I think it’s fair to say that the average angler gravitates toward the latest and greatest developments in tackle. Don’t get me wrong, I do too. I’m always eager to try a new lure on my home waters, explore the hype behind a new reel, or lean into modern electronics to catch more and bigger fish. At the same time, I have a soft spot for old fishing lures and vintage tackle. I appreciate gear that’s built to last, and today, if you want dependable kit that’ll roll with you for many years, you’re often paying a premium price. That wasn’t always the case.
In decades past, quality, well-made tackle was also affordable. The average working man could buy a rod and reel that could be leaned on season after season without breaking the bank. It’s impossible to make the case that all retro tackle is better than what we have now, but there are benefits to some of the classics. Compiled here is a list of gear that is as worthy of being on the water today as it was when it first hit shop shelves. Best of all, these items are common at flea markets, swap meets, and antique shops, and they won’t set you back very much money. If you’re looking to add a little vintage flare to your arsenal—and catch a few more fish—keep an eye out for these seven items.
The Pflueger Medalist is one of the most iconic fly reels ever made. It first appeared in the company’s catalog in 1931 and remained in production through the 1970s. In the early 2000s, Pflueger re-released an updated version of the Medalist, and though it created a buzz for a time, it never regained the popularity of the older models.
For many fly anglers in the 1950s through the early 1980s, the Medalist was their first fly reel. They were also many people’s last fly reel because they were affordable and dependable. Earlier models made in the U.S. are the most coveted, and a few very rare models are even worth some money as collectibles. But even the later models made overseas are tough as nails, and they’re perfect if you’re a small-stream trout angler.
Medalists have bested monster fish all over the world, and although it’s hard to pit them against modern disc drag reels for large predators and saltwater pursuits, these classic click-and-pawl reels will beat any trout you hook. So many of them were made over the decades that they’re extremely easy to find. And unless you happen to find a very rare model, you can usually grab one for $10 to $20.
Penn Spinfisher 704 “Greenie”
The Penn 704 Spinfisher first hit the scene in the late 1960s, but it was the models made in the early 1970s that became truly iconic. Lovingly dubbed “greenies,” these reels sported a blue-green paint job, a bright white drag knob, and a shiny brass medallion on the side plate featuring an engraved tarpon. Despite that Southern fish on the seal, however, the 704 earned its reputation in the heart of striped bass country.
During this era, advances in lure technology helped increase the popularity of surfcasting. Plastic plugs were becoming more prevalent, proving their effectiveness, and ringing up a lot cheaper at the register than many of the custom wooden plugs that dominated the striper surf scene. Greenies were affordable as well, and as more anglers leaned on them, more benefits came to light.
Compared to modern spinning reels, the 704 was slow, which means it takes in much less line per handle turn than new-school offerings. However, this turned out to be an advantage for pluggers. Slow and steady often wins when retrieving plugs like the Rebel Windcheater and Bomber Long A, so the naturally slow retrieve rate of the 704 actually made many of these plugs more effective. Furthermore, the 704 had minimal internal parts, so if you got sand it in, it could be easily opened, cleaned, and put back in service.
Greenies are still highly coveted by surfcasters today, and while many want them for the shelf, you will still see them doing battle on the beach. They’re common to find used for $30 to $50 in a condition that requires a little TLC; one that’s been completely restored could set you back more than $100.
As the story goes, in 1944 Dr. Arthur M. Howald was fly fishing in Northern Michigan when the tip of his favorite bamboo rod broke. With replacement tips hard to obtain during the second world war, Howald, who happened to be the technical director at a major fiberglass manufacturing company, decided to try crafting a fly rod out of this new-age material. With his tinkering ultimately came an entirely new category of rods.
Fiberglass fly rods were the norm through the late 1970s, but they’ve seen a huge resurgence in popularity in the last decade. Most of them are produced by smaller boutique companies these days, and glass zealots will pay a pretty penny for them. The reality, however, is that Arthur Howald’s Wonderod will go toe-to-toe with many modern offerings, and you can score one for a fraction of the price.
Three years after Howald began prototyping fiberglass fly rods, Shakespeare released its Wonderod in 1947. Much cheaper than bamboo, these sticks helped new waves of fly anglers get into the sport for years to come. Wonderods came in a wide variety of lengths, weights, and eye-catching colors—like seafoam green, yellow, and orange—that we’d now call “retro.”
Some very early models of the Wonderod featuring Howald’s name on the seal can fetch a steep price, but so many of these buttery-smooth casters were produced that it’s common to bump into them for as little as $5. Granted, you might need to clean them up and re-wrap a few guides, but it’s worth it to fish with one of these classics.
Mann’s Little George Spoon is a true classic. With a heavy lead tear drop head, belly treble hook, and a spinner blade for a tail, this old fishing lure has been catching crappies, redfish, and lake trout for decades. There’s no doubt the Little George has caught plenty of bass, too, but talk to any serious largemouth or smallmouth guy, and many will tell you what they really long for is the Little George’s cousin, the Super George.
This much larger, heavier, molded version of the Little George not only featured the thump of that blade tail, but it also had an internal knocker. Effective when reeled straight, hopped, or jigged vertically, the Super George allowed bass anglers to cover loads of water in a single cast and target bass at any depth. The size of the bait also made it a closer match for shad, making it perfect when bass were actively chasing schools.
The Super George has been discontinued for years now, but given their overall lack of popularity beyond bass anglers in-the-know, they pop up at flea markets fairly often. Of course, they also pop up on eBay, but they usually don’t last there very long. Next time you see a bunch of dusty old tackle boxes at the antique shop, take the time to flip through them. If you spot a Super George, you can likely take it home for just a couple bucks.
When famed lure maker Fred Arbogast released his Jitterbug in 1939, it was like nothing bass anglers had ever seen before. With a squat cigar-shaped body and wide metal cup on its face, this lure waddled across the surface making a unique gurgling sound. That noise coupled with the bubble trail it would leave in its wake made it deadly, and while the Jitterbug is no less potent today, it’s not quite as tough as it used to be.
Like most lures these days, modern Jitterbugs are hollow and made of molded plastic. They’ve been produced this way for many years, but before plastic became the norm, Jitterbugs were made of balsa wood. And, as with many old fishing lures, there is a contingent of anglers that feels the old balsa models have an advantage.
Regardless of performance, it’s hard to argue that a solid balsa body is more durable than hollow plastic. This is, of course, one of the reasons it’s very common to find old balsa wood for sale—they can take a beating, so they last. But there’s more to it than toughness.
Balsa floats a little higher on the surface than plastics. It also rolls and wobbles differently during the retrieve thanks to the increased buoyancy. Some anglers believe that in the case of the Jitterbug, the balsa models create a difference frequency that’s more enticing than new models. Is that really the case? Tough to say, but the good news is that older wooden Jitterbugs are not that difficult to spot at garage sales and antique shops. The trick is simply finding a seller that doesn’t put any collector value on them and is willing to unload them for a few dollars.
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Garcia Mitchell 300
The first Mitchell 300 spinning reels hit tackle shop shelves in the late 1940s. Within the next 20 years, thousands would be sold, ultimately leading to the 300 becoming one of the best-selling spinning reels of all time. If you’re 40-years-old or older, there a strong possibility you’ve used one, even if it was borrowed from your dad or grandfather. The Mitchell 300 is still produced today, but the modern, updated model will never have the same lore and charm as the vintage varieties. Luckily, they couldn’t be easier to find.
No matter where you live in the country, there is a thrift store, antique shop, or swap meet close by where odds are good you’ll find a Mitchell 300. These reels were produced in every size imaginable, from tiny stream trout models to heavier varieties capable of taking on inshore saltwater species. The sound of a 300 clicking when you turn the handle is nostalgic to many anglers, but there are more benefits to these reels than just being cool and vintage.
The 300 stood the test of time because it was a workhorse. A simple, rugged design made them dependable and durable, and even if something did go wrong, they were a snap to fix. While it’s hard to make the argument that they are better performers than modern reels, the fact that they can take a licking makes them great for kids, and they’re perfect for low-drag pursuits like catfishing. Best of all, you’ll find them for $10 to $20 regularly, and if you see 2 or 3 of the same model, buy them all for parts. If a gear goes bad or a screw gets loose, you don’t need to have an engineering degree to swap pieces and keep on catching.
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Bucktails & Diamond Jigs
Walk into any tackle shop and you’ll notice that saltwater classics like the diamond jig and bucktail aren’t cheap anymore. You can expect to pay anywhere from $5 to $10 a piece depending on the brand name. Needless to say, it really hurts when you snag one up in a rock pile and break it off. This is why I purchase so many of my bucktails and diamond jigs from flea markets. Not only will you save money, but both of these lures styles have remained unchained since their inceptions. In other words, a diamond jig made in 1966 is no less effective than one made in 2023.
Part of the reason these lures have gotten so expensive is that the price of lead and materials has gone up over the years, and tackle shops have had to inflate prices to cover the cost. But most of the time I find that flea market and garage sale sellers don’t mind letting old beat-up, lead-based lures go for pretty cheap. There is, of course, a caveat to buying these classics used.
Most of the time, you’re going to need to spruce up these old fishing lures. You’ll probably have to cut the ratty bucktail off and re-wrap the jigs with fresh hair. Diamond jigs often require a solid polishing, but that’s nothing a little chrome cleaner and steel wool can’t handle. You’re not buying ready-to-use lures very often, but if the bucktail heads feature quality hooks and the diamond jigs are not pitted through with rust, some replacement hooks, some fresh thread and deer hair, and little elbow grease will save you money in the long run. Besides, revamping bucktails and diamond jigs is a great winter project to help maintain your sanity until the season gets rolling.