the water in the final panel, he’s turned into a young man. Mitchell 300s do that for people. They help them reconnect with an earlier time.”

Mitchell 300s, the preferred reel of many anglers from the 1940s through 1980s, remain popular among many baby boomers today. -- Patrick Durkin photos

Mat Hegy, owner of Mat’s Reel Repair in Eagle River, cleans and repairs a Mitchell 300.

A clean and fully disassembled Mitchell 300 is ready for reassembly.

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