NEW YORK — Fishing is a quiet pastime that allows people to commune with nature as well as procure their dinner. Vintage fishing gear, from lures and flies to rods and reels — especially reels — is coveted. Whether outfitting a vacation home in the style of an old-fashioned Adirondack fishing camp or just putting together a small collection that brings on waves of nostalgia for childhoods spent fishing on riverbanks under the watch of beloved relatives, fishing gear is a popular collecting genre.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, fishing reels (a circular housing around which fishing line is wound) come in four types, designed with their primary use in mind: saltwater, casting, spinning and fly reels. While some early reels were fashioned from wood, wet fishing lines soon warped them. Metal, especially rust-proof brass, became the favored material for making reels.
Saltwater reels come in a variety of sizes and specializations. These reels also reflect the differences in fishing on the open ocean: there are subtypes for people who fish in the surf or troll from a boat. Saltwater reels also can be used in freshwater fishing, but freshwater reels cannot be used in the ocean, because they are not protected from the damaging effects of salt. A group of four Seamaster saltwater fly fishing reels earned $1,650 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2018 at Affiliated Auctions.
Because people can be right-handed or left-handed, fishing reels are designed accordingly. They are typically marked for handedness, but the easiest way to tell is to check what side the crank handle is on. Right-handed fishers should choose a reel with a crank handle on the left side, and the opposite is true for lefties.
Saltwater reels are typically bigger than freshwater reels, and usually more expensive. One of the biggest subtypes is the big game reel, designed to withstand the test that big and fast-moving fish will inflict on them. Finn-Nor, which has been in business since 1933, is among the most renowned makers. A Tycoon-Fin-Nor big game deep sea fishing reel, size 12/0, went for $850 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022 at Dan Morphy Auctions.
The range of fishing reels also includes casting reels, which were introduced around the same time as fly reels. They are designed to allow the fisher to rapidly reel in the line. One of the most celebrated examples is the Kentucky reel, known for its click-and-drag feature. The Meek family were jewelers and watchmakers by trade, but were held in high esteem for their early Kentucky reels. A small JF and BF Meek #1 brass Kentucky reel made $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2015 at Dan Morphy Auctions. “This reel is an extremely desirable example from this maker, dating back to the early days of sport,” said the auction house in its catalog description of this reel.
Fly reels appeared in the mid-19th century and have a distinctive look. They were more narrow than casting reels and had a single action — turning the handle one complete revolution delivers one full rotation of the reel, which keeps the line steady. Among the well known makers of collectible fly reels are Orvis, Pflueger and Hardy and the aforementioned Meek artisans. A B.F. Meek & Sons No. 44 fly fishing reel realized $3,200 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2021 at Soulis Auctions.
Introduced to the United States in the early to mid-20th century, spinning reels are a popular type favored by beginning fishers as well as veterans as they can be used in almost any fishing situation. The top American maker was, arguably, Penn, which also debuted a surf spinning model in 1961. A lot of five vintage spinning reels, including several reels by Penn, many sporting Bakelite sides, made $250 in November 2020 at Thomaston Place Auction Galleries.
The market for fishing reels is diverse enough that both the casual buyer on a budget and the elite collector with bottomless pockets can find reels to satisfy the collecting urge. Vintage fishing reels not only look great on display, many are still functional and ready to be taken out on the water to help you catch your next prize.