The first automatic fly reels were side-mounted affairs. The first patent for these reels came back in 1880 by Francis A. Loomis from Onondaga, NY. The next year Loomis got help with his designs & credited James S. Plumb from Syracuse with half of his second patent in 1881. These two formed a firm called Loomis, Plumb, & Co which started manufacturing the first automatic reels. These new reels caught on quickly among anglers & soon they were making them in nickle-brass, three finishes in bronze, & other metals.
In the mid-1880's they sold their company to another called Yawman & Erbe who continued to make the reels exactly the same. Of course they did make changes in later years, one of which included a key-winding method for the tension of the spring. These were called "Improved Automatic Reels". They were available in only two sizes.
Soon after 1910 Yawman & Erbe sold their company to Horrocks-Ibbotson who took the patterns & machinery to their factory in Utica, NY. The first reels that H&I made were called "The Y&E Automatic Reel". H&I made them with that name on them until sometime after 1923.
Because these reels were so popular from the very beginning, many companies got on board with making their own automatics. Many tried to find success, but the man that would be the most successful making automatic reels was Herman W. Martin, a jeweler from Ilion, starting in the 1890's.
Martin made these reels in four sizes - already offering anglers more options than previous makers. These reels were produced by a company called "The Martin Novelty Works". They were very well decorated with etched filigree on the face plate. Sometime after 1907 or 1908 the company changed it's name to "Martin Automatic Fish Reel Company". In 1921 the company moved to Mohawk. The reels made there were plainer than the previous ones with simple trim bands on the face. Over the years the reels went through further changes, but the newer reels are less sought after by collectors. You can still buy reels by this company today - we now know it as "The Martin Reel Company".
Throughout the twentieth century many companies put their names on auto reels including South Bend, Shakespear, Pflueger, Meisselbach, & others. The most collectible of all these reels are the earliest ones by Loomis & Plumb, Yawman & Erbe, & Martin Novelty (with the filigree).
Ever since they came on the market automatic fly reels have been a source of debate among fly anglers. Some anglers who advocate the use of single-action reels feel that the autos are unsportsmanlike to use. The push of a lever immediately re-spools the line & quickly puts a tight line on the fish, giving the anglers a fast advantage. Of course these reels are heavier than a normal single-action reel, which is another aspect that some anglers disapprove of.
However these reels won the respect of many fly anglers. One of the more famous advocates for automatics was E.C. Powell, the well respected angler & rod maker. In his "A Discourse on Trout Angling & Tackle" he states:
You can, of course, still buy new automatic fly reels today, though they may not be of the quality that some of the vintage reels were made with. Regardless how you feel about them, they were very popular among fly anglers not so long ago. With so many of them made & available on the used tackle market, you should have no trouble finding a decent automatic reel to try them out on your rod - if you're so inclined.
More than just a novelty or a passing fad, automatic fly reels have developed & evolved through the years, just like all other types of reels & tackle. The history of how they came to be is, to me, fascinating.