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An Angler's Guide To The Classic Pflueger Medalist

Part One - 1930 to 1958

Article and Photographs by Joe Cornwall

 

I've been a Pflueger Medalist fly reel fan for as long as I've been able to hold a fly rod.  A Medalist was my first fly reel, purchased for me by my grandfather all those many years ago.  It was a 1494DA and I still have it.  Since those early days I've gone on to fish Medalists in fresh water and salt and in every size from the petite 1492 to the hefty 1498.  Along the way I've learned a lot about the personality of this iconic piece of gear.  It's a simple design, capable of performance far beyond that which its modest parts would suggest. 

 

As popular as the Medalist is for fishermen and collectors alike, one would think that getting accurate and detailed information about servicing and maintaining this reel would be an easy click away.  Over the years I've found that there is some great information on the Internet about this and other classic reels, but there isn't one place where it's all been brought together.  Until now. In this series of articles we'll explore the history and evolution of the Pflueger Medalist.  We'll look at variations in construction from the earliest models to the present.  We'll compare and contrast the in-hand performance of vintage and contemporary versions and examine line-size applications and capacity.  We'll see what makes them tick and we'll explore, in detail, what needs to be done to convert a reel from right-hand-wind to left-hand-wind and to keep it running for years to come.

 

Pflueger has a long and interesting history.  In 1881, Earnest Pflueger established the Enterprise Manufacturing Company in Akron, Ohio, with the goal of producing and distributing hooks, lures and fishing tackle.  Earnest enlisted the help of his brothers Joe, William and and Charles and, over the next several decades, the family founded a strong business, primarily as a manufacturer of fishing hooks.  By 1916 Earnest A. Pflueger, son of the founding Pflueger, would take over the family business, rename it, and build it into the dominant and diversified American fishing tackle company which it would remain for the next half century.

 

The Pflueger company applied for a patent for a fly reel design in October 1928 and was granted the patent in September of 1930. The patent was filed by Charles Pflueger and was for ornamental decoration of a fly reel design the iconic round line guard and other elements.  The Medalist name made its debut in the Pflueger 1931 catalog, but it would be a few more years before the reel would take on the characteristics that would come to define the recognized Medalist with adjustable drag topology. It wasn't until 1938 that the adjustable drag was added. Prior to the award of this patent, the earliest Medalists featured a click-pawl drag and a "cage" spool arbor.  These early reels are prized collector items and sell for amounts that really preclude their consideration as ordinary fishing reels.

 

These early reels were available in three sizes; small, medium and large. We now know them as the 1492, 1494 and 1496 respectively.  All featured the now classic round line guard and were designed as right-hand-wind reels.  Several generations ago almost all fishing reels were right-hand-wind; it wasn't until the spinning reel exploded on the scene after World War II that using the left hand to crank the handle became fashionable.  Because there were left handed anglers in the market, there was a series of reels made that were left-hand-wind. Of course these sold in minute quantities, proportional to the percentage of lefty's in the general population.  These reels were known as the 1392, 1394 and 1396 and are currently so rare (and expensive when they do come to market) that they are of no concern to the angler or casual collector. There also was a series of Medalists that were, for lack of a better term, "ambidextrous"  They didn't have the round line guard at all.  They were the 1592, 1594 and 1596. In an interesting aside, the 15xx model numbers would be revisited in the 1990's when Pflueger released a modification of the Medalist design that featured a palming rim on the spool.  The new reels are essentially drag-enabled 14xx series reels with a different (and completely interchangeable) spool and bear no functional relationship to these very early click-and-pawl designs.

 

Of the click-pawl reels, only the tiny 1492 and its wide-body brother the 1492 remain in circulation in sufficient numbers to be readily available.  They are also currently manufactured and available as new.  There are a number of minor variances to all the Pflueger Medalist reels that were excellently documented by Richard Komar in his article Pflueger Medalist Reels - A History.  Komar's article is a great resource to help identify the age of a particular Medalist permutation.  Let's start this adventure by taking a closer look at a couple of the variations in the click-pawl line-up.

Pflueger Medalist 1492 and 1492

The 1492 has been in the line-up since the beginning and is only available in right-hand-wind.  Originally released with a round steel line guard and sculpted "bowling pin" frame pillars, the model 1492 features a dual click-pawl gear and pin over-run check. Early versions will feature six rivets around the spool latch cover.  As you can see in the photographed example, this reel has a newer replacement spool with three rivets.  To a collector this may decrease the value by $50 or more, but to an angler it has no meaning.  Almost all Medalist spools are able to fit just about any generation of reel and it's not uncommon to see an older reel that had its spool replaced years later.  The earliest versions of the reel (true for all models) also had an aluminum spool latch cover.  Again this is mostly an aesthetic consideration and the hard plastic used since 1952 offers no appreciable performance disadvantage.

The Pflueger 1492 and its one-inch wide sibling, the 1492, are simplicity incarnate.  They feature a dual-click mechanism. In some reels dual clicks are designed so one pawl is for RHW and one is for LHW, with the tips of the triangular pawl pieces aligning just off the exact axis of the spool.  In the Pflueger reels, the "handedness" of the retrieve is fixed by the round (or in later versions, square) line guard.  The pawls line up with the center of spool rotation.

It's worth noting that the earliest models of the Pflueger Medalist, dating to 1939 and before, used a pinned, painted brass foot that is often too large to fit a contemporary reels seat.  Reel feet that have been filed or "modified" to fit newer rods diminish the collector value considerably.  Later reels used screws to connect the reel foot to the reel frame.  On those models a new reel foot can be installed so the reel can be fished, and the original piece kept for it's "collector" value if the reel is subsequently sold.  The wryly named One Pfoot company is the best source for high-performance replacement parts; they will be discussed again over the course of this article.

The Medalist 1492 is a great size for double-taper 2 and 3 lines.  It will hold a full 80 to 90 foot line with a few wraps of backing to ease the connection to the spool.  The reel will hold a weight-forward 2, 3 or 4 fly line and about 50 yards of 12lb Dacron backing.  This is fine capacity for an ultra-light outfit, but for heavier fly lines or more robust applications it lacks capacity.  Stuffing a 4wt line onto a Pflueger 1492 will result in a tightly coiled line that must be stretched before fishing, but the reel does look and feel great on fiberglass and bamboo rods of 7' and under.

The Medalist 1492 increases line capacity by increasing the spool width to 1 inch.  The drawback to this is that the angler must be careful to guide the fly line across the spool to prevent a jam.  Because the Medalist 1492 wasn't released until the early 1970's, it was never available with the round line guard, which is a blessing in disguise.  The round line guard looks pretty, but it is actually a functional hindrance to even spooling of the fly line. That said the 1492 is a great match with a double-taper 4 fly line and a 6, 7 or 7 foot rod of bamboo, fiberglass or graphite.  I especially like this reel using half of a double-taper 5 or cutting the running line back on a WF5 and matching it with a 6 or 6 foot 5-weight fly rod for tight quarters.  This is one of my favorite configurations for panfish and warm water creek fishing in truly intimate runs.

The Pflueger Drag System

In 1936 Pflueger applied for two patents, one which described a drag system for a fly reel, and one which described a click system that would allow the drag to operate in a unidirectional fashion.  This later feature was very important as this enabled the reel to provide a firm and smooth pay-out while eliminating friction on retrieve.  This patent was credited to Walter L. Adams as inventor.  The second patent described a drum brake system for a fishing reel and the inventor is credited as Rudolph G. Wenzel.  Both patents were assigned to the Enterprise Manufacturing Company (Pflueger) and were granted in 1938.  The first Pflueger Medalist fly reels with adjustable drag systems began to show up on the market almost immediately, with official product introduction in the 1939 catalog.

The Pflueger drag system is a drum brake design.  In a drum brake is a system where a shoe presses against a spinning surface or drum. It was, in basic principle, the same system used on automobile and truck braking systems until the disc brake was perfected. In the patent application the drag system was particularly aimed at the trout market, presumably to differentiate the design from anything being used on casting or bass reels or in other technologies.

The patent application reads specifically; "This result is secured by combining with the rotatable rim a brake mechanism acting upon the outer surface thereof and preferable always in contact therewith.  Such a device is constituted by the pivoted brake shoe mounted upon the pin and having a curved surface bearing against the rim of the ring.  A leaf spring is shown mounted upon the pin and having one end bearing upon the outer end of the brake shoe and its other end in an adjustable keeper." So the Pflueger Medalist drag system is a drum-brake and leaf-spring design, which went on to become one of the most copied and long-lived mechanisms in fly fishing.

The unidirectional drag ratchet is a clever way to provide drag on pay out and free rotation on retrieve.  Looking at the patent application; "The outer side face of the ring is formed with ratchet depressions (here shown as two in number, and the spool is provided with a spring actuated pawl or pin which will engage said depressions as the spool is rotated.  When the spool is rotated to reel in the line, the pin will ride over the depressions, but when the line is drawn out, the ratchet and pin engage and cause the joint rotation of the spool and the friction ring.  The purpose of this construction is to exert a drag upon the fish when it runs with the line.  To exert the requisite drag, a pivoted brake having an arc-shaped bearing surface is mounted upon the back plate and bears against the friction ring.  Spring pressure is applied by a bent spring, one end of which bears upon the brake shoe and the other is held by the adjustable block, which is moved by the screw shaft."

The Early Pflueger Medalist

Example Shown 1495 "Patent Pending"

When it first hit the market the drag-equipped Medalist had a "Patent Pending" stamp on the frame. By the end of 1939 the "Patent Pending" stamp was dropped and "Patented" was instead stamped on the frame just above the reel foot and to the right of the reel's model number.  A very few models made after the patent was granted, but before the "patent pending" materials were exhausted carried both stamps. This was during the war, so wasting materials wasn't an option.  The reels equipped with the drag system were all right-hand-wind and consisted of the 1494, 1495 and 1496.  The non-drag 1492, left-hand-wind 1392, 1394 and 1395 and non-line-guard 1594 models remained in the line-up.

Pictured is a sample of the 1495 that carries both "patented" and "patent pending" stamps, so it dates from 1938 or early 1939.  Certainly it is among the very first of the drag-equipped Medalists and it is in completely sound mechanical condition after more than seven decades of use.  This is a nearly unprecedented level of service!  This reel features the painted brass reel foot, which is soft and prone to being bent or deformed.  For a collector, bent is better than filed down, though.  Also this reel foot is often too large for contemporary reel seats, making the practical use of this particular reel questionable.  While this example may be lined and fished one day, it is more collector's piece than daily fishing reel.  On these very early Medalists the reel foot was pinned to the frame, as were the sculpted pillars and the line guide.  Therefore models this early in the Pflueger line can't be easily upgraded to the latest standards.

The drag click mechanism features two clicks on retrieve and sixteen on pay-out.  Sixteen detents makes for a very smooth drag. The reel only has to rotate to the point where the "ratchet and pin engage and cause the joint rotation of the spool and the friction ring" and with sixteen detents the spool only has to rock a few degrees before the drag comes on line.  With only two detents on retrieve, spool can rotate up to half a turn before it catches a click detent, making for a slightly clunky feel when cranking, though..

The 1940's Pflueger Medalist

Example Shown 1495

By the time we get to the World War II period, the evolution of the Pflueger Medalist is nearing completion.  Only a few more changes would take place before the model settled in for its long run of production.  The first change we see in the early 1940's is the drag ratchet plate picking up four detents on the retrieve side while maintaining sixteen on the pay-out side. This is the smoothest Pflueger Medalist drag configuration made, ticking like the finely designed machine it is.  It is important to note that these early drag plates were extremely hard and are seldom damaged in the reel; if there is a problem with spool rotation, check the pin-pawl in the reel's back-plate as they often become frozen.

 

The round line guard is still in place and the spool latch cover and the drag knob is no longer aluminum, but is now made from the same bone-colored plastic as the handle.  The reel foot is now screwed into place.  The sculpted pillars are still riveted in the earlier models, but that will change over the course of the decade. The reel, of course, is right-hand-wind only.  The example shown on the right has a shrunken handle, a common failure on reels of this age.  This can be easily and inexpensively repaired with a replacement handle from the One Pfoot company. One Pfoot also provides replacement aluminum latch covers and drag knobs.

 

The 1940's also bring about a new size of Medalist.  The 1495 retains the diameter of the 1495 but increases the width by 3/16's of an inch.  This increases the spool capacity greatly, allowing for a slightly smaller and lighter reel than the 1496 to be used on the new generation of fiberglass rods then making their debut on the market in the later half of the decade.  The 1495 is perfectly sized to hold a full double-taper 6, 7 or 8 line and up to 100 yards of 20lb Dacron backing or a weight-forward tapered 7, 8 or 9 line and up to 150 yards of 30lb Dacron backing.  This size reel is a great match for an 8 or 9-foot fiberglass or bamboo fly rod.

 

There were some minor changes to the reel over the years from 1940 until 1958, including the addition of the 1494 and the 1496 size reels, the change to straight screwed-in pillars instead of the sculpted "bowling pin" design and further changes to the reel foot. Otherwise the Medalist spent the middle of the 20th Century wearing this suit.  Up next we'll look at the first major change to the Medalist line-up; the ability to switch between left and right hand retrieve modes.

Continue With Part Two for the rest of the story...

"That 70's Show" Pflueger Medalist

The Giant Pflueger Medalist and One Pfoot Modifications

The Current Pflueger Medalist

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