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Short Version in Pictures:
Part 1: From the hook and line to the Center-Pin Reel:
Part 2: From the Center-Pin to modern fly reels and Convenstional/Bait-Casting Reels:
Part 2: From the Center-Pin to modern Spinning and Spin-Casting Reels:
Pre-hook and line: The ancestors of all humans stared down at swimming fishes in rivers or on shorelines, and saw dinner for themselves and their families. First we tried using just our hands (noodling) which worked for some species in shallow streams, but was exceptionally hazardous in larger waters (there were also lots of things back then that could eat you!), and involved swimming. Next was the stick, sharpened at the tip, then later enhanced with a stone tip. These spears could stick fish if you could see them, but if you missed, you might loose the spear.
Enter: Lines and Hooks... Next, and this is a big one, some enterprising people, figured out that if you twisted plant fibers or hairs (or silk) and pulled them, you could make a rope or line ( a thin rope, or string or thread, or braids of threads). Line would be made from either plant fiber or hairs/silk until the early 20th century (linen line-made from flax, invented in the mid 19th century-being one of the last organic fiber hold outs). This was a MAJOR finding, and it was discovered a very long time ago, since every human tribe found can make lines and ropes. With a line, one could tie to the spear and pull in a fish stuck from further out. One could (much later one) make a bow and use arrows to stick fish. One might also take many lines and knot them together to make a net. All work, but as sport fishers, I will focus on another key invention more key to us: Hooks. Early hooks were fashioned from spider webs, thorns, and from small tooth-pick sized strait sticks barbed on each end (a 'gorge hook'), and into the more recognizable 'J' shape from wood, shells, boneLike this replica Mississippian Deer Bone hook, stone like this one made by my buddy George , and eventually from metal wire. A way to identify that people lived in a spot long ago is to look for the arrow heads, pottery, and if near water, shell and bone hooks. All those types of hooks are still in use in various sections of the world (not everyone can trip over to the bait store and buy metal hooks in plastic packs).
Back to the problem at hand: Using that line and hook. It is likely that people first started simply tying the hook on the line, coiled the line at their feet or in their oposite hand, and flipped the hook into the water (or through a hole in the ice, or over the side of a kayak/canoe/raft). The shell/bone hooks can double as lures, so pulling them could bring strikes. Alternatively, one could put bait on these hooks, and maybe tie on a rock for weight (ala a sinker). Using just a line and hook is a technique called 'Hand lining'. Still works. Still in use. A very good example is spelled out in detail in E. Hemmingway's The Old Man and the Sea (READ it!).
Adding a pole Remember that bit about tying he line to the spear to keep from loosing it? What if a take that line and spear and tie a hook on the end of the line? If I have a pole, a line tied to it, and tie a hook on the other end I get a classic 'cane pole' rig. The pole lets me move the hook/lure easily, and place the hook (within a near distance to the length of the pole) accurately. I can flip the pole to drop the line out, and flip in fish up to the breaking strength of the pole-line combo. Many a kid (and some adults) still use a cane pole, though the extreme form was using large cane poles for VERY large tuna in the Pacific (used by major tuna outfits until 1970's and in some cases still used today, see the Tunaman's memorial in San Diego CA for a fine example, or see Micheal Folkes A Tribute to Tuna and to the Men Who Once Fished From the Racks (1992) for footage).
Anyone who has used a cane pole for bigger fish knows to tie the line at the tip AND periodically all the way down to the but of the pole (in case of pole breakage). Isaak Walton (see his book 'The Compleat Angler') was a cane poler, as were Chinese, Sumarians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans (among many, many, others in the ancient world). Eventually (after the invention of metal wire) someone found out that twisting wire into a loop, one could make line 'guides'. Fasten the guides along the pole, then instead of tying the line along the pole, run the line through the guides. With this I can coil line at my feet, then cast the hook using the lever action of the pole much further out, and if I hook a big fish, let line out from the coil until the fish is tired enough to bring in. How I manage such a coil of line at my feet (which will tangle very easily)? Maybe I poke a stick though the base of the pole and wrap the extra line about it? Keep that thought, your onto something...
A diversion: the Spool...ancestor of all reels For a wide variety of uses, once line was invented, people figured out that wrapping around something would make that line protable and keep it out of the way of feet, baby hands, twigs, and pets. Likely this started with a simple stick. Sticks are fine in mant cases, but if you have a long piece of line, it is arduous to wrap it around a small diameter thing like a stick. Skinner lines are very unforgiving when it comes to tangling when wrapped on a thin stick (try it, you will know fast). Someone (my guess would be a woman...try making yarn or thread and NOT use a spool) started to fashion round shapes of larger diameters to hold that line (ala a thread/yarn spool), using a 'H' cross section, designed from wood or clay to keep the line on the spool. That intrepid lady thus invented the spool, the ancesestor of all fishing reels to date. (Note the term 'reel' means something to hold and manage line/thread/rope/string). The spool did not need a rod to be useful to the hand line fisher. Make the spool such that you can hold it away from the line by putting a 'T' shaped sick through it, or make the spool very large in diameter with a cross bar, or even make the spool long like a soda-can or pop bottle, and the spool makes long casts possible. A Cuban Hand Reel is a perfect example, as is the aforementioned soda can or water bottle (chunk of big bamboo, tennis ball can, etc. etc.). An experiment: Wrap a long length of line (a hundred meters is not impossible) around a soda or beer can or plastic water or soda bottle, tie a weight and a hook on the end. Point the bottle (can) at the water (so you see the can/bottle as a circle, water on the opposite side). With the other hand, stretch a couple of feet of line from the 'casting hand' so the weight can be swung in a circle. SPin the hook fast then let fly at the water, point the can at the water. It works well with practice, though catch a few big fish and you will find winding line back on the can (your reel, spool) will become painful. Gloves help.
Marriage of the pole and spool Given a rod with guides, a spool of the right size, it was inevitable that someone would marry the two. First the spool was pinned through its center to the rod, and left there just to hold line. While an improvement over just a stick, the spool was not yet at its use. Someone the added a handle to the spool, and the first rod and reel combination was truely born. These first rod/reel setups had to relay first on a well greased pin to hold the spool, and allow the angler to wind line on the reel. Eventually a smart cookie realized a journal bearing (i.e. a small tube over the greased pin, then the spool and handle over the tube) made it far easier to turn the spool under pressure. Many pier (low cost) rod/reel kits in the 1920's and 1930's consisted of a bamboo pole, three wire guides, a short section of string to bind the guides to the rod, and a pin/bearing/spool/handle for the reel. The side pinned reel was functional, but put the line off center of the rod, leading to issues with large fish, and bunching the line near the base of the spool. The Side pinned reel and bamboo rod was sometimes called a 'Calcutta Rod and reel'.
An 'L' shaped reel seat was added next, the pin goes through the metal of the seat, spool with handle over bearing and pin, seat is wrapped or fastend to the rod. This put the spool perpendicular and centered on the rod and guides, the line straight back. This type of reel is now called a direct action (un-multiplied or 1:1 retrieve ratio) reel, or a Simple Center Pin Reel . (Note, there is some argument over the term Center-pin reel. In this case I use the term to mean a simple spool without release mechanism, in the early Nottingham style). To compensate for the 1:1 ratio, and to make reeling easier, the center pin spool is narrow and tall (has a larger diametr so that each turn of the handle recovers more line to the spool), and usually reeled from under the rod. This reel is still very popular for salmon fishing in British Columbia and tributaries of the Great Lakes (among many other places). The Center Pin is also the direct ancestor of both the modern conventional reels (bait-casters), Spinning Reels, and Fly reels.
Simple Center pin type reels and Fly fishing While feather wrapped hooks have been used for thousands of years to entice fish to bite, the guided rod needed a fly line to make it possible to cast far with un-weighted lures. Fly lines (some were linen, silk, or cotton, soaked in wax or oils to float) are heavy lines, and provide the weight for casting in lieu of the lure. A leader (with but sections and a light tippet section) seperates the fly line from the lure (a.k.a 'fly'). Backing (linen/silk initially, dacron or Dyneema fiber nowadays) is wrapped first around the spool, the tied to the fly line, which is tied to leader (butt and tippet) then to fly. Adding 'snake' style guides reduced tangles when casting and allowed the line to slip out a bit faster (less friction then a wire rig, though arguments persist to this day about snake vs. ceramic ring guides).
Fly fishing reels got better yet when clickers were added to prevent the line from tangling/binding as the line was pulled out (the clickers also added light fighting pressure, known as 'drag'). Further improvements included an exposed reel rim to allow the angler to slow down a fishes run buy applying hand pressure to the spool, and the addition of spring/washer drags with one-way prawl gears (replaces the clicker, allows the drag to be set for line going out, but removes drag pressure when the line is reeled in). There are also fly reels that diengage the handle when line is exiting the reel (i.e. you hooked a leviathan), usually for offshore fly fishing for tuna and marlin.
Advent of the knuckle busters and conventional/casting reels Center pin reels (and most fly reels) are the first real knuckle-smashers (and palm brusers..yellow jacks are really good for that), but the addition of a multiplying gear set added far more speed to the handle, making the pain truely interesting (see any book fishing related from Zane Grey). Multiplyin gears are two gears, one larger with lots of teeth, one smaller with fewer teeth. The ratio of teeth count between the gears is the 'multipling' part. If the smaller gear has half as many teeth as the larger gear, then the ratio or multiplication is 2:1 (or two complete rotations of the smaller gear for each rotation of the larger one). That's the engineering part, but for reels it meant that if you turn the larger gear with the handle of the reel, and it meshes to a smaller gear that turns the spool of the reel, (lets say the ratio is 2:1) every crank of the handle with the hand means two turns of that spool.Reels with such a ratio (any greater then 1:1) are called 'multiplying' conventional reels. Spools and gears were made of brass to begin with, and migrated later to steel. This technological improvement allowed anglers to better bring in fish (by matching the swimming speed of the fish), and more quickly bring in line. BUT, there was a downside...that 2:1 ratio also doubled the speed at which the handle spun backwards when a fish made a run! Try grabbing that handle when a fast fish is pulling out line, and you could (literally) bust your knuckles. Many an angler in the salt broke fingers trying to control the run of the big fish. In order to cast one of these reels (though may were used from piers or boats, line just dropped back), lots of weight was needed since the line had to spin the handle, just like a running fish. Too big a weight and you could strip the teeth off the gears, breaking the reel. The diamer of the spool came into play...the smaller the spool diameter (actually the diameter of the line wrapped on the spool in realtion to gear ratio*handle length/weight), the more lever action the line had to turn the gears to spin the handle. Spools on casting reels got smaller, and to compensate, gear ratios got faster, especially as stronger metals for gears emerged. Knuckle busting, many times multiplied.
Gearing did something else too. Once mutliplying gears are added to the reel, it reverses the direction that the handle spins from the spool. i.e turning the handle right-handed forward (or clockwise if facing the edge of the reel from the handle), turns the spool counter-clockwise. Given smaller diameter spools (then those of the center pin reels), and the need of most anglers to reel right-handed, the reel moved from the bottom of the rod to the top of the rod, moving all the guides as well. This meant that more guides were needed on the rods to prevent the line from over stressing the rod between guides (to prevent snapping of the rod). This is why to this day using a rod made for spinning as a bait casting rod is usually a BAD idea.
Another new phenomena emerged: Backlash. SPin the spool (as in under momentum) faster then the line comes off, and it will bunch and tangle to cuss-inducing proportions. Soon after the mutliplying reels appeared, clickers (a spring and prawl that 'clicked' the smaller gear, now called a bait clicker...good for hearing if a fish grabs the line) were installed to help stop backlash, and on the cast, and on the fish run, anglers learned to control the spool speed with their thumbs. In salt water reels, since those fish move faster in most cases, a leather pad was installed on a hingle over the spool to save the angler's thumb skin. (Note, since reels nowadays are minus such a pad, anglers can still have a 'blistering run' on their thumbs from fish like albacore...)
Improved conventional reels and casting reels for those darn sunfish (one of which is the largemouth bass) and other fish Knuckle busting multiplying reels provided lots of room for improvement. These improvements all started appearing fairly quickly, though not used on every reel: 1) The level winder was added on smaller reels, and uses a helical cut gear to move a wire along the width of the spool to evenly pile the line on the spool as the angler reels. 2) Drag systems (washers and rachets), which added a stack of washers between the pin holding the handle and the large gear. This system also included a clutch and prawl to prevent the handle from spinning backwards (only the gears and spool now spun when line was pulled form the spool). Drag was at first controlled with a round or 'star' shaped knob which increads or decresed the frictional pressure on the large gear. Along with the level winder and drag systems, 3) a free-spool Seperator appeared. The seperator used a lever to push the small gear away down the spool shaft, away from the teeth let the small gear turn the spool. The the sepearted spool could then spin freely for casting or for letting out line, without fighting the gearing and handle.
'River reels' of the 1930's-50's were small conventional reels that had #1 (level winds) but not #2 or #3. They were still knuckle busters, but at least they put the line on the reel evenly so that an angler could use heavier lures (like spoons and plugs as for basses) with repeated casts. The heavier lures relied on the knuckle-busting handle to prevent backlash when casting. These 'river reels' eventually were combined with #3 (casting seperators) and #2 (drag systems) to emerge as the first (black-)bass casting reels. Here is an example of a River Reel from the mid-20th century Later reels 'bass casting' reels such as the round 'Ambassadeur(TM of Abu-Garcia)' series from Abu-Garcia(R) (still in production) and others emerged. Bass Casting Reels needing smaller line capacities began to flatten over time and have very small spools with low line capacities now.
Gear ('Conventional' Gear) for the big water (esp. salt water) couldn't afford the level-winder (broke lots from corrosion, sand, and from strong fish, and exception is the Ambassideur(R) noted above which if carefully maintained can be used for Tuna, etc.), but did incorporate Drag systems and free spool. The larger the salt water reel, the lower the gear ratio, due to the increased diameter of line on the spool. Reels in this catagory are sized for the amount of linen line they could carry (still sized that way, even though modern line is superbraid or monofilament). For example, the 4/0 reel could carry roughly 0.25lbs (weight of line minus spool, regardless of line strength) of dry linen line. Reels ran commonly from 3/0 to 20/0 (the IGFA museum has many such monster reels on display). Many well known American Author-fishermen (Grey, Hemmingway for example) describe their reels in their works. Many roller, journal, and ball-bearings were added to make everything smooth. Since the linen line era, many innovations have gone into the conventional reel, limited only by budget and angler wants. Levers on high end reels replaced the 'star' drag, and combined the seperator and drag knob (the knob is still on the lever drag reel to set the range of tension for the lever). Some reels also have multple large gears in a transmission (like a car), gear ratios changed with a button shifter. Reels for the salt also changed in materials, from brass and steel, to anodized (high strength) aluminum alloys, steel, and titanium nitride (and in some cases titanium replaces steel or aluminum). A complex modern example is here More traditional version is here
A side trip via Austrailia and a good surf reel What if you happened to like the reeling action of a fly/simple center pin type reel, but wanted to cast without spinning the spool? Add a latch that allows the spool to turn 90 degrees and you can cast well, turn it back and reel line in like a fly reel. Add in a drag pack for the speedy fish, and you would have quite the surf reel. That is exactly what the Austrailian Alvey company makes. Here are pictures of an example in action: In Casting mode, from the front...in casting mode, from the side... from the bottom in reel mode. If you go this route, a spinning type rod is your rod, and get a small piece of rubber to hold the line with when casting (or you WILL regret it, trust me).
Spinning Reels and Bait Casting reels Let's say you wanted the benefits of a high gear ratio but wanted to also cast like the Alvey reel above? And wanted to use a smaller reel? The Spool then becomes fixed (top of the spool pointed out along the rod, spool perpendicular to the rod seat), and a line winder (a open loop or hook of wire) needs to revolve around the spool to put line on the spool. In order to make the line-winder work, the multiplying gears must now mesh in an 'L' shape, the big gear's teeth mesh with the line-wider-turning little gear's teeth. These gear teeth needed to become beveled at a 45 degree angle for strength. Now when the angler put the line in the winder hook,and turned the handle, the line winder (the 'bail') would wrap ('spin') the line onto the spool. To cast, the angler pulled the line from the bail, and held it in his/her finger. The line then flew off the spool, making really long casts possible even with very light weights. Thus begins the spinning reel. Like the bait-casting reel, many innovations followe (including adding MANY bearings everywhere): 1) A worm gear was added on the spool shaft (and the small gear was allowed to slide on the shaft) to level wind the line onto the spool (the spool moved up and down with repect to the bail) 2) The bail was extended to completely capture the line when engaged, using a bail wire. This required the addition of a bail spring set, to allow the anger to flip up the bail for casting, and down for reeling. 3) A drag pack and clutch were added to the spool to apply tension to the spool to control a fish's run, the clutch to prevent the bail from following the motion of the line (keeping the spinning reel from busting the knuckles of the angler). 4) A series of bearings on the bail (the roller) to make the line reel in smooth (to prevent wear on the line on the retrieve or during a fish's run).
Many high end spinning reels have innovations 1,3,and 4 but lack a bail wire. These are called Manual Spinning Reels, and are VERY popular among anglers who use baits for large fish (especially on piers). Larger capacity 'manuals' are in very high demand on the US East Coast. one example is here and another here
Most common middle to low-high end reels have all 4 innovations. Materials have shifted from brass and plastics and composities for the bodies (the part that holds all the gears, handle, and reel foot in place) to precision machined or cast steel, titanium, or aluminum. Gears also have gone from brass to high strength alloys. Rollers are commonly titanium nitride. Drags and gears may be completely sealed to keep out water and dirt. Teflon is used in washers to add slickness. here is one example
Notes on Rod technologies ROds were intially made from tree and grass sources, such as ash, bamboo, and hickory. Bamboo was used initially in its natural form, but was eventually shaped and glued into stronger rods (such as the 'split bamboo' fly rod). Metal also saw use in rods (telescoping rods especially). Wood and bamboo together were worked into a variety of composite shapes all the way into the mid-20th century. Fiberglass and resin composites replaced wood after WWII ( a spin off from space and defense industries) very quickly, due to ease of manufacture, and increased durability. Graphite fibers, cloth, and threads were added later in the 20th century, along with much stronger resins, reduing weight, adding strength, and improving fighting and casting curves. Combined with increased abilities to cure and lay-out rod shapes, and using complex calculations, modern rod blanks (the rod part w/o the guides) come in a variety of charateristics, lengths, and strengths.
Guides also underwent an evolution, starting as simple loops of wire, then wire enclosing agate or ceramic rings, or for salwater conventional bait casting fishing, metal machined with rollers on berrings. The rings went from rock, glass, to ceramics (Silicon Oxides) to ceremets (Silcon Oxides soaked and coated with titanium nitride) or very slick Silicon Carbides. Guide frames are now aluminum, steel, or titanium alloys. Guides have gotten much stronger and much slicker in the last 30 years.
Notes on Line technologies Lines started as plant fibers and animal fibers (hair, silk, sinews), and stayed that way until the early to mid 20th century. Linen line (derived from flax fibers twisted into 3lb strength threads, in multiples of 3, so a 9 thread line had a strength of 27lbs + or -) was the dominant line from 1840's to the 1940's, and while supple and fairly strong, had to be dried after use ot it would rot. Linen lines also swelled on the spool when wet, then shrunk when dry (which could warp a spool).Wire cable was (and still is) also used as a line, or used a leader between the linen or silk line and hook. Fly line backing was silk or linen for many years as a silk worm gut leader was used between fly line and fly.
Line technologies then got huge boost courtesy of the military and space programs: Petrolum based resins (Polyester and nylon) emerged in the 1940's, first with dacron braids, then with nylon monofilament line. Monofilament or 'mono' for short replaced silk worm gut for leader/tippet quickly. In the 1980's and 1990's kevlar made a short appearence as a braid, but then someone figured out how to duplicate spider web silk (first for bullet-resistant jackets), and superbraids were born. Superbraids are typically monofilament or braids with or without a slick coating, are usually ~1/3 the equivelent diameter of equivelent nylon monofilament lines (i.e. 10lb superbraid is around the size of 4lb monofilament)
Notes on hook technologies Ironically, hooks have a wide variety of shapes, but are still mostly steel, though may be forged, or chemically sharpened to make them very pointy.
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