The Wisconsin River spills from the Prairie du Sac dam down some 92 miles to the Mississippi, and much of its banks remain undeveloped such that it doesn’t take much imagination to throw you back a hundred years or further. Back then three houses made up Water Street in Sauk Prairie and August Derleth was still practicing his penmanship in grade school. If you looked hard enough you may be able to find an old-timer who remembered when Black Hawk led his British band across the Wisconsin River by stalling Henry Dodge’s militia at Wisconsin Heights. And if you counted yourself among the gentlemanly anglers who pursued trout with a fly rather than a worm, you could drop a few of your hard-earned dollars down at the local mercantile to purchase a brand new Meisselbach Featherlight skeleton reel.
I don’t know if there was anyone selling Meisselbachs in Sauk Prairie a hundred years ago, but there was one at the local antique store when I visited last spring. It was easy to overlook, seeing as how it was duct taped to one hell of a beater spinning rod. I paid for the rod, got the reel thrown in with it, and promptly threw out the rod and keep the reel.
Featherlights are surprisingly small and lightweight for their time. It fits easily in the palm of my hand, and if it hung in a modern fly shop it would likely be accompanies by a sign describing it as a 1-3 weight reel. The skeleton design was fairly common during the early 20th century, since it help reduce the weight of all-metal reels and it allowed for quicker drying of silk lines, but most skeleton reels were mere copies of the original Featherlight, which was originally patented in 1896.
it’s easy to see why the design was readily copied by others: it’s sleek, it’s sexy, it’s functional. It still looks good a hundred years later, and one could argue that modern fly reel design owes quite a bit to the innovations that appeared in the Featherlight. The basic design continued relatively unchanged for a couple of decades into the early 1900s. The only major innovation to come along was the introduction of a pressed frame version in 1904, which was a less-expensive alternative to the raised pillar frame original (which is shown here).
Meisselbach made the Featherlight in several sizes, all of which were considerably smaller than your standard fly reel today. The 280 was the biggest and possibly most common (shown here), followed by the 270 and then the smallest, rarest 260. The pressed frames had a slightly different numbering system– 250, 260, and 290– and came in bronze and nickel finishes.
In a resale setting, the common Featherlight 280 would likely set you back $40-60 depending upon condition. The rare 260 is usually found north of $100, again depending upon condition.