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    

Pflueger Hawkeye Fly Fishing Reel Hard Rubber And German Silver Julius Vom Hofe 3" German Silver 1/0 Fly ReelSmall 2 1/4" Julius Vom Hofe #3 1/2 German Silver Fly ReelOld Vintage Ambassadeur 2050 Fishing Reel Abu Sweden Baitcasting Garcia NrPeerless Fly ReelAbercrombie & Fitch 80 Yd. German Silver Kentucky ReelAntique Billinghurst Side Mount Safety Fly Fishing Reel Patented August 9th 1859Unused In Original Zip Case, Hardy Princess Fly ReelMeisselbach #582 Tripart 80 Yd Reel In Box W/ PaperBill Ballan Fly ReelVintage Abu Ambassadeur 5500c In Excllnt. Cond. With Box & Accessories. L@@k!!Vintage Pfluger Medalist 1342Peerless # 5 Salmon Fly ReelHardy Perfect Fly Reel 3-5/8sNear Mint Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500c Fishing Reel 1978 Orvis - 50a Vintage Ultra-lite Spinning ReelHardy Lightweight Princess Fly ReelVery Nice Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500c 1980 ModelOld Crack Reel In The BoxVintage Abu Ambassadeur 5500 Brown In Vg Condition L@@k!!!!Lot Of 42 Fishing Reels Mostly Vintage Garcia Mitchell Working And Non And PartsVintage Hard Rubber Reel With S Shaped Handle NrMitchell Garcia 300 Century Limited Edition Vintage Fishing Reel Spinning Reel.New $995 Hardy St George Salmon Hotspur 11/12 Weight Lh Left Hand Fly Reel +cardVintage Spinning Reel Abu Cardinal 3 Champagn First Edition Made In SwedenVintage Antique Shakespeare Kazoo Fly ReelHardy Bros Marquis #6 Fly Reel With Case + 2 Spare Spools. Excellent ConditionVintage Garcia Mitchell 510 Claw Foot Spinning Reel & Box1929-1935 Heddon No.206 "lone Eagle" Jeweled Level-wind Casting Reel W/originalVintage Penn 716 Z Ultralight Spinning ReelHeddon Precision Fly Reel No 310 With Box. Vintage And Mint Condition.Rare 1930s Australian Cussons De Luxe Fly Fishing ReelNew Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000c 1975 Limited Owaa (writers) Edition W/box Old Fishing Reel Made In Usa Penn 940 Reel With Box, Spare Parts, Wrench & LubeD-a-m Quick Microlite Ultra Light Spinning Fishing Reel Made In West GermanyAbu Cardinal 57 Vintage Fishing Reel Spinning Reel.Old Vintage Pflueger 1576 Free Spool Supreme Reel W Leaping Bass Fishing TackleHurd Super Caster, Reel And Handle OnlyPflueger Buckeye Reel A Vintage Allcocks Wooden And Brass Fishing Reel, Nice ItemAbu Garcia 7000 C3, "the Original" Bait Casting ReelRare Old Australian Vim Silky Oak & Brass Side Cast Fishing ReelAbu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500c Vintage Casting Reel UsedVom Hofe Leather Case Fits Up To 4/0 Size ReelsPflueger Medalist 1492 Fly ReelVintage Wooden & Brass Fitted Fishing Reel.Tiny Shakespeare Model 1740 He Tournament Free Spool ReelAbu Ambassadeur 5000d Vintage Baitcasting Fishing Reel Nice!Vintage Garcia Mitchell Fishing Spinning Reel Model 300 With Extra Spool / BoxOld Fishing Reel Sweden Abu Garcia Ambassadeur "black Max" 6600w Reel With Box Classic Vintage Talbot Star Reel, Kansas City Mo. NrVintage Abu Garica 6500c Sweden Open Face Bait Casting Fishing ReelVintage Garcia Mitchell 408 High Speed Spinning Reel NiceVintage Langley Dyna-matic 2 Speed Salt Water Casting ReelVintage Finnor 9/0 Big Game Reel Late 50s ModelAbu Cardinal 77 X Vintage Reel First Class Vintage Zebco Cardinal 3 Spinning Reel Made In SwedenAbu Ambassadeur 5500 Bronze ReelVtg Penn Senator 112 3/0 Usa Rod Clamp Assembly Wrench Excellent Red HandleMitchell 308a Vintage Ultra Light Fishing Reel, 308 A