I hate shopping. I mean I really, really do hate shopping. There, it is out in the open and you can launch as much criticism as you like at me for my profound dislike of the retail experience. Freud would be delighted to know that I trace this back to my childhood and the trauma (OK, slight over exaggeration) of shopping on Union Street in Aberdeen with my mother. Three kids in tow, she would battle the Saturday morning crowds to get us new school clothes, shoes, football boots or whatever else we required. I simply could not fathom why it was so important to get the right thing, why there had to be so many items to choose from and why it took so long to complete the whole dreary exercise. To this day I hold all shopping in complete and utter contempt. Except for buying fishing tackle!
Funnily enough, the only high street shop I didn’t mind was Woolworth’s. Universally known as ‘Woolies’ (well, in Scotland at any rate) they were purveyors of what was probably best described as general goods and wears under the brand name ‘Winfield’. The Aberdeen branch occupied a prime site on Union Street behind one of those solid grey granite facades. It had a small section upstairs for fishing gear, so every family visit saw me shoot off up those wide stairs with the tiny mosaic tiles to examine the tackle in detail. Occasionally, pocket-money allowing, I’d purchase a packet of hooks or maybe even stretch to a small metal devon minnow. But it was the multiplier reels which I was always fascinated by. Way, WAY beyond the reach of my pre-teen pocket money, I still gravitated to them and always spent some time looking at and handling these inaccessible machines. They seemed to be so exotic and incongruous perched there in their Teal blue boxes on the shelves between haberdashery and baking/cake making. Shiny black side plates enclosed by glittering chromed rings, free spinning spools, the ‘clunk’ when the gears were engaged and those star drags that I had only ever seen in books.
By the time I was working and in a position to buy my own tackle I had become more circumspect and Woolies finest was disregarded in favour of ABU and Hardy’s. I moved away from the city, the shop in Union Street shutdown and the shiny multipliers therein were forgotten about. It was many long years later that somewhere along the line I bought some fishing junk in a second-hand shop and in amongst the various items of tat there was a big old Winfield multiplier. It brought a smile to my face but I had no thought of actually using it. Meaning to sell it on later, this old reel lay in the bottom of a drawer or in various boxes as I moved around different cities with work over the years. I’d unearth it periodically, give the handle a spin and chuck back into the box it came from. Then an odd thing happened, I came to buy a few other Winfield multipliers. It started off as just seeing a cheap complete reel or one which required repairs which could be bought for an insignificant price. Useful, cheap reels. Over the year though my resonance with these reels has grown and developed into an appreciation of these solid testimonies to Japanese manufacturing.
So what is the attraction of these old sea fishing reels? It is hard for me to put it into words because, at the end of the day, they are pretty agricultural in use. No silky smooth drag systems, no ceramic spool bearings or hi-tech anti-backlash brakes here! Winfield fishing gear was universally known as being cheap and not of particularly good quality but I am not sure this is the truth. The reels were good copies of the popular American Penn models of the day and were manufactured in Japan by the same company who built the Matchmaster and Chuyo reels. Over the years I have heard lots of tales of stripped gears and disintegrating spools which may or may not be due to bad technique in use or poor maintenance. I can only comment on Winfield multipliers as I have zero experience of any other Winfield reels (they were purveyors of fixed spool and fly reels too). To me the build quality was OK. Unsophisticated perhaps, but the materials used and the way they were put together was not bad for that era.
Woolies stocked a bewildering array of multipliers. Why they thought they needed so many variations beats me and it must have been hard to turn a profit out of so many stock lines. The minor differences between the surfcaster and the shore caster for example can hardly be described as significant yet both models were on sale at the same time. The one reel which stands out for me is the tiny Bassfisher. These are actually sought after these days and if you own one which you are not using you will have no trouble selling it on the second-hand market.
I have a couple of nice, clean Bass Fishers which are in great condition for 40-year-old reels. I also have a couple of somewhat battered examples which have obviously seen a lot of action in the past and I keep them for spare parts. These reels have very narrow spools which mean you can brake them during casting by applying pressure to the inside surfaces of the spool as the lead flies out. Don’t imagine for a single minute that this means this reel is a good casting machine – it is not! These old reels were bereft of any sort of braking system beyond your thumb, so bird’s nests are not infrequent if you try to push for distance. But then again, this reel was not designed for lashing 6 ounces over the far horizon. It was meant for dropping a peeler crab or lugworm just beyond the third breaker, typically a gentle lob of 60 yards or so. Use it for that kind of work and you won’t be disappointed.
I’ve got a real soft spot for my Bass Fishers. Gloriously quirky, they are unlike any other reel I own. Yet they are strongly built for such small reels and I know that if I keep looking after them they will last for many more years. In an age where everything seems to be dumbed down so the user requires less and less actual skills my wee Bass Fishers demand a small degree of ability to use them properly. I like that. I enjoy mastering the physical learning process of handling the reel so I can cast with it without getting too many bird’s nests.
We don’t get a lot of bass around our part of the Irish coast here in Mayo. The odd one or two turn up in the summer and autumn but fishing specifically for them will entail lots of blanks! The old Bassfisher reels don’t get as much use as they should but I still like to give them a try on those occasions when I’m casting over roughish ground looking for anything that forages on the bottom.
All the reels in the original range of beachcasters had black side plates (I will call them mark 1 but there was no designation on them). These were replaced by reels clad in the much nicer green side plates (mark 2?). As far as I can make out the mechanics of the reels were basically unaltered and the side plate colour change was for cosmetic purposes only.
Shorecasters and Surfcasters were the same reel but with longer bars to give a wider spool on the Shorecaster. I use these as pier reels where nothing more strenuous than a lob of a few yards is required of them. The idea of a full-blooded pendulum cast with one of these is terrifying! They would make nice little reels for jigging for Mackerel from the boat and you can pick them up for a tenner on a certain well known online bidding site. I’d say the Shorecaster is the weakest of the Winfield stable due to the width or the reel. To my mind the Surfcaster is a better balanced reel given the design which is all screwed together. I use the Shorecaster with my venerable Milbro Monarch glassfibre rod for pier fishing.
Lord only knows where the ‘DB’ series fitted into all of this! Were they the forerunner of the surfcaster reels? I honestly don’t know but they were certainly available along with the others in the 1970’s and I have seen the odd one on the market. These reels are instantly recognisable because of the odd semi-circular thumb rest on them.
I want to emphasise to you the need to protect plastic spools on older reels. You can easily destroy old spools by not cushioning them effectively from the high compression forces of tightly wound nylon lines. By this I mean winding on the layer of compressible material first before winding on your mono or braid. I use cheap fly line backing, just running on about 3 or 4 layers of the backing then joining that to the line and continue to fill the reel as normal. Trust me, the few minutes extra and the small outlay for a few yards of backing will be worth it in the long run.
I don’t remember seeing this next reel as a child so it possibly came along later in the 1970’s or even ‘80’s. By then ABU had the shore multiplier market all to themselves with the exceptionally smooth and refined Ambassadeur series of reels. Winfield boldly took on the challenge by introducing a level-wind model. Sporting oddly shaped end plates which were strangely prescient of the ultra-modern casting reel in use nowadays, these level wind models don’t seem to have sold in big numbers as they are not common finds these days. I managed to make one out of a bag of bits which I bought for next-to-nothing online. Trust me, this was no major feat of engineering; the insides of the Winfield reels were simple and easy to understand. Thoughts to self: I must have a proper search through all the bits and pieces which were left in that bag, I might have enough to make a second Woolies level wind!
Buying broken reels or even just parts is something which has served me well over a lengthy angling career. These days it is much easier to source parts than it was in the past. There are specialist companies who deal in spares or upgrades for the most popular brands and even a cursory search online will yield a range of these businesses across the globe. It does begin to get expensive when ordering bits online due to the high cost of postage. Over the years I have picked up everything from complete reels, stripped down and packed in old boxes right down to gear trains, end plates and handles sold separately. I guess it all depends on what you get enjoyment from – I’d rather repair a good reel and keep it running than rushing out to buy a replacement. The downside is the mass of bits and pieces which are in boxes in the fishing den. I have boxes upon boxes of parts for freshwater, shore and boat fishing reels!
Speaking of the boat, Woolies stocked a range of bigger multipliers for use afloat too. These were pretty robust affairs which, at first glance, looked identical to the Penn’s of that era. The shore reels all sported plastic spools but these were replaced with proper metal spools on the boat reels. Whether the internals were perfect replicas of the near-bulletproof Penn gear train is not certain. Again, there were Winfield boat reels in an impressive range of sizes. The International sized reels in 20, 30, 40 and 50 formats can still be picked up for a song on the secondhand market. The metalwork on the Winfield boat sea fishing reels all seemed to be heavily chromed and they do appear to be lasting very well if they have received a minimum level of TLC over the years. Even the best reels on the market will be reduced to a ball of rust if neglected and the simple job of a good rinse with warm water to wash of the salt takes only a few minutes after a trip but it will add years to the life of your reel. I’ve seen excellent reels like the big ABU 20’s and 30’s destroyed by salt just because the owners were too lazy to wash them in fresh water after use and keep them properly lubricated.
I have a venerable ‘International 50’ (this was the first one I bought all those years ago) which suggests to me it was built to cope with 50 pound test lines and the rigours of heavy leads / tides / fish that go along with that class of reel. I don’t go in for the skate and shark fishing this reel was made for, I just happened to pick it up as part of a job lot of tackle and I use it sometimes for general bottom work. Having seen at first-hand how some modern reels fail utterly when out on the boat I think my old Woolies job is at least as robust as some cheap new kids on the block. I will admit to having doubts about my International 50 being up to hauling a barn-door of a skate up off the bottom of Clew Bay!
this is the 50 I am using for spares, note the missing reel seat screws
I was lucky to pick up another ‘International 50’ for use as spare parts recently for a few cents. The gears, side plates, drag and handle were all in good condition with just some of the smaller parts missing or broken. With luck I should be able to keep the good reel ticking over for many years to come.
Then there is the International 40 which I bought only this year. Senility must be creeping in because I have parted with cash for a reel that I do not intend to fish with. This reel has never seen the water and comes with the original box, instruction leaflet, oil and spanner. It is just too damn pretty to use! It’s like those reels I drooled over as a schoolboy a lifetime ago.
I have a Winfield boat reel badged the ‘Nautilus 30’ but I’m not sure if they came before of after the ‘International’ reels. Somewhere out there I suspect there lurks an avid collector who could tell me more about these reels but for now I will have to remain merrily ignorant. The Nautilus I own sports a metal spool and looks the same as an International of the same size. This reel is in poor condition and needs a total re-build. Once it is repaired it should hold enough line for the type of bottom fishing I do out in the bay. Another wee project for this winter!
Those of you long-suffering masochists who read my blog on a regular basis will already know that I have a certain penchant for using vintage (read – old) fishing gear. The link with the past, the better quality materials which were used, the ‘feeling’ you get using old rods and reels are part of me and how I approach this life. New-fangled contraptions are generally beyond me and so I stick to the gear I know well and have enjoyed using all my life. It’s not just fishing tackle this extends too – I could go into a showroom tomorrow and buy a new car if I so desired, but my trusty 17-year-old VW does me just fine, thank you very much! Like its owner there are too many miles on the clock, the bodywork is a bit tatty and it can’t reach top speed anymore. But it chugs along and so do I, each of us comfortable with the others foibles.
Earlier on in this post I mentioned stripped gears. To void this always ‘pump’ heavy loads instead of winding against them. This applies to weeds/rocks as well as fish. Reels are not built to withstand high pressures and the best of them will fail if you keep winding against a load. Lift the rod up high then lower it quickly, winding in the resulting slack line. Stop winding and lift the rod again. Keep repeating this until you have retrieved the line. If you are stuck on the bottom and can’t free the hook by pumping them give yourself some slack and wrap a cloth around your hand then pull until the hook frees or the leader breaks.
Talking of old shops in Aberdeen, who remembers this one?
2 thoughts on “The wonder of Woolies”
Your article made me smile. I lived in Musselburgh as a youth and though I was a fledgling fly angler there were no tackle shops. So the only place I could get flies was Woolies. As I mentioned in my own blog some months back ( The Unfamous Fly) I stumbled across these old , mostly winged wets, in an old fly box, they must be getting up to 40 years old some of these.So I decided to always tie one on when struggling on the loch browns. A few are feeling their age and the hooks broke, but I have had the odd fish on them when all else was blanking.
Good old Woolies! Back in the day tackle was hard to come by at a reasonable cost so I suspect many budding anglers like you and me availed of their gear. Those old reels i have are pretty good!
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