The History of Fishing Reels

Fishing with reels is quite ancient - the first images predate the pyramids. This brief article will give you some insight into the history of fishing reels and where they are at now.

A fishing reel is a device used for the sport of angling. In more scientific terms, a fishing reel “deploys and retrieves fishing line by using a spool mounted on an axle”. They are most often (but not always) used in conjunction with a fishing rod. The first use of a fishing reel can be seen in Chinese paintings from around 1195 A.D. In these paintings the fishing reels were hand wound, much like a simple fly reel today, and were attached by twine to a bamboo pole. This made the catch easier. Fishing was not a sport back then. In those days fishing was a means to feed the family!

Angler in boat with a Chinese fishing reelAngler in boat with a Chinese fishing reel.

The First Fishing Reel

First English fishing reel

First English Fishing Reel

In 1651 English literature first reported a "wind" (not the blowing kind – the winding kind) that was placed within two feet of the lower end of the fishing rod. This date is usually accepted as the first reference to a fishing reel in the western world. The first picture of this fishing reel is really nothing more than a 17th century winch reel; it is just a tad bit smaller. Looking at the illustration of this fishing device would make me stick to pole and line, which is a commonality still used today in Britain.

Until the 1800's, the fishing reel was not much more than a storage place for excess line. The British claim to be the originators for the multiplying reel, but the fishing reels of George Snyder, of Kentucky, have become the most famous 19th century multipliers. Snyder's reels were developed in the 1820's, and are what you would think of as an "old fishing reel." From these reels is what came to what we think of today as a fishing reel.

George Snyder fly cast

George Snyder Fly Cast

In 1820, Kentucky native George Snyder invented the first fishing reel in America. It was a bait casting design that quickly became popular with American anglers. It was also able to double as a fly reel.

 George Snyder conventional fishing reel

George Snyder Conventional Fishing Reel

Types of Fishing Reels

There are a number of different kinds of reels, all of which were born of those originals found on ancient Chinese boats. The history of our sport is as important as its future. We need to protect both.

Fly Casting Reels

Fly casting reels are traditionally fairly simple in terms of mechanical construction, though they continually change with developments in technology. A fly reel is normally operated by stripping line off with one hand, while casting the rod with the other hand. A huge development regarding fly reels is a larger design. The larger design is meant to increase the speed of retrieving, as well as, keep a tight line in the event a hooked fish makes a sudden run towards the angler.

Pro cast mid-arbor fly reel 

Pro Cast Mid-Arbor Fly Reel

Bait Casting Reels

Bait casting reels are reels in which line is stored on a revolving spool. When a cast is made, line is pulled off of the reel by the weight of the lure. Because the momentum of the forward cast must rotate the spool, as well as, propel the lure, bait casting designs normally require heavier lures for proper operation. On newer reels, spool tension can be adjusted to reduce spool overrun during a cast. The result of spool overrun is the famous "birds nest." Any angler knows that dealing with a "birds nest" is no fun at all.

 Pflueger bait cast reel

Pflueger Bait-cast Reel

Spinning Reels

Spinning reels were originally designed to allow the use of lures that were too light to be cast by bait casting reels. Because the line didn't have to pull against a rotating spool, much lighter lures could be cast. Spinning reels do not suffer from backlash, although the line can become trapped underneath itself on the spool. The line may also detach in loose loops of line. Various level-wind mechanisms have been introduced over the years to attempt to solve this problem. Most spin fishermen manually reposition the bail after each cast in order to minimize line twist, which is exactly what I do.

 Ohero SP4000 spinning reel

OHERO SP4000 Spinning Reel

Spin Cast Reels

Spin cast reels were developed by the Johnson Reel Company in the early 1950's. Just like the spinning reel, the line on spin cast reels is thrown from a fixed spool, and can therefore be used for throwing light lures and bait. This fishing reel eliminates the large wire bail of the spinning reel in favor of two pickup pins. The spin cast reel is fitted with a nose cone that encloses and protects the fishing line and spool. Pressing a button on the rear of the fishing reel disengages the line pickup, thus allowing the line to fly off of the spool. Upon cranking the handle, the pickup pin immediately re-engages the line and re-spools it onto the reel. Many of you probably used a Zebco reel when you were a kid. That is a spin cast reel.

 Johnson spin cast reel

Johnson Spin cast Reel

Under spin or Trigger spin – These are spin cast reels that are mounted underneath a standard spinning rod. A lever or trigger is grasped with the forefinger. During the forward cast, this lever is released, and the line flies off the fixed spool. Like spin cast reels, there is no wire bail to hold the line; instead there are two pickup pins. Basically, these fishing reels are a combination of #3 and #4.

Trigger spin cast reel 

Trigger Spin cast Reel

Looking Back and Looking Forward: The Future of Fishing Reels

Through time and technology, the fishing reel has under gone many changes, and yet it still is based upon that first simple design; a line wound on a spool. From the simple single action of a fly, to the size of an 18/0 that pulls in virtually anything, fishing reels continue to evolve.

Everol 18/0 two speed 

Everol 18/0 Two Speed

Fishing reels will evolve in making your catch a sporting adventure, while making it easier on the fish too.

Daiwa Tanacom bull power assist electric reel

Daiwa Tanacom Bull Power Assist Electric Reel

From the Publisher: This excellent article from Gary Anderson – our Charlotte Harbor Editor, team member, innovative angler, mentor to many local youngsters, and great friend – shows how important it is for a fishing web site to offer good content to its readers. Forums, tide pages, weather forecasts, political commentary, regulatory changes and current information, videos about everything from knot tying to the best songs to listen to while you're fishing is one thing. An article that looks back at our sport's history and the future we see before us is another. Thanks, Anderson. This one's a real winner. They're all good, but some are just better than others.


'The Mentoring Angler'

Gary A. Anderson

The Online Fisherman

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