PENOBSCOT, Maine — Ice fishermen, does this sound familiar?
You get out on the ice and when you get ready to unload your traps, your hooks have come loose in the bottom of your pack and are tangled together. And so you spend valuable fishing time untangling the mess.
It’s a common problem, one that seamstress Penny Hatch, an avid ice fisherman herself, has experienced, and the seamstress from Penobscot has come up with a simple but ingenious device to solve that problem.
“I’d seen the different things people would come up with,” Hatch said. “I kept saying, ‘There’s got to be a better way.”’
So she set out to find the better way and the result is the Reel Hook Holder: a nylon strip, Velcro and a brass grommet that, put together the right way, keep the hooks where they belong.
Each nylon strip has a grommet on one end. The end of the hook, still attached to the line on the reel, is set inside the hole and the strip is wrapped around the reel and fastened into place with the Velcro.
While the design seems simple, Hatch said it took several tries to get it just right. For example, finding the right amount of Velcro to use was tricky.
“Not everybody puts the same amount of line on a trap,” she said. “If there was a small amount of line on the reel, the strip was too big. If there was too much line, it was too small.”
Eventually, she developed the right ratio for the two Velcro pieces so that the hook holder self-adjusts, she said.
The initial models had eyelets, but they rusted, prompting the change to brass grommets. And Hatch used different colors of nylon strips for the trial models, but settled on bright hunter orange, which can be spotted easily even if the holder blows away in the snow.
“It’s been a learning thing,” Hatch said.
Ice fishermen have taken to the Reel Hook Holder. Some like it right away, but Hatch said others need to use it to be convinced.
“I have a friend who was a skeptic. I gave her one and said, ‘Just try it,”’ Hatch said. “Now she’s convinced. She thinks it’s the cat’s meow.”
Hatch produces the hook holders for the Heritage-type traps, but said the design can be adapted. She already has made some for older-style traps she owns and has filled special orders for other fishermen.
The enterprise is strictly a home-based business and the production facility is the Hatch living room and the adjacent sewing room. A folding table and several homemade jigs — created by Hatch’s husband, Harold, and which have helped speed up the process of cutting and drilling — are the tools of the trade, along with a sewing machine.
The Reel Hook Holder is a seasonal offshoot of Hatch’s full-time business, Penny’s Embroidery, which Hatch started three years ago after she left her job in the accounting department at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital. She started sewing in a high school sewing class as a senior at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, a class she took so she could play basketball.
Although she had enough credits to graduate that spring, Hatch said she needed to carry five classes in order to be eligible to play basketball during the second half of the season. The choices were anthropology or sewing.
“I had one day of anthropology … and that was it,” she said. “I knew that wasn’t for me.”
But she was a little leery of sewing class as well.
“I wasn’t really a girlie girl, and I thought, ‘Sewing? I don’t know about that,’” she said. “But I’ve been sewing ever since.”
For years, sewing was a semihobby. She sewed mainly for family and friends — Halloween costumes, prom gowns for neighborhood girls and a wedding gown and bridesmaid dresses for her daughter’s wedding. That type of sewing, however, has taken a back seat to the embroidery business.
Penny’s Embroidery creates embroidered items with logos for businesses, organizations and individuals. Her creations range from one-of-a-kind personalized fleece vests to ball caps, T-shirts, sweatshirts and jackets for local businesses and school sports teams. She creates designs on a computer — and also can develop designs from photographs — and then plugs those designs into a six-spool sewing machine.
“It’s got six needles, so I can use six different colors on the machine,” she said. “As long as there’s not more than six colors in the design, the machine sews the design by itself.”
The new business was a bit of “trial and error,” but Hatch said — with a little bit of pride — she has learned it all on her own.
“I haven’t had any classes — except that sewing class back in high school,” she said.
Hatch said she had hoped to work on the Reel Hook Holders throughout the year in order to have a stockpile ready for the ice-fishing season. But, she said, “the other business” has kept her too busy. So it has been an all-out production push throughout the fall to meet the demand.
Although she and other family members will sell small numbers of the hook holders while they’re out on the ice, Hatch works with a distributor to market her product to the wider public. Last week, she finished an order for 144 packages of hook holders — five hook holders to a package — making 1,000 packages she has produced since October, and the ice fishing season’s not over yet.
The packages can be found at outdoor venues around the state, including L.L. Bean.