March 12th, 2001

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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 reasonable service.

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 suffered.

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.)

  • 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).

  • 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.

    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 $$. Rick Rappe

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