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]

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]

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]

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    

A Collection Of Vintage Fly Reels, Brass, Brass & AlloyA Fine Hardy Bros 3" 1/8 The Uniqua Trout Fly Reel, Dup Mk Ii, Wilf SintonVintage Pflueger Medalist 1394 Fly Reel Early Patent Pending Model RareA Collection Of Vintage Fly Reels, Army & Navy, Ramsbottom, Etc...Vintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 2500c Lure Bait Casting Reel #760200 Rare Find ExVtg Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000 Fishing Bait Casting Reel Sweden W/ Box - New !A Good Hardy Bros 3" The St George Fly ReelB. C. Milam & Son - No. 3 - The Frankfort Kentucky Reel - Rare Handle Position Vintage Antique Pflueger Medalist 1495 Fly ReelHardy 3 5/8 Perfect Fly Reel With Agate Line Guide. Trade In ProgramOrvis 50 A Italy Rare Collectspinning Fishing Reel Walleye Crappie Fish Vintage Auc 4 Early Australian Star Back Cedar Fishing Reel Nice Smaller Example C1900sVintage Abu Ambassadeur De Luxe 5000 4 Screw In Vg Cond. W/teakwood Box. L@@k!A Fine Hardy Bros 3" The Sunbeam Trout Fly ReelEarly 4" "julius Vom Hofe" Marked Salmon ReelVintage Seamartin Mk Ii 2 Fishing Reel Old Neptune Tackle Surf Ocean Cast Rare 1A.l. Walker 3" Trout Fly Reel Lhw | Rare Arthur L. Walker Model 3 Or Tr3 Reel 1930s Penn Long Beach Bait Surf Casting Reel With Original Box #60Antique Vintage Rare Henry Kiest Fly Fishing Reel-knox Indiana-1920's-unusualPenn Reels 1938 Catalog No. 6 A Fine Hardy Bros 3" 1/2 Silex No 2, 1917 Model, A.h.w.Early J.b. Crook Brass Ball Handle ReelA Rare "illingworth" No 3 Fishing Reel.Auc 2 Early Australian Star Back Cedar Fishing Reel C1900sPenn 716z Ultra Light ReelMontague? Pflueger ? " Kentucky 3 " German Silver 4 Screw Reel VintageVtg Casting Fishing Reel "benson" Anti Back Lash / Rare- Indiana Type - For LureVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 2500c Lure Bait Casting Reel #760800 Rare Find ExTeam Daiwa Zillion 100 Cb Cabela's 50th Anniversary Td-zillion100cb NibMontague V.l.&a. Expert No.3 German Silver Jeweled Reel W/case 4 Screw VintageEarly "a. Clerk & Co." Marked Brass Ball Handle Reel Garcia Mitchell 408 High Speed Spinning Reel (france)Vintage Pflueger Medalist Fly Reel No. 1496 1/2 Bakelite Handle Leather CaseA Rare "illingworth" No 2 Fishing Reel.Vintage America Ball Bearing Take Down Reel No.1 Rockford Illinois ! ! ! Vintage Pflueger Medalist 1492 Reel In Box A Helical Casting Reel In Near Mint ConditionA Fine Vintage J W Young & Sons Foster Bros Ashbourne Fly Fishing Reel BoxedVintage J W Young Pridex Lightweight 3 1/2" Fly Fishing Reel + Box + Spare SpoolVtg Penn Senator 114 6/0 Org Box Usa Catalog 14 Clamp Lube Wrench Big Game Arthur Allan Trout Fly Reel, Agate Line Guide.Vintage Abu Ambassadeur 5500 Red Fishing Reel Gently UsedVintage Mitchell Half Bail Reel 3rd Vers B20577 V/rare Box Silver Lettering.Vintage Penn 716z Ultralight Spinning ReelVintage James Heddon 3-35 Casting Fish ReelA Fine Hardy Bros 4" 1/4 Wide Drum Silex No 2, 1917 Model, A.h.w.Vtg Penn Senator 115 9/0 Usa Big Game Saltwater Clamp & Brace Cat 36b LubeGarcia Mitchell 302 ReelTough Vintage Small Ambassadeur 1500c High Speed Baitcast ReelAuc 1 Rare Early Australian? Steel Surf Casting Fishing Reel The NeptuneDaiwa Sf706 Fly Reel W/sa Mastery Stillwater Wf5s Line, Both Vg Cond. Lotdw118Early Rare Pflueger Golden West Fly Reel Vintage Fin-nor No. 2 With Anti-reverse In A Leather Case Near Mint ! ! ! !Old Vintage James Heddons Sons 3-35 Reel Matching #'s!! Heddon German Silver BoxVintage Beige Abu Garcia Cardinal 3 Reel "rare" Vintage Johnson Princess Pink Fishing Reel- Model 100 Ap- Made In UsaCortland 444 Fly Reel W/cortland 444 Wf6f/s Line, Both In Exc. Cond. Lotdw120Penn Greenie Spinfisher 716, Made In The Usa, Item No. 13 Early "j.c. Conroy & Co." Marked German Silver ReelVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 4600c Lure Bait Casting Reel #780100 Very Rare Ex