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General Questions about Antique Reels

Q1: If you were going to produce a quality reproduction of a 1750's/1800 fishing reel (fly and/or bait), what model(s) would you choose?

A: Interesting question. Your choices, though, are probably more limited than you think.

It's unlikely that anyone from 1750-1800 was thinking at all about casting from the reel. At the time, casting was a clumsy prefiguration of what today has become fly-casting, i.e., line is drawn off the reel, then cast by the rod from the hand. The provision of multiplying gears, which probably first occurred during that period in Great Britain, was made for the purpose of winding in the line more rapidly. It wasn't until the Kentucky makers of 1830ish and later that casting from the reel became feasible. Keep in mind that most anglers weren't using reels at all then.

That said, the reels of the period were very simple machines made of brass. They sometimes contained a click, but more often they were fitted with "stops," mechanisms that prevented spool rotation. Even the gearing in the multipliers was crude. Some of the major differences among those early reels lay in the means by which they were attached to the rod. Many had clamps (See "clamp reel" in Photo Gallery 2 for an example.); others were lashed to the rod butt or had holes for pins or screws. Some had "spikes" that enabled mounting through a hole in the rod butt or were meant to hold the reel in the ground.

It is likely that any reels used in the U.S. during that period were imported from Great Britain. We collectors are not aware of any reels made in the U.S. before about 1815, when the first Kentucky reels were constructed.

Q2: When was the first fishing reel made?

A: The earliest known illustration of what is clearly a fishing reel is a Chinese painting from 1195 A.D. Two engravings of reels appeared in a Chinese book published within the next 30 years. The spoked Chinese reels appear to be similar to the Indiana reels mentioned in the glossary.

There also is an illustration of what is probably a reel on a silver plate owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum. The plate, recovered from a Mediterranean shipwreck, is thought to have been the work of a 400-700 A.D. Byzantine artisan, but its date of origin has not been established with certainty. (F. Buller, The American Fly Fisher, Vol. 23, pg. 14, 1997)

The earliest known reference to a reel written in English was included in The Art of Angling, published by Thomas Barker in 1651 A.D. Subsequent British literature demonstrates the increasing use of reels by British anglers over the next couple of centuries. The first known mention of multiplying (geared) reels occurred in an advertisement for Onesimus Ustonson's London tackle shop in the late 1760s. (G. Turner, Fishing Tackle/A Collector's Guide, pg. 35, 1989; see the bibliography.)

Q3: I've been interested in reels for a short time and have purchased some 25 reels. Most have been baitcasters. I have advanced from the typical Penn to looking for more unique names. I feel I haven't nailed a best buy but it's fun. It's difficult to make judgements based on photographs, and with thousands bidding on everything online in a crazed environment, I'd like to find additional venues to search than EBay or Yahoo. Would you suggest some less traveled arenas?

A: Welcome to a great hobby. I can't think of any better way to get more deeply involved and to learn about and see these things more quickly than to join one or more of the collector clubs. If reels are your major interest, join ORCA. You'll get a subscription to its excellent quarterly magazine, you'll get on mailing lists for reel sales, you'll find a universe of reel collectors you'll be able to contact, etc.

Until you become a more advanced collector and have specific "wants," there's not much point paying top dollar at auctions. The vast majority of reels listed on ebay and other auctions are the kinds of things you can still find at flea markets, yard sales, antique shops, etc. (Where do you think the sellers get them?) If you're patient and enjoy "the hunt," you can build a collection without internet auctions. Eventually, as you search for ever-scarcer reels, you'll find some at shows, you'll be buying and trading with other collectors, and you'll be able to make better use of internet auctions, bidding mostly on reels that you have not been able to find elsewhere or for which you've been lusting for some time.

Q4: Most casting reels are made for right-handed cranking, so after casting with the rod in the right hand, we have to change the rod to the left hand and crank with the right. I personally think that having to switch hands after every cast is a bit troublesome. Today's manufacturers make some left-hand crank reels. Why do you think that the designers of early multipliers designed their reels for right-hand cranking?

A: I don't know if there is any "correct" answer to your question, but I suppose there has to be a reason for the long tradition of building "right-handed" reels. The first possibility that occurred to me is that early reels, perhaps all of them, were used under the rod. A "right-handed" reel mounted below the rod would be operated by the left hand as the angler held the rod in his right hand. Even as baitcasting became more popular during the 19th century, angling writers argued about the advantages of keeping the reel below the rod for better balance.

It seems likely that reels weren't used consistently on top of the rod until anglers found it necessary to "thumb" their reels while casting. And no one did much of that until the Kentucky reelmakers began popularizing baitcasting reels after the 1830s. But many fishermen continued to hold their reels beneath the rods well into the 20th century. I suppose you could cast with the reel on top, thumb the line, and turn the rod over as you retrieved line.

Q5: Were freespool clutches incorporated into all of the antique baitcasting reels?

A: Although the earliest two extant U.S. patents for reels described freespool clutches in the mid-1850s, and many more refined clutches were invented before 1900, the vast majority of baitcasting reels were not equipped with such clutches until after World War II. Reels with clutches were available long before that, but in most casting reels, the spool remained connected to the handle through the gear train during the cast. By 1900, inventors had come up with many different ways of breaking that connection by separating the gears, by separating the gears from the spool, etc. But most reels weren't made with what were often fairly complicated devices.

The first automatic clutches were invented in the early 1890s. These freed the spool as soon as the angler stopped cranking the reel.

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