Origins of the Classic Reel
Examples of Reel Designs

In the past 200 years, every conceivable or imaginable reel design has been put to test here in America or in Great Britain. By the end of the 19th Century, the concepts of spool design for maximum capacity, durable drag system design, and special metallurgy had been explored. Workmanship was at at its zenith and no time or expense spared to produce the most exquisite reels that are now considered collector's "jewelry".


Early reels of the nineteenth century were enclosed type geared or single action reels. The brass reel with off center handle arm at the left in the picture is a geared reel of British origin. This reel type was copied and became the famous New York style ball handle salt water reels used throughout the 19th century. The small Montague with nice Philbrook style handle arm is typical of the hard rubber sided reels for fresh water bait or fly fishing. Both of these reels are typical enclosed type reels which feature a revolving spool held in a full frame with bearings in the head and a tail plates.


Many British and American designs focused on reducing weight, faster line retrieve, and reducing manufacturing costs. The little brass Rochester reel features stamped sheet metal construction and a large arbor spool. The larger Alcock match reel (used in fishing contests) has features of a modern loop reel with very large arbor and palming rim.

Popular as early as 1830, these reels featured a spool running on a spindle mounted to an "L" shaped bracket. By the 1890's many variations were tried including partial frames with palming spool flange; a for-runner of many popular reels including the original Abel reel designs.


The Julius Vom Hofe and Leonard raised pillar type reels remain very popular with modern anglers. Their line capacity and "neatness" is unmatched and the Philbrook-Payne marbleized reels are considered the quintessence of fly reel craftsmanship and design. The reel above is a nice Julius Vom Hofe with butterfly spring securing the adjustable pivot bearing button.


The Vom Hofe family developed reel style to the highest extent that remains an American hallmark of tacklesmithing. Starting in the second half of the 19th century, Vom Hofe reels were produced until 1940; Otto Zwarg reproduced the reel designs until 1950. The influence of Vom Hofe the style is seen in reels by Walker, the Bogdans, and Saracione, and certainly myself as well.

The Restigouche pictured is archetypical with black hard rubber sides and recessed area for the drag adjustment knob. These reels tended to be heavy by modern standards, but the solid design and consummate workmanship is always inspiring and at 100 years or more in age, these reels continue to fish very well.

Evolution of Reel Design

The 19th and early 20th century was the golden age of fly fishing reel design. Reels were an English invention and imported in small quantities before the revolution to only one or perhaps a small hand-full of American firms. Gradually we began to produce our own reels modeled on English geared reel types and by 1850 there were a dozen firms in New York selling to the sport and commercial fishermen.


Reels were an optional fishing item in 18th century, but geared designs were created for a small up-scale market. In the early 19th century the multiplying reel was rapidly developed in England and America notably in New York and Kentucky. From these reels evolved the famous Kentucky bait casting reels. By 1820 Charles Snyder began producing a few Kentucky bait casting type reels for bass, and by 1830 Conroy and others began producing the New York style of heavy geared reels for salt water angling.

                    17th century treadle powered lathe


Birmingham England was a hub of industrial development in the early 19th century. Here smiths of various trades designed and produced the first single action fly reels. These designs typically consisted of a single side plate with fixed spindle shaft and a foot for attachment to a rod. The spool was made with internal bearings to work on the spindle shaft, and a click mechanism was used to signal a fish or control overrun. These Birmingham reels were generally made of brass, mass produced, and they became very popular. By mid-century, they largely replaced the geared reel for fly fishing. These simple reels were the forerunners of so many of our favorite reels: Orvis CFO, Pfleuger Medalist, and Hardy Princess and Perfect.


Here in America, designers began to create new single action fly reels in the second half of the 19th century. These included many styles of skeletal reels made of stamped and perforated sheet metal or heavy brass or nickel silver wire. Other types created before the turn of the century were the automatic fly reel, raised pillar reel, the Orvis very narrow spool reel, Vom Hofe hard rubber side plate reels with high quality drag mechanisms, and various styles of large arbor reels. Reel patents numbered in the hundreds as did the number of brands produced by dozens of makers.


The pictures only begin to describe the means of production in shops and factories around the country. Even the biggest and most well financed operations must have been drafty and exceedingly noisy places to work. Most reels were produced in batches or by mass production especially the little cheap brass reels sold at a $1.00 a dozen wholesale.

   Withstanding the competition of cheap mass production, reelsmiths such as Leonard, Payne, Philbrook, Meek, Melan and dozens of others worked in small shops in the North East and Mid-West. They continued to refine the wonderful reel designs that we still use today.

    This etching is from the Thomas H Chubb Tackle catalog ca. 1890's. Chub mass produced cane rods and various reels in the large, three story factory in Vermont. Powered by a water wheel - mill the complex system of belts and pulleys whirred and whizzed overhead and drove the many machines including nerve-jarring drop hammer stamping machines.
    The crude stamped parts had to be cleaned-up and filed-to-fit. Initially with whale oil and later with gas for lighting, Thomas Chubb produced many reels including the famous Henshall Bass Reels

Note: Much thanks to Bob Selb for the courtesy to photograph reels in his collection for use on this page.