There's no such thing as a reel bargain anymore. Back in 1903 you could order fly-fishing reels from the catalog of William Mills & Son for $15 a dozen. But those days are gone (so, unfortunately, is William Mills & Son, once a fine purveyor of fishing tackle), and now a top-of-the-line fly reel can set you back $300 or more—sometimes much more.
That says a lot about what has happened to reels in the past few decades. Around the turn of the century most anglers considered a reel nothing more than a handy gadget for keeping extra line out of the way, but as fishing for Atlantic salmon, steelhead and many powerful saltwater species grew in popularity, the reel became a sophisticated, essential component of an angler's tackle. It served its basic purpose of storing spare line, but it also had to be able to give up line quickly and smoothly when a strong fish was running—and then recover it rapidly yet neatly. In order to do all this, reels had to be made of rugged materials machined to fine tolerances and capable of withstanding high temperatures generated by the friction created by a running fish. Sensitive drag systems were also developed, and some fly reels were made with multiplying gears that made it possible for anglers to recover line faster than ever. All this added to the cost.
That reels could change so much in less than a century is remarkable, especially when one angling scholar has estimated that 3,600 years elapsed from the time men started fishing with a line attached to a pole until development of the first crude reels. The first apparent reference in angling literature to a reel (or something resembling a reel) was a verse in John Dennys's Secrets of Angling, published in 1613. Dennys wrote:
"A little board, the lightest you can finde,
But not so thin that it will breake or bend;
Of Cypress sweet, or of some other kinde
That like a Trenchor shall itself extend;
Made smooth and plaine, your lines thereon
In other words, not much more than a stick with line wrapped around it, the sort of thing a small boy might use together with a willow switch for a rod.
Half a century after Dennys's work was published, Barker's Art of Angling described a rod with a handle that had "a hole made for to put in a winch, to turne with a barrel, to gather up [the angler's] line"—a pretty fair description of a modern reel. Barker was a contemporary of Izaak Walton, who also knew about reels but apparently did not use one himself. In The Compleat Angler (1653), Walton said only that reels were "to be observed better by seeing one of them, than by a large demonstration of words."
From Walton's time until the late 19th century the British led in reel development, but then American manufacturers began to introduce models of innovative materials and designs. In 1873 Thomas Conroy produced a reel made of German silver and began experimenting with hard rubber as a substitute material. A year later Julius vom Hofe began manufacturing a reel made of chrome-plated brass, which later gave way to hard rubber. But the most successful new reel was patented by Charles F. Orvis in 1874. As described in an early catalog, "This reel is extra nickel-plated and finely finished. It is perforated to make it light and keep it free from sand; also that the line may dry without removing it from the reel after use. Has a very perfect click.... It is quite narrow, and takes up line rapidly."
The Orvis reel sold for $3.50, including a black walnut case. The least expensive reel in the 1985 Orvis catalog was $38.50, and the average price was $224.
Perhaps the most popular fly reels ever made were those produced by England's venerable House of Hardy. Hardy introduced the Model Perfect reel in 1891, and except for a brief hiatus, it has been manufactured ever since, along with many later models. Aside from their fine precision, the most endearing quality of Hardy reels is their sound, which never fails to start a fisherman's adrenaline flowing. As Izaak Walton might have said, the sound is something more easily appreciated by actually hearing it than by a large demonstration of words.
But you won't find reels for $15 a dozen anymore—those days, alas, are gone forever.
Steve Raymond, a Seattle newspaperman, has written three books about fly-fishing.