Today, we think of fishing reels as a required piece of equipment that is as critical to fishing as a rod is. However, the fishing reel is a relatively new development. While you can trace the history of catching fish back thousands of years, anglers have only used modern reels for the last 200 years.
Whether your drive comes from a love for old machines, fishing gear, Americana, or antiques, there is no denying the popularity and collectibility of vintage fishing reels. Whether you plan to use them or display them, tons of excellent vintage fishing reels are available or waiting to be discovered!
With so many antique reels created dating back to 18th-century England, it is challenging to determine what is collectible and which reels are worth buying or selling. Here, we cover everything you need to know about vintage fishing reels, including what makes them valuable collectibles. We will also share some of the most iconic and collectible reels by type.
A Brief History of the Modern Fishing Reel
Historians believe that the fishing reel was conceived in the 3rd century CE by the Chinese. But it was not until the 18th century that contemporary fishing reel designs were invented. These designs modernized fishing for the world! Before this revolution, fishing reels were nothing more than a concept.
The early fishing reels had more in common with a winch than the fishing reels of today. Watchmakers and jewellers made these reels, and most of them were direct drive models that rotated once for each crank of the handle. Before long, early multipliers appeared, which made it much easier to retrieve the line quicker, as the spool would rotate several times with each crank.
By the late 1800s, only two styles of reels dominated the market. These reels were the fly reel and the centrepin reel. At the dawn of the 20th century, the threadline reel was created, advancing fishing further and making it even easier to catch fish, even for novices. At about the same time, the threadline reel evolved and branched off into modernized spinning and baitcasting reels that strongly resemble what anglers use today.
What Makes a Vintage Reel Collectible?
So, what determines the collectible value of a vintage fishing reel? Like most collectibles, these are the four determining factors:
As a common rule of thumb for most antique items, the older the item, the more valuable it tends to be. This valuation is no different for fishing reels. Many older reels that you find today are handmade and created in smaller quantities. As they are handmade, they’re assembled with more durable materials.
Due to general aging, it can be tough to find them in a well-kept condition. If you happen to see you have an old fishing reel brand setup in pristine condition, you may have just found a treasure!
While age is certainly a determining factor for value with vintage reels, quality also plays a massive factor. As another rule of thumb, handmade reels are more desirable and valuable as collectibles. Handcrafted reels are typically created with more durable materials. These reels also have a high chance of being custom-built, which may be unique.
A more modern example of reels showing quality craftsmanship is inherently more collectible than the mass-produced reels which flooded the market after World War II. While a fishing reel created shortly after post-World War II may be considered an antique, these can be more common to find than a handmade rod.
Along with the reel’s quality, there is also scarcity to consider. Some manufacturers had the capability of producing thousands of fishing reels each year, while others could only make a handful. Some reels were only on the market for a brief time before the manufacturer discontinued them for a newer model. These are just a few examples of how scarcity can happen with fishing reels.
Generally, the rarer a reel is, the more valuable it will be.
The fourth determining factor in the collectibility of fishing reels is their condition. Like most antiques, it can be difficult to find vintage fishing reels in good condition. But, if you find that you’ve been holding onto an old fishing reel that’s barely or never been used, you just might have something worth some real value!
The reason why I say never used is that with every use, the fishing reel gets worn. The more it’s used, the more worn it gets, and the less value it will garner. Beyond the appearance, the reel will be more valuable if it has all its original parts, papers, and packaging. Replacement parts and repairs can tank the value of an otherwise collectible model.
Putting It All Together
When it comes to vintage fishing reels, every reel has at least one or two of these characteristics in its favor. Things start to come together from a collectibility perspective when a model has three or four of these factors. The ideal specimen is a reel made long ago in limited quantities, hasn’t been used before, and is handcrafted.
Fishing reel values can vary widely, and these four factors influence how much you can expect a particular reel to cost. Some highly collectible reels are worth a few hundred dollars, while exceptionally rare or impressive items can sell into the thousands.
Do you have an old reel that you think may be valuable? After checking the above boxes, there are many online resources and forums where you can converse with experts to find out the value of your possession. Here’s a quick link to talk to just one of many fishing experts.
Different Collectible Fishing Reel Types
Several different reel styles have been popular over the last 150 years, and some of them are still common today. Any type of reel below can be highly collectible depending on the above factors.
After World War II, Denison-Johnson Reel Company and ZEBCO released the first commercial fishing spincast reel for mass production. The appeal of the spincast reel was it made it easy for anyone to fish without experience or skill. The spincast reel also improved the baitcast reel designs, eliminating wire snaring and twisting for the most part.
Spincast reels were more affordable options in the 1950s and 60s. These reels are still popular for catfish fishing, but they have declined significantly otherwise. Due to the massive amount produced in the past, these reels are still the most common.
You may not find many examples of collectible spincast reels, but they may be collectible in terms of loved ones’ memories for sentimental reasons. Older ZEBCO anniversary models from the 50s and 60s are the most popular, and valuable.
Baitcasting reels have been around since the mid-17th century but have been widely used by anglers since the 1870s. Reels from the turn of the century, like the Shakespeare Wondereel, are incredibly collectible. In 1920, these reels added the first level-wind mechanism.
Some of the most collectible vintage fishing reels in the bait caster category come from brands such as:
- Andrew B. Hendryx Co.
- Ocean City
Spinning reels were invented in the early 1930s and presented anglers with an alternative to baitcaster reels, which were still prone to tangles. Bache Brown, an American angler, made improvements to the design of the early European reels, adding a full bale in place of the half-bale that was common at the time.
His Airex company’s Beachcomber reels would revolutionize spinning reels, and soon dozens of manufacturers were producing similar models. Mitchell, Delfino, RU, Centaure, and Luxor were some of the popular brands, with others like Daiwa, Shimano, and Penn arriving shortly after. Penn’s 700-series spinning reels are revered as some of the most well-made.
Conventional / Trolling
Today’s conventional trolling reels are essentially large baitcaster reels trolled behind a slow-moving boat. The angler releases line from the reel, and the bait is kept in the strike zone as the vessel moves forward.
In the early 1900s, many reels were marketed for trolling, including baitcaster, fly, and centrepin reels. The Nottingham reel was the most popular, and today these reels are incredibly collectible, thanks to their gorgeous wood construction and fine brass work.
Fly Fishing Reel
Fly reels are the oldest, and many anglers believe they’re the best vintage fishing reels. These reels have the best chance of being old, and many were engineering marvels of the time.
The Birmingham reel is one of the most popular and collectible of the time, and these reels were exceptionally well made. The Perfect is one of the first to introduce an adjustable drag system, which lends to the collectibility of that particular reel.
Centrepin reels are pretty similar to fly fishing reels, although these reels add a latch that allows the spool to release the line quickly. Centrepins showed a clear improvement over the popular Nottingham reel, which would become useless when its wooden components swell up when wet. The Allcock Aerial was the most popular centrepin reel of the time.