Otto Zwarg

Otto Zwarg Fishing Reel Maker

I have been promising various people for some time now that I would write an article on Otto Zwarg Fishing Reel maker. I recently met a subscriber who reminded me that he was desperate to learn as much as possible about the reels. 

On further questioning, I discovered that a collector had offered him a small collection of these reels. I asked more questions and probed, and suddenly, I could also acquire one of the reels. So here we go! 

Otto Max Zwarg was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1899. After completing his primary education, he trained as a dentist, and sometime in late 1922 – early 1923, he emigrated to the United States. However, he would have to take supplementary qualifications to practise his profession in America. 

Otto Zwarg reel maker
Illustration from the Otto Zwarg 1947 Catalogue.

Illustration from the 1947 Otto Zwarg Catalogue.

His wife and newly born daughter were still in Germany, presenting the young Otto with a problem. Should he try and gain the additional qualifications to work as a dentist, thus delaying his family’s arrival or take temporary work and bring his family over immediately? He would then be able to gain his qualifications at leisure.

He chose the latter and gained employment with a company started by another German-born immigrant Edward Von Hofe. 

His wife and daughter arrived in America in December 1923, and such was his love of the temporary work he had undertaken that he never practised dentistry. 

He eventually became head of reel production at the Vom Hofe company, a position he held until the company went out of business in 1940. 

Reels offered in the 1947 Otto Zwarg catalogue.

Reels Illustrated in the 1947 Otto Zwarg Catalogue.

Otto purchased the tools and dies of the Vom Hofe company, other equipment, and various spares. From 1940 until 1946, there are some gaps in the biography, partially because Zwarg worked in the defence industry. 

The Norden bombsight was a top-secret project during WWII, and whilst he laboured on this during the day, Zwarg would spend the evenings working on fishing tackle.

In particular, he would repair and renovate the Vom Hofe reels and manufacture split cane fishing rods. 

He made reels for two New York retail outlets, Abercrombie & Fitch and William Mills & Son. One unanswered question is, “What year did he start supplying them with reels?” and “What reels were they?” 

In 1946 he made reels under his name from premises in Brooklyn, New York. He had three new directors who encouraged and assisted him in setting up the company and persuaded him to relocate to Florida. 

The idea was to build a fishing lodge set up in the Maximo Point area of St. Petersburg, catering for wealthy sport fishing enthusiasts. They would come to buy the high-quality reels made by Zwarg and also to take part in fishing in an area with a renowned sporting reputation. The Zwarg reels were intentionally not mass-produced, as the directors were not mass-produced, as the directors decided that custom-built reels were more valuable and suited to the exclusive nature of the new venture.

Dorsey Whittington was President of the Otto Zwarg Co., Inc., and a world-famous concert pianist. He started fishing as a young boy on Catalina Island in the company of such famous fishermen as Zane Grey and Charles Holder. 

He followed the tradition of the Tuna Club and advocated using light tackle, not only around Catalina Island but in Europe as well. 

Eugene G. Fitzgerald was the Vice President of the company and the Southern Sales Manager of the L. G. Balfour Company. He was known as a sportsman with not just the rod but also the gun and, like Dorsey, an advocate of fishing with light tackle. 

William G. Pforr, also Vice President, was a distributor for the Zwarg Company in the New York area and the eastern U.S.A. He also worked as a Sales Manager for the L. G. Balfour in the New York area and was another angler of repute. Otto’s wife Martha was the company secretary but not a stockholder. 

Another investor would join the company once Zwarg had completed the move. This stockholder was Oscar Steinert, a wealthy builder and fisherman who rented Zwarg premises at 635 First Avenue South—originally intended to be temporary before moving into a purpose-built lodge was built (but it never materialised!).

The company was established in Florida in 1947, and the first catalogue was issued in June.

Zwarg 12/0 Maximo Big Game reel

Model 600 Maximo size 12/0 Big Game Reel Ed Pritchard.

Whilst working for the Edward Vom Hofe Company, Zwarg would have been making more than twenty different models of reels – but for his own company, he chose three.

These three reels were the model 300 Saguenay, model 400 Laurentian and model 500 Maximo, based on the Vom Hofe Restigouche, Tobique and Universal Star models. They were available in sizes 1/0, 2/0, 3/0, 4/0, and 6/0, just like the Vom Hofe reels. These sizes corresponded to 3 1/8 , 3 3/8 , 3 5/8,, 3 7/8, and 4 ¼ inches. He did make two sizes that were not catalogued, the 9/0 and 12/0 Maximo reels. This is a little strange as a picture of him working on a 12/0 Maximo is in the catalogue. 

The Saguenay and the Laurentian, are named after Canada’s two well-known salmon rivers. The Maximo after Maximo Point on the southwestern most point of St. Petersburg, where the lodge was going to be sited. Maximo Point, named after Antonio Maximo, established a “fish ranches” there in 1843. 

The Laurentian was a 2:1 multiplying reel, precisely like the Vom Hofe Tobique. The reels are manufactured from ebonite or hard rubber, nickel silver rims, S-shaped counterbalanced handles and Tobin bronze bearings. The oversized gears were also made of bronze, with the centre of the axle containing a crucible steel drill rod forming the pivot. Although the reels were machine-made, they were assembled by hand, and the countersunk screws were hand-cut. Like the Vom Hofe reels, the oil cap was a sliding disc. 

Zwarg 400 Laurentian Fly Reel size 1/0 reel with makers decal.
Zwarg 400 Laurentian Fly Reel size 1/0

Model 400 size 1/0 Laurentian Fly Reel

Otto Zwarg also offered special presentation reels consisting of 10K solid gold or silver nameplate inset into the reel. This service costs $50 for the gold and $45 for the Sterling silver, including engraving. 

In addition to making his range of reels, he offered a reel repair service specialising in Edward Vom Hofe reels. In the 1947 catalogue is a letter from Edward Vom Hofe’s son Edwin endorsing the activities of Otto Zwarg. 

The company also offered to refurbish split cane rods by removing the old varnish, replacing the guides and re-whipping the rod with new silk thread. 

Like many people previously, he numbered his reels and reputedly kept a record of every reel made. However, this log has yet to turn up. This numbering system has helped in dating the tackle that he made. 

The prefix A indicates that the reel was made in 1946. The oil cap was marked “Otto Zwarg, Maker, Brooklyn, N.Y.” 

The prefix B, the year of the move to Florida, can be on either the Brooklyn or St. Petersburg address. The name stamped on the oil cap had changed to “O Zwarg Co. Inc., Maker, St. Petersburg, Fla.” 

Some reels have even turned up with the letter “Z” on the oil cap and have been sold as prototypes. I do not believe these reels were prototypes, merely early-made reels produced when the company’s trading style had not been established. 

In the spring of 1958, Otto Zwarg suffered a fatal heart attack whilst walking in St. Petersburg. With his death, reel-making ceased, although some reels have appeared with the letter “N” for 1959 and “O” for 1960. 

I believe that these reels were not made after his death. They were made whilst he was alive and sold later. 

In 1955 the company was advertising as a maker of “precision parts, dies and tools for the electronic field. Models, tools and dies for precision instruments” with no mention of fishing tackle. It is conceivable that reel production had ceased before this year as it was not profitable and that reels with the “J” prefix and subsequent reels were just taken from stock and merely stamped when sold. 

Zwarg 400 Laurentian Fly Reel size 1/0 reel
Zwarg 400 Laurentian Fly Reel size 1/0 reel

Otto Zward Model 400 Laurentian Fly Reel size 1/0

Some may question Zwarg’s position as a great reel maker because he only produced three reels during his lifetime and merely copied proven models invented by his former employer Vom Hofe. 

If we look at the time he made reels in his own right, it was from 1946 – 1955, eleven years. We can only speculate what would have happened had he been in business since the 1930s. 

What is certain is that with only 11 or 14 years of production, the reels are scarce and much sought after. I know a few collectors who have been buying his reels for over twenty years. There are only three models in five sizes, fifteen reels plus the two uncatalogued Maximo reels in total seventeen; not such a daunting task to complete a collection? I know nobody who has a complete set. 

The Laurentian size 1/0 is an exceptionally rare reel I bought at Neil Freeman’s auction in London in April 1998 for £2,400 – I had never seen this reel before or since. It is the same with the other two models in the smaller sizes – they are in great demand. 

I know some people still use his reels for fishing today, preferring his reels’ “chunkier” construction over the Edward Vom Hofe ones. 

Zwarg used aluminium on his reels to lighten them without losing quality. In contrast, the Vom Hofe reels with aluminium look cheap and are generally associated with the substandard reels produced at the Philadelphia address. 

One regret is that he never produced a range of trout or a large big game reel. Still, never mind, we cannot have everything, and at least we have examples of his work. 

First published December 1999 issue 27