Angling historians have long been frustrated in trying to trace the history of the fishing reel. In 1651, English literature first reported a “wind” installed within two feet of the lower end of the rod. This is usually accepted as the earliest known written reference to a reel. However, there are examples of Oriental paintings that depict Chinese fishermen using reels of various sizes that date to the twelfth century. Below is the earliest known depiction of a reel titled Angler on a Wintry Lake, a painting by Ma Yuan, c1195.
Until the 1800’s the reel was used primarily as a storage device for excess line. However, in the 19th century there was a rapid development of the multiplying reel, which allowed reels to evolve into casting devices. Although multiplying reels were probably invented in Great Britain, the reels of George Snyder, of Paris, Kentucky, have become the most famous 19th century multipliers. Snyder’s reels were developed in the 1820s, and became the basis of the “Kentucky Reels”, made by such artisans as Meek, Milam, Sage, Hardman and Gayle. Most of these makers were trained as jewelers and had experience cutting gears and producing precision lathe work. Copies of these hand-made reels were soon available from mass-production assembly lines from the major producers at a fraction of the price of a hand-fitted reel. This stimulated the sale of multiplying reels and increased the popularity of “bait casting”.
During the middle of the 19th century multiplying reels were also being developed in New York City and other locations in the northeastern U.S. The “New York” reel was usually a brass or nickel-silver reel with a serpentine crank or a “ball-handle”. Famous makers of this style of reel included the Vom Hofes, Conroy, Crook, Kopf, and many others. An example is shown to the right. The New York reel was generally larger and heavier than the Kentucky reel, and more often used for trolling, rather than casting, a lure or bait.
Multipliers were not the only reels being developed by American craftsmen at this time. We had wonderful inventions and improvements in fly reels by Orvis, Leonard, the Vom Hofes, Malleson, and many others. In 1880 the first successful automatic reel was perfected by Francis Loomis. Some of the reels developed in the late 1800s by these craftsmen are avidly sought by collectors today. The German silver and hard-rubber products of this period are especially prized.
In the late 1800s there were developments in reels used for tarpon and other big game fish. Anglers from around the world discovered the abundant salt water game fish in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, and reels and drag mechanisms were developed in response to the demand created by these new interests.
The industrial revolution affected fishing reel manufacturing as new companies opened to mass-produce reels of various qualities. The early 1900s saw tremendous growth in all facets of reel production as such companies as Shakespeare, Meisselbach, Hendryx, Montague and Pflueger produced relatively low-priced, high-quality reels. They were joined before the Great Depression by others, including Bronson, Ocean City, and South Bend.
The depression of the 1930’s weeded the reel making field quite a bit, but the end of World War II in 1945 brought a huge number of new companies into the reel manufacturing business. Many of these companies lasted but a few years, but left their reels for today’s collector to search out.
“Spinning” or fixed spool reels have been produced for over a century, with the first patented reel coming from this country – the Winans & Whistler. An illustration of an 1870s striped bass fisherman with his Winans & Whistler reel is shown to the left. Fishing with fixed spool reels became very popular in England and Europe, but it took Bache Brown and his Luxor Mastereel to bring the method to the American fisherman during the late 1930s and after World War II. After the war spinning reel importation and production in the US increased rapidly, and spinning became one of the most popular techniques used by American fishermen. The U. S. and foreign reels of this period are much sought after by collectors.
The popularity of modern bass fishing tournaments brought a resurgence in interest in bait casting reels, and since the late 1970s manufacturers turned development and production toward these products. This field of collecting is rapidly developing, as the fine reels produced at the end of the 20th century are still readily available.