For anglers of a certain generation—several generations, really—the Zebco 33 isn’t just a fishing reel, it’s the fishing reel. Though it’s been widely imitated over the years, it remains the original, iconic spincast reel.
Its image is burned into our collective memories. The push-button design, the dual-handled reel, the molded-tin-can shape. We all know what a Zebco looks like, whether we’ve ever owned one or not. How did a fishing reel that’s been on the market for more than 60 years become so iconic?
It’s actually a pretty interesting story. The fact that the reel was first introduced by a time bomb company using a watch-maker’s design makes it all the more so.
Back to Basics
First and foremost, it’s worth looking back and acknowledging that the fishing reels available to anglers in the early part of the 20th century were incredibly rudimentary compared to what we have today. Baitcasting reels and spinning reels had both been available in America since the 1870s, but both had their drawbacks.
The baitcasting reels of the day were clunky, prone to backlash, and unsuitable for casting light lures and baits. Spinning reels had issues with line twist and snarls, and were only just beginning to develop some of their modern refinements, like a fixed spool and wire bail.
The reels created by Zebco, alternately known as spincasting reels or closed-face reels, solved these issues while creating a reel that was so easy to operate that any novice could pick one up and immediately begin fishing.
In 1947, a watch-maker from Texas named R.D. Hull was at the meat counter of a local grocery store. After watching the counter clerk pull string off a fixed spool, he was struck by the idea that the same basic principle could be applied to a fishing reel, making it simpler and easier to use, and eliminating the backlash issues that plagued many of the reels available at that time.
Within a year, R.D. Hull took his idea to the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Zero Hour Bomb Company. Known for making electric time bombs for oil drilling, the company had been around since 1932. Much like Hull himself, they had never made a fishing reel before, but the potential was obvious.
A Classic Is Born
After two years of development, the Zero Hour Bomb Company introduced its first reel, called the Standard, in 1949. This model was bare-bones in its design, even compared to the 33. But it quickly became a hit, even though its resemblance to a beer can grew into a running joke.
As Standards rolled off the assembly line, reps from the company set up booths at sports expos across the company, and put on shows of casting tricks to demonstrate that the reel was completely backlash-proof.
All the while, R.D. Hull continued to tinker with his original design. Two new versions of the reel, the Model 11 and Model 22, were both released in 1953. The following year, the Model 33 hit the shelves, and it hasn’t left the public consciousness since.
What Makes the Zebco 33 Special?
When the Model 33 was introduced, it came with a price tag of $19.50, which is equivalent to $214.70 in today’s dollars. It wasn’t a budget model or a beginners’ reel as it’s often seen today. It was a luxury, an exciting innovation, the absolute pinnacle of fishing reel technology at that time.
The 33 had a few things going for it, including rugged construction and easy-to-use simplicity. It also had a vastly improved push-button compared to previous models, and an excellent drag adjustment dial. The Model 33 perfected an already-innovative design, and the result was a reel for the ages.
Into the History Books
The Zero Hour Bomb Company sold millions upon millions of reels over the coming decades. By 1956, the Model 33 was selling so well that they stopped making oil drilling equipment to focus entirely on fishing reels. They shortened their name to Zebco that same year, after a friend of President Eisenhower had a reel sent to the White House and accidentally triggered a bomb scare.
Zebco has introduced several well-regarded successors to the Model 33 over the years, including their Omega series of reels in the 1980s. But the Zebco 33 remains one of the most recognizable fishing reels ever made.
New versions of the Zebco 33 were released in 2004 and 2014 to mark the reel’s 50th and 60th anniversaries, respectively. The new models featured a few updates to the design, with new features like Electronic Bite Alert, but ultimately don’t look all that different from the original.
Is the Zebco 33 Still Relevant Today?
We have a lot more and better options for fishing reels these days than our parents’ and grandparents’ generations had. Spinning reels have evolved and improved, and by now have overtaken spincasting models like the Zebco 33 in popularity.
Modern Zebco reels are often seen as beginner reels, and they typically retail for around $30, putting them squarely in the “budget friendly” category. Still, is there a better reel to introduce kids to fishing with? If there is, I can’t think of one.
Part of the decline in these reels’ standing may have to do with their quality. Somewhere along the line, it seems like the craftsmanship and build materials began to suffer, as Zebcos increasingly came to be seen as borderline-disposable reels to be used exclusively by beginners.
Fortunately, it seems like the Zebco 33 reels being made today have regained some ground when it comes to quality. With all-metal gears, dual ceramic pick-up pins, graphite frames and stainless steel covers, they work well and can last a long time with proper maintenance.
It’s also still possible to find Zebco reels that were made 50 years ago and still work like new. Picking one up reliably provides a warm feeling of nostalgia, no matter what era you grew up fishing in.
Alan Dale is an experienced backpacker and adventure sports athlete who pays the bills by writing. Married with a small brood, Alan often has his kids in tow on many of his adventures.