Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Lang's Auction Week, Part I

It's Lang's Week here at Fishing for History! The auction catalogs are out--if you haven't gotten yours, what's wrong with you? It's like a museum catalog; the photography is amazing, and you'll see items simply not pictured in any other reference book. Get your copy here. Here is a copy of the ebay catalog on-line, all 2456 items.

With the greatest auction in the world about to take place on Friday and Saturday, we thought that we'd get people in the mood for it by surveying some notable collectors of wide interests and asking them to pick out the items of note, interest, or historical relevance that caught their eye. They had two provisos--not to choose an item they were going to bid on (duh), and not to worry about choosing the most expensive item (the Haskell was not named in any of the responses). The panel of experts picked some fascinating choices, and then explained why. We'll divide them up by individuals.


Bill Muth is an incredibly savvy collector with a keen eye for a good deal. He is also the preeminent expert on Bristol Horton, and the co-author of a forthcoming book on the subject. Muth sent a list of very interesting picks:

Item #689: Zane Grey Owned Iron Shark Hook with Chain. Muth opined “whether Zane Grey owned it or not, this is
cool. Great character.” Ed. Note: Zane Grey most definitely owned this hook.

Item #1034: North Channel Minnow Lure In Rare Box. “If I still collected lures,” Muth declared, “I would buy this one at almost any price. The North Channel Minnow is the perfect bait, with a folk art look and the five-hook underwater minnow style. Combine it with the box - perfection.”

Item #1156. Scarce Heddon Light Six Pack Lure Box. “ just look at those graphics, a great piece.”

Item #1411. Rare Coates Marked Two Speed Trout Reel. “Reels built into rod handle are a great item to begin with,” Muth declared, “but this might be the most beautiful example of the genre I've ever seen.”

Item #1879. Rare 19th C. Ice Fishing Reel Fish Trap. “It's not too often that you see a piece of antique ice fishing tackle that has eye appeal, but this one has it in spades. Beats the hell out of a wooden tip-up.”

Item #2050: Rare Original Oliver Kemp Oil Painting. “Original art from the maker that I collect that I can't afford.”


J.K. Garrett. The seeminly omniscient Garrett is usually in attendance at Lang's, but this year (like me) has to watch from the sidelines and bid via proxy. Here are his choices:

1) Item #2015: Pequea Works Letterhead. "Most collectors don't realize what a large player Harry Kaufman was in the tackle industry," he opined, "from lures to reels to bobbers and other terminal tackle. His products appear in the vast number of retail tackle catalogs of the first half of this century. His impact was enormous. Some day his full story will be told with all his flaws, innovations, blood ties to others in the tackle industry and his legacy. This signed letterhead is just a great piece of history from fairly early in the company's long life."

2) Item #2016: South Bend Peach-Oreno Purchase. South Bend Peach-Oreno Patent Material. Garrett wrote: "Any time you can obtain this degree of background information on a bait or reel it is a wonderful and valuable addition to our hobby. So much information vital to our hobby has been scattered to the winds, thrown away through ignorance or intentionally destroyed, that what remains is all the dearer. Any South Bend collector would be very lucky to be able to acquire this documentation."

3) Item #1904: Rare Pflueger Store Display Case. "That has got to be the all time best case to display a Pfl Tackle collection," Garrett noted, "If I were attending the auction I would seriously consider going after it. I just hope it goes to a collector who will do it justice."


Skip Brooks, one of the truly knowledgable collectors in the club (and the nicest guy alive), also chose three items.

1) Item #1490: Very Rare Leaver's Level Wind Casting Reel. "I think that this is a truly unique piece which appears to be ahead of its time considering all the individual features and capabilities incorporated," Brooks wrote. "It has a quality and beauty that far surpasses what is necessary for its functional design and is in super condition."

2) Item #1656: Lee Wulff Vom Hofe Restigouche Reel in Box. "Seldom do you find a quality EVH piece with its correct box," Brooks declared, "Even more infrequently do you run across a piece which can be traced to a specific owner. These two factors make this item interesting to me, and I suspect, to a great many other bidders."

3) Item 1734: Garcia Mitchell Reel Salesman Sample Case. Brooks declared "This Mitchell Parts Kits is so complete and contains so many quality samples - to include supporting paper and tools - that it stands out for me. It gives you a clear picture of the material a Garcia/Mitchell Salesman was armed with as he plyed his trade."


Dean Smith is as his name implies, a dean among collectors. With 30 years of collecting knowledge behind him, he has pretty much seen it all. Here are his choices:

1) Item #6 Very Rare F. Malleson Multiplying Trout Reel and #10 Crown fly reel. "If I was still collecting reels I would be excited by [these]," Smith wrote."These are the sort of reels I collected and I was never able to acquire either of them."

2) Item #219. Early Orvis Fly Box & Fly Cards. "I've had dozens over the years," Smith noted, "[and I] still have two."

3) Item #1. Edward Hewitt Sparse Grey Hackle Fly Reel. "The most exciting item in the auction, for me, is the Hewitt reel," Dean declared. "I think this will set a world record. I know of one that changed hands privately more than ten years ago for over $50K. I think the Hewitt is the pinnacle of collectible American fly reels."


Robin Sayler's collecting knowledge belies his age; don't let the fact he is an undergraduate at Michigan Technological University fool you. He knows his stuff, particularly Pflueger reels.

1) Item #1904: Rare Pflueger Store Display Case. "This thing is sweet," Sayler declared. "If i could afford it, it would be in my living room next week! Doesn't get much more awsome for a Pflueger collector to show off his stuff than in this thing."

2) Item #658: Historic RARE Original Zane Grey Fighting Chair. "Just think of some of the awsome things that happened in this chair."

3) Item #1507: Exceptional Unknown German Silver Reel. "Don't know who made it but this is a pretty cool reel," Sayler declared. "Looks very well built."

4) Item #1506: Scarce Kentucky German Silver Reel. "Again Don't know who built it, would put my money on Montague though but it is a great looking reel and would definetly have a place in my collection."

5) Item #1503: Redifore Reel with Very Rare Flegel Spooler. Sayler opined: "Definitely my favorite thing in the whole auction is this Redifor reel. That spooler is awsome, I really wish I could afford that one. Pretty much the coolest aftermarket level wind there is."


Jeff Kieny is one of the outstanding collectors (and guys) in the NFLCC. His knowledge of hooks and harnesses, as well as folk art baits, is legendary. Here are Kieny's picks:

1) Item #2. Rare Early Exceptional Mother of Pearl Trout Reel. "Doesn't get more special and unique than this...I'd ask Todd Larson to do detailed research on the acronym 'L.E.D.K. - 1892.' Yes, he's that good!" Ed. note: Jeff if you won this, I'd track it down for you for sure!

2) Item #25. Early Ustonson Brass Reel. "I've been in love since seeing my first 'good' pics of one in Graham Turners classic English tackle book. Exudes history."

3) Item #923. Clark's Expert Lure Store Display Box. "Need I say more?" Kieny asked. "But seriously, it would be a great item to store the following two other items in..."

4) Item #925. Woods minnow lure catalog. "I'd love to hold it and read it."

5) Item #936. Very Early Holzworth Expert Minnow Lure in Box. "Shaffer Holzworth with box and papers. I may have kicked the habit once, but I'm an early miscellaneous collector at heart."

6) Item #2136. The Wiggletail Smith Minnow. "OK, OK, this Smith would fit in there too!"


Chris Labuz, the world's leading Horrocks-Ibbotson collector and all around world class dude, is knowledgable in numerous areas of collecting. Here are his choices:

1)Item #2136. The Wiggletail Smith Minnow. "The bait has it all...just a pure classic."

2) Item #927. The Keeling Musky Minnow HICO Box. Labuz rather crazily declared: "Just for the Stamped HICO only! Keep the bait."

3) Item #5. Billinghurst In the box. Labuz has a legitimate reason for wanting to own this: "If I owned that I figure I could get Jim Schottenham to cut my yard for life."


Don Champion, ORCA's resident caretaker of the Harvey Garrison Memorial Library who holds himself an almost encyclopedic knowledge of reels, offers us the following choices:

1) Item #53. Bi-Metal Raised Pillar Multiplying Reel. "Very interesting use of metal components," Champion opined, "I just like the 19th century unmarked reels."

2) Lot 59. Rare Coin Silver NY Multiplying Reel. "An Interesting reel," Don declared. "I would like to see under that raised back cover."

3) Lot 61. Conroy & Bissett German Silver Multiplying Reel. "Just a very nice example of an early well made Conroy & Bissett reel," Champion wrote.

4) Lot 1676. RARE Kovalovsky 14/0 Big Game Reel. "I'm not into salt water reels," Champion admits, "but the Kovalovsky reels were great! What with all the skill, time and attention that went into making them."


Well, that's it for'll have to wait until tomorrow (gasp) for my picks of what I think is the most interesting and historically important in this auction. My sincere thanks to the eight historians/collectors above for offering us their choices, and some useful information as well!

-- Dr. Todd

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Voices from the Past: Larry St. John

The follow-up article to Larry St. John's earlier piece on fishing reels, from the 1916 Chicago Tribune. Again, what I like about these two articles is the recognition that you didn't need to buy a Meek or Talbot to enjoy a good fishing reel. Although clearly it didn't hurt to have a Talbot (in the $3 to $6 class!).

More Reel Facts

by Larry St. John

If one takes the word of most angling writers or listens to the ravings of the tournament "con artists" he would get the idea that $30 reels are as common as weeds in Grass Lake. Our observations, covering many years and extending over quite a bit of these United States and Canada, tells us otherwise. Outside of park casting pools you will find ten or more reels costing less than $10 to one costing more. Not only that; you will find these low cost reels in the hands of mighty good casters too.

There are not many reels in the $3 and $6 class. The [Shakespeare] Standard Professional is an old favorite; there is the German silver [Meisselbach] Takapart; the Milam Rustic and the new Talbot Star. This latter is a dandy, smooth running winch and the lowest priced reel on the market with spiral gears.

At $7.50 the Meek Simplex No. 33 is well liked. It is not a quadruple mulitplier, as the spool makes three and a quarter turns to one of the handle, but it is fast nevertheless, and runs with a smoothness that bespeaks spiral gearing. In the $10 field the Meek No. 25 is a takedown reel of quality--probably the best buy for the man who wants "class" and at the same time insists on a takedown. In the solid frame reels in the $10 class we know of none that equals the Talbot Comet.

When you pass $10 you begin to get in the aristocracy of reeldom. Probably the best known in the more than ten bucks class is the Blue Grass. The regular resale is $16 plain; $2 [more] jeweled. We confess an affection for our jeweled B.G. We have used more expensive reels, but none that we like better. In the same class are the Talbot Meteor and Nianqua, both of them of the highest degree of excellence. Of the higher grade reel we will have little to say further than if you buy a high grade Meek, Milam, or Talbot, it will be still a good reel long after you have hooked your last fish.

When fishing the rapids of the Maumee in Ohio a few years ago we ran across one of these early Kentucky reels--made in 1849--and it was still in fair condition. As we held this old residenter in our hands it brought visions of prairie schooners and red shirted miners. Think of the hundreds of valiant fighters this old forty-niner has prospected for and found.

-- Dr. Todd

Monday, October 29, 2007

The News of the Week, 29 October 2007

A ban on fishing?...a pro fisherman who travels in style...the joys of Kob fishing…Bangladeshi fishermen who poison rivers filled with poison fish…the South hates Dardevles…Pope wins a fishing tournament…it must be The News of the Week!

THE BIG LEAD: The Kane County Chronicle alerts us to
the moronic minority who seeks to ban fishing...and they may be targeting your home town next.

The South Bend Tribune reports on a pro fisherman who travels in style.

C'mon now, how much fishing tackle can he possibly have?

Early champion of Kingfish conservation is featured in a new book.

The Bend (OR) Weekly tells us to finesse fish in shallow water.

The IGFA held its hall-of-fame inductions. Shockingly, fish stories played a big part in the induction speeches.

J.B. Kasper in The Trenton Times tells us that Pres. Bush's recent order banning the commercial sale of drum and stripers is a good first step.

From the Alarming News File: Fishing is on the decline in Colorado.

Last week: Geelbek fishing. This week: Kob fishing. Got to love South Africa.

The Roanoke Times introduces us to man who could catch bass out of flooded cow tracks. Note to Self: find out what a cow track is...

From the Obvious File: The Naples Daily News says to find the fish, you must first find the bait. Next week: Find the sunken tree, lose the lure.

Idaho's KPVI tells us of the joys of sturgeon fishing.

Surface fishing in Ocean City has its rewards. No word on whether an Ocean City reel was used.

D'arcy Egan of the Cleveland Plain Dealer tells us the plain truth: fish don't care if you paid $389 for your Shimano Calais CL100A Reel.

In-Fisherman Magazine informs us on bass tinkering.

The aptly named Galesburg (IL) Paper relates the tale of a thrilling first catch.

Baltimore high school senior hopes to make a living fishing.

The President's annoucnement, according to Annapolis Capital is a boost to sportfishing.

The Bangladesh Daily Star weaves a tale of greedy fishermen who poison rivers filled with poisonous fish. In unrelated news, poisson is the French word for fish.

The Macon Telegraph tells us that the Dardevle is a damn Yankee product and isn't worth a plate of grits for fishing in the South. Insert "Yee Haw" here. Or is it "Hee Haw." I forget. I do know dardevles have caught a lot of bass, even in the South, in their day.

Pope cashes in $3000 at fishing tournament. No word on whether he was wearing his pointy hat.

Nope. No pointy hat.

The beauty and splendor of... the shark.

UPDATE: We reported earlier on the murder of a fishing boat captain in Florida. Two men were finally indicted in the murders.

ENDING WITH A FLOURISH: Largest kid's fishing tournament to be held in Miami.

-- Dr. Todd

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Piscatorial Wars by Robert Hann

My favorite Wisconsin ex-pat. Tom Jacomet sent this to me recently. It is a nifty poem by Robert Hann that touches on a lot of what I think when I hold an old fishing lure. They are more than just works of art, they are permeated with history...enjoy!

Piscatorial Wars

By Robert Hann

I like to take old fishing lures
and hang them on my wall
the wooden ones with old glass eyes
I like the best of all.

They're more than decoration
though Christmas like they seem
these little bits of painted wood
that still shimmer and gleam.

And though some baits are worn and scarred
with tooth marks and their paint is marred
to me it isn't very hard
to hear the tales they tell.

They speak to me of days gone by
and battles by the shores
between old fishermen and fish
and piscatorial wars.

Most of these old fishermen
are no longer alive
their baits and lures upon my wall
are all that still survive.

They hang as a reminder
tribute to the men of yore
the ones who fought the battles in
the piscatorial wars.

-- Dr. Todd

Friday, October 26, 2007

Friday Funhouse

Video of the Week

Thought this was bizarre enough for a look...apparently from something called "Inside Outdoors." I confess to never having heard of it before, but it I did like the idea of the "mystical jerk bait."

Things I Would Buy If I Could Afford Them

As a proviso, we will spending a lot of time next week dissecting the upcoming Lang's Auction, so this Friday Funhouse will not deal with any of the recent Lang's listings on eBay. Well, except this one. Only two words come to mind: "Holy" and "Crap."

As a dedicated collector of snelled hook packets, I have been a bit amazed at how the prices on these have risen in the past months (recently a group went for nearly $500). These Weber Lifelike Snells are already well beyond what they sold for last year.

The Hurd Super Caster has its adherents, and this is a nice example of this 1950s combo.

There are very few Pflueger reels as prettyas this early Akron.

For the lucky lady in your life, comes this lucky lady dealer card. From the looks of things, you'll have to provide the bra.

The Heddon of the Week is this nice Spin Diver.

How about this sweet Pepper Musky Minnow? What a nice and rare bait.

Barber pole baits are always popular; this Clinton Wilt lure is no exception.

A 19333 Heddon Catalog seems to have attracted a lot of interest.

Everyone loves a Winchester...especially when they appear to be in nice condition, like this one here. Maybe a bit of an overvarnish?

I'm off to ogle some more Lang's items.

-- Dr. Todd

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Alonzo H. Fowler: Forgotten Pioneer of the Bamboo Fly Rod, Part II

Alonzo H. Fowler:

Forgotten Pioneer of the Bamboo Fly Rod, Part II

By Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

Copyright 2007, all rights reserved.

As tournament casting was the premier way to advertise a fine bamboo fly rod in the 1870s, the 1876 tournament was shaping up to be a particularly hotly contested struggle. John McHarg, and perhaps more than a few other rod makers, must have been keenly interested in breaking Fowler’s iron grip on first prize in the fly casting tournament. Particularly galling to McHarg would have been the fact that first prize in the competition was an intricately engraved split bamboo fly rod made by none other than Dr. Alonzo H. Fowler. As The Rochester Express noted in the days leading up to the tournament, “We learn that among other crack linesmen the veteran Rube Wood, of Syracuse, who has borne off the blue ribbon the past three conventions, is determined for one to add the Fowler rod to his list of prizes won, and it is also said that Monroe Green will try his prettiest to secure it for future use in luring the wary denizens of Caledonia Creek.” As an aside, Monroe’s brother Seth Green was barred from entry for being a “professional,” meaning he kept winning every event he entered.

When the fly casting tournament was held on the banks of the Genesee River in May 1876, only three casters took part, less than a third of the normal turn out. What explains the paucity of fly casters? Perhaps the fact that Dr. Alonzo H. Fowler was appointed to judge the competition had something to do with McHarg’s (and others) withdrawal. The contest was won, not surprisingly, by Wood, who in an ironic twist utilized a Fowler rod to win the first prize presentation rod made by…Alonzo Fowler. As Forest & Stream commented, “The first prize was a very handsome split bamboo fly-rod, made and presented by Dr. Fowler, and it is worthy of note that the prize has been won for three consecutive years by one of Dr. Fowler’s rods.” One can almost hear John B. McHarg’s teeth gritting through the fog of time.

The following year, to put the final dig into the Fowler-McHarg feud, Dr. Fowler decided to enter the fly-casting tournament himself. At the 1877 New York State Meet in Syracuse, Fowler took fourth in the open competition, losing the first prize of a “silver mounted rod by McHarg & Co. valued at $75” to Reuben Wood. It is certain that Dr. Fowler must have felt a tinge of disappointment at not winning, seeing as how McHarg would personally have had to present him with the winning prize. Fowler did win the second competition (open to those who had never won a prize) with the longest cast of the tournament, 75 feet (three feet longer than Wood’s winning cast in the open division). Fowler’s first prize was a special $75 rod made by Hoskins & Waring of Oswego, New York. Since Wood used a Fowler to win the prize, his rods had won first prize five years running, and both categories in 1876.

Flush off this success, for the first time Fowler began to advertise his rods on a national scale, beginning in April 1877 in Forest & Stream. The ads carried the masthead “CARD.” the meaning of which the author regretfully admits is lost on him. The secondary masthead read “Dr. Fowler’s Celebrated Six-Strip Bamboo Fly-Rods.” Interestingly, the text declared that all Fowler rods were “finished without cutting away the enamel” and he claimed them to be “the strongest and handsomest rods in the world.” These ads ran for three consecutive months. Also of interest is the fact he was producing a circular (catalog) which implied selling by post.

Fowler reels were still being sold, and a 13 September 1877 article in Forest & Stream still recommended “Doctor Fowler’s hard rubber reel…weighing only one ounce for a trout rod…[and is] all that can be asked for ease and perfection of work.” None of the Fowler rod ads, however, make mention of the Gem Reel. According to Martin Keane, the few Fowler rods from this period that have come to market are stamped “A.H. Fowler” in a semi-circle on the reel seat

Perhaps it was because of this success that Dr. Fowler, who around this time opened a new dental practice, was forced to take on a partner by the name of Samuel Tisdel. Tisdel was a close friend of Fowler’s and a fellow officer in local conservation clubs. Beginning in the Spring of 1878, advertisements began to appear with a Fowler & Tisdel, Ithaca, New York address. The first ad the author has been able to find for this new firm dates from 28 March 1878 under the header “Split Bamboo Rods: The Original Hexagonal Rods.” The ad copy read “The superiority of the Fowler Rod, AS IT IS NOW MADE, is beyond comparison with any of the imitations offered by parties in the trade.” Fowler listed John W. Hutchinson (81 Chambers Street) as his New York agent, and still sold them by mail from his Ithaca address. This ad ran until the end of May 1878. It is also the last advertisement for Fowler fishing tackle of any kind the author has uncovered.

Martin Keane in Classic Rods and Rodmakers declared that Fowler actively made rods until “at least the mid-1890s.” He goes on to write that “specimens I have seen dated after 1885 had simple ferrules (without spikes) and stained dark-tone bamboo shafts. This meticulous finishing and good looks may have been the reason C.M. Clinton chose Fowler to build a special gold-plated rod to mount the doughnut shaped reel he invented. The reel was gold plated, and inscribed for presentation to D.F. Van Vleet of Ithaca, New York, in 1891. Housed in a walking cane case with presentation engraved cap of nickel-plated finish, it is indeed a stunning honorarium.”

It is almost certain that Keane’s dates are off; much research has been published since the pioneering Classic Rods and Rodmakers first came out and it is evident the work has a number of mistakes like this (for example, Keane was off by almost fifteen years on the purchase of Chubb by Montague City). The chances that Fowler was still making commercial rods by the mid-1880s while conducting a thriving dental practice are slim (he was listed as a dentist in numerous directories at this time), and it would appear that Fowler exited the tackle trade no later than 1885, and likely as early as 1880.

So how does one explain the Van Vleet presentation rod, and a few other highly intricate Fowler rods that may (or may not) date from the post-1880 era? It is likely the good doctor continued to make presentation rods for close friends and special occasions. De Forest van Vleet was a prominent Ithaca attorney and Democratic Party member who was named the U.S. Civil Service Commissioner. It is likely that the impetus behind his princely gift was his good friend and fellow Democratic Party officer Dr. Alonzo Fowler and not Charles M. Clinton, who made the gold-plated reel. Remember, Fowler had made gold-plated presentation rods as early as 1875. There was clearly some connection between Fowler and Clinton as well, as evidenced by Clinton’s patented reel which is pretty much a nickel-silver version of Fowler’s hard rubber Gem Reel.

Regardless of whether he was still making a few rods, tracking Alonzo Fowler after 1878 has proven to be a difficult task; in 1880, he was named the referee of the New York State Meet’s fly casting tournament in Seneca Falls. Per his usual generosity, Dr. Fowler made up a special rod to be given as a prize, which in the words of The Syracuse Daily Courier was “a handsome eight-strip bamboo fly rod, elegantly gold-mounted, with reel to match.” Note again the gold plating; the rod was valued at $65. Remember also in 1875, by his own admission, he was making solely six-strip bamboo rods, so the Fowler eight-strip rods clearly are a later product.

This is the last reference to Dr. Fowler concerning fishing rods the author has found, but not the last time he was mentioned by the press. For example, his stature had reached the point that The Utica Daily Democrat of 30 June 1884 reported that “Dr. A.H. Fowler was so unfortunate as to fall from a hammock, on the lakeside yesterday, and sustained several bruises.” Several notices commented on the fact that Dr. Fowler was a prominent New York Democrat, and that he was named President of the Game and Fish Protective Association of Tompkins County in 1890, the same year that his wife died.

In 1899, The Union Springs Advertiser declared that “Dr. Fowler, Ithaca’s popular dentist, visited Union Springs one day last week and lest he should forget the art of fly casting, he devoted about two hours to the finny tribe, and as a result took twenty-one fine black bass, weighing from 1 ½ to 4 ½ pounds each. The doctor was entertained at the Cottage House.” Clearly, the good doctor still knew how to handle a rod, even in his mid-70s. His fishing fame also lived on in the form of a dry fly named The Dr. Fowler; Dr. James Henshall in Book of the Black Bass (1881) described it as “Body, white; tail, scarlet; hackle, scarlet and white; wings, red ibis and white.”

The final notice came in the form of his obituary, which for someone so prominent, was surprisingly brief. He died at his home in Ithaca on 05 June 1903 in “the seventy-ninth year of his age.” In the two obituaries the author viewed, no notice was made of his contributions to fishing history. His ingenious legacy did live on in his son Fred Clarkson Fowler, a talented machinist who made instruments for the Cornell University Physics Department. When Fred Fowler died in 1915, the Cornell Alumni News noted “He was an Ithaca boy, the son of the late Dr. A.H. Fowler, a dentist, from whom he seems to have inherited his remarkable mechanical skill.”

Today, if Dr. Alonzo H. Fowler is remembered, it is for the pretty rubber reels he patented and had made under his name. But he made a significant contribution during the Golden Age of Bamboo Fly Rods, and in fact his rods were so good they were chosen (above Leonard, McHarg, and others) by some of the greatest tournament casters of all time. His rods are rare and of exceptional quality, and as such Fowler should be afforded a more august space in the pantheon of the bamboo fly rod gods.


Anyone interested in purchasing a piece of Fowler fishing tackle, Lang's is selling this gorgeous Gem Reel in their upcoming auction.

One of the finest Fowler reels to come to market in some time.

-- Dr. Todd

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Alonzo H. Fowler: Forgotten Pioneer of the Bamboo Fly Rod, Part I

Today and tomorrow, I am happy to share with everyone an article I have been working on in bits and pieces for the past seven years. It deals with a forgotten pioneer of the split bamboo fly rod, and will hopefully be the first of over forty such profiles of rodmakers I have been working on for over a decade. I hope everyone enjoys this piece, as I think it is important to give credit where it is due, and certainly Dr. Alonzo H. Fowler deserves reckoning as a pioneer of the split bamboo fly rod. Anyone requiring citations drop me a note, and I welcome any and all comments.
Alonzo H. Fowler:

Forgotten Pioneer of the Bamboo Fly Rod

By Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

Copyright 2007, all rights reserved.

Dr. Alonzo H. Fowler, if he is remembered at all today, is usually associated with the fascinating hard rubber reel he patented in 1872 known as The Gem. Indeed, early Fowler reels are some of the most coveted items of nineteenth century fishing tackle, bringing in excess of four figures for an example in decent condition (one once sold at auction for $14,000). However, although Fowler was important in the history of reel design, he was also a critical link in the history of the bamboo fly rod in America, being one of the earliest manufacturers of six-strip split bamboo rods. While this study does not pretend in any way to be definitive, it should serve as a start.

Although we know that Fowler was born in 1825, much of his early life is a mystery. Several articles refer to him as Colonel Fowler, implying a stint of military service, but where and when is not yet known. Although the first impulse is to place Fowler in the Civil War, he would have been 23 when the Mexican-American War broke out, and of course it is possible he fought in both conflicts.

What is known is that he became a dentist who practiced his craft in Ithaca, New York. Indeed, he was almost always referred to as Dr. A.H. Fowler. He set up a thriving practice in the pre-Civil War era, and was a dentist of national note; a testimonial from Dr. Fowler was run with an ad by the makers of Johnson & Lund Improved Artificial Teeth in the Dental Times Quarterly (1864) that read: “Gentleman, I take pleasure in adding my certificate in favor of your teeth. They are without fault. Dr. A.H. Fowler, Ithica, [sp] New York.” For reasons that remain unknown, Dr. Fowler sold his dental practice to Dr. George W. Melotte in 1866.

In addition to being a popular dentist, we also know that Fowler was a sportsman of great renown, and that he used his fame to build up a fishing tackle firm beginning in 1870, and perhaps a bit earlier. While his contributions to reel making have been covered by such authorities as Steven K. Vernon and Jim Schottenham, his place in fly fishing history has been virtually ignored, reduced to a few paragraphs of information in Martin Keane’s Classic Rods and Rodmakers, some of it misleading. What follows is an attempt to set the record straight on Alonzo H. Fowler, dentist and tackle maker.

Fowler was clearly one of the earliest and most talented American rodsmiths. No less an authority on the subject as Dr. James Alexander Henshall, pioneer American fishing historian and father of bass fishing in America, declared in Book of the Black Bass (1881) that Fowler was the second American to make a six-strip bamboo rod: “About 1870, Mr. H.L. Leonard, of Bangor, Maine, began making the six-strip bamboo rod, and Dr. A.H. Fowler soon followed him.” Certainly Henshall’s American-slanted bamboo fly rod history has come in for criticism by such modern scholars as Mary Kefover Kelly and others, but no matter how it is reckoned, Fowler was truly one of the earliest pioneers of the American split bamboo fly rod.

It is likely that he began his foray into the fishing tackle field around 1870, for on 18 June 1872, Fowler received Patent #128,137 for an improved fishing reel made from hard rubber. As the patent papers noted, “The reel is simple in construction, light and durable, and finished in appearance. The hard rubber is non-corrosive and peculiarly adapted for this purpose.” Jim Schottenham’s wonderful web site has a full reckoning of these reels (with photos) in their various permutations, so other than as a part of his overall tackle history, this article will concentrate on Fowler’s rodmaking and leave the nuances to these wonderful reels to the experts.

Still, the reel patent offers some interesting insight into Fowler’s work. Since patents at the time could take over a year to be granted, certainly Fowler was working on the rubber reel in mid-1871 (and perhaps earlier). From what Dr. Henshall noted, and from the patent information, we can be fairly certain that Fowler was also tinkering with fishing rods during this time. Interestingly, the 20 February 1873 Syracuse Daily Courier reported that “Dr. A.H. Fowler of [Batavia] is preparing a very handsome fly reel as a premium for fly throwing. It is composed of vulcanized India rubber, superbly mounted, and will be a beautiful specimen of the rubber reels patented and being manufactured for Dr. Fowler.” Note the wording says that Dr. Fowler had the reels made for him, but who made these reels per Fowler’s specifications has not been ascertained to date.

The first notice the author has found concerning Fowler rods comes from The Batavia Times of 14 April 1873 and reads:

Dr. A.H. Fowler has just finished the fly rod made to order of the Batavia Sportsmen Club, to be offered as a prize for fly throwing at the State shoot next month. It is a model of beauty and workmanship, and is the handsomest rod we have ever handled or seen. It is three jointed, composed of six-strip bamboo, silver-mounted, about eleven feet in length, and weighs only nine ounces, with one of the Doctor’s patent vulcanized rubber silver-mounted reels.

Additionally, as the Auburn Courier & Republic reported on 09 June 1873, Fowler donated several other reels as prizes at the New York State Sportsmen’s Association held at Batavia.

By this time, Fowler’s reputation in upstate New York had been cemented, and as he began to advertise nationally, his fame spread. The first national advertisement the author could find is dated 05 February 1873 in Forest & Stream, and several key pieces of information are contained in it. First, Fowler declared the reel was “the latest contribution to the angler’s outfit [and] has now been before the public for one year.” It is obvious Fowler was selling Gem Reels before his patent was issued in June 1872. The second point of interest is that Andrew Clerk Co., which would become Abbey & Imbrie in 1875, were sole agents for Fowler’s reel at this time. Finally, Fowler used testimonials from Seth Green, father of fish culture in America, and Robert B. Roosevelt, noted sportsman and uncle of Teddy Roosevelt, in his ad.

Initial reactions to the Fowler hard rubber reel were mixed. Forest & Stream opined in the same issue as the inaugural advertisement:

Dr. Fowler, of Syracuse, has placed anglers under obligations by giving them a newly invented reel, made of hard rubber, which for the simple quality of lightness makes it a great desideratum. It has been difficult to combine this requisite with the strength necessary to support the sometimes complicated machinery of the reel, and all anglers who use the finest tackle will appreciate Fowler’s improvement. There are other new features in his patent which are worthy of attention. Andrew Clerk, of Maiden Lane, is the sole agent for their sale.

Yet a few months later, editor Charles Hallock wrote in answer to the query of whether Fowler’s reels were suitable for bass, and whether he recommended them, that “We prefer a nickel reel ourselves, but we never fish with less than a two ounce reel, and Fowler’s weighs only an ounce. Different angler’s have different opinions.”

Perhaps the favorable notices from his friend Seth Green caused him to have a change of heart, for Hallock wrote on 16 July 1874, “Last week we tested for the first time the qualities of Fowler’s rubber reel, and found it worked to our complete satisfaction. Its lightness is charming. We noticed two of these reels in use by experts at the Fly Casting Trial at Oswego.” He later responded to another writer’s query by noting that the “Price of Fowler’s Hard Rubber Reel is $3.50 [40 yard] to $4.50 [100 yard], according to size, [and his] rods from $3.50 upwards, according to quality. Can get a good one for $15.00.” It might comes as a bit of a surprise to some reel collectors to find The Gem was apparently made in four sizes (40-60-80-100 yard).

By February 1875, Fowler was advertising an improved version of his reel called “The Gem—Improved,” and declaring in his ads that “IT HAS BEEN IMPROVED and all Reels made this year will pass through the hands of the inventor, and none allowed to go out, except those that are perfect.” Apparently, quality control was such a problem that Dr. Fowler felt the need to tell the world he would personally inspect every reel. Other changes include an Ithaca address, one that would be associated with him for the rest of his life, and the fact that Andrew Clerk no longer had exclusive distribution rights to his reel.

As the press surrounding the Gem reel began to wane, interest in Fowler rods began to pick up. In part this is because Dr. Fowler seemed to be an extremely gifted self-promoter, as evidenced by the letter he sent to Forest & Stream dated 24 June 1875. This letter was excerpted as follows:

Colonel A.H. Fowler, of Ithaca, the inventor of “Fowler’s Rubber Reel,” and the maker of excellent split bamboo rods, writes us a naturally exuberant letter, calling our attention to the fact that one of his rods, in the hands of Reuben Wood, of Syracuse, took the first prize at the Watertown contest last month, and says:

“For four years my rods have taken first prizes. At Rochester first and second, at Batavia first, at Oswego first, and at Watertown first. There were several rod makers present at the last convention. All acknowledged my rod to be the finest and best that they had ever seen. I make nothing but six-strip rods for trout, bass, and salmon, and warrant them as good as can be produced in the world.”

There are four or five makers of fine split bamboo rods whose respective qualities are so excellent that it is difficult to determine which is the better of them all, if, indeed, there be any essential difference. We have tested quite thoroughly the Fowler rod to our complete satisfaction, and while fully convinced that it would not have taken first prize in our hands at the trial mentioned, when that indomitable expert, Reuben Wood, was a contestant, we would not debar it from an equal place with any competing split bamboo rod.

This is an exceptionally informative blurb, helping us better understand the quality and style of fly rods Fowler was making. It also bordered on braggadocio, as evidenced by the terse note sent in a few weeks later by one of Fowler’s competitors, John B. McHarg of Rome, New York.

McHarg, a talented rodsmith in his own right mostly remembered today for his spinner baits, took exception to both the tone and content of Dr. Fowler’s letter and blasted him in a letter published in the 15 July 1875 Forest & Stream. The full text of his letter is reported as follows:

Rome, N.Y., July 1st, 1875

Editor, Forest & Stream:

In your issue of the 24th of June we notice an extract from Dr. Fowler’s “exuberant” letter in reference to his make of fly rods. Our modesty would naturally prevent us from appearing in print, but the Doctor’s letter as printed being in the nature of an advertisement, and containing statements which, if not questioned, might have a tendency to mislead those who “cast the fly,” we venture a few words in reply. The Doctor doubtless makes a good bamboo rod, but that it was acknowledged “by all the rod makers present” at Watertown to be “the finest and best they had ever seen” is quite a mistake. There are a number of rod manufacturers in different sections of the country that make, (if not better), equally as fine and good rods as his, which fact can be easily demonstrated by any test the Doctor may choose to name.

He says, “For four years my (his) rods have taken first prizes—at Rochester, Batavia, Oswego, and Watertown.” What his rods did at Rochester we are not aware, but have lately received from Mr. Wood of Syracuse, a rod for repairs which he (Wood) says took the first prize at Batavia. That is an ash rod. It is well known that at Oswego Mr. Wood, using the Doctor’s make of bamboo rod, did not cast the longest distance, but by some process of figures known only to the committee, was declared winner of the first prize, he casting sixty-one feet in fact, but allowed sixty-eight feet by the committee. At Watertown Mr. Wood used a light rod for style (as he termed it), and a 12-foot rod for distance, casting seventy-five feet, one foot further than the winner of the second prize, who used an ordinary ash rod, and some nine inches shorter in length, and who might have claimed the difference in length of rod, and been entitled to first prize, as was done by Mr. Wood at Oswego. The Doctor should give some better evidence of the superiority of his rods over all others than that named in his letter, or those “who were present” at Oswego and Watertown will rightfully question his claim.

J.B. McHarg & Co.

What to make of McHarg’s letter? Was it simply sour grapes—after all, technically Dr. Fowler’s assertions were true, as his rods did win first (if disputed) prize in the past four New York State meets. But Fowler’s letter most certainly chafed the other rod makers who attended the meet—including H.L. Leonard, M.L. Marshall, and others—and they must have silently applauded McHarg’s not so subtle slap at Fowler. It is worth noting, however, that McHarg finished 8th in the fly casting competition won by Wood in 1875, while second place in the disputed contest went to a McHarg employee.

Tomorrow: PART II: The Rise and Fall of the Fowler Rod

-- Dr. Todd

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Voice from the Past: Larry St. John

No poetry this week, but in honor of the Chicago Tribune's email stating that outdoor coverage will be reinstated, I thought I'd profile Larry St. John, The Tribune's earliest--and some say best--outdoor writer. This article from 1916 is interesting for a number of reasons, but I like it because it busts the myth that inexpensive reels could not be used by casters. Plus it mentions Ans. B. Decker. A second part was published the following week, which I'll post in the coming weeks.

Real Facts about Reels, Part I


Larry St. John

Quadruple multiplying reels suitable for casting range from $1 up to $50--you can go higher still if you want extras like aluminum spools.

The $1 reel we refer to is the Shakespeare Uncle Sam. Considering its low cost, it is a remarkable production--you can actually cast with it, which is more than can be said of other winches at a similar price. Ordinarily we do not advise such low cost tackle, but for the youngster, say, who simply must have a reel, the Uncle Sam will do nicely for a starter. The $50 product is the Talbot Nos. 52, 53, and 54. Needless to say, it is a wonderful piece of work, rivaling in mechanical nicety the finest watch, so delicately adjusted, so finely geared that five grains will overcome its inertia.

Between the $1 and $50 reel most casters will find what they want. Beginners are often "scared stiff" by the reckless statements made by some angling writers that a really worth while reel fit for casting is impossible under $10 or $12--bunk, pure bunk. For example, the [Meisselbach] Tri-Part selling in Chicago for $2.65 is a real reel; so is the [Shakespeare] Precision at $2.50, and no doubt others.

A little higher in the scale we have the [Meisselbach] Takapart and the [Shakespeare] Service, selling at about $3.50--Ans.Decker, one of the best casters in the country, uses a Takapart. At $4.50 you can get a Shakespeare Perfect--a German silver, take down, jeweled reel that is a "darb." We have one that has had hard use for seven years and it is still in good condition.

True, these low priced tools will not last for generation, like the high grade ones do, but they are good, serviceable reels, regardless of what the high brow angling writers say. The average once in a while caster will never feel the need of a better one, although the high grade reels are desirable if you can possibly raise the price, especially if you fish often and hard.

-- Dr. Todd

Monday, October 22, 2007

News of the Week, 22 October 2007

A fishing camp in Iraq for U.S. soldiers…guitar legend Eric Clapton fishing in rehab…a grand dame passes away and adorns her alter with her waders and fishing tackle…an estate auction yields $15,000 worth of lures…the joys of Geelbek fishing…and the Australian Fishing party splinters into TWO fishing parties…it must be THE NEWS OF THE WEEK!

THE BIG LEAD: The New York Jewish Times reports on Camp Taji, Iraq, where battle-weary U.S. soldiers can wet a line.

President Bush, who sent the fine soldiers above on their Iraqi fishing trip (see The Big Lead), begins weekly radio address by talking about fishing. And no, fishing is not a pseudonym for "stay the course."

The upcoming Kelso, WA NFLCC show gets some love from the Longview, WA Daily News.

The Palm Beach Post profiles marlin fisherman and IGFA hall-of-fame inductee Peter Wright.

NFLCC member Doc Shelton's collection on display at local Texas Bass Pro Shop.

Chicago collectors: The Rockford Register Star posts notice on a fishing swap meet on December 1st.

From the “Not A Bad Way To Go” File: Marjorie Brass Heiss, one of Idaho’s grand fisherwomen, passes away, her altar adorned with tackle and her well-worn waders.

The Florida Antique Tackle Collector's Club gets a boost from The Ledger.

The Toronto Globe & Mail opines on the kind of estate auction I never attend that unearths two dozen boxed lures that sell for $15,000.

From the Good Idea File: A kindler, gentler brand of fishing tournament.

My old newspaper The Minnesota Daily profiles artists who create sculptures of fish and tackle boxes to honor their family.

Legendary Illinois River fishing guide Big Knobs Culjan passes away. No word on how he derived the nickname.

Washington angler lands possible world record 15.4 pound pink salmon.

Captain Jim Johnson opines on the joys of topwater fishing.

How to outsmart a dumb fish. But if fish are dumb, how dumb are fishermen who can’t catch them? Things that make you go hmmm.

Walter Scott warns us to never peek in a woman’s tackle box without permission.

New t-shirt seeks to bring basses to the masses.

NATIONAL NEWS: Homer Circle, Joan Wulff among this year’s list of IGFA Hall-of-Fame inductees. FLORIDA NEWS: Three of the IGFA Hall-of-Famers to be hail from the Sunshine State.

Just in time for your annual Geelbek fishing trip, here are some tips for Geelbek fishing off South Africa’s cape. And to think just last week I was lamenting on the paucity of good Geelbek articles…

The Concord Monitor sinks its teeth into pike

New Zealand interior designer-turned-Marlin angler catches two marlin at the same time on separate rods. Sorry, boys, she’s married.

The Charleston Post & Courier orders us to forget deer because the sailfish are biting.

From the Craft Files: How to make a fishing-themed key holder out of tennis ball can tops.

The Chicago Sun-Times, you know, the big Chicago paper that still covers outdoor news, reports on a 60 pound muskellunge caught in Lac Seul, Ontario.

The Chicago Daily Herald, you know, the small Chicago paper that still covers outdoor news, tells us that some fishermen are lazy. Also dumb.

A computerized fly-fishing game has been released for those too lazy to actually fish. Apparently, that is around 79% of Americans.

Thinking of Tarpon fishing in Malaysia? So was I. Learn what you need to know by clicking here.

Alaska woman catches huge lake trout in supposedly sterile lake.

UK Fisherman Donald Milne from Aberdeen may have broken the all-time U.K. Salmon record of Georgina Ballantine with a 69 pound monster. Classic Angling’s Keith Elliot doesn’t think it will hold up under inspection.

Guitar legend Eric Clapton fished while getting sober at Minnesota’s Hazelden clinic.

Moronic fishermen illegally transplant Lake Trout in Yellowstone National Park, leading to this horrific mess for the DNR.

Delaware angler lands near-record Spanish Mackerel.

Holy Mackeral!

The South Bend Tribune opines on getting kids hooked on fishing. They get a pass on the Trite Phrase Headline bashing, as its about kids fishing. But we’ve got our eyes on you, South Bend Tribune

Secrets of snook hooking exposed.

ENDING WITH A FLOURISH: Bitter political rancor splits Australia’s fishing party; splinter Australian Fishing and Lifestyle Party emerges from the ashes. No, really. They now have TWO political parties catering to the fishing life.

-- Dr. Todd

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

At the urging of fellow collector Steve Wight, today I blog not about fishing history, but something all together different. The scourge of cancer has touched many of us, whether it is a family member, friend, community leader, national figure, etc. It has touched me personally, which is why I want to bring to your attention something Steve brought to mine.

Many of you are aware that this month is Breast Cancer Awareness month; I'm sure you've seen the pink ribbons around town. But few, I think, are aware at the pervasiveness of breast cancer. Over 185,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed every year, and over 40,000 women will die from it this year (and 400 men as well). One in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime.

Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women between the ages of 15 and 54, and the second cause of cancer death in women 55 to 74.

Like all things, research is the key. Major breakthroughs in early detection and treatment mean that 1.7 million surivors of breast cancer are with us that likely would have perished from this horrible disease a generation ago. But there is much research left to do.

What can you do? Many of you are country music fans. Steve alerted me to the fact that country music star Garth Brooks has released a 3-CD Ultimate Hits set to benefit the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. This is a great way to add some fun music to your collection, and to help out an important cause. An unbelievable $10 from the sale of each CD set ($15.00 plus shipping) goes to the Race for the Cure, which if you know anything about charities, you realize is almost unheard of in this day and age.

To order this CD on-line, go to: the Susan G. Komen web site. You can also pick it up at many local merchants, but if you buy it on-line you get a special bonus.

Early detection for breast cancer is the key, and every life saved is a beloved wife, mother, and daughter to someone, maybe even you. Urge the women in your life to do a a breast self-examination and give generously to charities that make a difference.

Buy a CD, save a woman's life. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me.

-- Dr. Todd

Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday Funhouse

Video of the Week

Fidel Castro…failed baseball player. Megalomaniacal dictator. Professional pain in the ass. And…fisherman? Here Castro defeats Ernest Hemingway and Che Guevera in a fishing competition.

Things I Would Buy If I Could Afford Them

Well, its been a few months since these reproduction frogs caused controversy. This one has a low starting bid of $25,000.

Fly rods don't come any nicer than this Jim Payne Model 206.

Haven't featured many creels, but this Lawrence type creel has attracted a lot of attention.

Here is a nice Welch & Graves minnow tube.

A nifty Shakespeare has already attracted a lot of attention

I don't know anyone who doesn't like a nice Moonlight Pikaroon, especially when they come in the box.

Your Heddon of the week is just your standard Lucky 13 in Yellow Bumblebee.

Fly rod bait collectors are drooling over this Dilg's Own Heddon Wilder-Dilg.

Super neat oddball reel is this Merit Pivoting Reel.

Here is a very rare John McHarg American Spinner box. A very high starting bid for this item may have hurt its overall sale price.

Ted Williams items are always a neat collectable. Here is a nice Ted Williams V Baitcaster.

Early Pflueger baitcasters are always a thing of beauty; This Buckeye NLW Baitcaster is no exception

We here at Fishing for History like the odd and unusual, and this this Oliver Stripper reel from Daytona Beach, FL fits the bill nicely.

This is an excellent example of a Kentucky Blue Grass Horton Meek No. 4 reel.

And although not fishing related, you don't usually run into $2 million eBay auctions.

-- Dr. Todd