The Willoughby – Or is that Will-not-oughby?

Willoughby ad from the March/April 1975 Issue of Bass Master Magazine.

The cover of the March/April 1975 Bass Master has a picture of what I thought was just an old antique reel. Kind of a fly reel-looking sort of deal. I figured, “Eh, Bass Master has an article on old antique fishing gear this issue. Cool.”

As I flipped through the magazine and landed on page 20, though, I realized this was no antique tackle article, it was about some guy trying to bring back to life an antique reel – namely the Willoughby.

Okay, I’m all for collecting and/or fishing antique gear. It’s fun and gives you an idea of what the people – a long time before me – had to deal with when they went fishing. For example I have some old Garcia 301s (not really that old) that are fun to pull out every now and then and some old Plfuegar direct-drive knuckle busters with cat-gut line on them that make me feel for anglers of the past. Do I seriously fish with them? No.

Anyway, the article is about bringing back this archaic reel because it retrieves line faster than any casting reel of the time – 20 inches per turn of the handle as opposed to 16 inches by an ABU 5000-series reel.

Willoughby specifications clearly show it’s superior to the ABU Garcia 5000-series reels. Photo May/Apr 1975 Issue of Bass Master Magazine.

But let’s look at its other advantages.

The reel has no drag (unless you consider your thumb a drag), the anti-backlash system is manual (i.e.: only your thumb again), it’s a direct drive 1:1 ratio and it holds an unbelievable 35 yards of 20-pound string. :-/

Here are some quotes from the article:

“..but the casts are somewhat shorter in length with the Willoughby than with similar efforts with conventional gear.” Uh, could that be because it doesn’t carry much line?

“The main disadvantage of the set [up] concerns the absence of an anti-reverse set-up,….”

“Also I have some difficulty in chunking a light lure (less than 3/8 ounce) – but it’s possible.”

“No ‘professional over-runs here, any extra accumulation simply falls off on the ground.” Really? That’s an advantage?

One thing I found interesting about the article is there was no byline and it starts out with some pretty heavy ribbing – albeit to probably get the readers’ attention. In any event, it’s no wonder this reel never caught on with the masses. I’m sure there is probably someone out there who swears by them and I’ll get some not-so-desirable feedback or comments for my stance. That’s fine. Like I said before, fishing stuff like this for the fun of it is fine by me but don’t expect me to replace all my Shimanos for this crazy…….reel.

  • Not a joke – As a lifelong central Indiana resident, I remember these reels back in the early 80’s when I first started seriously bass fishing. The company (Willoughby Industries) is named after founder and bass angler Ray Willoughby, and up until this year, the address and phone number in the original ad was still valid. The family company is now in the hands of the third generation, Ray being the founder back in 1947. Here are some links to company info.

    The “windmill” reel is frequently referred to as an “Indiana-style” reel, probabaly after Ray’s original design (?), but certainly because of the local popularity of the concept. You’ll notice in the following link:

    …that term used frequently, as well as several of the names being a reference to Indiana cities, I assume due to manufacturing location. I can only remember seeing a few guys throw the reel in local tourneys, though one in particular was a pretty good stick. It seemed like the biggest application was for buzzbait fishing, obviously due to the line retrieve distance.

    Ray was a local bass angler who was part of the Indiana Non-Profit Bass Anglers (INBA), a group that is still around to my knowledge. Meetings to set yearly shedules and such were frequently had at Ray’s house. Ray, who was probably about 55 or so when that ad appeared in the magazine, is still alive as best I can tell and now well into his 90’s. He used to fish locally with partner Ray Burton, and the two would go up into the main river of our largest reservoir and crush the big bass on a bait nicknamed “the smokey joe”, a reference to the Big-O color of the time, and a bait they used to throw religiously, and catch lots and lots of big bass with (long before the term ‘squarebill’ was ever termed). Interesting thing was that the pair kept most of the bass they caught, and it was frequently joked that they drained that section of the lake of big bass due to their exploits. That still didn’t stop tourney guys from spending lots of time up there throwing Big-O’s, and anybody worth their salt had one tied on when going to that lake and competing.

    I don’t know how serious of a venture the reel was for Ray, but manufacturing would have been a mere offshoot of the companies main production lines. Haven’t seen or heard from him in many years, but still run into friends who knew Ray and fished the INBA circuit back then. I fished it for two years back in the early 90’s while Ray was still fishing competitively. About the last tourney results I can find with Ray and partners name attached date back to the mid-90’s.


  • Pete

    Great stuff, Brian. Sounds like you have a lot of Hoosier State knowledge — who/what else do you remember from that era?

  • Pete –

    As you might imagine, Indiana was never the center of the bass fishing world, then or now. As such, there hasn’t been a whole lot of interesting stuff come from our state. A few things that do come to mind:

    – Before the big Bass Federation fallout, Indiana, to the best of my knowledge, had the largest state Federation in the country.
    – Along a similar line, Indiana has had an inordinate number of Federation “amateurs” make it to the BassMasters Classic via that route, probably more than any other state. Long list there that would be ineteresting to compile.
    – In the line of baits, Indiana, unbeknownst to many I’m sure, has been near the epicenter of the pre-rigged worm phenomenon, once very popular but now somewhat out of favor and forgotten. Companies include Kelly’s (Plow Jockey and Pier Boy – late 50’s), the “Anise Worm” (Robert Eakright – mid 60’s), and Touchdown Lures (Tom Moore – 1974). Some every interesting history there.
    – The best tackle store I remember growing up was the sporting goods dept. of Central Hardware. They carried everything “bass” back then (70’s/80’s).
    – I also remember when Bass Pro had “approved” tackle shops locally. There was one in the tiny Indiana town of Fayette that we would visit, a town so small it doesn’t even have a stop sign on it’s main drive – Population <1,000.

  • paul wallace

    Another popular Indiana lure was the Hartig Spinner. An in line spinner similar to Mepps only with a living rubber type skirt. Guys used to buy these by the dozen in my area, east central Indiana. I’ve still got a few and have a brand new Musky Hartig in my collection. Was made in Oscelo [sic] Indiana. Used this lure to catch 100’s maybe 1000’s of bass.

  • To the gentleman (I assume) who tried to comment on this post (you put in the name “One Who Lived the Era”) I’m sorry your comment didn’t get posted. Your name wasn’t real and the email address you gave ( was fictitious. If you’d like your comment posted, you have to use a real name and email address. If you just want to send us a message, you can use the contact form in the upper menu bar.



  • In the early 60’s I lived in Topeka, Kansas. I met a fellow there who fished/snagged? big flatheads in the Kaw river in the winter. He used a reel identical to this except I thought it was made of aluminum. He mounted it on a calcutta cane with guides, it cast a mile if you didn’t get chopped by the spokes.

  • I still use a Willoughby reel. My father, Reid Priest, was good friends with the Willoughby family. Both have passed. Fished Reelfoot Lake since I was five years old. The reel were taken over by Windmill Reels in Indianapolis. They have since ceased operation and no one is now producing them. I’d love to. The material used, and design of connecting the spokes was changed. Did not work as well as the Willoughby. Knowing the end is nearing, I ordered some baitcasters. All the drags confuse me. I get a bird’s nest constantly. Just yesterday (8/26/2013), I dug out my 30+ year old orange Willoughy and remounted it. Humans have a brain. Why do we need all those magnetic, disc… drags? In certain conditions; heavy cover, logs, stumps, lilly pads; I’ll put my Kiest design reel up against all those expensive baitcasters. I’ve lived in Southern Illinois for 12 years. Strip pits and farm ponds everywhere. Caught many 6lb+ bass on a 30 year old reel and it keeps on tickin’ !