While on our honeymoon in 2011, driving down U.S. Highway 1 in Maine, we stopped at a little antique shop along the side of the road. There isn’t much to say about the place– it seemed like a hoarder’s house exploded, like many hole-in-the-wall antique places tend to be– but in the corner of the shop, mixed in with a bunch of other junk tools (Antiques Rule #14: every shop must have a collection of rusted hand tools, somewhere) was this reel. At the time I knew the name Pflueger, but apparently the shopkeeper didn’t, because I bought it for five bucks.
The Pflueger Medalist is one of the most successful fly reels ever produced. For more than eighty years the Medalist has remained in near-constant production, and although many things have changed both in fly fishing and with the construction of the reel, the essential design has remained largely unchanged: you could place an early 1930s Medalist next to last year’s model and a novice might have trouble making the distinction. The Medalist was produced in a variety of sizes, a couple of different styles (you can have it in any color you want, as long as its black or nickel), and underwent minor changes over the years to the drag and gearing system.
The Pflueger Medalist was popular enough that it spawned copy-cats such as the South Bend Finalist— which hardly bothered to hide its obvious provenance– and is one of the few vintage reels (perhaps only!) where aftermarket parts are readily available.
The reason for the Pflueger’s longevity is not hard to understand– it’s simple and it works. I’ve seen other fly fishermen compare it to a beat-up pick up truck or an old pair of boots, and I think both of those descriptions are spot-on. It’s not the flashiest reel, its heavy, and the narrow, small arbor has gone out of style in favor of wide, large arbor reels. But I know I can take this rod out with my 5-weight, abuse it, soak it, drop on some rocks, and jam it full of silt… and it still keeps going.
I can definitively pin down the year of manufacture of my Medalist due to two features: 1) the six rivets surrounding the spool latch cover were present on Medalists up until 1959, and starting in 1960 the number of rivets was reduced to three; 2) the stamp “MADE IN AKRON O USA” was first used in 1959 and continued into the 1960s. And so 1959 it is.
Due to the popularity of the Medalist, there are plenty of great online guides and histories of this reel from its origin until the present day. Pricing on Medalists varies by size, quality, and age, with older and better conditioned reels selling for top dollar. Reels made prior to 1979 hold more value, since they were produced in the USA up until this time. You can expect to spend around $40-50 for an usable, quality Medalist reel on the secondary market, and much, much more for highly collectible models. Also note that Pflueger produced the Orvis Madison reel in the 1970s, which was essentially a Medalist clone, though these aren’t as common on the secondary market.
Some of the Medalist clones can be had for much cheaper ($10-20 a pop) largely due to the perceived inferiority of these reels compared to the original. It’s hard to argue against a reel that’s been around since 1931, and I so I won’t even try (sorry South Bend!).
Handling an old reel like this brings back memories– but they’re not mine, but instead that of wild Maine trout streams and lively bamboo rods. I can only imagine what stories this reel has to tell, and how many browns and brook trout it has seen and taken in the past fifty years. The sharp click of the pawl is fly fishing. And it still has tales yet to tell, its second life coming on skinny Driftless water.
It’s hard to ask for more from a five dollar bill.