Being that we’ve been on a bit of a reel kick lately, I decided to keep the ball rolling with today’s post, Langley Baitcasting Reels. Over the last few months, I’ve become infatuated with mid-century reels, and the reels made by Langley top the list. Why would reels that are no less than 60 years old intrigue me? Because of their simplicity and engineering.
Plus, they cast like a rocket.
As with most fishing-related things from the middle of the 20th century, I didn’t come into this on my own. I had years of prodding from my friend Bill Sonnett, who, if you read this site regularly, know he’s a vintage tackle guru and junky. Well, earlier this year he finally wore me down and I’m glad he had the patience to stick it out.
After finally relenting to Bill, I asked him to tell me the ins and outs of procuring vintage reels. I have a long history of reel repair under my belt, but my experience has everything to do with reels from the 1960s through today. How do I know if a reel I’m buying off eBay isn’t a piece of scat?
Next thing I know, I have an email from Bill telling me there’s a care package in the mail for me. I thanked him, not knowing what to expect. A few days later the package showed up. I opened it, and couldn’t believe my eyes. There were three reels: a Langley Lurecast, a Shakespeare Marhoff, and a Pflueger Nobby, and all looked like they may have been fished once. Also in the package were a dozen old plugs and four spools of period nylon braided line. How do you thank someone for such a generous gift?
Since this post is about Langley, I won’t delve much more into the other reels other than to say they cast great and look even cooler. I need a bigger office.
The first thing I did with the Lurecast was pair it with an era rod, get my video camera and tripod, grab a 1/4-ounce jig and head to the front yard. I wanted to record my first casts for Bill to show him how I can really screw up a reel. I expected nothing but disaster since fishing Shimano Calais and Chronarchs for the last twenty-plus years. Before that, it was all ABU.
I set up the camera, hit record, adjusted the headplate bushing, looked back at the camera and said a couple words to Bill, and with a prayer, let ‘er fly.
This reel was filled with period 10-pound nylon braid and the reel was set so there was maybe 1/2-millimeter endplay in the spool shaft. The jig left the rod tip like a bullet, flew about 40 feet, and I clamped down on the spool for fear of what might happen. Holy crap.
I reeled the bait in, tightened down the bushing a tad, and let ‘er fly again. This time I let it go. Easy 60-foot cast. No backlash. I thought to myself, “I like this reel.” I made a few more casts, finished the recording and went back in the house to send Bill the video.
Since that time, I fished the Langley Lurecast almost exclusively on my trip to Florida in July and now have dozens of hours casting it in the yard. The more I cast it, the more I appreciate it. Also, since that care package showed up, I’ve acquired no less than 20 Langley reels, two as a gift from fellow Bass Fishing Archives writer David Smith (Thank You David).
The more I learn about these reels, the more I like them. They’re simple pieces of equipment. But one thing that struck me early on was how light and fast they are. These reels feature aluminum sideplates and an aluminum spool that is ported to further decrease weight. In fact, Langley was the first reel company to port a spool arbor on a casting reel in 1946. It would be another 54 years before Shimano would start porting their spools.
Porting the spool created some confusion in the early days of Langley. To date, reel manufacturers would wow potential customers by flipping the reel handle hard and allowing the spool to spin, in some cases the spool would spin for up to 20 seconds on a well-tuned reel. This was due to the weight of the steel spool and the inertia applied to it with the hard spin of the handle. Once you get the heavy spool spinning, it takes on the life of a flywheel and keeps spinning until overcome by friction. And this, my friends, is why so many reels of the period were known for their ability to create monster backlashes.
Langley reels, even a finely tuned one full of line, might spin for five seconds. This had no bearing whatsoever on how fast the reels were. The fact that the spool weight was 1/4 the mass of a competitor’s spool made it ultra-fast. The lower the spool weight, the less force needed to get it moving. Langley called their spool the Anti-Inertia spool and the effect of the heavy spool the Flywheel Effect.
By the way, when I use the word fast here, I am not talking about the retrieve ratio or inches of line retrieved per turn of the handle. A fast reel back in the 1950s referred to how fast the spool would spin at the start of a cast.
Above, I alluded to the fact that the reels were light. But how light were they? Here are some numbers taken from my postal scale.
These numbers aren’t just impressive due to the fact they were reels produced in the 1940s, they’re lighter than pretty much every reel manufactured today. I do have to point out that these reels were direct drive with no drag system and had small gear systems compared to the reels of today. Still, any reel that comes in under 6 ounces is considered extremely light.
Let’s discuss some of these reels, first being the Target. This reel was Langley’s answer to the tournament caster. The reel had no levelwind system, had a narrow spool, and was the only reel produced by Langley that came with a free spool feature.
The free spool mechanism on the Target was simple. Just pull outwards on the reel handle and the drive gear would disengage from the pinion gear fastened to the spool shaft. Casting in this configuration provides a cast with zero friction except for the ends of the spool shaft running against the bushings. The first time I cast this reel in this configuration, I was shocked. There was no sensation of the spool turning at all, except for the line moving under my thumb. It is by far the smoothest reel I have ever cast, and I have cast every high-dollar reel that has been made.
The reel can also be cast in gear. Casting in this configuration you feel the handle rotating backwards but overall, the feel of the reel is still smooth. Cast it a few times and you get used to the feel of the backwards rotating handle. I’d equate its smoothness to any of my upper-end Shimanos.
The Lurecast is what I would consider Langley’s top-end fishing reel of the day. It’s a narrow spool reel with a levelwind, and direct drive. The drag is your thumb. This is the reel I used for two days in Florida this past July. Placed on a medium action, 5-foot, 8-inch Actionrod, I fished the combo with an early 1980s era Rebel Pop-R and caught over 50 bass with it between 1 1/2 and 3 pounds. Casting the rig was no problem, even at distances greater than 80 feet. The reel performed as well as any contemporary reel I own, minus when I screwed up and took my thumb off the spool when trying to land a fish. You can imagine what happened then.
Next on the list is the Streamlite, Langley’s all-around casting reel. This reel is nearly identical to the Lurecast except for the fact it has a wide spool. I have yet to cast this reel, but I don’t see how it will deviate much from the Lurecast.
Last on my list is another narrow spool reel called the Plugcast. This is the heaviest of the models I have, even though it’s a narrow spool reel. The extra weight has to do with the side plates being made from steel and a different gear system. It also has a less expensive levelwind case. In my eyes, it was their cheaper version of the Lurecast.
Langley went into the fishing tackle business right after World War II in 1946. Prior to that they made aluminum aircraft parts for the US Army Air Force. Because of their experience in manufacturing high tolerance, lightweight airplane parts, and the fact that the owners all liked to fish, making reels for post-war America was a no brainer.
Langley operated as a tackle company out of San Diego, California from 1946 through 1962, when they were bought by Zebco. Zebco purchased the company to get their line of spinning reels, which were also considered top-of-the-line in the day. Zebco continued making some of the casting reels for a couple years and discontinued the spinning reels in the early 1970s, after they attained the rights to the ABU Cardinal reels. After that, the only original Langley product Zebco kept in the lineup was the De-Liar fish scale and measuring tape. Yes, that old De-Liar originated with Langley.
This post isn’t intended to try and get people to go back to the 1950s and use the gear for contemporary bass fishing. By no means can these reels handle today’s fluorocarbon and super braided lines without something going awry. What is meant by the article is an appreciation of what the engineers of tackle back at this time did design wise. Yes, the reels are slow (retrieve wise) by today’s standards, and they don’t have the bearing support you see on a Daiwa or Shimano today. Plus they’re direct drive, which means the handle spins backwards on the cast.
If you’re feeling a little nostalgic or you really want to experience what a high-caliber reel was like over 70 years ago, I highly suggest playing with a Langley casting reel. If you’re serious, you can find them on eBay for $10 to $30, although I can say with near 100% certainty, the reel will need a thorough cleaning.
Or, if you’re ever in the Oak Ridge, Tennessee area, let me know and I’ll let you cast a few of the reels I’ve recently accumulated.