Review: Penn 515 Mag 4

30/01/2021 UPDATE: Since writing this review I’ve used this reel a handful of times without any problems. However, recently I took it out for a few practice casts and discovered that the knob that controls the mag braking had lost its hard stop at either end of the braking range and didn’t appear to be controlling the brakes any more. Upon getting it home and taking off the endplate, I could see that, although the cogs were still aligned, turning the knob wasn’t moving them and not adjusting the braking. I’ve not heard of anybody else having this particular issue with this reel as yet but I would be extremely surprised if mine was the only unit that had this fault. I am now in the process of making a warranty claim and I will update this page again when there are further developments.

12/05/2021 UPDATE: I returned this reel under warranty and I received it back repaired after roughly two weeks. I cast it a few times and the issues seemed to be resolved but I didn’t actually fish with it until fairly recently. I’m pleased to report that everything seems fine with the reel now and my confidence in it is gradually returning. I’ll update again in six months or so to comment on how the reel is holding up to regular fishing duties.

Pros

  • Feels smooth and competent
  • Easy to slow down for short range/big baits
  • Light and well-balanced 
  • Great drag system
  • Still has a niche of its own

Cons

  • Mag system makes it tricky to eke out maximum casting potential
  • Has a lot of making up to do to restore confidence in the Mag range

Although many anglers will remember the original Penn 525 Mag reels fondly, most would agree that subsequent generations have not built upon the MK I’s solid foundations. The 525 Mag 2, for instance, missed the mark by a good mile. The original had issues of its own: the mag control was easy to jog while casting, the structure was prone to distorting (causing problems like the reel squealing like a pig every other cast) and the anti-reverse wasn’t great. The Mag 2 fixed the cast control problem but kept the other defects, made them worse and then added a few more of its own (such as ratchets that stopped clicking after only a few months use). True, it was less prone to casting mishaps but, all in all, it represented a step backwards rather than an improvement on the original model. In today’s market, there seems little point in Penn still producing new versions of the 525 when you can buy a mag-controlled Fathom 15. For 5oz+ fishing, the Fathom is a vastly superior tool on all levels and its couple of ounces of extra weight over the 525 is not a concern.

The Mag 4s feature a knob to control braking, rather than the dial of previous generations

I bought three 525 and two 515 Mag 2s at the time they were released and, while I would consider the 525s barely adequate for general fishing, I did enjoy fishing with the 525’s little brothers. For whatever reason, my pair of 515s didn’t seem to suffer with quite as many of the problems that their larger siblings did (apart from their shared tendency to occasionally trap the line between spool and cage). The 515s are also a really nice fit for lighter rods, which is something that I can’t say so easily for the equivalent from the Fathom range: the Fathom 12. For a few years, I’ve paired my AFAW 4&Bait with a MK I Fathom 12 fitted with an aftermarket mag control. This reel has served me really well but it has always felt a bit ungainly on the light rod. After recently scratching a two year itch and buying a Graphex Tip Tornado Ultra Lite, I was looking for something with a little less weight and a more balanced feel to team it up with. Enter the Penn 515 Mag 4.

On paper, the Mag 4s don’t seem much different to the Mag 3s, save for nicking the colour scheme of the current Daiwa Saltists and the mag dial being replaced with a knob. Incidentally, although the mags are now controlled with a knob rather than a dial, the magnetic braking system itself remains the same design as previous generations. By turning the knob, you are either covering or revealing an array of four magnets, lessening or increasing braking on the spool respectively. Penn has also used this braking system in the CS version of the Fathom II (and presumably in the standard models, although I’ve yet to see inside one of those). A welcome addition in the Mag 4s are strengthening bars between the foot of the reel and the cage crossbar. Hopefully, this will prove useful in combating distortion of the cage and Mag 4 owners won’t have to put up with their reel making a noise like a stuck pig when casting.

The 515 holds a decent amount of line

Like the Mag 3, the Mag 4 has stainless steel main and pinion gears. Penn doesn’t specify exactly what type of stainless steel has been used (not all stainless steel gears are created equal – read more about the properties and varieties of stainless steel gears here – https://www.sportfishingmag.com/fishing-reel-gears-explained-0/) but the fact that Penn has added extra support to the ‘uprated’ graphite cage should hopefully mean that the structure is sound enough to function harmoniously. It certainly feels smooth and not at all grindy in use.

For this review, I decided to initially use the reel just as it comes from the factory, with no tweaks or modifications save for a little end float adjustment. Normally, I would think about cleaning and re-oiling the spool bearings (as these are usually lagged with grease), but I figured that this wouldn’t be something that everybody would do. So I didn’t. 

Straight out of the box, the Mag 4 is a good looking reel and it does have a higher quality feel about it than I remember the Mag 2s possessing. After a few rotations and clicks, I was satisfied that mine seemed to be in order and I filled it up with 15lb Varivas Yellow Sport, along with an 80lb leader. My first casts were made from the shingle of Chesil Beach, where I put the reel to some of the everyday tasks that I normally use my 4oz setup for: feathering and fishing at closer range. The 515 acquitted itself on these fronts with great aplomb, feeling smooth and confident and with the brakes working well. Satisfied that it could sail through lighter use, I strapped it to the seat of one of my Graphex Sports and fired out a 7oz lead and a ray bait. The 515 didn’t flinch at this, although on my next cast I got greedy with the mag control and was dealt a crackoff for my insolence.

The 515 in action, fishing a surf beach

For its next test, I brought the 515 along for a session at a local haunt in pursuit of ray and bass. This shallow surf beach can be a deceptively testing venue, with a strong lateral run of tide and an undulating seabed that frequently grabs at your lead on the retrieve. With no need to fish at anything over medium range, I set the mag control to its maximum setting and enjoyed trouble-free fishing for the next five hours. Fortunately, the ray were at home and they were hungry. I totalled five small eyes with two coming to the rod paired with the 515. The little reel made quiet, assured work of its job, the drag system worked flawlessly (I’ve yet to have a problem with the drag on a Penn reel) and I was suitably impressed.

By this point, I was feeling pretty confident that, at least straight out of the box, the 515 had the guts to cope with any fishing task that I might reasonably give it. But what about casting performance? Since the mag control has not really changed since the first 515, its casting qualities are more or less a known quantity for me. The range of adjustment is the same and, despite the new mag control knob, it is still tricky to make fine tweaks to the braking while the cast is in flight. It’s possible, but, for the sake of practicality when fishing, it’s far easier to find the reel’s sweet spot and set-and-forget.

With all the Penn Mag reels I’ve owned and used, I’ve found that the difference between a reel that holds back a little and one that serves up the odd crack off is usually as little as one click on the mag dial. This has not changed with the Mag 4 and, as usual, I erred on the side of safety to ensure that I wasn’t decorating the seabed with my lost end gear. Keeping things safe for casting meant that the reel felt good off the mark, but pedestrian from mid-flight onwards (you can clearly hear the reel holding back in this clip). Still, the casts went a good way and I was happy that I would be able to fish at a decent distance with it.

The Penn made easy work of landing this small eyed ray

Ultimately, I think the braking system in this reel does hold it back from achieving its full potential as a lightweight, long-casting beach reel with balls. Replacing the factory-installed mag assembly with a custom mono mag would solve the issues and allow greater control of the cast but then, why buy this model if you are going to modify it anyway? The Mag 3 (which seems to be much the same reel) is now on sale and you could use the saving to pay for the mod. 

Straight out of the box, what this reel is good for is predictable, painless general fishing where absolute maximum distance is not a priority. It’s great strength is its versatility. It’s pleasant to use on a light rod (this would pair nicely with a 2-4oz outfit in a surf bassing situation, for example) but is still fine with being strapped to the bottom of a 14 footer and used to haul out a ray. I mostly plan to use it for ‘third rod’ fishing, where I’m doing things like feathering, prospecting for smaller species or trying an alternative bait to what my two main rods are fishing. It can also double as a spare in some situations too, in case I have any issues with my usual Fathom 15s.

Verdict: The 515 Mag 4 is a tidy little reel that feels great to fish with and can be used for a variety of purposes. Unless modified, it’s not going to rival something like a 7HT Mag for reliable distance casting performance, although it does boast stronger gearing, a ratchet and a 6.1:1 retrieve. With this mix of qualities, the 515 still has a niche all to itself and continues to be relevant. However, considering the Mag 4’s patchy lineage, there are still question marks over the durability of some of its features and with that in mind, I would need a good bit more time using this reel before I could recommend it with confidence.

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