Old Florida No. 4 through 7, 44 though 88: History and Tutorial

Started by jurelometer, April 14, 2020, 07:16:58 AM

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Steve was opining recently that digging into fly reel design was a bit like going over the finer details of a hammer.   To prove him wrong (or right?)   here is my magnum opus on the Old Florida cork drag fly reels models No. 4 through 7 and 44 through 88 in three parts:   Overview, Tutorial, and Observations


Old Florida produced a line of classic style cork drag machined aluminum reels that had a loyal following that continues to this day.   Founded by Paul Conover in 1993, Old Florida reels were produced to somewhere around 2003, when the Old Florida models were discontinued after the company was bought out, and eventually renamed Nautilus.   Nautilus reels is still in business, but the Nautilus reels bear no resemblance to the Old Florida designs.  

The OF reels were priced at about half to two-thirds of the premium cork drag reels on the market at that time.  Enthusiasts claimed that these reels were the same/as good as an Abel or Tibor, which is a bit of an overstatement,  but they are quite decent reels nonetheless.

The OF line starts with a No. 1 (2.75 in diameter) through a No. 8 (4.5 in. diameter).  
The No. 4 through 7 models could be purchased in with a standard arbor spool or with a large arbor (LA), or a larger "super" arbor  (SA).   The No. 8  was only available in LA and SA models.  The nomenclature works like this -  using a  No. 4 as an example:

No. 4 - standard arbor
No. 44 LA - large arbor
No.  44  SA - super arbor

The standard, LA and SA spools fit on the same frame as long as the first digit is the same number. The only difference is the amount of backing that the spool holds.   No difference in weight.

The most sought after reel/spool combo were  the 44 LA/SA through  66 LA/SA.   Old Florida hit the nail on the head in terms of getting the dimensions, weight and amount of porting just right.   There are lots of older, well designed fly reels that are collecting dust nowadays because they are simply too heavy for modern lightweight fly rods, along with an arbor so small that the retrieve rate was too slow for most anglers' taste.

Models 55 LA, 66 LA and 77  LA

I like the 55 LA  for 8 weight rods,  66 LA for 9 weights and  77 LA for 10 weights.  These are the models that I own now, and the internal parts are all interchangeable,

Old Florida also produced two click and pawl reels for freshwater (FW 234, FW 456).   I don't know anything about these reels.  This post will be referencing only the cork drag models.

I have only run across about a dozen or so of these reels, but it seems to me that the earliest years (gold anodized nameplate) had the best machining and anodized finish.   The bearing press fit was right on the money.  The later years (black nameplate) had more variable quality.  One reel purchased around the time of the Nautilus buyout looks like it was sandblasted instead of being polished, and the bearings fall right out of the pockets.   Still fishes fine, and I have caught a ton of fish on it.

Early reel (black) and later reel (silver)  - notice the difference in quality of finish:

Here's the most recent model list and price sheet that I could find.  It is probably toward the end of production:


Let's start with the schematic.:

Note that there is a Rubber o-ring about ¾ in in diameter that goes on top of the bearing on the inside face of the spool.  It is not in the schematic, and I have only seen the gap for the o-ring on reels produced closer to the end of manufacturing.  It doesn't seem to do much other than slow down the ingress and egress of saltwater.

Here is the schematic for the dog mechanism and the left/right hand conversion instructions

It shows a dog with one nub that has to be flipped over to switch retrieve, but all the OF reels that I have seen have a two-headed dog.   To switch between left and right retrieve with two-headed dog- ignore the instructions and simply swing the dog to the other side, and you are good to go (you did remember to remove the old backing line first, right?)

The two-headed dog (any Roky Erickson fans out there?):

Now lets take the reel apart.   Just make sure you have a  3/32 hex head driver for the spring screws (key 26), a fat flat blade driver and a smaller phillips head. Plus something to pull the bearings with.  I use a nail with the sides ground down a custom made bearing puller,   A bearing packer is nice to have but not necessary.  Plus some corrosion cleaner, bearing oil (maybe), grease and drag lube.

Not too many special instructions -  take a few photos as you disassemble, lay out the parts in order in  a tray.  Give the corroded spots a blast of corrosion cleaner (I use corrosion-x), and let it soak awhile,  so that the corrosion dissolves, before attempting disassembly.  

A little more complex than a hammer, but not much. The spool is pulled against the drag plate with pawl teeth on the underside, underneath the drag plate is the dog assembly- note how thin the frame is where the foot is attached, and that the foot screws do not go all the way to the top of the hole.  More on that later:

Every single part removed- not much to these cork drag reels:

The three bearings (one in drag plate- two in spool) are all the same size with a flange.  Because of the flange, one of spool bearings must be pulled out.  You can then press or tap out the other from the inside with a socket or round bar that just clears the spool hole.

The bearing size OD/ID (shaft size)/width/flange:    .5./.3125/.156/.546 in

Now you have a decision to make.  The bearings have tiny permanent shields.   You can just oil them, as is usually recommended, but this increases the chance of corrosion, and you end up with a reel that spins super freely, which  can be a pain in the a** when you back off the drag too far when stripping line.  If you have a bearing packer, you can just load up the bearing as best as possible with grease.   I use my 3D printed fake copy of the Tani bearing packer (buy the real one if you do many reels).  I don't know if taking off the shields to hand grease the bearing is a good idea.

Next decision- drag lube.   Cork drags don't work without lube.   Old Florida originally used Neatsfoot oil.   Abel (maker of ridiculously expensive high quality cork drag reels) still uses Neatsfoot oil.   Neatsfoot is made from cattle bones, and was  used as an industrialist lubricant long ago.   It does not leave much of a residue on the cork, so it doesn't gum up, but it also doesn't last as long as other choices, so you need to keep some handy if you are on a longer trip.  Make sure that you use real 100% natural neatsfoot oil, and not the synthetic neatsfoot oil used to polish leather.   Old Florida later switched to their own label drag grease with a graphite additive – named Slippery No. 5 – similar (or the same?) as to what Tibor uses on their cork drags.   Finally, you can use a standard drag lube with Teflon/PTFE.  Jack Erskine- a  tackle shop owner/reel repair guru in Australia, popularized using Cal's Universal, which seems to be the standard for cork reels in Australia now.   I switched to Cal's for all my cork drag reels from various vendors.  It does seem to work well, but after awhile it gets a bit gummy and starts making pig squealy noises if I hook a fast fish.   Still pretty smooth, and the sound goes away if I clean and reapply.

Cal's is petroleum based, so it might not resist water as well as some synthetics.  Fly reels always get water inside them.   I am thinking about switching to a synthetic grease with Teflon/PTFE, if I can find one with a base that is reasonably compatible with other greases.    There is no way to remove all the old grease from cork.

Now an upgrade opportunity- the stock coil drag spring (key 8 ) is woefully weak.  A common complaint on these reels is the inability to get a decent max drag.   The drag spring is the culprit here, especially if the reel was stored with the drag tightened (do not EVER store a cork reel with the drag tightened, the cork will permanently compress over time and lose some of its vibration absorption capability).

I replace the coil springs with a stack of bellevilles with the same height as the uncompressed spring.    Now it just takes a revolution or two on the drag knob to go from line stripping to fish fighting tension, instead of the 6-8 turns on the stock setup.   I use  six bellevilles  and arrange them opposed "()()()",  but the exact layout depends on the strength of the bellevilles and your personal preference. I don't have the McMaster part number but the bellevilles I used measure:

OD: .5 in
ID:   .263 in
Thickness:  .02 in
Cup height: .04 in

At one point, I thought that Old Florida shipped some of these reels with bellevilles instead of a coil drag spring, but I may be misremembering- if anybody has seen stock reels with bellevilles - please reply to this thread.

Finally,  there is not much purchase for the 5-40 screws that hold the reel foot to the frame (another complaint that you will see from time to time is the reel falling off the foot).  At 40 threads per inch, and a frame thickness of .112 in,  that means only room for 4.5 turns if the thread.  Subtract a bit to allow for the curve in the frame, and the taper on the screw ends, and we are getting close to only three turns of thread, which is the rule of thumb minimum for screws.  On some reels, the screws can be a bit on the short side- so maybe right at three turns or less.   A decent yellowtail pulled my 66 LA off of the foot  (heavy drag, to be fair).  I managed to fix the reel by grinding some screws to the exact maximum length to fit flush on the frame, with no taper on the end.

Make sure the reel foot screws are tight, and if there is a big gap in the hole, consider grinding some replacement screws to fit flush.   I am not a big fan of locktite on saltwater reels, but this is one place to consider it.

So that is it-  get some quality marine grease in all the screw holes, between any mating surfaces, and reassemble.  You don't need a lot of spring tension for the dog to engage, but you can bend the spring (key 28) a bit to get more or less tension, if needed.


While not quite as light or as large as some of the more modern super-light super-large arbor squirrel cage reels, the LA and SA spooled reels have dimensions and weight suitable for modern lightweight fly rods, and they won't get destroyed by being bounced around in a panga or dropped on a rock. The sweet spot is probably in the eight to ten weight range (55 through 77).   In my view the smaller sizes are a bit too beefy for lighter setups, and the largest reels are not quite sturdy enough for serious bluewater.    

In their time, these reels were often touted as "every bit as good as an Abel/Tibor".   The reality is that the Abel (IMHO, the best of the three) is much beefier where it counts, while weighing about the same (or less if you are willing to use the more heavily ported model)
Here is a more detailed comparison:

Same number of bearings (3)- but Abel bearings are larger with rubber  seals that can be temporarily removed for maintenance.

Drag spring-

Abel has a very beefy coil.  The OF coil is pretty weak, and often needs to be exchanged for bellevilles.  

Main and handle shaft-  

Heavy duty stainless steel handle shaft on the Abels.  Aluminum on the OF.   Shaft sleeve is stainless on both reels, but the Abel is much beefier.

Reel foot attachment-  

Very beefy on the Abel- larger screws, thicker aluminum frame.   As noted above, a bit on the thin side for OF.  Probably the biggest weakness of the OF.  

Drag Surface-

Abel sizes the drag plate to achieve the maximum area for each model.  The OF reuses the same part, so the surface area is a bit on the small side on the larger reels.

Handle knob –

This is one point where Abel falls down.  Many Abels come with (resin impregnated?) wood knobs with no bushing surface. Lots of slop from an oversized hole, or a tight fit that gets sticky if knob gets soaked- your choice.  The OF uses a plastic knob that looks like Delrin.   Both have a pretty sucky shape from an ergonomic perspective.

Fit and finish -
Abel by a million miles.  Especially compared to the last production runs of the OF.  But this difference does not affect the performance of the OF in a significant way.  


The large arbor OF is still a very decent reel for 7-10 weights (44LA to 77LA), if you can find a deal.  A good reel for showing off your old skool kool.   But there are a  couple better reels that can be had new for less than the price of used-not-abused OF on the auction site.  I like the OF's, but not enough to pay a premium.  

Stay on top of maintenance and it will last forever (if the foot doesn't fall off :)  ).  The chance of getting parts for these reels is pretty close to nil.



Thanks J, plenty of history there, good work, cheers Don.
Don, or donnyboat


Thanks Dave - I enjoyed that read, never heard of that make of reel.

One fully synthetic grease I found a while back would probably suite your purpose -


Their export orders aren't particularly attractrive (understatement!) but if you wanted to try it I'm sure I could get a 'sample' to you ;)

I've been using this grease for 3 years, iirc. No problems at all, including drags smooth as silk (fly reels as well). I don't service many reels so a cartridge of grease lasts a long time. Also my reels are not continually used and I've found some greases 'stiffen', if not worked regularly - I presume the oil leaks out leaving the filler behind :-\
One thing I've noticed, about this grease, is that it doesn't seem to 'split' or separate like petroleum greases - at least the ones I've tried.  When I buy grease it is going to sit around for a long time.


Nice write up, j.  I'd long heard of Old Florida reels, but have never actually crossed paths with one.


Hello forum!

Years ago I purchased on impulse a new Old Florida 44LA with an unported spool (with an extra spool), but never really had a use for it until recently.  I was searching online for lubricants for the cork drag and found this very useful and informative forum with an actual thread on OF reels.  So I got some Cal's purple grease for the drag and Speed-X oil for the bearings, and longer screws for attaching the reel foot (good call OP).  Now I just have to finish the matching 7wt bamboo rod and work out with weights so I can fish the pair and I'm set.  

This is my first post to this forum and may be my last as I mostly fish small fish in small water (by you guy's standards).  Thanks for sharing the info on OF reels.  Once again, the interweb proves actually useful.
Frank S