Ultimate Guide • Updated Fri, Oct 13, 2023
Fishing reels have come a long way since their humble beginnings. Spanning multiple countries and thousands of years, the evolution of fishing reels reflects anglers’ endless pursuit to advance the art of fishing. As technology advances, it becomes the foundation for designing a better, more reliable reel. Over the years, reels have become lightweight, masterfully crafted tools, expanding the possibilities for anglers into harsher environments where more powerful game fish reside. In this article, we’ll cover the history of fishing reels from their first recorded depiction to where they are today.
Courtesy of Hayden Dobbins.
This article covers:
Fishing reels trace their origins back almost a thousand years, with different global regions contributing to their development. The earliest known fishing reels date back to Song Dynasty China, roughly 1200 CE. These rudimentary reels were crafted from bamboo and used for handline fishing — consisting of a spool and a handle for winding the line made of wood.
Despite China’s earlier record of the reel, England is credited for the developments that culminate in the fishing reels we recognize today — one with a spool, frame, reel foot, and handle. First documented in Thomas Barker’s The Art of Angling in 1787, the English fishing reel began to gain prominence during the 1650s. Before the 18th century, recreational fishing was viewed as a hobby of the elite. Not until the commercialization of fishing products and the proliferation of tackle builders across England in the 18th century did fishing become more accessible to the masses. This resulted in the design of the Nottingham reel, a wide wooden drum that gave line freely. This became a model other designers used as a foundation for further development.
With the onset of industrial globalization in the early 19th century, English reels made their ways overseas aboard ships laden with goods bound for the United States. Here, they soon found their way into the hands of watch-makers and metalworkers skilled in mechanization and craftsmanship. George W. Snyder, watchmaker and silversmith from Paris, Kentucky, is credited with the first American-made design for his Kentucky Reel. Since Snyder did not have any protections in place on his intellectual property, the reels were soon adapted by Benjamin F. Meek, John Milam, Jacob Wolf Hardman, and Clarence Gayle, as well as many other tackle builders at the time. These artisans, trained in jewelry making and metallurgy used their respective skill sets to ramp up U.S. fishing reel production. They applied their training in building complex gear structures towards the development of the modern fishing reel’s first known drag system. Factories in the Northeast began to mass-produce these reels, lowering the cost and creating a surge in fishing as an American hobby. In response to this popularization, Americans continued to build on earlier reel designs as part of a constant race to produce a more profitable, high-performance product.
During the second half of the 20th century, Japanese and Scandinavian reel makers such as Shimano, Daiwa, and ABU Garcia, previously all precision engineering manufacturers for biking equipment and watchmaking, began to make a name for themselves in the global tackle market. Using their engineering prowess, they produced lighter weight reels, stronger drag systems, and smoother bearings, using new, more durable materials like stainless steel and aluminum alloys. By constantly leveraging the best technology and materials available, many present day reel manufacturers follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.
Fly fishing has been documented in Rome and other pre-modern civilizations as early as 200 CE. Other examples of fly fishing exist across different regions of the world — namely Japanese tenkara, a reel-less approach to fly fishing which even today is practiced and making a revival. It wasn’t until 1874 that Charles F. Orvis invented what we know as the modern fly reel. This established a firm foundation and benchmark for tackle builders world-wide. His design became the standard in the industry with only small changes made to his patent product across years of design innovation.
While Orvis’ reels were indeed popular and well received by the market, there were still earlier designers who contributed to the history of the fly reel. Before the Orvis reel, William Billinghurst, a gunsmith out of New York, secured a patent for what is regarded as the first American fly reel. His invention was a side-mounted reel that he initially built out of simple wire and castings in 1859, and that he would further improve with nickel-plating.
These early fly reels had no drag mechanisms — aside from the angler’s thumb. Fly reels were ultimately made with lighter metals. Reel makers bored holes in the sides of their product to reduce weight further — a technique still used by many modern day reel machinists. Fly reels, while initially made of brass, evolved into nickel, silver, and ultimately the aluminum that is widely used today. In the post-World War II era, with the onset of computer numerical control machining and the industry standard of 7075 aircraft grade aluminum alloy, fly reels have flourished alongside all the technological advancements available to continue to produce a better fly fishing experience.
Spinning reels developed in response to the angler’s need for a reel capable of casting handmade lures for trout and salmon. The spinning reel also addressed the issue of backlash, since without a rotating spool, the line was less likely to overrun itself. In 1905, Albert Illingworth, English textile magnate, made history by patenting the first modern design of the spinning reel — the Illingworth reel. His design incorporated a line pickup which guided the line as it was wound back on the spool.
Due to its ease of use, the spinning reel gained popularity in Europe during the 20th century. The French Mitchell Reel Company capitalized on this popularity, introducing the Mitchell 300 in 1948. By incorporating postwar advances in technology, the Mitchell Reel Company succeeded in setting the standard for spinning reels. With a wire bail design, anti-reverse lever, and a new fixed position for the spool at the base of the fishing rod, the Mitchell 300 allowed for use of lures 1/8th of an ounce and lighter. Spinning reels continued to develop into the 21st century with the advent of graphite and aluminum, and with the incorporation of more complex drag systems like the multi-disc drags for added power when battling larger, more powerful game fish.
The evolution of bait-casting and conventional reels begins with Onesimus Ustonson, a trade shop owner in London. Onesimus was the first to advertise for “multiplying brass winches” during the 1760s and 1770s. These early multiplier reels were iterations on the earlier centerpin reels, where one turn of the handle equaled one rotation of the reel. These new designs incorporated internal gearing — a multiplier, or gear ratio — that made one turn of the handle equate to multiple rotations of the reel.
From these early multiplier reel designs branched the conventional and baitcasting reels. The invention of drag systems marked the separation between the two and helped each to find their own niche. The aforementioned Kentucky reel, the first American-made design, incorporated an adjustable drag system and a level-wind mechanism, constituting what is considered the first true baitcasting reel in the 1820s. These reels were originally made with brass or iron gears, but eventually transitioned toward lightweight materials like aluminum alloy, stainless steel, and carbon fiber.
The conventional reel specialized further with star- and lever-drag systems to easily adjust tension on the line while fishing. The star drag reel separates the function of applying drag and free spooling, while the lever drag combines both under the use of the same mechanical lever to increase drag. Built first for deep sea and big game fishing, conventional and baitcasting reels continue to evolve. They are now used in freshwater settings as well, and reel makers have developed more sophisticated braking systems such as the magnetic, centrifugal, and chip controlled braking systems.
Notably, the materials used in fishing reel construction have evolved significantly over time. Early reels were often crafted from wood and bamboo due to their availability and malleability. In the 17th century, metal components began to appear in reel design, particularly in Europe. Brass and iron were commonly used materials, offering better durability and corrosion resistance against the saltwater.
By the end of the 19th century, the industrial revolution had catalyzed the mass production of fishing reels. This allowed manufacturers to experiment with new materials such as nickel, aluminum, and various metal alloys. Modern fishing reels are typically constructed from lightweight, corrosion-resistant materials like aluminum, graphite, and stainless steel — enhancing both their performance and longevity.
At the turn of the 21st century, fishing reels experienced a new wave of innovation. Digital technology, such as electronic line counters and advanced drag systems, became standard features in many high-end reels. Lightweight materials like carbon fiber and titanium further reduced the weight of reels without compromising strength.
The fishing reel has come a long way from its humble beginnings in ancient China. From the simple bamboo constructs of the past to the high-tech, precision-engineered reels of today, the history of the fishing reel is not just a testament to human ingenuity but also a reflection of our continued connection and investment in the art and sport of fishing.
AnyCreek is the leading online resource and marketplace for outdoor guided experiences. Trusted by world-class guides, AnyCreek streamlines their back office to help them focus on their craft. Discover and book your next adventure with confidence.