“I was afraid someone would ask me that,” the clerk said.
I’m standing in an antique shop in Ashland, Wisconsin, summer 2013. It’s a few hours before my wife’s cousin is getting hitched, and we went for lunch downtown and ended up doing some antiquing. My wife looks for vintage cookbooks and other interesting thing, I go for old fly reels and rods; we have a system and it works well.
There are two kinds of antique stores. The first is the crazy crap-pile kind, where stuff is spilling out the doors on a nice day and the definition of “antique” is stretched to its absolute limit: Happy Meal toys still in the package, tagged Beanie Babies, anything with the words “Star” and/or “Wars.” The other is the one that has nice tables and fine China in the windows and it looks like the set of Downton Abbey on the inside. The former sometimes holds fly tackle bargains, since nobody knows what they have; the latter almost never, since it isn’t dinnerware.
This place is the latter, which makes it even more surprising that they have a section of rusty old tools, and among them a fly reel. I don’t know who made it, since none of the markings on the frame or spool look familiar. It’s all black, though dirty. The spool is held on by a single screw; when removed, it reveals a conspicuous drag system that is neither click-and-pawl nor disc drag (at first I think it’s missing parts). What catches my eye is the circular line guard, which tells me this is probably a pre-WWII reel.
I tell the clerk what I think: I’m not sure if the drag is broken, I’m not sure the manufacturer, and I really don’t know what it’s worth. We settle on fifteen bucks.
So, what is it, really?
The clue comes in form of a small stamp on the inside of the frame, the block letters “OC” embossed into the metal. It’s the mark of the Ocean City Manufacturing Company, based in Philadelphia beginning in the 1920s and continuing to manufacture fishing reels into the 1960s. As their name implies they were better known for their saltwater casting reels, but did invest into the production of fly reels as well. In fact, at some point they purchase reel designs from the Meisselbach Manufacturing Company and went on to create their own series of skeletal reel designs that bear more than a passing resemblance to the Meisselbachs (but more on that in a later blog post).
This particular reel bears no other definitive marks, but it resembles a line of Ocean City fly reels called the Wanita. My reel is likely a later evolution of the design, as it sports nine holes along the rim of the spool rather than the six found in the Wanita (or perhaps it is simply a different model with the same design DNA). It also happens to be a right-hand retrieve, although the design of the drag makes it usable either left- or right-handed.
Speaking of that drag… this is an example of a “silent check” reel, which apparently was popular or at least fad-ish for a while in fly reel design in the 1920s and 30s. Rather than a click-and-pawl or disc-drag design, both of which usually incorporate (either inherently in the design or as part of the aesthetic) a clicker, the silent check makes no noise at all. Instead, the metal arm attached to the reel frame places pressure on the spool to initiate a steady amount of drag both during the retrieve as well as when feeding line. As far I can tell, there is no adjustment to it (I suppose if one wanted to you could try to modify the angle of the arm, but I think that would be a surefire way to just break the thing off).
It’s also a fairly hefty piece of chrome, and is one of the few reels I have that can kinda balance the couple of bass bamboo rods I (rarely) use. It did get some stream-time last season, where it landed a few bass and trout. In the long run, however, it will likely stay on the shelf more than it does on the water.
I have seen a few Ocean City fly reels on eBay. They are uncommon, though most of the time they appear to be somewhat younger than this particular reel. They are also relatively inexpensive in terms of vintage tackle, since Ocean City does not appear to have much of a following: expect to pay somewhere between $25-50, depending upon condition and vintage.