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]

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]

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]

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]

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    

Vintage Chapman & Son Theres N.y. Stop Latch Reel 1870 Era 1 3/4" Dia. ! ! !Antique Westley Richards 4" Dingley Made Aluminium Fly Fishing Reel - D1 Check -Reel Abu Cardinal 3 Zebco + Box Sweden Moulinet Mulinello Vintage Vecchio RareRestored Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500c Upgraded Into A 24k Cdl By Simon ShimomuraVintage Pflueger Progress 80 Brass Skeleton Fly Fishing Reel Superb!Abu Record No.1550c Casting Reel With Box, Made In Sweden #523Abu Garcia Classic Ambassadeur 5500c "prototype" By Simon ShimomuraVintage Solitude 4 Fly Reel - Great Shape - Priced 2 Sell Very Rare First Edition, Single Dated, Fixed Handle 3" Brass Billinghurst ReelLot Of 2 Green Penn 109 And 209 Vintage Fishing Reels....functions Perfectly Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 4500c Restored And Customized Into Cdl By Simon ShimomuraVintage Bottle Of Meek Fishing Reel OilVintage Abu Cardinal 77 Fixed Spool Fishing Reel C1970's Foot Stamp 730207Lot Of 4 Vintage Spinning Fishing Reels Italian Italy Pelican Zangi Ted NettunoVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 2500c Lure Bait Casting Reel # 760200 Works GoodVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5600c Baitcasting #720200 Bass Fishing Reel + BoxAlcedo Mark Iv Vintage Saltwater Spinning Fishing Reel Made In Italy Vintage Edward Vom Hofe Large Fishing Reel Leather Case Endicott & Wilson Co Salt Water Fishing Vintage Reel Big Game Unmatched Quality Nib Abu Garcia Morrum Ambassadeur M5600c BaitcastingAbu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000d Casting Reel, Case, Spare Handle, Wrench & PartsVintage 1920s Perfect Reel Brass Back Silky Oak 4 1/2 Inch Charles Alvey MadeVintage Antique Fly Fishing Reel Hardy Bros St John Mk Ii 3 7/8"Excellent Vintage Daiwa 700 Fly Reel In Orig Box C/w Papers From A Kansas EstateThe Celebrated Reels Of Edward Vom Hofe By Ted Bingham Signed CopyVintage Penn 710 Spinning ReelVintage Antique Fly Fishing Reel Allcock Stanley Reel Vintage Fly Fishing Reel Pflueger Progress 80 Yard Brass Skeleton Fly Reel L@@k Vtg Penn 430 Ss Ob Manual Lube Usa Mint RareVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5600 Ca Sweden Bait Casting Fishing Reel Vintage Martin Fly Reel, Model Mg-3Vintage Penn 5500ss Spinning Reel, Usa, Nice!Vintage Heddon And Sons 3-35 Tournament Casting Reel With Leather Case ! ! Unusual Waltonian Side Mount Casting ReelOrvis Battenkill Fly ReelVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 2500c Casting Fishing ReelVintage Antique Fly Fishing Reel J. Vom Hofe Trout Reel 2 1/4"Penn Model 707 Reel W/box, Instructions - W/manual Pickup, Right Hand DriveVtg Penn 440 Ss Ob Manual Manual Lube Usa RareNib Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 4600c4 Winch The Original Baitcast Blue/gold SwedenPflueger Medalist Fishing Reel #1494Vintage Antique Brass Fly Fishing Reel 4 1/2"Penn Model 706 Reel W/box, Instructions - W/gold Medallion, Manual PickupVintage Very Rare Pflueger Templar Patented Big Game Fishing Reel #500Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000 Baitcast Fishing Reels For PartsPenn "ultralight" Model 716 Reel With Box, Extra Spool & InstructionsNib Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500cs Pro Rocket Black Gold Baitcasting SwedenVintage Horton Mfg. Co. Meek No. 30 Bait Casting Reel In Excellent Condition ! !Penn "spinfisher" Model 700 Reel With Counter Display Box, Papers & Spare SpoolVintage Fishing Leather Case Reel Box Abercrombie & Fitch Co Vom Hofe LeonardGarcia Landex J.w. Young & Sons 4 " Fly Reel Mint In Box Abu Garcia 5000 C Ambassadeur Reel Abu Ambassadeur 6600cPenn "ultrasport" Model 714 Reel With Box, Extra Spool & InstructionsVtg Penn 720 Z Ob Manual Lube Usa Brown/gold RareVintage "pflueger Medalist 1492 Fly Reel" With Diamolite Line Guard! Akron,usa!!Vintage Garcia Mitchell Reel Model 488 Excellent Condition! Nice! Surf Fishing.Nice Vintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 2050 Narrow Spool Casting ReelVintage Pflueger Medalist No. 1494-1/2 Fly Reel With Line, NiceVintage Antique Fly Fishing Reel Hardy Bros "st. John" 3 7/8"