Jim Schottenham talks about antique fishing reels, discussing their history, the different styles and designs, the materials that were used, and some tips on how to identify your reel. He notes prolific reel makers, such as Pflueger and William Billinghurst, and acknowledges lesser-known craftsmen. Jim works for Lang’s Sporting Collectibles and is the president of the Old Reel Collectors Association. He can be contacted via his website Side-Mount Reels, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I got into bass fishing in my late teens, early 20s. I was rooting around my grandmother’s basement one afternoon and I found my grandfather’s tackle box. When I opened it up, I saw this green crackleback Heddon 150 minnow. I hadn’t seen anything like that before. Being a bass fisherman, I was fishing with rubber worms on a single hook, and here’s this big, heavy wooden minnow that had five treble hooks on it.
I thought it was really cool looking, so I started scouting around to see if I could find any information. This was before the Internet days. I went to the library and looked at a couple of books and saw that there were collectors out there, and that got me interested.
I just naturally migrated toward reels. I’ve always liked the mechanics on reels. I think the different gearing ratios and handle sizes and configurations are really interesting.
I suffered the same affliction that I think most everybody does when they first get into this. When I first started “tackle collecting,” I bought everything I could find. It didn’t matter if it was a hook or a lure or a rod. It didn’t matter what condition it was in. If I saw it and I thought it was neat or if I just didn’t have it, I bought it. Over the years, I’ve learned that in order to not end up in the poor house, you have to specialize a little bit.
If you can find something that you can buy for $100 and maybe sell for $150 or $200, that’s fantastic. That’s how a lot of these guys support their “tackle habit.” But in the beginning, I just went out and bought everything. I still have a lot of stuff that I don’t know what to do with, so I just hang on to it.
About his collection:
Personally, I don’t just collect reels. I suppose that’s part of being associated with Lang’s. I find that I’m kind of an accumulator more than a collector. I like just about anything related to fishing tackle, although my primary focus is reels. It’s gotten to the point where it’s difficult for me to add a new reel, so I’ve found other things to collect.
I’ve also started a collection of early tintype and cabinet card photos of fishermen. A gentleman named Tom Penniston sold his collection of early fishing photos through Lang’s, and I had never seen a collection like that before. I was just completely enthralled with the images of these guys using the type of gear that I collect. I thought it was amazing.
It was very expensive to have a photograph taken back then, so to find a photo of someone in all their fishing gear (there wasn’t much recreational fishing back then) is rare.
There are some famous tackle makers in a few of the shots, but mostly they’re fishermen posing with their gear. You can actually identify some of the rods and reels, which makes it even cooler.
I also like early metal spinners from Syracuse and Rochester, which were New York companies. I like that I can pick them up and spin them and play with them without having to worry about breaking anything. One of the attractions of reel collecting for me is turning the handle and hearing that nice, crisp click. If you hold a lure the wrong way, or if the hook happens to catch the paint and you pop a little of the paint off the body, or if you drop it and the eyes crack and the paint chips, it can lose a lot of value. You had a thousand-dollar lure but now it’s only worth $500. With a German silver reel, even if you drop it, you’re not going to do a whole lot of damage. They’re a little more durable.
About Lang’s Sporting Collectibles:
Lang’s is an auction house, and we also have an online tackle store. The auction sells, first and foremost, antique fishing tackle rods, reels, lures, catalogs, books, decoys, et cetera, but we also sell vintage and antique hunting equipment, archery, traps, duck decoys, any outdoor-related equipment. We’ve had everything from early advertising cards and early animal calls to antique rowing trophies.
The best part about this job is that you never know what you’re going to get. You could get a phone call from someone who has the only known example of a rare reel. It could be a previously unknown lure. It could be a great early book. You just never know. That’s what makes this so much fun. We get to go out on the road to pick up consignments, and we meet some pretty interesting people and see some amazing collections.
There are so many people out there who have collections that they don’t necessarily like to advertise to other club members or collectors. It’s something that they just appreciate and enjoy themselves. When they decide that they want to move in a different direction, they may give us a call to sell their items. When that happens, we hit the road and drive to see them. We’ll go to Washington state, the southern portion of Florida and Texas, all up and down the eastern seaboard, and out to Michigan and Ohio. I’ve seen some amazing tackle rooms, everything from antique-store-style setups to custom showcases and cabinetry specifically designed to hold lures.
About the Old Reel Collectors Association:
I’m the president of the Old Reel Collectors Association. I’m actually just starting my second two-year term. The past two years have been a whole lot of fun. One of the things that I really like about our group is that although we only have one national convention, we hold it all over the country. We’ve been to Seattle, the Columbia Lakes near Houston, Lake George in New York, and Lake Michigan. We just got back from the International Game Fish Association Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum in Dania Beach, Florida.
The members of the Old Reel Collectors Association are all pretty passionate about whatever it is that they collect. Some want to collect every casting reel ever made, others specialize in one particular company. Everyone is more than willing to share information about the companies or the types of things that they collect. They like to share what they’ve learned with people who are interested.
Our members write the articles for our newsletter, the Reel News, and the detail they get into is just amazing. There are people who specialize in a particular maker, and if you’ve got a question, you can either e-mail or call them, and almost a hundred percent of the time they’re going to be happy to hear from you and answer your question.
On Using Antique Reels for Fishing:
People definitely use their old reels. The vom Hofe family in New York produced some of the best trout and salmon reels—they’re still being copied by contemporary reel makers today. A large number of people buy those to use. People buy reels that cost almost as much as a car did in the 1910s and the 1920s, and then they take them out to catch salmon and trout.
One of the events at our Old Reel Collectors Convention is an antique fishing tackle tournament. We encourage people to use equipment that their grandfathers or great-grandfathers used. That’s a lot of fun. You really start to appreciate the reels that you fish with today when you start using things that are a hundred years old.
You have to remember, these guys were really skilled craftsmen, especially the people that built reels by hand. Some of the Kentucky reel makers, like B.F. Meek and B.C. Milam, were producing reels one at a time. They didn’t have any computer programs back then, obviously, and this was long before mass-production. These guys were making these reels that were as close in tolerance as a fine watch. Yet they survived, and they’re still perfectly usable today. I think the only reason people are a little hesitant to take them out and fish with them is because they don’t want them to get scratched up. That’ll certainly knock a little off the value. But it’s just really cool to hold something in your hand that’s 150 years old. You take your finger and turn that handle and it just spins forever.
One of the fathers of black bass fishing, Dr. James Henshall, also collected reels. I wish I could tell you exactly what happened to his collection. After the turn of the century, he advertised that his collection of reels was for sale. If he collected around 1900, I can only imagine what his collection must’ve been like. Boy, I would love to see that today.
On the history of fishing reels:
In America, the tackle industry didn’t really get geared up until the 1840s, 1850s. There were manufacturers here in the late 1820s, but there wasn’t anything akin to recreational fishing back then. If you were very wealthy, sure, but for the most part, people who were fishing were doing it to put food on the table.
The English reels, of course, predate the American ones. Some are reportedly from the 14th to 15th centuries. Based on the pictures I’ve seen, the Chinese were also using fishing reels. It was for turtle fishing, but fishing nonetheless.
That design hasn’t changed much in several hundred years. There’s what’s called an Indiana-style reel that consists of a bunch of spokes. It almost looks like a Ferris wheel. That reel design was used in a BASS tournament as late as 1980, so it’s a design that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.
Phil White, one of our members and a past editor of the Reel News, just produced a book on Shimano casting reels. They’re starting to become more and more difficult to find in good condition. There are a lot of collectors who are buying new reels with aftermarket parts to make them look snazzy and make them a little bit lighter. They’re giving them custom paint jobs, custom drilling the spools and handles. These are enthusiasts who’ll take a $500 reel and put another $400 or $500 into it in aftermarket parts.
There’s a collector for just about everything, and those are the people who you end up learning the most from. For example, there’s a gentleman who collects line spools, the old cotton and silk lines from different companies. They had great graphics on their spools, little paper labels. I never knew a lot of these things existed until I saw this guy’s collection.
I’ve seen a collection of just about everything out there through our ORCA nationals and the displays from the members of the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club and Florida Antique Tackle Collectors. There’s a reel that has a following in Florida that’s really just a spoked reel with no handle, and you would actually put your finger in between the spokes and twirl it to bring in your line. There was a gentleman that had a great-looking collection of those, perhaps half a dozen or more of them. It’s something that you just don’t see very often.
About reel-maker William Billinghurst:
There are countless types of reels. There are the Indiana-style reels, casting reels, spinning reels, fly reels, salmon reels, Nottingham-style reels. There are categories for trolling reels. There are line-dryer reels. I could go on forever.
I specialize in William Billinghurst reels. William Billinghurst made the first patented fly reel in the United States, and I think that’s pretty significant. There were a couple of reel patents before Billinghurst, but his was the first that could be considered a trout reel or a fly reel. That was in 1859. There were some makers of side-mounted reels that predate Billinghurst, but none received a patent.
As an example, there’s a British reel that was registered by a gentleman named Fred Skinner. In 1848, he made a side-mounted reel in England called the Archimedean. But in the United States, the first patented fly reel is William Billinghurst. I’m trying to put together a complete collection of his reels, which I hope I’m able to do in my lifetime. I haven’t gotten there yet. I’ve got a long way to go.
William Billinghurst was an incredibly skilled gunsmith from Rochester. In his day, he was perhaps the best-known gunsmith in the country. He was commissioned by royalty to build guns for people all over the world, and there were reports in the Rochester newspapers in the 1840s that he received a letter for a special target rifle. That was a big deal in Rochester.
He passed away in 1880, so you’re looking at a 21-year span in which he produced reels, the exact number of which isn’t really known.
Standard reels up until that time were made more or less the same way they are today. They were upright and a little heavy because the reel was made out of brass or solid nickel silver, and they had a very small arbor. The arbor is what you use to spool up your line. By putting this reel on its side and giving it a large disc in the middle, every time you turn the handle once, you pick up a lot of line. In addition, all those rings that hold the line, of course, are all open. At that time, fisherman used cotton and linen line, so it had to dry or it would rot.
On a standard conventional reel, if you didn’t strip your line off after a day’s fishing, that’s what would happen. When Billinghurst made his birdcage-style reel, he allowed the fisherman to wind up their line at the end of the day and not have to take it off the spool. That open design allowed the line to dry right on the reel. Also, because it was such a small profile, you could slip it in your vest or shirt pocket and carry it around with you, which was difficult to do with a large diameter round-style reel.
If a non-fisherman today were to pick up one of Billinghurst’s reels, chances are they’d have no idea what it was. As a result, over the last hundred-plus years, I think a lot of these things have just been thrown away, so the number that is available today is greatly diminished. They’re rather difficult to find, as are all side-mount reels.
On the history of side-mounted reels:
Most side-mounted reels were handmade. Billinghurst in particular used a mold or a jig to put them together. There were 20 individual rings on the reel, and in order to apply the solder to keep them in place, he had to put them on a jig and solder them by hand. Otherwise, the heat that you needed to apply would loosen up the other solder on the other rings and it would just flop over. The reels from Fowler, Anson Hatch, and Charles Clinton were produced well before there was mass-production.
“The coolest thing about Indiana reels is that you didn’t have to be a highly skilled craftsman to build one.”
I’m interested in side-mounted reels for a couple of reasons. I was born and raised in New York state, so I thought it would be beneficial for me to try to target things that were made there. In terms of reels, New York probably has the richest history of all the states. The reel-makers in the 1840s through the 1860s were extremely talented.
There’s a company called Martin from New York that’s still making an automatic trout reel, but they’re pretty much the only company left that’s making a side-mounted reel. The side mount fell out of favor when Charles Orvis introduced his fly reel in 1874. It looked a little bit like the fly reels that people use today. It’s a vertical reel that hangs below the fly rod.
The New York side-mount reel was predominantly manufactured by people who lived along the Mohawk Valley from Albany out to Buffalo. It seems to be a regional thing. There weren’t many side-mounted reels produced in New York City or New Jersey. All the makers that I’ve got listed on my site—Fowler and Clinton, Pettengill, Coates—all these guys are from upstate New York. I’m from upstate New York, too, and I think this stuff is incredibly cool, plus it’s very early and interesting. It seemed like a natural thing for me to collect.
The reel that got overlooked at the time was by a gentleman named Morgan James. He was a gunsmith in the Rochester area who built a couple reels. There are only two or three examples that have been found, but because he had a presentation date on them, we know that they were made before Billinghurst’s patent. So those do predate Billinghurst’s reel, and they were made in New York.
After Billinghurst, I think the next patented side-mount reel was by a gentleman named Anson Hatch. He’s the only one I can think of whose reels were a clear departure from those of the New York makers. He was from Connecticut. In his U.S. patent from 1866, he mentions that he’s referencing a lot of the innovations introduced by William Billinghurst. In fact, his patent is called “an improvement in fishing reels,” so he didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. He just tried to improve upon Billinghurst’s original design.
Of course, it’s not clear to me whether or not Billinghurst or Morgan James had an opportunity to see one of Fred Skinner’s reels, but the Skinner reel was the only side-mounted reel in England at that time. If someone had brought a Skinner reel from England to New York, it could have made its way into the hands of Billinghurst or Morgan. Billinghurst never mentions Skinner in his patent paperwork, and I haven’t seen any documentation that would tell me emphatically that he did see one of these, but it does seem likely.
On reel production and advertising in the 19th century:
Reel makers were mostly interested in building a better mousetrap. There were quite a few patents for better and newer click mechanisms. Drag systems are also very important, especially when recreational fishing took hold around 1900 or so. Then they started mass-producing reels. There was quite a bit of competition out there for people’s business, so makers tried to create lighter, better-constructed reels, and that’s when the advertising started to ramp up.
That’s another thing you need to keep in mind, too: advertising in the 1850s and 1860s was very limited. People didn’t receive catalogs in the mail in the 1860s, so with the exception of some of the local directories, there were very few opportunities to advertise. When some of the bigger tackle houses came online in the late 1890s to early 1900s and started producing catalogs, that’s when the fishing-tackle business took off. So the reel makers were all trying to build a better mousetrap and capture everybody’s dollars.
The only maker that I’m aware of who could’ve produced side-mounted reels in large numbers is Edward Follet. He made a side-mounted reel that was stamped out of two pieces of metal and put together in the middle with a screw. In a letter to his patent attorney, he claimed that, given the right price, he could produce close to 500 a day, but I don’t think he ever did. I don’t know that there are 500 of them out there right now, but that was the closest to mass-production that I’m aware of.
About retrieve ratios:
The fastest retrieve ratio I’m aware of was by an antique reel that was made somewhere around 1901 or 1902. It had a 10:1 retrieve ratio, which meant that for every single turn of the handle, the spool turned 10 times. There was another company in New York that built a reel that was called the 9 Multiplier, and that would turn nine times for every single turn of the hand.
As for modern-day reels, Daiwa comes to mind. They advertised in the 1980s that they had a reel that was incredibly high speed. It was 7:1, and they touted that as being the fastest. But of course that’s not necessarily true. There were reels that predate that by quite a bit that had much faster retrieve ratio.
On well-known reel makers:
In order to list the most well-known reel makers, I’d have to break them down into categories. In terms of antique casting reels, you’d have to say Meek, Milam, and Pflueger. Pflueger was one of the most prolific reel makers in the country. They’re still making reels today. Hendryx produced a large number of reels that were relatively inexpensive and they sold them in the series catalogs.
There’s another company called Montague. Not a lot of people are familiar with them because they didn’t stamp their name on their reels. Montague produced reels for a lot of tackle houses, so if you were a mom-and-pop tackle shop or a large retailer like Abercrombie & Fitch, you could call Montague and they would produce any kind of reel you wanted and put whatever name you wanted on there.
For fly reels, I don’t think there’s any name bigger than Orvis. The only company that Orvis has any competition from as far as name recognition is Hardy. Those are the two giants in the fly reel industry.
There were some spinning reels invented in England around 1900, but it wasn’t until after the Second World War that they became popular in the United States. Without question, the king of all the spinning reels in the U.S. is Mitchell.
Pflueger was run by four brothers from the Ohio area. They started manufacturing early on, and they expanded their business by leaps and bounds over the course of a couple years. I don’t think their very first reel looks much like a reel at all. It’s a little hand line winding device. The brothers parted the company and then came back and passed the business on to their sons.
I think they had a couple different lines. They had Pflueger, of course, and they also had a line of reels that was called Four Brothers. They did a lot of reels for the trade business as well, and they didn’t restrict themselves to one style of reel. They made casting reels and fly reels and spinning reels and trolling reels and saltwater reels and everything in between. They were very smart businessmen and they were able to keep that business going for a long time.
Their heyday was in the late 1910s, early 1920s. That’s when things really started to take off for them.
On how to determine rarity:
There are many lesser-known makers, and it’s always tough to identify them because there are some reels with only one known example. In a situation like that, as a collector, you find yourself asking where to draw the line. Do you limit your collection to rare company-produced reels or do you also include rare reels made by individuals?
Take Morgan James: There are only three known examples of his reels that I’m aware of. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t more that I don’t know about, but there aren’t a lot of them out there. I would say that’s rare. But is it any more rare than a reel that’s made by a gentleman that no one had ever heard of before? So that’s where it gets difficult.
I think that if a reel was produced and cataloged and there are very few examples known, then that makes for a pretty rare item. Vom Hofe is another example. Vom Hofe was a very well-respected reel maker in New York run by a father and two sons, Edward and Julius. Julius made a lot of reels, but Edward made slightly better quality reels and charged a little more for it. There are uncataloged Edward vom Hofe reels that I would say have to be rare because he was a manufacturer who advertised a lot, but he also mentioned in his catalogs that if you wanted something made special, he’d do it custom for you. Those uncataloged examples are very rare, and people do pay an awful lot of money for those. Everybody likes to have something like that in their collection.
There are some lesser-known reel makers whose reels command some pretty big prices for when they come up at auction. There was a gentleman named J.L. Sage from Kentucky who made reels in the 1800s. His reels always bring a lot of money. As far as Kentucky reels, the Holy Grail would have to be George Snyder. George Snyder is credited with building the first Kentucky-style reel in the United States—a brass multiplier that dates back to around the late 1830s, beginning of the 1840s.
On Kentucky- and Indiana-style reels:
Most of the watchmakers and tool makers from the Kentucky area also produced fishing reels. They all had a very similar design: a conventional casting-style reel that had either a sliding click or sliding drag. Basically, it was a multiplier reel. Most had a 2:1 or 3:1 retrieve ratio. They were all generally produced in that area.
The coolest thing about Indiana reels is that they were so simplistic in their design, you didn’t have to be a highly skilled craftsman to build one yourself. The first patented Indiana-style reel was by a gentleman with the last name Rider. There are a number of patents for Indiana-style reels right up until the 1970s. That doesn’t mean they were all built in Indiana, but they all seemed to come from that region—northeast Indiana, southwestern Michigan, and that Ohio corner—so it’s a regional thing.
With an Indiana-style reel, you could take a hub with four spokes in it, and as long as it had capacity to hold the line, you could screw a reel foot on there and go fishing. As you can see from some of the homemade examples, that’s what a lot of people did.
I find it challenging to try to find advertisements for some of these. There are a couple that I know were mass-produced, but there’s no company history on them, and no advertisements have been found. It gets somewhat frustrating, but it’s so much fun when you finally do find some information. In fact, there was one called a deep sea reel that showed up in a duck comic book called Reelfoot Lake by a gentleman named Russell Caldwell. In his book, he talks about a couple of carvers who made these Indiana-style fishing reels out of old bicycle parts in their spare time.
On the materials used to make reels:
Brass was probably the primary material used to make reels. Most reels either have brass or nickel-plated brass parts. German silver was a little more expensive, and before 1900, aluminum was much more valuable than silver. The reels that were made of aluminum were pretty pricey. After the Industrial Revolution, people started mass-producing things, and aluminum came down in price. But they were predominantly made from brass, nickel silver, or German silver.
There were some reels that were made out of hard rubber. Alonzo Fowler created one in 1872, and we believe he was the first to make a reel completely from vulcanite or hard rubber. Because they’re now about 140 years old, they’re pretty fragile, and it’s kind of tough to find one intact. The hard rubber was used for side plates because it was a lot lighter than the metals.
Today, of course, alloys are most common. Contemporary reel makers are trying very hard to lighten up. Everything nowadays is air-weight and lightweight and featherweight in order to gain that market share.
In some cases, one of the goals is to make the lightest reel possible. For fly fishermen, it’s not always about the lightest; it’s about what balances best on your rod. For the most part, I think that’s true with any type of fishing, whether it’s freshwater fishing, fly fishing, or saltwater fishing. You want a reel that’s going to balance well. Reels are tools, so when you’re fishing, you need the right size reel, the right type of drag system, the right retrieve ratio, the right line capacity. If you asked a golfer to play the entire course with just one club, they’d laugh at you. Fishermen are pretty much the same way with their rods and reels. There’s a right tool to use, depending on what you’re fishing for.
It’s not necessarily all about weight, although lightweight seems to be all the rage these days. Quality counts, too, as does the application. It’s the same with fishing rods. Daiwa has made an entire ad campaign about the lightest casting reel in the market, the Daiwa Steez. It costs a lot of money—almost $500 for a brand new casting reel—and then on top, there are fishermen out there buying $500 worth of aftermarket parts for it and tricking it out, so now it’s a thousand-dollar reel. I mentioned Phil White earlier. He wrote the book on Shimano. He calls them reels with bling.
The other trend, beyond going lightweight, is brand recognition. Having their name out there is really important to a lot of these guys, to the point where almost every sport has a uniform now—fishing, biking, tennis. There are uniforms for everything. If you ever turn on ESPN on a Saturday morning and look at the fishermen on TV, they’re all wearing these professional shirts with all their sponsor names across them. It’s very rare to see one who’s not wearing a blinged-out type of fishing shirt. Professional bass fishermen don’t like to be seen without their sponsor shirts with all the different colorful embroidered logos.
On reel designs:
Most of the older reel makers stuck with one design, but that’s not always the case today. Obviously Pflueger and Shimano and Daiwa have a lot of different designs and models, but the side-mount makers pretty much stuck with one design. Billinghurst didn’t vary from his side-mounted birdcage-style. Fowler didn’t vary from his doughnut-shaped hard rubber reel. Charles Clinton produced just one style of reel. But, with the exception of Billinghurst, these guys weren’t in it for 20-some-odd years. They got into it later, like Albert Pettengill and some of the others. By that time, the Orvis reel had taken hold, so side-mounted reels just fell out of favor and people all switched over to that more conventional style reel.
About left-handed reels:
Old left-handed reels are pretty scarce. Left-handed reels are just now starting to creep up to the same level as right-handed reels. That’s due in part to some of the professional bass fishermen. Kids see professionals on television using a left-hand retrieve reel, so that’s what they want to use. So they’re catching up a little bit As far as antique reels go, they’re scarce. Left-handed reels will on average bring about half-again as much as a right-handed retrieve reel of the same make and model.
Pflueger made a left-handed reel. Meek made left-handed Kentucky-style reels. There are quite a few companies that have some pretty rare left-handed examples. And the vom Hofe family would make a special-order left-handed reel for you, so there were companies that would do it for you, but it wasn’t necessarily the norm.
On identifying reels:
There are a lot of different things that go into positively identifying a reel. Even if it’s marked with a maker’s name, that’s not always an indication as to who made it. I mentioned earlier that Montague produced a lot of reels for retailers. Abercrombie & Fitch didn’t make their own reels. They’d have a company like Hendryx or Montague make the reel and stamp their name on it. It’s very difficult right now for collectors to identify some of the earlier New York-made ball-handled reels.
The ball-handle reel is unique to New York. It’s a heavy brass reel with a handle, and it’s counterweighted with a ball. They were produced from 1830 to 1870, and oftentimes there’s a maker’s name on them. But like I said, that’s not a clear indication.
To help identify a reel, you need to see if there is any documentation on a maker showing that they actually produced the thing. Then there are the markings, the material that was used, sometimes the design features—all of these factors can help identify a reel. Of course for most of the reels produced after the Second World War, between the advertising and the markings on the reels, it’s pretty easy to make a positive ID.
On collecting trends:
I would have to say that the most collectible reel category right now (certainly one of the most popular) is spinning reels. A lot of people like to collect what they fished with as a kid, and if you’re in your 20s or 30s, chances are good that your mom or dad fished with a Mitchell spinning reel, so I think that’s what collectors migrate toward first. Spinning reels were produced in such great numbers that they’re readily available, and if you’re putting together a collection, it’s nice to be able to find things. Nobody wants to spend a year and a half just to find one reel. You can still find some rare ones, and they’re somewhat affordable. It does make for an interesting collection.
I think Pflueger is by far the most popular, all-around collectible reel. Worldwide, Ambassador casting reels have a huge following. I would say that in terms of collecting—and this isn’t just exclusive to fishing reels; this pertains to any type of fishing collectible—anything that’s rare and in fantastic condition is going to continue to rise in value. I have not seen any indication of the economy affecting high-end fishing tackle of any type. That’s reels, lures, rods, paperwork, books. If it’s in pristine condition and it’s rare, it’s going to demand a high price.
I learned from experience not to just buy anything and everything that’s put in front of me. I try to look for things that I don’t have, things that I need. Depending on how old and how rare a reel is, there are times when I’ll make concessions. It may not be in the greatest of shape, but if it’s rare and I’ll likely never see one again, I’ll buy it. If it’s something I need, I’ll buy it. If it’s something that I already have and the condition isn’t all that great, I’ll probably pass.
I think the condition and rarity help most collectors decide whether or not they buy a reel. As I said, if you find a reel from 1850 that’s missing a handle, but it’s at a price you can afford, you probably should buy it.
Advice for new collectors:
The most important thing is collect what you like. If you like spinning reels, great, collect spinning reels. If you like Mitchell reels because it’s something your grandfather used or you remember going fishing with your grandmother, great. From the time I was about five years old, my grandmother had an old Pflueger Summit in the trunk of her car. I still have her rod and reel, and that means more to me than anything else in my collection.
Don’t let anybody tell you what you should collect. If you don’t like Kentucky-style reels, don’t collect them. This has got to be something that’s fun for you.
Once you’ve picked a direction, try to focus at least a little bit. If you just buy all the Hardy reels that you find, you’re going to end up with a lot of stuff that five or 10 years down the road you’re going to look at and think “What am I going to do with this now?”
Try to buy the best quality that you can. If you’re going to invest money into a collection, it’s better to have excellent examples that you may have to pay a little bit more for. You’re always going to get a return on your investment if you buy quality. If you want this stuff just to fish with and you don’t really care what it looks like, that’s great, but if you look at this as either an investment or something that you want to enjoy and pass on to somebody else, buy the best examples that you can find. This is true no matter what you collect—rods, reels, lures, whatever.
There’s not much right now in the way of a current price guide, but there are good books available. Karl White and Carl Luckey have written some good ones. Most of the books on fishing reels are more or less about the companies and the reels that they made. As far as keeping up to date with prices, eventually every type of reel will show up on eBay. If there’s something that you’re interested in but you’re not sure exactly what the going rate is, eBay is probably the best place to find out. You can do a search for completed auctions and you can type in “Pflueger Supreme” and you’ll probably find a hundred or more examples from the last seven days.
So eBay is wonderful resource for that. When you start getting into some of the specialty reels, that’s where it pays to get a hold of another collector. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of these guys are very willing to share information. If you’ve got a question, like if you want to know if a reel is really worth the $500 you’re considering spending, I strongly recommend talking to someone first before you find out that the market value is only about $50.
Join a club. If you’re going to collect lures, join a lure club. If you’re going to collect reels, I recommend ORCA. If you’re just a tackle collector, I think you should belong to all the clubs.
The most important part of collecting anything is knowledge, and that’s what the club’s all about. Our members write articles about the history of these things and the different variations and what to look for and what’s rare and what’s not.
There are friendships, too. I’ve met some great people, not only through Lang’s but also through collecting. One of my best friends now is from Missouri, and we met after having butted heads in an auction for some Indiana-style reels. We got to talking to one another afterwards and realized that the two of us were just running the prices up on these things. We got a good laugh out of it—years later, we still talk once a week.
About shows and events:
The Old Reel Collectors Association just had our convention in Florida at the IGFA Museum. Next month, in July of 2009, the largest antique tackle convention probably in the world was held in Louisville, Kentucky. That was the NFLCC nationals. There were all types of tackle collectors there, plus hundreds of people a few days ahead of the show setting up and selling tackle out of their hotel rooms. It’s what’s called room trading. It’s a little unusual the first time you see this, but if you ever find yourself in a hotel where there are a bunch of open doors with people carrying fishing reels and lures in and out, you’re probably at a hotel that’s near a tackle show.
There are regional shows, too. There are shows in California and Washington state, but for the most part, the collectors seem to congregate on the East Coast. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great collections on the West Coast, but I can tell you that there are more shows in the Midwest and on the East Coast than out West.
That said, one of the finest reel collections probably in the world resides in California. I don’t want to give away the guy’s name, but I’ve seen some of his examples and they’re absolutely amazing. The quality, rarity, and condition of the examples this guy has are second to none. He’s been doing it for a long time now. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He’s one of the guys that I’ve learned from over the years.
I had a mentor, too, a gentleman from upstate New York. He was the one who showed me my first side-mount reel and explained to me what it was and how it was built. That’s what got me all fired up about side-mount reels. I hope that years from now I’m able to influence another collector to collect reels, or side mounts in particular. I hope somebody looks at my website and thinks, “Wow, those are really great. I could start a collection of those myself.”
(All images in this article courtesy Jim Schottenham of Side-Mount Reels.)