This section describes the functional features of fishing reels and how they were made throughout history from the earliest reels to the present time. The following features are described in detail:
Brakes, Drags, and Stops
Brakes that retard spool rotation have been available on reels for centuries, and they have served various purposes. They have facilitated keeping lines taut while fishing. They have provided resistance to the pull of hooked fish (drags). They have minimized backlash while casting (antibacklash brakes). Many early reels had specialized brakes, called stops, that prevented any spool rotation at all.
Two types of brakes were used in early reels. One was the check, which used a flexible pawl that engaged the teeth of a gear mounted coaxially with the spool. The check acted as a brake but also functioned as an alarm that warned the angler that a fish was on the line. Realizing that it provided only minimal drag, American anglers came to call the device a click, and it has been used primarily as an alarm. Other brakes in early reels were merely flat springs that provided friction against the spools or pressed short pins against them.
During the late 19th century, more anglers were catching larger fish and needed better drags than their thumbs or leather pads provided. Some inventors added new types of friction brakes to their reels. A few were drum brakes, but most employed brake shoes, pads, or discs with some resilient material, e.g., leather, that could be compressed against the spool or a gear to slow spool rotation. The frictional pressure was adjustable with some kind of external mechanism like a threaded nut. Some of these drags were offered as retrofittable handles for reels that lacked effective drags. The star drag that eventually appeared on larger reels, ca. 1915, is now used almost universally on ocean trolling reels and freshwater baitcasting reels.
As the construction of reels improved, anglers increasingly used them for casting, not just for retrieving and storing line. Backlashes ensued. But as the 19th century progressed, reelmakers designed adjustable brakes for relieving anglers’ thumbs of the sole responsibility for combatting backlash. Of course, some brakes could serve a dual purpose of providing drag and minimizing backlash. Many of the antibacklash brakes used adjustable spool bearings to vary the friction applied to the spinning spool journals. Others used centrifugal brakes that varied brake pad pressure during the cast. Some brakes were activated by the outgoing line, which could shift some machinery that could retard the spool during the cast. Eventually, the magnetic brake would combat backlash without a need for contact between moving parts.
A freespool clutch is a means of disconnecting the crank of the multiplying reel from the spool by interrupting the drive train. The crank may be detached somehow from the gears, the gears separated from each other, or the gear train detached from the spool. This capability permits the spool to spin with minimal friction. It helps increase casting distance, and it allows the fisherman to fish with no tension on the line.
The first freespool clutches were added to some New York-style reels in the mid-1850s, and they now are used almost universally in baitcasting reels and saltwater trolling reels. Most of the older clutches were operated by levers, buttons, or knobs. Some clutches have been operated by pulling the crank outwards or pushing it in. A few 19th-century clutches were operated automatically by cranking backward, and automatic clutches became used more commonly in the 20th century.
Many different types of mechanical devices have been used to wind fishing lines evenly on reel spools during retrieval. The first was invented in 1860 by a hardware dealer named Mark Palmer, and it consisted of a line guide that traveled back-and-forth on a multiple-return cylinder that rotated when the reel was cranked. The design has been the basis for the vast majority of level winds since.
Reel designers soon came up with variations of Palmer’s design but also began to devise different means of moving a level-winding line guide. The earliest level-winding reel that we are sure was marketed was the Costigan-Henry reel, introduced in 1889. The reel was also equipped with an anti-backlash brake. The first widely successful reels with mechanical level winds were the Wheeler-McGregor Milwaukee Reel, introduced in 1895, and the Shakespeare Style C, introduced two years later. Use of level winds was scorned by many “purist” casters, but their use grew in popularity among fishermen, thanks largely to the Shakespeare company’s advertising and adoption of level-wind designs based on vast improvements of Palmer’s invention.
In the decades that followed, level-wind variations of the Palmer design included line guides that tilted down and out of the way during the cast. Redifor Beetzsel reels of the 1910s are the best-known examples. Level-winding attachments that could be retrofitted to non-level wind reels found a welcoming market.
Level winds that swung line guides on horizontal or vertical axes also hit the market. Among them were Heddon reels with “windshield-wiper” level winds invented by Jack Welch and sold during the 1920s. Manufacturers also sold a variety of retrofittable level winds with guides that were swung back-and-forth by the fisherman. Some reels depended on “wobbling” of the reel itself or of a tilted spool. From the 1930s on, some marketed reels relied on spiral, rotating bars in front of the spool or spiral flanges on the spool arbor to wind retrieved line evenly.
Today, almost all level winds operate similarly to Palmer’s 1860 machine but are made with materials and line-guide designs that have improved them immensely.
The term “quick-takedown” refers to reels that can be at least partially disassembled without tools. Such designs facilitate oiling and greasing of internal parts, cleaning reels thoroughly after use, making repairs, and replacing damaged parts.
Many early British reels had threaded caps that could be removed for access to the checks (clicks) that they protected. In the centuries after such reels were first made, manufacturers have devised various methods to permit tool-free reel disassembly. One popular method employed threaded clamping rings to fasten sideplates to reel frames. Alternatively, threaded sideplates could be fastened directly to threaded frames.
Manufacturers designed many reels with bayonet mounts. These designs include connections of frames and sideplates, one of which has extensions that fit into the other’s corresponding recesses, usually requiring a subsequent, partial rotation to lock the components together.
Another means of enabling tool-free disassembly is to clamp sideplates to the ends of a reel frame by means of a long threaded rod that is located within a hollow spool arbor. There have been other types of quick-takedown designs, as well, and some of them are illustrated in the accompanying photographs.