March 12th, 2001
The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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Picking a Used Fly Reel
By Rick Rappe
Like many of you who grew up in small town or rural America in the
50's and 60's, my local sources of fly fishing equipment and advice
was limited and so our instruction came every month from the latest
issues of "the hook and bullet" magazines. I can well remember that
day more than 40 years ago when I bought my first fly rod from the
general store and had a selection of exactly one model from which to
choose. I can remember the rod, buying the level line and even the
little package with those barbed hook eyes we'd thread into the end
of the fly line on which to tie a bit of leader. And I well remember the
first fish I caught on that rig. But the conventional wisdom of the times
that I found in those issues of Argosy, Field & Stream
or Outdoor Life must have been profound, because for
the life of me I have no recollection of the fly reel I used on that
solid fiberglass rod.
For the perhaps 125 years that fly fishing as we know it has been a staple
topic of the outdoor magazines, most of that time the fly reel has been neglected
as of little importance . . . just someplace to store the line.
And that point of view isn't without some merit. Even today, for the
majority of fishing to panfish, smaller trout, bass and such; the expensive
features and precision of so many of today's reels is of negligible value
in actually landing a fish.
Please don't take this to mean that I'm not appreciative of the quality and
value in an expensive and well-featured reel. I am. I also acknowledge
that fly fishing has become more challenging and the need for certain features
such as a decent and adjustable drag becomes more important than it might
have been for the typical fisher of only a generation or two ago.
Still, as the rods in my cabinet come and go (more coming than going I point
out) and I find myself needing a variety of lines and so reels to hold them,
simple economics has forced me into seeking an alternative to reels that
cost more than the rods they go with.
I just looked at the 2000 edition of Blacks Fly-Fishing and
counted 97 listed fly reel manufacturers or exclusive brand distributors. While
there are some such as Orvis which lists 40 models; if we assume the average
per manufacturer is only 10, that means there are nearly 1000 different fly
reels on the market today.
As a practical fishing tool, I know of none of those reels that won't give
Let me say that again. While I can't possibly test 1000 different reels; I
have yet to see any reel of recent production that isn't at a minimum,
adequate to fish with. I'll go further and state that with our global economy,
modern precision machining methods and low labor costs in some parts of
the world, there are low cost reels on the market today that rival the best
reels ever made in times past.
After that first reel of which I have no recollection, I was perfectly happy
for many years with a single Pflueger Medalist 1492 1/2 model and a couple
of spare spools. That basic reel was supplemented by a gift over 30 years
ago of a Meek 55 and later with the purchase of a Young Pridex and an
Orvis CFO; all used.
As my needs grew, I found that with the exception of the newer plastic
cassette reel models such as the STH, spare spools for the Medalist or the
CFO were not always easy to come by and they often cost more than another
entire reel. Then there was the problem of test casting multiple rods. No matter
how many extra lines on spare spools, with only a single reel frame; I couldn't
do side by side testing.
So I began to sell off some of the duplicate reels and spare spools and replace
them with complete reels usually purchased used from such sources as e-Bay.
My "collection" of mostly using reels has grown to over 40, the vast majority
of which are long discontinued models that cost me less than a spare spool for
one of my high dollar models.
While I have said that any reel made today is at least adequate, this was not
true in times past and there is much used junk to avoid. There is also a category
of reel from the past, that while well made and certainly adequate still, lack the
one feature I feel should be a requirement. Namely some sort of reasonable
drag system, preferably one that is easily adjusted.
To help you narrow down the choices of used reels from the past, let's first
eliminate all but the traditional single action reel from contention. Automatic
wind reels had a popularity surge for a time and I have a minty Shakespeare
Tru-Art that I swear one of these days I'm going to fish with just to shake up
my fishing buddies. Besides the fact that these beasts were fragile and
cantankerous, I think a key reason they never succeeded was that they
were often so heavy that they unbalanced the rod to the point that casting
Next, let's draw a rough line at WW2. Up until a bit before the war, high
quality reels were uncommon and most all fishers made do with all metal
skeleton models that varied in quality from adequate to junk. While there
is collector interest in the better specimens, drags systems were iffy such
as in the Miesselbach Expert in which the fisher was to pinch the frame so
it would bend and drag against the spool rim. Yes there were some well
made and rare quality reels produced in the first half of the 20th century
mainly in the US and England, but today these rarities fall into the collector,
not fishing category.
And lastly, I'll try and limit my comments to models I believe can be had
for $50 or less.
The Enterprise Manufacturing Company started producing fishing products
under a variety of names at the end of the American Civil War, and some
of the hard rubber and brass or nickel silver models are classics, but is
wasn't until the 1930's that they had a real reel (sorry) success in the
Pflueger Medalist. Here was a reel that ran more smoothly than the
skeleton framed alternatives. Besides having a functional and easily
adjusted drag, the American angler of normal means could for the first
time buy a reel that took low cost spare spools.
The buyer picking a used Medalist today might be surprised at the wide
disparity of prices. Understand that the earliest Medalists had round line
guards, sculptured cross pillars and metal drag parts and these are now
coveted by collectors. Later, more plastic replaced metal yet the
American made versions still bring a premium over the later Medalists
produced in Japan. But other than the smaller 1492 and 1492 1/2 models,
which didn't have an adjustable drag, any working Medalist still makes
a good useable reel.
After WW2 there was a boom in fly-fishing and the demand by returning
GI's for new tackle was high. Many a GI with visions of success opened
a new business, and a few of those tried to make their fortune in fly reels.
Few survived, and even fewer made a reel worth using. Accordingly you
will see obscure reels such as the Bivans, the Lawrence or the Thompson
(actually a pretty good reel), and you can as a rule steer clear of such
unknowns. There were also many common brand reels that simply
were not much good. Allowing that exceptions might exist, I'd avoid
any Bronson or Martin; Pfluegers other than the Medalist or any house
brand reel unless its heritage is known.
There were also many manufacturers such as Bristol or Ocean City that
made reels under their own name as well as trade reels for entities such
as Union City Hardware, and the practice of building reels for others
continues to this day. There are some real bargains sometimes found
in these trade reels such as the Shakespeare multiplier I bought that is
plainly a J. W. Young Speedex but cost far less without the Young name.
One of the most commonly found old reels that I'll use as an example of
borderline acceptability is the Ocean City 35 and its variations. First, as
was common, many of these reels were designed to be right hand wind
only. That is, the rod was held in the left hand, and reel is cranked with
the right hand. The die-hard traditionalists and us Lefties appreciate these
right hand only winders, but the majority of today's fishers want to leave
the rod in the casting hand and wind from the left side. The 35 is a
non-reversible bargain for those that don't mind RH wind only. The 35
is also an example of a reel with a non-adjustable drag, but one which
can be tweaked into an acceptable level of in-out tension by fiddling
with the internal pawl springs. An Ocean City reel that I think represents
a better value is the 76/77 model. First, the 76 can be changed from right
to left wind by reversing the line guard. It has a center spool drag that is
easily adjusted, suffering only from the same limitation of all center drags
in that it puts the same tension on the spool in both winding directions.
I paid $10 for my 35 and less than $30 for my 76 and it was mint and
still in the original box.
Other lower cost possibilities of more or less original designs and decent
using quality from the 1950's-60's that I have experience with would include:
The ABU-Delta triangular reel. (Weird looking plastic and stamped
metal, but especially with the adjustable drag of the Delta-5, very useable.)
Proliferating to this day are a variety of reels that we can lump into the category
of clones, most often copies of various Hardy models. Copying the design of
another's reel isn't a new phenomenon. I recently saw a nickel and rubber
early fly reel marked Wm. Miller's Sons, a clear rip off of the famous Wm.
Mills & Sons Leonard reel from the 19th century. I still have my 70 year
old Meek 55A that is an obvious copy (and some say actually better made)
than the Hardy Uniqua it emulates.
Abu made Zebco Cardinal.
Bristol 65, 66 (fixed drags).
Miesselbach, Rainbow, Airex and Simplorex (all nicely made, all with fixed drags).
Orvis Madison (Medalist clone).
J.W. Young (Condex & Pridex are fixed drags, Speedex, Beaudex and
Landex are adjustable).
Medalist clones are common, although many are really Medalists but with
another brand name (such as the Orvis Madison).
From the 1960's I have a Heddon-Daisy mdl 300 that is an excellently made
reel and a clear copy of a Hardy Featherweight. Also from this time I have
a Diawa 700 series identical to a Hardy Princess and every bit as smooth
running. Because Heddons are collectable, I paid $35 for it, and the near
mint Diawa cost $20.
Some companies such as Wright-McGill seem to have made a practice of
buying a new order of privately branded reels from off shore sources every
season or so, and one recent model is the Medallion series which is virtually
identical to the Hardy Marquis. I have three of these reels, and paid only
around $20 for each. A friend with one of these clones and an original
Hardy says even the spools interchange.
Now I admit to mixed feelings about clone reels, but I've found them to
be every bit as good as the originals and for 10-20% of the price, too
good to pass up.
This brings us back to today. There are very many reels meant to retail
for $50 or less that have decently adjustable drags and other modern features
such as palming spools and reversability. An example that comes to mind is the
Scientific Anglers System 1 series. I expect Manufacturers Suggested Retail
Price was a bit over $50 for this reel, but they are commonly found discounted
to $35 or so. As you might expect, low end models come and go nearly every
season. Yet even the cheapest of them I've seen are serviceable tools, perhaps
lacking in a drag system I'd call first class (Cabella's 567 comes to mind, which
I bought new for a kid's first reel for well under $20 including a spare spool.)
I am much impressed with the bargains I've found in used STH brand reels.
I don't know why it is that certain reels seem to hold re-sale value while other
do not, but one of my STH's was given to me, and the other, with 2 spare
cassettes cost me $50. These reels are impressive. The disc drags are one
way and finely adjustable, and they are precision made devices. Some criticize
them as being too heavy, but not only have I found this not to be a problem,
but actually a positive when fitted to a bamboo rod. The idea of spare plastic
cassettes for around $10 is great and suffers only because they take a bit more
effort to change than some other cassette reels such as the Orvis Rocky
Mountain (also a nice reel, but a bit above our $50 limit).
Sometimes even the highest quality reels disappear from the market quickly.
While I expect this is partly due to marketing errors, there are occasionally
some true bargains. One reel that I am particularly impressed with that appears
to have come and gone in only two seasons, and which I can recommend
wholeheartedly is the Crystal River Royal Coachman. It features a handsome
gold and silver finish, has a wonderfully powerful and sensitive one way disc
drag, roller line guides, a palming rim, and get this- a genuine ball bearing drive!
I bought one used for $26 from a fellow who bought it at a sporting goods
store closeout for $49. And as I write this, I am high bidder on another
one on e-Bay for $12! This reel is as smooth running as any reel I've ever
even held in my hand regardless of price. And I care not one whit that it
was made in Korea.
To sum up, virtually all reels made today will give good service, and the higher
ticket models are marvels of precision workmanship. Yet there are a goodly
number of reels from the last 50-60 years that in the best of cases represent
wonderful values, and even in lesser models still give a cost effective alternative
for the fisher more concerned with catching fish than with an "ooh-ahh" brand
name. Choose wisely and save some $$.
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