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]

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    

Hardy Bros. The Perfect Fly Reel 3 5/8 Inches Ribbed Foot Excellent ConditionVintage Garcia Mitchell 508 Fork Footed Fishing Reel Plus Free Calendar14/0 Ocean City 614 Big Game Fishing Reel Vintage SaltwaterVintage Ogden Smiths Fly Fishing Reel.Vtg Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 4000d 4000 D Sn3141200 Case Manual Wrench Lube SwedenFour Brothers Pflueger Delite No.113 Fly Reel Hard Rubber 60 Yard Nice!Old Vintage Hand Engraved Shakespeare President 1924 Model Reel Double SpacerNep-tuna Cradle With J.a. Coxe / Bronson ReelVintage Ocean City 609 9/0 Big Game Conventional Saltwater Fishing ReelHardy Bros Antigue Fly Reel . Lrh LightweightVintage Malloch Of Perth Fly Fishing Reel.1950's Penn Senator 12/0 Big Game Fishing Reel With Box Original+beauty Nrmt!Old Vintage Gorgeous Pre-war Engraved Pflueger Summit Reel W Striped Knobs Exc1921-1927 Meisselbach No.631 "rainbow" Fly Reel W/rare Original Picture Box, *vgJ.w. Young "pridex" Fly ReelVintage Montague "the Dolphin, Abbey & Imbrie" German Silver Reel With CaseMontague Hard Rubberfly Reel 60 Yard Nice!Old Vintage Beautiful Engraved Bronson Commander Reel Pre-war Fishing Tackle BoxJ.w. Young `pridex' Fly Fishing Reel W/box / Vintage - No ReserveAbu Garcia Ambassadeur 6600c5 Mag-x, Baitcasting Reel… Not Sure How "vintage"...Four Brothers Pflueger Egalite No.1903 Fly Reel Aluminum Plates Rare!Vtg Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000d 5000 D Sn008057 Case Manual Wrench Lube SwedenHardy Bros. Marquis #7 Fly Reel W/ Case & Instructions PapersEarly Edward Follett Bird Cage Fishing ReelVintage Pflueger Summit 1993 Reel & Kingfisher Casting Rod; Gorgeous Combo!Penn 430ss Small Spinning ReelVintage Early Penn Senator Ii 113hlw 4/0 Wide Red Anod Spl & Chrome Bars In BoxAmbassadeur De Luxe 5000c Abu Reel In Box UnusedVintage Zebco Cardinal 3 Fishing Reel With Box1926-31 Meisslebach-catucci #370 "symploreel" Fly Reel W/scarce Original Box, VgVintage Pflueger Progress 60 Brass Fly Fishing Reel NicePeerless #7 Fly Reel In Hard Leather Case Signed Mills New York!!!~ Penn 700 Spinning Reel ~ In Box ~ With Papers ~ Spare Spool ~Shakespeare Criterion Engraved Reel Vintage Vintage Shakespeare "abbey & Imbrie, Amawalk" German Silver Reel With CaseCharles F. Orvis 1874 Patent Commorative Fly ReelHardy Bros Antigue Fly Reel (the Perfect) 3 1/8Vintage Abu Ambassadeur 6000 Reel Has Case Parts Oiler PaperMint Vintage Abu Garcia Abu-matic 290 Spincasting Spincast Fishing Reel + ExtrasRare Old Vintage Winchester 2647 Fishing Reel Starting At Only One Penny NrAntique 19thc Vintage 2" Brass Crank Wind Anti Foul Rim Trout Fly Fishing ReelPenn 714z Ultra Lite Spinning Reel In Box Hurd Supercaster Rod And Reel With Parts ReelZebco Cardinal 3 Spinning Reel#4 Vintage Four Screw Abu Ambassadeur 5000 Reel With Case And ContentsVintage Reel Mitchell Cap Albatros In Box.Vintage Garcia Mitchell 402 Salt Water Reel Made In France, Never Used W/ BoxExcellent! "garcia Mitchell 300 Reel"+ Garcia Box, Instructions & Spare Spool!Vintage Alvey Fishing Reel 700 C5-8 Vintage Alvey Fishing Reel Bakelite Tackle BoxAwesome Vintage Fishing Casting Reel Pflueger 2600 Model Db Works Great!1966-73 Abu Garcia "delta 3" Fly Reel W/scarce Original Display Box & Papers, XfVintage Abu Garcia Sweden 1750 A Fishing ReelLot Of Seven (7) Fly Reels / Vintage - No Reserve#6 Vintage Shimano Bantam 50 Fishing Reel With Box And PapersAntique Vintage Hogg Maker Edinburgh 2 3/4" Brass Trout Fly Fishing ReelVtg Nm Penn 5500ss 5500 Ss Spinfisher Ss Series Ext Spool Lube Ob Manual Usa Vintage Meisselbach "tripart" No. 580 Reel With Box3 Awesome Vintage Amabassadeur Abu Cardinal Spinning Fishing Reels 6 Vintage Alvey Fishing Reels 4 Parts Or Repair Bakelite Wooden