Credit for the invention of the fishing reel belongs to the Chinese, thanks to a description of a fishing reel in a book from the 3rd century. In the United States, the first "multiplier" fishing reel (each turn of the handle resulted in four turns of the reel spool) is far more recent, around 1820. It was the brainchild of a Kentucky watch maker and silversmith named George Snyder. Snyder reels, which were marked "G.S." on their sides, may have resembled the British imports of the day, but they were the pride of Kentucky.

B.C. Milam was another Kentucky watch maker who shifted gears and went into fishing reels. In partnership with J.F. and B.F. Meeks (who had been making brass reels on their own from 1835 until 1850), these men are largely responsible for what are today known as the Kentucky Reels, a phrase that connotes a precision-crafted mechanism of exquisite workmanship. The partnership lasted until 1880 when B.F. struck out on his own.

Meek’s reels were the first to have spiral cut internal gears and access holes to make lubrication easy. From 1882 until 1890, Meek reels were labeled "B.F. Meek." When his son Sylvanus joined the firm, "and Sons" was added to the reel’s mark. At the turn of the 20th century, for only about two years, some Meek reels were labeled as "Blue Grass Reel Works."

Around the same time that the Kentucky reel makers were making their mark on fishing history, a father-and-son duo in New York City were producing reels that are among the most highly prized by collectors of antique fishing reels today. In 1860, Friedrich vom Hofe and his son Julius set up shop on Fulton Street. They made reels in solid nickel, silver, brass, and (scarcest of all) hard rubber. Where the Kentucky makers proudly showed off bolts and screw heads on the sides of their reels, the vom Hofes kept the sides of theirs clean and unencumbered by evidence of the reel’s construction.

Two other vom Hofes also made reels. The first was Julius vom Hofe (a different Julius than Fredrich’s son), who established his New York company in 1857. Julius was granted nine patents between 1867 and 1924. His brass and nickel bass reels, as well as his brass, nickel, and rubber tarpon reels, are highly collectible today. So are the reels of Edward vom Hofe, who started his company in New York 1867 (the firm would move to Philadelphia in 1940). Like Julius, Edward’s specialty was saltwater and surf reels, and he won numerous patents for the click and drag features in his reels.

Thomas Chubb of Vermont began making reels in 1869. His baitcasting reels had a protruding thumb lever, and the unique design makes them highly sought after today. Some of his reels were named after the influential fishing author Dr. J.A. Henshall and were co-designed by Dr. William Van Antwerp of Kentucky. To make the lineage even more complicated, some of these later Henshall-Van Antwerp models were produced by none other than Julius vom Hofe.

Another Vermont reel maker was Charles Orvis, whose nickel-plated brass fly reels were patented in 1874 (the early nickel silver reels are quite rare). To the north and east in B...

The scarcity of James Dealy’s reels from 1895 to 1902 would have made them collectible today regardless of what they looked like, but the fact that they are handsomely machined cylinders of nickel silver is the icing on the cake. Other works of reel art were those designed by William Carter and Jack Welch for Heddon. Sold mostly during the 1920s, these reels include the No. 30, which was the top-of-the-line model and is now very rare. Also hard to find today are any of the full-jeweled tournament (FJT) models featuring sapphire bearings.

William Shakespeare’s patented level-wind reel would be the company’s first flagship product in 1897. After World War I, Shakespeare produced the Hercules, a "heavy-duty" reel, and the nickel-plated Beetzel, which was designed to automatically release the line on a spool when the rod was cast. But the best seller ever for Shakespeare—indeed, for just about any tackle company—was the Wondereel of 1939.

Last but not least is Pflueger, who, in 1916, introduced its Baitcasting Reel, a reel that quickly gained a reputation for reliability and dependable action while casting. Pflueger sold these reels under its Four Brothers brand, the brothers in question being E. A., Joseph, George, and Charles Pflueger. Models included the Delite fly reel, in 40-, 60-, 80-, and 100-yard sizes. By 1924, Pflueger had largely dropped the Four Brothers name in favor of the model names like the saltwater Eclipse and Mohawk reels—the Castwell came along in 1931.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Side-Mount Reels

Side-Mount Reels

Jim Schottenham's extraordinarily in-depth look at antique side-mount fishing reels, with a special focus on the wo… [read review or visit site]

Australian Big Game Fishing Reels

Australian Big Game Fishing Reels

Jeff Overington's tribute to vintage Australian and British big game fishing reels. Key sections include Australian… [read review or visit site]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

Joes Old Lures

Joes Old Lures

Joe Yates' website is a great showcase for hundreds of old fishing lures, providing high resolution photos and in m… [read review or visit site]

Mrlurebox.com

Mrlurebox.com

Take a big bite - you won't want to just nibble at Robbie Pavey's gallery of over 300 antique fishing lures, many w… [read review or visit site]

AntiqueLures.com

AntiqueLures.com

This extensive site features over 500 pages of information on pre-1940 wood fishing lures and lure boxes. Start wit… [read review or visit site]

Oldfishinglure.com

Oldfishinglure.com

This site is sure to snag you with its great collection of fishing lures from the early 1900s. Includes lures from … [read review or visit site]

TackleCollecting.com

TackleCollecting.com

Larry Nicholson's site dedicated to vintage fishing lures. Features beautiful images of lures and boxes from Fred A… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

2 7/8" Hardy Perfect Fly Reel, Vintage - Pre-war Mark IiEdward Vom Hofe 621 6/0 Reel Mint Restored Superb No Reserve!Exceptional And Pristine Hardy Bros. St.john Fly Reel In Case With PaperworkVintage Hardy Bros The 'silex' No 2 Fishing ReelFine Fin Nor No 3 Anti Reverse Fly ReelVintage Abu Ambassadeur 2500c ,2500 C ( Short Twin Handle ) ,# 751000 Antique Edward Vom Hofe & Co. Reel Fishing Lure Rod Vintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 7000 Lure Bait Casting Reel #730400 Works ExcllntVintage Abu Ambassadeur 6500c , 6500 C Big A ,# 730601Another Penn Senator 2/0 Salt Water Reel, Red Handle KnobVery Early Vintage Pflueger Medalist 1494 Fly Reel Pat Pend Round Line GuideBrown Trout Sculpture Carving Fishing Reel Look Mount With Orvis Fly Demott RodB.f. Meek & Sons #3 Ky Reel3 Vintage Abu Ambassadeur Reels In Good Used Cond.-5000, 5000c, 5000d L@@k!!!Vintage Old Pflueger Progress Brass Skeleton Fly Fishing Reel U.s.a Made VgcPenn Sea Ford Casting Reel No 72 150 Yards With Box & Wrench, Pre-warPenn Senator 2/0 Salt Water Reel, Ex-Abu Cardinal 54 Vintage Fishing Reel Spinning Reel.Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500 C Fishing Reel Gunmetal Blue-grey, Near Mint, Look!yHardy Marquis Salmon No1 Reel Case And BoxBrass And Wood Gaff Antique Victorian Period RareL.l. Bean / Penn No. 249 Deep Sea Reel Waffle Click Pre-war Ex!Penn Master Mariner 349 Conventional Reel Made In UsaVintage J.w. Young & Sons Fly Reel 3.5" Diameter - Made In EnglandVintage Johnson "the Century" 100a Spincasting Reel - Excellent Looker & WorkerVintage Fishing Reels+shimano Conquest,mitchell498,496,402. Penn 704.930. Early 9/0 J.a. Coxe Maker L.a. Cal. Pat. 5.27.24 Big Game Reel Vintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6000c Baitcasting Bass Fishing Reel 6000 C MintScientific Anglers System 7 Fly Fishing ReelPenn Ultrasport 714z Spinning Reel - Good Pre-owned Condition - Operates Nicely!Mitchell Garcia 300s Vintage Fishing Reel Spinning Reel.Scarce Julius Vom Hofe 3/0 Reel NrAntique Cozzone German Silver Reel Fishing Lure Rod Bait308, 408, 310 Mitchell Reel Parts & Some Spools - Lots Of Parts In Good ShapeVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5600c High Speed Baitcasting Fishing Reel SwedenDaiwa Millionaire 5hs Biatcasting Reel Steelhead/salmon/bass Excellent ConditionC.1960's Zebco Casting Combo W/no.33 "spinner" Reel & No.3366 6' Fiberglass RodVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Model?? Serial #730301Vintage Penn 4200 Ss Ultralite Spinning Reel - Pristine Condition - Free Ship Beautiful Vintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5600c 5600 C High Speed Reel SwedenVintage & Rare Hurd Super Caster Rod & Reel W/ Original Case And BookVintage Zebco Cardinal 3 Spinning Reel Made In SwedenVintage Misc Zebco Cardinal Reel Parts,3,4,5,6,7, Handles,bearings,springs,bailsVintage Goite Fishing Reel, Hooded, Indiana Style, Side MountVintage Edward Vom Hofe Reel Maker Ny 2/0 621 Good Working Condition!~ Pflueger 'hawkeye"' 60 Yd Fly Fishing Reel ~ Hard Rubber And German Silver ~Vintage Zebco Cardinal 6x Hi-speed Spinning Reel/in Box/very Nice/very Rare!Vintage Zebco Cardinal 4 Spinning Fishing ReelKingisher Sea Lion Salt Water Reel W/ Box, Nos!Old St. Croix 1600 Spincast Fishing Reel Rare CollectableAbu Cardinal 77 X Vintage Reel Boxed Nice Edward Vom Hofe 3/0 #621 Reel NrVintage Rogue Model 200 Fly Reel With Original Reel Bag & Paperwork Nice!!!Vintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000 Baitcasting Baitcast Bass Fishing ReelAntique Star Back Wooden Fishing Reel - Horn Handles -3.5" Brass Star Back Reel Vintage Pflueger 1492 Medalist Fly Fishing ReelAntique Star Back Wooden Fishing Reel - Horn Handles - 5" Brass Star Back ReelAn Early 1950's J W Younds RapidexAbu Ambassadeur No. 6500 Red Fishing Reel - Made In Sweden - No Reserve!Rare Allcock / Youngs 4" Centrepin Reel Reg Des No 734850