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    

Antique Billinghurst Side Mount Safety Fly Fishing Reel Patented August 9th 1859Vintage ~ C1930 ~ "hardy" ~ "the Perfect Duplicated Mk.ii" - 3 7/8" Fly ReelRare Antique Salmon Fishing Reel John Shaw (1816-1888) ShrewsburyNew Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000c 1975 Limited Owaa (writers) Edition W/box Abu Cardinal 57 Vintage Fishing Reel Spinning Reel.Vintage Pflueger Medalist Rare No 1495 Fly Fishing ReelVintage Antique Fly Reel: Hard Rubber Side Plates, Don't See Name.Vintage Antique Fly Reel: Hard Rubber Side Plates, Marked 60 On Foot.Mitchell Garcia 300 Century Limited Edition Vintage Fishing Reel Spinning Reel.Old Crack Reel In The Box~ Pflueger 'hawkeye"' 60 Yd Fly Fishing Reel ~ Hard Rubber And German Silver ~Rare ~ Vintage ~ C1950 - "bowell Auto Reel" - Fixed Spool ReelVintage ~ "hardy" ~ "the St. George" ~ 3 3/4 Inch Fly Reel With "hardy" BagRare 1930s Australian Cussons De Luxe Fly Fishing ReelHardy Bros Ltd The Perfect 3 1/8"Vintage Scarce Julius Vom Hoffe Trout Reel 2" Diameter Reel Seat Marked With C1 Vintage Red Cedar Alvey 5" Black Fish Reel. Model 500/a3 (circa 1950)Vintage V L & A Chicago Julius Vom Hofe Pat. Oct. 8, 89 2 1/4" Dia. Project ReelVintage ~ "hardy Altex No.2 Mk. V" - Fixed Spool Reel With Spare Spool & CaseAbu Ambassadeur 5500 Bronze ReelVintage Slater Latch Brass Starback Fly Fishing ReelVintage Penn Multi Colored Brown-red-green-yellow Marbled Atlantic 14 ReelVintage Antique Tackle Otco Slipcast Ohio Made Old Spinning Fishing ReelAbu Garcia 1044 Syncro Match Vintage Fishing Reel Spinning Reel.Vintage J W Young & Sons Ltd Trudex Centrepin Fishing Reel With Black FinishVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5600c.with Box Very Clean And Good ConditionVintage ~ Hardy - "the Sunbeam" - 3 1/4" - Fly ReelVintage Hardy Brothers 'silex No.2' 3 1/4" Fishing Reel & Case Boxed Yawman & Erbe Keywind Automatic Fly ReelVintage Hardy Brothers Cast Case With Flies. Not Fishing Reel Rods Lures 1960s Penn "super Mariner" No.49 Big Game Fishing Reel Original Working+beauty!Pflueger Buckeye ReelVintage Penn Monofil 25 Grey Conventional Saltwater Fishing Reel Surf Pier BoatPflueger Mrdalist 1495-1/2 Old Fly Fishing Reel In BoxAmbassadeur 5000 Record, Original Box "no Reel" Mitchell Garcia Multipliers Vintage Fishing Reel Sea Fishing Reel.Early Pflueger Summit Casting Reel No Model Number Amber Knobs Jeweled Nice!Abu Record 2000Edward Vom Hofe 6/0 Model 621 ReelMalloch Sun & Planet Fly Reel 2 1/2"2 Small Brass Old Fishing Reels One 1871 PatentVintage Ambassadeur 5000 Fishing Reel & Box #2 Antique Tackle Abu Garcia LureVintage Penn 6/0 Senator Reel W/carmel Swirl Bakelite Handle & Super Nice CondRare Antique Meisselbach Rainbow #627 Flyfishing Reel With Cresent LatchPenn Ultralight #716 Spinning Reel W/original Box And Papers Vintake Garcia Mitchell 408 High Speed Spinning Fishing ReelLot Of 2 Antique Brass Fly Fishing Fly ReelsAbu Cardinal 54 Spool Vintage Fishing Reel Spinning Reel.Vintage Brass Platewind Fly Fishing ReelPanama Big Game Reel 10/0 Size By Ocean City, Rare.Vintage Orvis 50a Ultralite Spinning Reel In Excellent Condition + PaperworkZebco Zero Hour Bomb Spincast Reel Black Spinner Head First Version!Vintage Ambassadeur Abu Garcia 1750a Fishing Reel SwedenUnused Vintage Abu Ambassadeur 6000 Sweden Fishing Reel Extras & Case Near MintAbu Garcia Ambassadeur 6000, Red, Ambassadeur In Script, Grooved SideplatesOld Vintage South Bend 1000 G Engraved Single Spacer Reel Near Mint In BoxDam Quick Microlite Small Spinning Reel(abu)-record Ambassadeur 5000Vintage Penn Senator 12/0 Fishing Reel BigVintage Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000 Reel W/box, Parts, Oil, Wrench Near Mint