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.

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