A history of U.S. baitcasting reels

The level-wind mechanism changed it all

By David Turnbull

Change was on the horizon at the turning of the century as
fishing rods shrunk into the new 5-foot bamboo models and as
Dowagiac minnows and Kalamazoo casting or overhead casting became
popular. This was the end of the Kentucky reel makers and their
finely tuned and crafted reels, and the beginning of modern bait
casting. The long rods of slender wood left the stage. The few
remaining original Kentucky reels perform as smooth as they did
when they were created more than 100 years ago. They are a credit
to the craftsmen who produced these jewels of the sport of fishing
with only a few fine tools.

The next changes to the already improved Snyder and Meek reels
came from the Midwest, but they, like the other Kentucky reels made
by Sage, Talbot, Noel and Gayle, were soon forgotten because of
dramatic events that brought a new improvement to transform and
remain with the bait-casting reel to today the level wind
mechanism.

One of drawbacks with the early reels was the unkindly and
sinister act of the line to backup on the spool what is commonly
known by many frustrated fisherman as a “backlash” and a variety of
other well-chosen adjectives. Without the aid of a mechanism to
wind the line on the spool evenly, everything was done by hand, or
without the aid of the left or right one sometimes, and backlashes
were the most dreaded part of using the early reels. When you had a
mess, you really had one. Adding a wet, persnickety silk line to
the fray did not help, either.

The inventor who solved the problem of level winding was William
Shakespeare, Jr., who created a complicated leveling mechanism on a
jeweler’s lathe and obtained his patent in 1896. The problem of
winding line on a spool finally was mastered and the Shakespeare
Wondereel won the acclaim of many fishermen. Perhaps no other
company or single invention affected the popularity of bait casting
more than Shakespeare. Though Shakespeare invented the first
mechanism and level-wind reel, his company in 1907 acquired the
rights to the 1907 patent of Walter Marhoff a far simpler design
that would be the foundation of level-wind reels for many years to
come. Shakespeare made and added the Marhoff brand to its line.
Shakespeare again affected and changed the fishing world by
inventing the Wonderod, the first rod made from a new material
called fiberglass. The creation of the Wonderod was a staggering
cost of $1 million.

Mass production was also making inroads and, with it, fishing
products became more accessible to a greater part of the public.
Another company worth mentioning is the Andrew B. Hendryx Co. From
1887 to 1911, this company produced an unequaled amount of reels
and was later acquired by Winchester. Hendryx invented several
improvements that also changed the bait-casting reel. He devised a
method of constructing reel spools, spool bearings and no matter
who lays claim to inventing the first commercial automatic clutch
for a free spooling reel, it was invented by Andrew Hendryx. The
Hendryx reels were also the first commercially mass-produced
stamped brass reels that were very successful.

The diverse Pflueger family was also involved in fishing reels.
Pflueger competed with Shakespeare in the low-priced and
average-priced reels and later introduce such models as the Rocket,
the Supreme, the Nobby and others. Pflueger was also noted like
Heddon and others for its line of tackle and baits used for muskie,
bass, and northern fishing. It is with the former that many legends
grew about the Pflueger Supreme, determined muskies, and northern
Wisconsin waters.

Like so many favorites like Bronson (they claimed to be the
world’s largest manufacturer of reels and sold their reels in Sears
and Wards), Ocean City, Penn, and others, many people combined
their skills and talents and offered their reels to the public. All
of them are as noteworthy as the next, with all of their work
reflecting back to the early reel makers and the files of
watchmakers.

While fly fishing for steelhead on the Skykomish River not far
from my home at the base of Index Mountain in Washington State, a
retired and aged fisherman introduced me to one the finest reels
ever made, an Edward Vom Hofe. The reel was built in the late 1920s
and performed like no others in the 1990s. It was crisp, clear,
smooth, and it literally taught both the rod and fisherman a lesson
in balance. It was a pleasure to frequently fish with one of the
fathers of steelhead fly fishing and to use such a perfect reel,
gracing a fine bamboo rod that lofted large spey patterns across
the turbid waters of the Sky. Vom Hofe also made some of the finest
bait-casting reels and larger saltwater reels all with jeweled
precision. True Temper Tackle later acquired the company and
gathered its share of the market for many years after the war
effort had past.

The only challenge to the backlash-prone bait-casting reel came
from a man in Perth, Scotland, one Peter Malloch, who in 1884
created the first spinning reel. Malloch took his idea, no doubt,
from the spinning spindles of wool manufacturing. After Illingworth
of England improved it and got his patent, Hardy Brothers in
England and Pezon-Michel in France made most of the final design
improvements. The first spinning reel, the “Luxor” was introduced
in 1935. Field & Stream was the first outdoor magazine to
promote the reel. The dynamics of taking line from a spool saw its
best answer in the spinning reel. It was not until after World Ward
II that spinning reels generally were accepted in America. The
spinning reel made fishing more accessible and inviting for many
people.

Today, bait-casting reels are well designed and made from a
variety of polymers and metals, shaped into space-age designs with
dramatic changes in gear ratios, spool diameters and lengths.
Machining and molds have replaced the work of lamp, solitude and
file. Global competitors have introduced improvements from ball
bearings to larger line capacities, and with the added materials of
graphite for fishing rods and Kevlar for fishing lines, the reel
had to adapt to the faster line speeds that are generated from
faster actions and stronger rods. Now, reels must be faster and
stronger for the bigger fish targeted by many fishermen. We are
casting farther and cranking faster.

It is to the credit of fishermen now gone who deftly challenged
a muskie or a northern with only a small Meek, or even the first
Pflueger reels, mounted on bamboo or steel rods and holding only a
fragile, braided silk line. It was much more akin to hand-to-hand
combat with a broad stroke of luck added.

As another season sleeps beneath the winter snow, the old
Pflueger Supreme waits patiently in the garage for its next meeting
with a muskie just as the old reel has ever since it has passed
from one hand to the next, complete with its ability to provide the
best backlashes in the entire world. Meanwhile, a Hardy Perfect has
some plans for the steelhead and salmon in the Great Lakes in the
coming season.

No matter how you use a bait-caster, the problem still awaits
the caster as soon as the lure is hurled through the air, due to
simple mechanics of resistance and inertia. As this fishing season
draws closer, get ready for a turbid boil next to the boat and a
sudden wake following the lure. Remember to keep a thumb on the
spool.

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