A brief history of the fishing reel

We take reels for granted nowadays, but they have only become a standard feature in angler's kit relatively recently - and even now, their use isn't entirely universal, as any roach pole fisherman will tell you. A reel is there to store line and to help play the fish, but using one isn't absolutely necessary - as anyone who has read Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea will know, you can catch the largest fish that swim with nothing more sophisticated than a hand line, as long as you are patient and have plenty of sea room. So for many thousands of years, anglers did without reels and didn't find it much of an inconvenience; there were plenty of fish in those days, because man hadn't begun his rape of the planet in earnest.

The Chinese probably invented the fishing reel around AD 300 or 400, but until the seventeenth century the only evidence that anglers used them was in art - when a professional fisherman called Barker let it slip that a 'winder' was useful for playing larger fish. Until then, anglers either used a horsehair line that fixed to the rod tip, or more rarely, a running line fed through a loop at the rod tip.

Spike foot reelBy the late eighteenth century, anglers were using wide spooled, narrow arboured brass ‘winches’ which were being made all over the country by jewelers, clock makers and jobbing craftsmen. These were attached with three different methods: a spike; a circular clamp; or a foot, like a modern reel and they can be further divided into direct drive reels and early multipliers. Multipliers were among the first angling gadgets; many fishermen bought them because they allowed a much faster retrieve than single action reels, but they had unreliable brass internal gearing. Sooner or later, playing a large fish would grind the teeth off the soft brass gears - because the metallurgy wasn't up to it.

All these early reels had one thing in common, which was that they had narrow spindles, as you can see in the illustration of the spike foot reel above, and this was one of the reasons why fishermen persisted with multipliers.

Once a fish has run most of the line off a reel like this, you are left at a huge mechanical disadvantage - the obvious solution is to increase the diameter of the spindle, or arbour. Amazing though it is to think of it, this leap of imagination took place 150 years ago, although it took another century before the concept made its mark on fly fishing reels.

Until the middle of the 19th century, anglers used the same reel for everything they did, whether it was float fishing, trolling, or fly fishing, but then a gradual specialisation began to occur. This is the time when the descriptions 'fly' and 'coarse' fisherman began to be used by anglers and you can read more about how this happened here.

Slater NottinghamOne of the first reels which can claim to have a truly coarse fishing parentage is the ‘Nottingham’, which appeared about a hundred and fifty years ago. These wide arboured reels owed their name to the place where they were first made and were about four inches in diameter, made almost entirely out of wood apart from a skeletal metal reinforcement braced across the back.

These reels were used for float fishing and trolling, using a very thin line and experts could cast the lightest of floats twenty yards or more, directly off the reel, because the spool on a well maintained Nottingham was incredibly free spinning.

The basic design was so simple and effective that reels of this type were still in use a century later and they only began to fall out of favour after the Second World War, when nylon became freely available and made the use of fixed spool reels more practical. If you would like to read more about the Nottingham method (and about its deadly rival - the Thames style of fishing) follow this link

Nowadays, Nottinghams are becoming intensely collectible, thanks to the gorgeous colours of their woodwork and the extraordinarily attractive designs of the brass frameworks used to attach the reel seat to the wooden backplate. To all intents and purposes, the method is no longer used, because modern tackle provides a better solution, but for much of the late 19th century there was serious rivalry between the Nottingham men and Southern anglers, who used a completely different technique. Many competitions were fished to prove which method was superior and you can read about the most famous of them all by following this link.

Allcock AerialThe spool on a Nottingham was attached to the reel using a brass nut, but by the very early 1880s, a style called the centrepin had put in its appearance, which had a sprung latch allowing the spool to be released quickly by pressing a button in its centre. To begin with, these reels often had a wooden back and a Bakelite spool, but as aluminium became cheaper all metal versions became the rule.

Centrepins shared many of the design features of the Nottingham (including the large arbour), without the drawbacks - they didn't lock up due to swelling of the wood when they got wet and it was very easy to remove the spool. The most famous centrepin of all was the Allcock Aerial, shown here.

Meanwhile, the fly fishing industry hadn’t been standing still, although it is amazing how long it took the tackle manufacturers to appreciate that the virtues of the simple Nottingham could be applied to their more expensive products - in particular, it took an extraordinarily long time for it to dawn on them that a large arbour increased the mechanical advantage of a reel to an almost magical degree.

Birmingham reelBy the end of the nineteenth century, the spindly design of the brass winches that had been the rule fifty years previously had given way to much more solid items that were often described as ‘Birmingham reels’ because that was where many of them were made. Typically, a Birmingham reel is built out of brass, although they sometimes have ebonite spools, and the handle is built into a revolving side plate; the design makes it impossible to change the spool, so anglers had to wind their line off at the end of the day if they wanted to avoid the silk rotting.

The end of the ‘Birmingham’ era was spelled by the appearance of the famous Hardy Perfect, the fore-runner of modern fly reel designs, which in its turn was inspired by a reel made in America by Orvis.

Hardy PerfectThe Perfect is shaped like a modern fly reel, in that it has (with a bit of effort) a detachable spool and an adjustable drag; early versions were built out of a mixture of brass and aluminium, prior to the appearance of all aluminium examples. The Perfect also had a ball race built into the mechanism, which was supposed to make the reel run more freely, although in practice it made little difference.

Virtually all the designs we use today are descended from the Perfect, the only material differences being that the narrow spindle of the original Hardy design has been replaced with a wide one, drags have become more sophisticated and exposed spool rims have become more standard.

Stepping back in time a little, a new class of reel emerged in 1907, when A. H. Illingworth cast his gaze for the ten thousandth time over the shuttle on one of his weaving machines... and thought of fishing.

Illingworth No 3Illingworth’s act of genius was to realise that a line could be cast from a reel a reel using a modified shuttle and his designs became known as ‘threadline’ reels, because prior to the invention of nylon, anglers used them to cast finely woven silk lines which weren’t much thicker than threads, hence the name.

If you examine an Illingworth No. 3 carefully, you will see that it has a front adjustable drag and a spool that rises and falls to prevent line bedding - the only thing it lacks is a bale arm.

Rival companies concentrated on how to improve the pick-up, which was generally accepted to be the only weak spot in Illingworth’s original concept. The solution was to increase the length of the pick-up, forming a half length bale arm, which made it easier to collect the line under it on the retrieve, but this left plenty of scope for tangles.

Hardy’s solved the problem of how to build a better Illingworth in spectacular fashion in 1932 with their Altex series of reels, featuring a patented full bale arm which automatically trapped the line and eliminated most, though not all, of the trouble thread-line fishermen faced.

Hardy AltexThe Altex was a landmark design and the patent Hardy held on it would have given them a huge commercial advantage, were it not for one thing - nylon hadn't been invented yet. Using a fixed spool reel meant fighting tangles and overruns which were the inevitable result of using the braided natural fibre lines that were all that were avaiable at the time. Even with a full bale arm and the clean lines of the Altex, repeated tangles beset the most careful of fishermen and many anglers stayed with their beloved Nottinghams, accepting that shorter casting distances.

The Illingworth above and the Altex below were designs before their time, in that they allowed anglers to cast light rigs with extreme precision, but the lines that were available for them simply weren't up to the job.

It wasn’t until 1954, when Hardy’s patent expired, that anyone else got a look in. Although many competing products appeared, the real beneficiaries of the patent expiry were Charles Pons and Léon Carpano, brothers-in-law who ran a light engineering company in Cluses, France. They designed an inexpensive mass-produced spinning reel, which went on sale with a half bale arm until the Hardy patent expired. The full bale arm version has sold around twenty five million units since then, making it one of the most successful, if not the most successful, reels of all time - the Mitchell.

Mitchell 300But even the Mitchell (shown alongside), a triumph of simplicity and common-sense, could not have become as popular as it did without the increasingly widespread availability of a man-made material - nylon. Cheap nylon lines revolutionised the way people fished and the combination of the Mitchell and the new material had nearly wiped fly fishing out by the early 1970s because it was so much easier to go spinning instead. Anyone could be taught how to spin in five minutes flat.

The final type of reel we are going to cover in this article is the ‘modern’ multiplier, which very fortunately has little in common with its nineteenth century forebears beyond the general principle and the name. This class of reel only became really popular when nylon lines were widely available - multipliers are among the most complicated reels ever made and although many different types are in use, if you mention the word multiplier to most European anglers, the name of a single company will come to mind, the Swedish firm ABU.

The ABU story is absolutely fascinating and we probably wouldn't have the luck to be fishing the amazing reels they make if it hadn't been for the outbreak of World War II - when it began, the company that became ABU was making taxi meters and if it hadn't been for a pressing need to diversify in order to survive the collapse in orders after 1939, they would never have gone into tackle manufacture.

But that is another story...

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