here are precious few clues in the literature, and although it is possible that the ancient Chinese were using reels as early as 300 or 400 A.D. the references are obscure . Art, on the other hand, is more informative. A painting by Ma Yaun, dated circa 1195 , shows a man fishing from a boat, using a rod that appears to have a reel attached. The first indisputable illustration of a reel is a painting of a Chinese turtle fisherman who is clearly using a reel attached to a rod in 1600 .
The first mention of the use of the reel in Europe was made a scant fifty years later, by Thomas Barker. The reel was attached via a spring clip fixed to a leather pad, which could be attached to the butt of any rod, and slid up and down into the correct position. It is quite likely that the spring clip was an early form of the clamp-foot that was to become so popular on reels in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Barker's book includes the first known European illustration of a fishing reel, perhaps the most maddening wood cut ever to have been published. If the illustration leaves you baffled, you are in good company!
There is a rather better illustration of a reel in Venables' book, hidden away in the frontispiece, part of which is reproduced here. Dainty, it ain't:
Barker's reel, and indeed every reel mentioned in the early accounts was used for trolling or for salmon fishing. The early trout fishers used either a fixed line, or a short running one, passing it through a loop at the tip of the rod and holding the free end by hand. If a fish was caught, the angler had four choices: to hang on until it played itself out; to run up and down the bank following the fish; to throw the rod in the water and retrieve it later; or to let the fish break him. It all seems totally irrational, but there were many good reasons why reels were not in general use for trout fishing. First, trout were no bigger then than they are now - an eight-inch trout can be handled perfectly well on a fixed line. Second, knotted horsehair didn't run with quite the same facility that a modern plasticised double-taper will; and allowing a fish to run was to risk a jam and a break. Third, the design of early reels was pretty awful; they weighed a ton and early brass alloys had a high zinc content and broke at the drop of a hat.