ANTIQUE FISHING REELS

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History and Evolution

Big Game Fishing's Golden Years

by Ed Pritchard

Prior to 1880, it was believed that catching a fish weighing over 100 pounds was an impossible task and, to a large degree, that belief was due to a lack of faith in the fishing tackle that was being manufactured at the time. Then, in 1880 and against all odds, Mr. Samuel M. Jones, primitive rod and reel in hand, ventured down into the wilds of Florida and with little fanfare caught the first fish weighing over 100 pounds on rod and reel. Jones landed his 130-pound tarpon using tackle developed for strip bass fishing in New England which, in reality, was grossly inadequate for tarpon fishing.

Early Tarpon Fisherman with their days catch

In 1885 Mr. W.H. Wood of New York landed a tarpon in excess of 100 pounds and the story was chronicled in Forrest and Stream magazine igniting a spark in the hearts of anglers worldwide to find their way to Florida and test their skills against the magnificent leaping “Silver King”. Rods broke, reels froze, fingers were broken and a call went out challenging tackle makers to come up with rods and reels that could truly aid an angler in landing these large powerful fish, and, the sport of big game fishing was born.

Vom Hofe 230lb Tarpon Vintage Photo
Edward vom Hofe with his record 210 pound tarpon

Edward vom Hofe came from a family of tackle manufactures, his father Fredrich and older brother Julius had been making reels since 1860.  Edward apprenticed with his father and opened his own tackle manufacturing business in 1867 concentrating on the manufacture of high-quality salt water reels.  Edward had started tarpon fishing in Florida in 1888 and claimed to have never missed a season thereafter.

Having fished for tarpon himself, vom Hofe had a unique understanding of the frustrations of tarpon anglers as well as the shortcomings of the tackle at their disposal.  Up to this point, the most effective drag mechanism at the angler’s disposal were simple strips of leather attached to a reel’s rear pillar which the angler pressed up against the outgoing line in an attempt to slow the run of a fish.

Because these early reels had no anti-reverse mechanisms their handles would spin backward during a fish’s run resulting in mangled knuckles and broken fingers as the unfortunate angler tried to regain his grasp on the knob while fighting a fish.

Vom Hofe’s first-hand experiences with tarpon in Florida motivated him to develop the first modern internal friction style drag which he patented in 1902.

This innovation allowed the angler to adjust the tension on the spool by turning a spanner wrench underneath the handle on the collar of the reel.

Although this was a great help to the angler, the drag could still not be adjusted while fighting the fish and therefore it was still a far cry from the perfect fix.

Edward vom Hofe reel with pop-out
anti-reverse and collar adjust drag

The rods being produced at the time only added to the early big game angler’s frustrations as they were most often multi-section affairs made of stout yet pliable woods such as ash, greenheart or hickory with their weakest points being the ferrules that held the sections together.

When too much pressure was put on a fish by the angler the rods would literally explode at the ferrules, the sound was likened to the crack from a rifle being fired.

Fishing lines were light and irregular and the hooks of the day were far from perfect. Florida was the staging grounds and the challenge it threw down to anglers to land its larger tarpon inspired men from New York to London to produce tackle that could stand up to the test.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Dr. Charles Fredrick Holder was testing the waters off Catalina Island; his angling breakthroughs in 1889 lured other aspiring salt water anglers go west and dip their lines in California waters.

For years Holder tried unsuccessfully to land the first bluefin tuna off Catalina Island, his failures due in no small part to his inadequate tackle.

In 1896 Colonel Clinton P. Morehous successfully landed the first bluefin tuna using a 9/0 size reel that he had custom built to his specifications specifically for the task by Edward’s brother, Julius vom Hofe.

Clinton P. Morehous
with record tuna
First model star drag reel
made by Julius vom Hofe

The reel Julius built was larger and stronger, enabling it to hold more line and handle the strain put on it by the large energetic “leaping tuna” that Morehous wished to capture.

In 1898 Holder caught a record 183-pound tuna and founded the Tuna Club which established rules for anglers and quickly became the world’s hub for big game fishing for the next 30 years.

During this period tackle innovations were coming as fast as new species of new big game fish were being landed.  Along with Edward vom Hofe’s internal friction drag, 1902 also saw the first external friction drag designed by Francis Rabbeth which was built into the reel’s handle and adjusted by tightening a series of screws.

Both drags were of great help but neither allowed the angler to change the drag setting while fighting a fish. Although still not perfect these tackle improvements helped Tuna Club member Edward Llewellyn catch the first marlin on rod and reel in 1903.

In 1907 George W. Blackburn of Sarasota Florida invented the first anti-reverse mechanism which mounted externally on the reel and prevented its handle from spinning backward while a fish was running off line.

Shortly thereafter Pflueger came up with a similar device and Edward vom Hofe began offering reels with pop-out anti-reverse mechanisms that were built into the reel.  Blackburn’s invention was a huge step forward for the modern reel and swollen bruised knuckles and broken fingers were on their way to becoming a thing of the past.

The year is 1913 and Tuna Club member William C. Boschen debuts the most important innovation in reel design history to date, the star drag. Working with reel makers Julius vom Hofe in New York and Joe Coxe in Los Angeles, Boschen’s star drag concept, for the first time, allowed anglers to adjust an internal friction drag while fighting a fish. As if to prove his star drag concept a success even before the debates began, Boschen landed the first broadbill swordfish taken on rod and reel weighing 315 pounds with a working prototype reel. Boschen’s swordfish was hooked with the aid of a kite invented for just that purpose by legendary Tuna Club guide, George Farnsworth. Farnsworth’s kite attached to the fisherman’s line dangling the bait in such a way as to look like a baitfish skipping across the surface of the water. By 1914 a cadre of Catalina boatmen were flying kites and all the major tackle company’s salt water reels had star drags and internalized anti-reverse mechanisms, the modern reel was born.

William Boschen Swordfish Catalina
William Boschen with first swordfish caught on rod and reel.
Zane Grey - Tiger Shark - Australia
Zane Grey with his world record
1036 lb. tiger shark.

Tuna Club member Zane Grey was America’s first millionaire author boasting a string of best selling western novels. Profits from his book sales and Grey’s dreams of fishing waters in far off locations culminated in the purchase and renovation of a 146 foot three masted-schooner. Grey proceeded to outfit “The Fisherman” with everything an angler could possibly imagine including two motor launches he had built specifically for big game fishing, hence, the mother-ship concept was born.

Grey is also credited for having the first truly large reels and rods custom built for big game fishing. Grey contracted California tackle maker Joe Coxe to build large 10/0 through 16/0 size reels to his specifications.

These reels would allow Grey to battle larger fish because of the additional line capacity and strength these reels would afford him. Grey had rod makers build larger and stronger rods to accommodate his massive new reels pushing his rod makers to come up with new ideas to make the rods better. Grey had custom fighting chairs built complete with gimbals for the rod butts, swiveling bases and rod holders.

 

Grey also was the first to experiment with wooden and metal teasers which he used to attract large fish up to the back of the boat. Grey’s innovations helped him land world record tuna, marlin and swordfish, as well as the first fish caught weighing over 1000 pounds.

To catch this 1036 pound tiger shark off the coast of Australia Grey used a 16/0 stainless steel Kovalovsky reel which featured planetary gearing and the first rim control operated band break style drag. Kovalovsky dubbed this model the “Zane Grey Reel” and its price tag during the throes of Great Depression was $1000.00. Grey wrote several books on big game fishing which helped to popularize this rapidly growing sport, and as a byproduct, also help to popularize the new fishing destinations that he had written about; Polynesia, Australia, New Zealand to name a few.

As big game fishing’s popularity spread across the oceans to foreign waters, angling innovations started checking in from all around the globe.

In the mid-1920s England’s legendary tackle makers, Hardy Brothers, built the “Alma” big game reel, big game fishing’s first two speed reel.

Hardy Bros. Alma two-speed reel.
Errol Bullen Atalanta reel

Down under in Australia Errol Bullen was having level-wind mechanisms put on his “Atalanta” big game reels to help guide the line evenly onto the reel's spool thus freeing up the angler's hand that normally had to do that job.

The 1930s arrived just as giant bluefin tuna and marlin were discovered migrating in waters off the Bahamian island of Bimini just a short boat ride away from the world's new angling capital, Miami Florida.

Giant bluefin tuna had been fought and successfully landed in shallow waters off Nova Scotia, however, the deeper water surrounding Bimini enabled these fish to sound to depths where even the best tackle could not boat them fast enough to keep the local sharks from mutilating them.

Marlin were being bitten in half, tuna were being “apple-cored”, rods were coming back to the docks in splinters, and reels were either spooled of their line or seizing up from the extreme heat generated by the fish's powerful run.

Apple-cored tuna caught at Bimini

Three years passed without an angler successfully landing an intact tuna in Bahamian waters.  Miami Guides teamed up with local businessmen and with ideas forged from years of failure came revolutionary new tackle designed specifically for the fish and circumstances that presented themselves in Southern waters.

A Miami tackle salesman named Frank O’Brien glued five strips of wood together, each type of wood was selected for its own beneficial properties and Tycoon Tackle with its unparalleled “Bimini King” big game rod was born.  At one point 90% of all world record fish were caught on rods made by Tycoon Tackle.

First model Fin-Nor tuna reel

On the other side of Miami, drawing on his experience as an auto mechanic, Fredrick Grieten applied the principle of the automobile drum brake to his massive 15/0 big game reel and the results culminated in the birth of the legendary Fin-Nor reel.

Fin-Nor went on to capture scores of big game world records and was the only company producing handmade reels to remain successful well beyond WWII.

Roswell Lee was building his own large tuna reels in Miami in 1937 and it was during this period he invented the torpedo grip for reel handles as well as the roller tip and roller guides for big game fishing rods.

Lee quit making reels to pursue building rod holders, fighting chairs, and a new invention for big game fishing, the brainchild by Miami’s own legendary fishing guide Capt. Tommy Gifford, the modern day outrigger.  As a testament to their superior quality, Fin-Nor Reels, Tycoon Tackle and Lee’s Tackle are all still in business today.

First model Lee's tuna reel

As the 1940's dawned, big game fishermen began to feel like they were on a level playing field with the fish they pursued largely due to the improvements in the tackle they were using.  The advent of World War II dictated the cessation of all production deemed non-essential to the war effort which included the manufacture of fishing tackle.

The tackle scene that emerged after the war saw many new big game fishing products made from revolutionary new materials developed for the war effort.  The true golden years of big game fishing, where failures were more frequent then successes based on the quality of the tackle at hand, had come to a close.  Tackle quality had taken a quantum leap over the past 60 years and it was not just the guides, anglers, and tackle manufacturers that had pushed the movement forward, it was also the larger fish that anglers were encountering that dared men to invent tackle that could stop them.

Ed Pritchard is the co-author of Fin-Nor the Legacy Years and Fishing Around Miami.