Photos: The Development of the Fly Reel in the 19th Century

The age of this reel is unknown, but it shows basic features we still use today.
all photos by Tim Bronson

In 15th century England, anglers didn’t use reels at all: They simply tied a braided horsehair line to the tip of a long rod. (Dapping and Tenkara operate on the same principle.) But by the 18th century, small brass “winches,” attached to the rod’s base by a spike or clamp, were being made in British toolmakers’ shops. Fly reels progressed from brass, to wood, to hard rubber and nickel silver, and then on to today’s lightweight magnesium or aluminum. Though materials changed over the years, modern reels remain strikingly similar to their early ancestors. The reels shown here are from the “Angler’s All” exhibit at the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont.

Modern Choices
Nowadays, fly fishermen have dozens of options of reel styles, many of which feature effective drag systems to help fight fish. Originally, however, the reel was simply a place to hold and dry your silk-gut fly line. Even the click-and-pawl mechanism was originally designed to stop the reel from over-running, not as a true drag meant to put pressure on a fish or protect tippets. Before drag, designers were more fixated on a faster retrieve and created multiplier reels. However, these were mostly so heavy and bulky that they went out of fashion.

Unknown Origin
This spike-mount reel is a mysterious design of great age. Possibly Irish in origin, it continued to be made into the 1880s. Instead of the conventional reel foot, there is a spike on the base of the reel that would fit through a hole in the rod butt. The reel is then fastened by a wing nut that threads up the spike until the reel is firmly in place. Whether it was better to mount the reel above or below the rod was the subject of much debate.

The First Travel Reel?
The folding crank style is believed to have originated with the March 20, 1843 patent of James Jones, a London tackle manufacturer. This type of reel had the advantage of being more compact and streamlined when the handle was folded, thus making it easier to transport or store. However, it could also malfunction and fold at inopportune moments, such as when the angler was playing a fish.

The Birdcage
William Billinghurst (1807-1880) was a well known gunsmith from Rochester, New York who won a patent for a side-mount reel built of wire and castings in 1859. This is now considered to be the first American fly reel. He later nickel-plated the reels for sales appeal. The unique appearance of these reels has prompted some to refer to them as “birdcage reels.”

Do-It-Yourself Model
This is a homemade side-mount reel, made of nickel-silver (an alloy of nickel, zinc, and copper) with numerous perforations and attractive floral cutouts. In addition to reducing weight, the ventilation helped air dry the horsehair or silk lines in use at the time. Keeping these lines dry made them cast better and improved their longevity.

Reel as Art
This attractive Birmingham reel, featuring bas relief angling scenes on the plates, was commercially produced in at least two sizes, both as a crank-handle reel and as a revolving plate reel. It appears to be a Victorian-era British product. However, the design was reproduced in Germany during the 1970s, and it is now difficult to differentiate the original reels from the reproductions.

Custom Clamp
An extraordinarily fine New York ball-handle reel. Single-action versions of the reel are not common, but they were better fly reels, since this handle style is less tangle-prone than the offset handle of a multiplier. This was perhaps a custom piece, since the machined construction of the clamp-mount fitting is also unusual and of superior quality.

3 thoughts on “Photos: The Development of the Fly Reel in the 19th Century”

  1. I have an antique fly fishing reel circa 1850 that has markings on it which say:
    Earl of Mayo, Palmerstown, Straffan, Ireland, brass, bought in 1990.
    I can send photos.

    Would you be interested in buying from me?

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