CASTINE — Early in his Atlantic salmon angling career, Paul Hermann hooked a fish in the Penobscot River’s fabled Dickson Pool, battled it, and learned a valuable lesson about reels.
“[The fish] took me for a ride. I had a Hardy Zenith reel and by the second run, the reel was basically useless,” Hermann recalled. “It had no drag, and to make a long story short, I lost the fish.”
A friend later loaned him a hand-crafted Bogdan reel to try out, and Hermann was so impressed, he decided to buy one of his own.
It wasn’t that easy, however.
“In those days, you had to be the king of England to get a reel out of Stan Bogdan,” Hermann said with a chuckle. “And I wasn’t the King of England.”
Hermann did what many anglers have done since: He contacted the legendary New Hampshire craftsman who produces top-end fishing reels, put himself on a list of prospective buyers, and hoped for the best.
Unlike other hopeful anglers, however, Hermann had a backup plan: He would design and build his own reels. Never mind the fact that he was a doctor with a thriving Winthrop practice, and spare time was in short supply.
And never mind the fact that he really didn’t know how to create the parts that he’d need.
“I never started as a machinist,” Hermann said. “I taught myself. That took a lot of years of trial and error.”
All that trial and error paid off. Hermann perfected his design. He began producing his own hand-crafted reels. And anglers — those lucky enough to get their hands on a Hermann reel — were impressed.
Today, more than 30 years later, a single Hermann reel can fetch more than $2,000 … if you can find a willing seller.
Hermann, 65, now retired, lives in a handsome home overlooking the Bagaduce River in Castine. Originally, Hermann thought he’d make more reels during his retirement from medicine. He has reconsidered, and says the current batch of 24 reels that he’s crafting in his workshop will be his last.
“You know, there’s other things I want to do,” Hermann said. “I want to spend more time, which I did this year, bird hunting and fishing, rather than spend all my time out in the workshop. It’s so labor-intensive, and part of the problem is my eyes are going now.”
Hermann said he’s working with a young Bangor-area craftsman who is interested in learning how to make reels, and hopes that his protégé will continue to build reels the old-fashioned way.
“There’s not many hand-makers left,” he said. “Stand Bogdan and a few others and me are what’s left of the crowd after all these years. There’s just too much labor in ’em to make ’em by hand and make any money.”
Hermann, who has made more than 300 reels in his career, says he never viewed reel making as a career, however.
“Fortunately, for me, I never did it as a business,” Hermann said. “It’s always been a hobby that got out of control. I made my income a different way for many, many years.”
Hermann’s early reels were designed for Atlantic salmon fishing. Later, he made some smaller trout reels that collectors have taken to calling “Baby Hermanns.”
And when Internet trade of those reels took off a few years ago, Hermann was in for a surprise.
“I built [the Baby Hermanns] as trinkets, really. I never really thought much of them,” Hermann said. “It was embarrassing and disconcerting [when the reels were targeted by collectors] because people were spending more money for those things than for the salmon reels. And there’s 5,000 times more work in the salmon reels.”
That’s due in part to the complex drag system required in reels designed to slow down hard-fighting fish like Atlantic salmon.
Hermann said designing that drag system was one of the more formidable challenges he faced when he decided to make his own reels.
“I wasted a whole year trying to come up with a different drag system,” he said.
He was close to deciding on a design when a fortuitous delay during an evening commute brought him the clarity he needed.
“I used to live in Readfield, down on Maranacook Lake. And to get to our house you had to go across the railroad tracks. Every once in a while that freight train would be coming by,” Hermann explained. “I was coming home from work one night and sure enough, I had to sit there and wait for 15 minutes for that slow freight train to go through.”
As he watched the cars roll slowly by, Hermann noticed something.
“I’m looking at these box cars, the brakes on those box cars. I said, ‘Somebody figured this stuff out a long time ago,’” Hermann said. “And that’s where Stan [Bogdan] got the idea from. There’s no better system.”
A fishing reel’s drag is, after all, a brake. And if a brake can slow a speeding train, it’ll probably work pretty well on powerful salmon.
“The light bulb struck,” Hermann said. “This is the kind of drag I need. This is the best idea for a drag.”
Hermann said he started out making reels with a goal in mind.
“I wanted the best of both worlds. I wanted a reel that looked like the old ones, but I also wanted a more modern drag,” Hermann said.
He succeed on that count, as a few hundred of Hermann-owners would attest.
The one thing Hermann didn’t succeed at?
Well, there’s the matter of that Bogdan reel he tried to purchase more than 30 years ago.
Paul Hermann is a very good reel maker. But he’s still not the King of England.
“For all I know, I’m still on the waiting list for one of his reels,” Hermann said with a laugh.