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    

Pflueger Medalist 1494 Fly Reel, Ring Line Guard, Dual Pawls, Smooth!Pflueger Medalist 1492 Fly Reel, Ring Line Guard, Marbled Knob, Smooth!Original - C. F. Orvis 1874 Fly Reel - In Original Wooden Case - Great ConditionPflueger Medalist 1494 Fly Reel, Ring Line Guide, Early Patent Pending DragTed Godfrey Custom Fly ReelRare Early 1900`s Thos.j.conroy N.y. ``the Wells`` Fly Fishing Reel Antique4 Brothers Delite Fly Reel (pflueger)Orvis Lord Ii Morner Fly Reel Made In Sweden Salmon Spey Ex+ Working Condition!Rare Vintage Dingley 3 1/4 Trout Reel For Alex Martin Scotland The "thistle"Ari 't Hart Fly Reel Triangle I Titanium Finish Lh Made In Holland Nos!Edward Vom Hofe Leather Reel CaseRare Vintage Dingley 4 In Wide Drum Salmon Reel For Westley Richards & Co LtdVintage Super Rare New Unused Record Ambassadeur 5000 Fishing Reel Paperwork Vintage Very Rare Non Abu Non Record Ambassadeur 5000 Ft #68948 With Case Exc.Super Rare Heywood Brass Antique Trout Reel (15)B. C. Milam Reel No. 3. The Frankfort Kentucky Reel. Nickel Silver. Vintage. Edward Vom Hofe - 1/0 - 491 - Regal ReelOld Vintage Conroy Conroys Makers Ny Solid German Silver "s" Handle Reel ScarceRare Vintage Mitchell Tournament Casting Reel Wedding Cake ReelRare Vintage S. Allcock & Co "the Ousel" Red Agate Fly Reel Made By J W YoungEdward Vom Hofe 9/0 Model 621 German Silver ReelVintage Reel Abu Ambassadeur 8000c Two Speed In BoxDingley Fly ReelVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500c Pro Shop Green Fishing Reel New In BoxOld Vintage Fishing Rod Reel Shakespeare Criterion 1961 Collectible Lure DisplayF28) Early Vintage Pflueger Progress 60 Yard Fly Fishing Reel W Maroon Box NiceVtg Penn Squidder 140 Org Box Catalog 21 Ext Spool/box Lube/box Wrench UsaF29) Early Vintage Pflueger Medalist 1494 Fly Fishing Reel W Maroon Box NiceVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000a Fishing Reel New In Box Ft #858994 Vintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500c Gunmetal Blue Grey Ft #740102 W/ Box PaperExcellent #1105, Model A, South Bend Fly Reel - Maroon/aluminumMeisselbach Symploreel No. 257 Non Backlash Pat. Pending Fishing ReelOld Vintage Julius Vom Hofe Patented Cross Reel Exc! Marked Hr Npb #4 Trout FlyAbu Ambassadeur 5500c New In BoxAbu 505 Svangsta Vintage Fishing Reel Spinning Reel.Hurd Supercaster Reel And Rod Combo With Case, Nice!Vintage Record Ambassadeur 5000 Fishing Reel Rare No Foot Number Great ConditionLot Of 3 Vintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Baitcasting Reels 6000 5500 C No ReserveOld Vintage Bronson Royalist 370 Fly Reel Unused "mint" In Box Fishing TackleVintage Heddon Pal P-41 Casting Reel W/ Original Box, Bag And BookletVintage Fly Fishing Reel Pflueger Progress 60 Bulldog Skeleton Antique BrassVintage Pflueger Medalist 1492 Fly Reel, Sculpted Bowling Pin PillarsVintage Abu Ambassadeur 2500 C--high Speed-- With Red HandlesHardy Princess Fly ReelAbu Garcia 5000c De Luxe Vintage Baitcasting Reel Very CleanPenn Reel Senator 9/0Mitchell Garcia Match 440a Auto Bail Vintage Fishing Reel Spinning Reel.Henry A Kiest Vintage Fly Fishing Reel Made In Ind Usa Rare Heddon 3-35 German Silver Lw Bait Casting Reel Early Alcedo Micron With Box, Paperwork This Reel Includes Loose Parts LookPflueger Reel 2600Antique Brass Fishing Reel Graham Inverness 4" 19th Century Salmon ? Garcia Mitchell 408 Spinning Reel With Extra Spool - Left Hand RetrieveVintage Rare Edward Vom Hofe 6/0 German Silver Fishing Reel 1921 Patd DateVintage Ambassadeur 2500 Red & White ReelVintage Italian L'alcedo Micron Ultralight Spinning Reel With Extras - ExcellentVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000 Lure Bait Casting Reel #067200 Eicase Big ADaiwa Gs-3 Gold Series Vintage Fishing Reel Spinning Reel, Sea Fishing Reel.Vtg Penn 750ss Spinfisher High Speed 4.6:1 Usa Metal Black/ Gold Vintage Zebco Zero Hour Bomb Co. Fishing Reel..tulsa Oklahoma