Side Effects: William Billinghurst and Early Fly-Reel Culture

Starting as early as the 12th century, fishermen have been documented using reels that mount horizontally. However, as reel design evolved over the years, the vertical mount became the standard style both in Europe and in the United States. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the side-mount reel saw mainstream use once more, thanks to an American innovator and his contemporaries.

In 1859, New York native and well-respected gunsmith William Billinghurst designed and produced what is widely accepted as the first patented fly reel in America: his side-mounted “Birdcage” reel. This design featured several improvements from the traditional vertical-style reels of that time that were being sold in the larger cities such as New York and Boston. The Billinghurst reel influenced reel makers along the Mohawk River corridor (a portion of New York State that stretches from Albany to Buffalo) for more than forty years.

The American Museum of Fly Fishing is grateful to guest curator Jim Schottenham for the loan of his collection and for sharing his extraordinary knowledge of fly reels.