The history of marine angling is a fascinating story, rich in colorful characters like Hemingway and Zane Grey. The tackle they used is now extremely collectible, but it's practically "new" if you think about it for a moment. Salt water fishing actually started 100 years before Hemingway and his Fin-Nor reels.
In the beginning, striped bass were the big game and salt water tackle was produced by a few forgotten artisans in New York City. I'd like to give these early masters their due credit. So, let's go back in time to a period before mass production, to an age when rods and reels were made by hand and Andrew Jackson was President.
John Conroy was the first great American tackle maker, perhaps starting his business as early as 1830. He produced wares large enough to tame fish that ran above 50 pounds. His rods were built with ash butt sections, ironwood mids and lancewood tips. All the fixtures, including butt caps, ferrules and reel bands, were hand-rolled and soldered.
Conroy's reels were made from raw brass and German silver, having a counter-balanced "ball handle" and a shallow fixed "dome" to encase the rear bearing. By today's standards, the Brooklyn-built "ball-handled reel" was an extremely crude item. Built in sizes from the large number "1" to the tiny number "6," the New York reels were double multipliers. During the next decade, John was joined by his son, and the business became "J. & J.C. Conroy."
As demand rose, other New Yorkers got in on the act. J.B. Crook started producing reels, and Ben Welch became the country's second great rodmaker. Welch's heavy rods were considered the acme of the trade, and his skills were passed on to his son, Robert. The 1840s reel trade also introduced vulcanized hard rubber, developed by Charles Goodyear.
In 1857, Frederick Vom Hofe and his son Julius began their distinguished careers as reel makers. While their early Pearl Street reels were crude, these pre-Civil War models had a removable bearing cup on the back plate. This was the first advancement in the ball-handled New York reel. "Fritz" Vom Hofe was also the first New York maker to use the "yardage system" as a method of marking the size of his reels.
In 1867, the "F. Vom Hofe & Son" models featured a "gear bridge" that made casting a tad easier. The bridge reduced wobble while strengthening the reel, and it was adopted by Fritz's second son, Ludwig, who started his own company a year later.
American tackle trade increased and craftsmen from other cities joined the market. In Philadelphia, A.B. Shipley produced brass and German silver striper reels, and Thad Norris's "makers" began planing rods. In Boston, the mysterious "Mr. Johnson" got a reputation for excellent rod work. His salt water and heavy fly rods were on a par with those built by Robert Welch, according to writer Genio C. Scott.
When new manufacturing techniques introduced split bamboo to
the rod trade and hard rubber to the reel-making industry, the heyday of the ball-handled reel and wooden rod ended. With the post-Civil War change, the pioneering striper fisherman moved into the decades of "patent wars."
Today, early-American tackle built from 1840 to the late 1860s is exceedingly scarce. Fully two-thirds of these pieces are unmarked to their maker, and your chance of finding a complete rod is one in a thousand. Early striped bass reels show up at quality auctions. Only a few pieces turn over each year.
The only known Ben Welch rod is now in the Museum of American Fly-Fishing. Once belonging to Daniel Webster (Goodyear's lawyer) and built in 1847, the 12-foot-long, salt water rod is missing its tip section. No rods marked "J. Conroy, Maker, N.Y." have been discovered yet, but a single 1864 wooden rod marked "J.C. Conroy & Co." has been found.
Large fly rods of this era are also scarce. One relic, the "Godbout River Rod," is a monolithic 16-footer with a shield dated 1852 on the butt section. The maker is unknown. Another rod, marked to "Thomas Mack, Boston, Mass.," is the earliest known heavy rod to sport a four-strip split-bamboo tip.
When I heft one of these artifacts, a chill runs up my spine. What tales of success and defeat must lie under all that patina and crackling varnish! I've got a feeling that landing an 1850s striper was a far greater accomplishment than tagging a 21st-century marlin.