Today in The Cardinal 1976, we’re going to look at one of the best spinning reels ever made, the Zebco ABU Cardinal series. It didn’t have all the bearings and whistles of today’s reels but you’ll be hard pressed to find another that sold as many units as this series.
Recently I was scanning through my 1976 Bass Pro Shops catalog and was admiring the reels. Johnny Morris had a pretty good selection of reels back then, including three versions of Garcia DL reels, the 5500CDL, 5000CDL, and Mitchell 300DL. With a price tag of $99.95 each, I decided to move on to something I could have afforded back at the time I was 12 years old.
A few pages later I found what I was looking for. A reel that was affordable yet stout. A reel that had lines like a Jeep, unmistakable. A reel made with Swedish accuracy and precision. The French needed to step up their game.
Released to the United States market in 1967, The Cardinal series of reels was licensed to ZEBCO. I have always found this curious since ABU had been licensed to Garcia Corp since 1956 two years after the 5000 and 6000 casting reels came to the States. In the 1960 Garcia catalog you even see an early ABU spinning reel that has all the DNA of the Cardinal.
But at this time Garcia Corp already had a contract to sell Mitchell spinning reels and had it since the 1950s. Looking at old Garcia catalogs, the Garcia ABU spinning reel was only around two years before it disappeared from the Garcia lineup. To the best of my knowledge, Mitchell must have flexed their muscles and Garcia dropped the product.
Knowing they had a solid product, ABU must have shopped for another outlet and landed with ZEBCO in or around 1966.
The first two reels to be offered in the States were the Cardinal 6 and 7, both saltwater reels. Then in 1970 they released the Cardinal 4. This reel became one of the most sought-after spinning reels for bass fishing nationwide. Everything about its construction was corrosion resistant, using only stainless steel and bronze on all moving parts. This is the reel that really started the Mitchell vs. Cardinal feud.
Then in 1975, ABU released the Cardinal 3, the ultralight version of the series. In the west, where we primarily fished 6-pound line in the ultra-clear waters, this reel shined. It replaced the Mitchell 308 and 408 reels that had become the standard for light line.
As a testament of how well built these reels were, many of them are still in use today by diehard ABU fans. I have three of them from my childhood that are still in great condition and a solid cleaning would put them back in the rotation.
What amazed me about the reels in this Bass Pro Shops catalog was the price. The suggested retail on these reels was right at $40. But Johnny was selling them for $21.99 and $25.99. I remember my boss at the tackle shop buying reels from Bass Pro Shops because he couldn’t get them cheaper from our jobber. Johnny, even in the early days, had figured out how to buy.