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The West Warwick Screw Products Striper Reel

An Accidental Portrait of an Era
By Joseph D. Cornwall


“Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself…” – Samuel Butler

 


One day in early May I was surfing the Internet, killing time between the endless flights I take in my efforts to pay the bills. I was absentmindedly looking at fishing gear on eBay, sifting through the hundreds of listings in the “vintage” tackle category. It’s always interesting to see how far our sport has come and, in some instances, to note the converse. That is, how little progress has really been made in the substance of sport fishing tackle beyond the marketing claims. Some of that old gear was as good as it gets and is better than most of our contemporary alternatives. Made in China is not a mark of quality, despite the advertising to the contrary.

One eBay listing stood out. The heading said only “Aluminum Striper Fly Reel.” Since I rarely see anything as specific as a reel designed for a particular species, especially one that isn’t a salmonid, I took a closer look. The reel was made in Rhode Island and was, indeed, called the Striper. There were no bids.

Twenty dollars and a couple weeks later and the Striper reel was in my office waiting to be cleaned. Sugar sand coated the inside and the grease was black with dirt. The reel had obviously been fished hard but it was in surprisingly great shape, turning true and easy with a feel of quality craftsmanship. A light inscription under the word Striper indicated the reel had been built by the West Warwick Screw Products Company. A Google search showed the company was still in business, so I fired off an email to see if I could learn a bit about the reel. It was about then that serendipity stepped in.

Doug Materne, President of the West Warwick Screw Products Company, replied to my inquiry personally. What I thought was a twenty-odd year old machined fly reel, likely made by a garage tinkerer with a lot of talent, turned out to have a much more interesting story. “My father, Edward A. Materne was an avid fly fisherman back in the 1940's and a close personal family friend was the renowned outdoorsman, Harold Gibbs” said Materne.

Materne continued; “Because striped bass would run and the fishing was done in salt water, my father designed a rugged, corrosion resistant reel out of anodized 6061 aluminum and stainless steel hardware. The reels were sold through Abercrombie and Fitch in New York.”

Now the name Gibbs is well known to anyone who grew up fly fishing for stripers in southern New England from the 1950’s to the present day. I’ve fished the Gibbs Striper Fly since I was a long-haired kid teaching myself to double-haul lead core shooting heads on the beaches of Cape Cod. My impulse purchase turned out to have a pedigree! My reel wasn’t the twenty or thirty years old I’d guessed - it was sixty! And it wasn’t made by an enthusiast; it was designed by an engineer and handle assembled to order!  With a price tag of $25 in 1946, the Striper is the equivalent of a $275+ reel today.

 

So what did $275 buy in post World War II America?  Part of that answer lies in the fact that this reel, the one I'm fishing on this rod, has a spool that rotates perfectly with no wobble or play.  It does so within the confines of a full cage that is built to tight tolerances. This tool has been used, and used hard.  It was used for decades, as was intended by its designer.  And this reel iss as tough today as it ever was.  This reel possesses real Quality (no pun intended).  It may be taken as wistful daydreaming by some, but I believe there was once a personal sense of "ownership" over manufactured goods in this country.  Things, in general, really were better made back then.  There is no doubting that some companies keep this ethos alive today, but they are getting harder to find.

 

A fully machined aluminum reel with stainless components, the Striper is a click-pawl design. In keeping with the technology of the times there is no disc drag.  Truth be told, most fly fishermen set the disc drag at or near its lightest setting and leave it there.  A click-pawl reel is capable of surprisingly smooth control over the reels pay-out tension and, short of today's sealed multi-element brake systems, there is very little advantage to a sophisticated drag system at those light tension settings.  In the hardware world, huge blue-water fish, up to and over 1,000 pounds, have been landed using revolving spool reels with nothing more than a leather patch for drag control!  An experienced angler will find the dependability and simplicity of a quality click-pawl to be more than sufficient for even surprisingly large and powerful fish. 

 

As designed, the Striper reel featured a single click-pawl rather than a dual system.  It was designed as a right-hand-wind reel exclusively.  It wouldn't be until 20-years or more after its release before left-hand-wind designs would become common.  My example of the Striper is a bit different from the standard issue Striper model, though.  It is set up for a dual click-pawl configuration.  Although Doug Materne assured me that that reel was never offered in this configuration from the factory, the modifications to my reel looked like they were done by a talented machinist.  Without the feedback from the company and an examination of the original blueprint design (Materne has the original prints) there would have been no way to determine that this was an after-market modification.  Because this example of the reel came from Cape Cod, it's possible that the original owner was associated with or knew someone at the Rhode Island factory.  This is a mystery I'll likely never solve.  It was a thoughtful evolution of an excellent reel design.   But there is one more important variance that separates this reel from the stock design.


The reel foot on my sample of the Striper is a wonderfully sculpted design.  It's clearly the same quality of machined aluminum as the reel's housing.  It is designed to shift the reel's center of gravity slightly farther back on the reel seat, to help balance the big split cane or early fiberglass rods that would have been used along the New England coast in those halcyon days.  Compare the reel foot in the picture on the left with the image from the factory's marketing files shown above.   This isn't a garage modification made with a hack saw and a file.  It's a machined aluminum design created by someone with skills and access to sophisticated tools.  I wonder what kind of story lies behind this difference?  Why rebuild the reel foot when it must have been easier and cheaper to replace a damaged piece with a stock part from the factory?  And if it was just a replacement of a broken foot, why the fancy sculpting?  This was the work of someone who fished hard and wanted to refine his gear.  This was the work of a thoughtful angler. This was the work of a brother striper-bum, reaching out from the sandy beaches of time, trying to tell us that the history of fishing for Morone saxatilis is rich with detail and creative regional players.  A bit of Yankee ingenuity peaks out from the mists of time...

 

Serendipity had become my muse! A mundane eBay listing had put me in contact, however indirectly, with a bit of angling history! As a native New Englander it was fitting that the piece of history I found, the Warwick Striper reel,  was at the genesis of a Northeast angling wave which picked me up in 1972, urged me to learn to fly fish on the salty beaches of the South Shore, and then deposited me in the emerging striped bass fly fishery of the Ohio River 35 years later.

A few more emails and a couple of phone calls to Doug Materne and he agreed to share even more treasures.  For this article Doug loaned me several priceless heirlooms from his own family history. He sent me the only unused, boxed example of a the West Warwick Royal fly reel known to exist.  The Royal was the Striper's bigger brother.  Identical in almost all ways, the Royal was anodized in a striking rich green.  Selling for a couple dollars more than the Striper, the Royal offered a unique drag system.  Was this evolution of the design inspired by the changes done to my Striper?  Without knowing who made those changes and when, there's no way to say for certain.  One thing that was indisputable is that an impulse purchase on eBay was uncovering a fascinating story of the gear and ghosts of New England striper on a fly.  I had to know what it was like to fish with the gear Ed Materne, Joe Brooks or Harold Gibbs would have used when they were busy trailblazing a new path in an ages-old sport.  Serendipity can be a demanding task master!

 

View the West Warwick Screw Products Royal Fly Reel

 

The Fiberglass Fly Rodders is an interesting on-line community.  It's a discussion forum for those who collect, fish or are just interested in old and new fiberglass fly rods and associated gear.  I participate there frequently and I've found that the glass rods I first learned to fish with still have much to offer a contemporary angler.  While discussing the acquisition of this reel in that forum, I expressed my desire to experience fishing with gear from those early days.  Of course a big challenge was trying to identify a rod that would have been manufactured during the same period and sold in the same area.  I turned to the collective wisdom of the board and did a bit of book research, too.  Joe Brooks, in his 1950 book Salt Water Fly Fishing, suggested a 9' 6" impregnated split cane rod.  Richard  Peters, an enthusiastic collector and frequent FFR contributor who goes by the screen name flyfishing4goldentrout on the board, offered up the use of his father's Sharpes of Aberdeen Scottie, a rod that fit Brook's description perfectly.  At three pieces and designed to handle an GBH (modern 7-weight) line, the Scottie was a model likely sold through Abercrombie and Fitch.  It's possible that an affluent sport could have purchased this exact combination from that iconic retailer nearly six decades ago!  And to complete the experience, Richard also offered use of a mint Phillipson glass rod from the same period.  All the pieces came together to let me touch the past as much as is possible.  For me, traveling to the Rhode Island shoreline to cast for the progeny of the striped bass pursued by the mysterious owner of my Warwick Striper, or by Brooks and Materne themselves, was out of the question.  I do have the distantly related hybrids of the Ohio River, though!  Serendipity had delivered an adventure...

 

View Photo Essay - Fishing Vintage On The Big O

 

When he sent me the Royal fly reel, Materne also included the few advertising slicks and photographs that still exist from the Striper reel’s brief presence back at the very emergence of saltwater fly fishing as a recognized sport. One piece in particular demonstrated an even closer tie to Gibbs. Quoting from the marketing flyer and order form: “One of the first and undoubtedly the most successful sportsman to take striped bass on a fly rod is Harold N. Gibbs, Rhode Island Commissioner of Fish and Game. His comment when shown the Striper was: - “This is one of the finest I ever held I my hand, I don’t know when I was ever more steamed up about anything.”  It's tough to argue with such a sterling recommendation from a guy who made it his life's business to be on the water.  Gibbs may not be as well known as Wulff, Kreh and Whitlock, but he should be.  Gibbs was truly a giant of his time, a man's whose accomplishments and achievements continue to affect our sport to this day.

 

So the Striper has more than a pedigree. It has heritage. It would be impossible to know, but I often wonder as I hold it if, perhaps, this was the very reel shown to Mr. Gibbs? Or maybe Joe Brooks, a contemporary of Gibbs and fellow striper enthusiast on Rhode Island’s rocky shores, had occasion to strap this reel to a rod for a test run? I wonder about the person who owned it before me and I imagine all the striped bass that pressed valiantly against its well-tested click drag.  I wonder if the purchaser of this reel knew Ed Materne, and I wonder if he ever fished Ed's fly - the Pigtails?

 

Learn to Tie The Pigtails

 

In my imaginings I am taken back through my own years and to the years of my grandfather. A circle is formed. “On my office wall is a black and white photo of my father, fly rod and reel with 8 striped bass and little me kneeling next to them,” Doug wrote in an email to me. Well, a copy is now hanging on my office wall as well.  For Doug Materne the picture is a family portrait.  For me, this old photo is a portrait of what the sport really means for the rest of us.


 

Portions of this article were previously published in Country Anglin' Outdoor Guide

 

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