Flying First Class

It is possible, if you’re loaded and inclined, to spend more on a fly-fishing reel than on a week-long, guided fly-fishing trip halfway around the world.

Good news is that you also can own some beautiful, collectible reels for less than a roundtrip flight to Las Vegas. Many of my friends collect antique tackle. Among them, those who gather and horde fly reels tend be most heavily invested. With fly reels, they either go “all in” or find something else to collect.

Whether for display or perhaps some discretionary use on fabled water, you can find yourself a few grand deep in fly reels—or even in a single fly reel.

Among older reels that turn heads, few turn more than those from the Vom Hofe family (Edward, Fritz and Julius), who started reel making in 1867 and continued until World War II. Those reels are still available for hundreds of dollars. After the war, the Vom Hofes sold the company to Otto Zwarg, whose own reels, in good shape, fetch $2,000-$5,000.

Early Hardy reels do well also on the auction block (or dedicated Internet sale site), as also do those from Orvis, Abercrombie & Fitch (before selling skinny jeans and scarves) and a host of companies that often started as watchmakers.

Quite deliberately, fly reels are simple in both their design and function. Except against the biggest, fastest fish, the reel attached to most fly rods is expected to do little more than store line.

In that regard, reels that are 100 years old often appear similar—inside and outside—to reels that came off their manufacturing lines a week ago. But looks, as we all know, can deceive.

Many of the contemporary, high-end reels from companies such as Abel, Tibor, Nautilus, Hatch—and still, Hardy, especially their saltwater models, are built from lightweight aluminum and a variety alloys. They’re stronger and more corrosion-resistant than any of the classics, and they’ve been re-engineered for overall better performance.

Great, but even the finest new reels, even at $500-$1,500, haven’t yet earned style points like their aging counterparts whether they’re under glass or on the water. The new reels are about function and performance, whereas the antiques are more like panache with a dash of nostalgia.

The beauty of old “clicker” reels, those that have no fish-stopping drag mechanisms but maybe show some wear around their edges from countless applications of palms against racing fish, is that they still work. And work well.

Actually, there’s only one reel of which I’m aware, Hardy’s Zane Ti that sticker-prices at around-the-world travel money. Crafted painstakingly over six days from titanium bar stock, it’ll set you back anywhere from $8,000 to more than $10,000 depending on the seller’s passion for profit.

It’s been said (mostly by conventional-tackle users) that fly reels are nothing but places to store line. Sure…and crocodile shoes are nothing but places to store your feet.

Getting Your Feet Wet

Collecting antique fly reels doesn’t have to break the bank. There are pretty, fun-and-functional reels available for less than $200. In fact, reels that are not in perfect condition (read: show some dings) can be more enjoyable to own because you’ll be more inclined to actually fish them—than the “mint” Zwarg that cost you $4,500.

Actually using the old gear lends a deeper appreciation for it. But beware, the more familiar you become with old tackle, the more tempted you’ll be to own a true gem.

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