Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

October 24th, 2004

This Old Reel

By Dave Micus

Validating the old saying "a fool and his money are soon parted," I have recently begun collecting antique wooden fly reels. I'm not sure why. It's unlikely they'll ever be worth much more than I paid for them, but they are over 100 years old and there is what can only be described as a spirit in these reels, as if the very wood absorbed the passion of its owner in a way metal never could.

Each has a story to tell.

One reel I purchased is noticeably darker on two thirds of the wooden spool than on the other one third. I tried to lighten the wood with stripper (I know, ruining the patina and the value, but I can't help myself sometime) to no avail. I showed the reel to a friend who is a master carpenter, and, after gazing long and hard while he turned the reel over and over in his hands, he pronounced his judgment -- the reel, at least part of it, was exposed to fire. Not long enough to burn the wood and cause real damage, but long enough to discolor it.

How does a fly fishing reel end up in the fire? Maybe the same way a golf club ends up in the water hazard. After a particularly bad day fishing the Test, did our sport fling his reel into the fire? It would have to be worse than just a no fish day, more like a 45-pound king breaking the cast as it was brought to the net. Later, at the lodge, our angler drank and brooded, then drank and brooded more. The visions of the king darting off with a flick of its huge tail becomes too torturous, and, to the surprise of all present, our sport takes his reel and flings it into the fire. A quick thinking gilley rescues the tackle, but not before it suffers the damage.

Or maybe the opposite occurred. Perhaps, during an evening's celebration after an exceptional day salmon fishing, the single malt whiskey flowed a little too freely, and our fishing gent, intoxicated with sport and spirits, set his rod a bit too close to the inviting hearth, singeing his prize reel but rescuing it before it was ruined. I hope this is the case.

Another reel appears to be in perfect shape except that one of the ebony handles is gnawed, clearly the delinquency of a puppy, as no mature dog of a sportsman would have the impudence to nibble his master's prize reel. Perhaps it was a day of a pheasant hunt, and the puppy, still in the training stages, was left at home while the more experienced dogs enjoined the game. The pup barks, running from door to door, but to no avail; they are already gone. But then his acute sense of smell detects something, that aroma of gun oil that the pup so inextricably links to his master's scent. The puppy follows his nose, and in a corner of the den, atop an old wicker creel next to a greenheart rod, he finds the recently lubricated reel. It's too big to grasp in his small mouth, so he takes it by the handle and carries it with him the rest of the day, stopping every so often to nibble on his trophy until his sporting master returns. Or at least that's how I envision it.

The reel with the most to tell is one in pristine condition that, other than a bit of tarnish on the brass fittings, looks as if it just came off of an outfitter's shelf. Was it a gift or impulse purchase that just never made it streamside? I imagine quite the opposite, a reel painstakingly disassembled after every outing, the shaft and gears carefully oiled, the wood lovingly polished, then stowed away in a safe spot until it once again felt the tug of a trout. Passed down through generations, it has now come in my possession, and I am obliged to maintain the same high standard set by the former owner. Oh, I won't fish it, but I will clean it and oil it and handle it so that, like the velveteen rabbit, it knows it was loved.

These are the stories of just the first three reels I collected; I've since purchased six more. They, too, have tales to tell, but we'll save those yarns for another time... ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.

Previous Dave Micus Columns

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