Stanley Bogdan – Reel Builder

The calendar’s pages had flipped from March to April a few days earlier though it still felt like winter as I stepped down from the shelf ice into the icy waters of the Big Hole River. On my last visit to my favorite fishing hole, the river’s sparkling water reflected a brilliant blue sky and the golden leaves of cottonwood trees along the shoreline.

On this spring day, the skies were overcast, and there was no sign of greenery, unless you were to look closely at the base of clumps of grass. A month from now the access area will likely be bustling with anglers putting gear together and getting ready for floating the river. Today, the only sounds are the murmur of the river, interspersed with the whisper of wind in the trees and an occasional Canada goose calling for its mate.

Missing from the sounds of the afternoon was the sound of a fly reel as a good-sized fish tears off line, fleeing from whatever is hanging in the corner of its jaw. These reels have their own individual songs, whether it’s a click, a whirr or a whisper. This afternoon all was quiet and the reel itself did nothing more than its basic function: to hold line.

Without taking an inventory I’d guess I have half a dozen fly reels that I use regularly, holding fly lines in different weights, plus a couple retired reels stuck away in a drawer collecting dust. There’s nothing particularly special about any of them other than sentimental value from years of happy angling memories.

None of those reels, unfortunately, are a Bogdan reel.

Stanley Bogdan, a machinist and son of Polish immigrants, began experimenting with designing fly reels sometime around 1940 and, in his one-person machine shop, started making them commercially in 1955. At first he sold his reels through Abercrombie & Fitch, the famous old New York City sporting goods store. After getting tired of giving the store a 40 percent cut of the reel’s price ($100) he eventually went on his own.

While Bogdan reels come in a number of models, the reels he built for Atlantic salmon fishing are what made him famous. Ted Williams, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Carter, and presidential adviser and economist Paul Volcker were among his customers. Bogdan invented a double brake system for his reels, resulting in a smooth drag for slowing down fish. The reel also has a unique whirring sound, described by one Bogdan owner as “the muted joy of exultation.”

Bogdan enthusiasts consider the reel to be a superb blend of superior engineering and esthetic brilliance and, simply, the finest fly reel ever made.

Bogdan reels don’t come cheap and they don’t come easily. To buy a Bogdan reel you put in your order and go on a two to three year waiting list. A new reel could range in price from around $1,500 for a lightweight trout reel to around $2,500 for a salmon reel. If you happen to find someone selling a used one you might pay double the price of a new one. In fact, in a 2009 feature article in Forbes magazine, Bogdan said he was so startled to see what used reels were selling for he decided to double the price of new reels. “Turned out to be the best move I ever made,” he told Forbes writer Monte Burke.

Stanley Bogdan sold his business in Ipswich, New Hampshire to his son, Stephen, in 1996 but he continued to work in the shop several days a week until his death, at age 92, on March 27.

If it’s any indication of his renown, the New York Times ran a lengthy obituary last week, recognition not often accorded to a somewhat crusty old New England machinist.

In addition to making reels, Bogdan was an accomplished and enthusiastic Atlantic salmon angler. Last September, at the age of 91, Stan Bogdan caught a 32-pound salmon on the Grand Cascapedia River in Quebec.  His son, Stephen Bogdan, said, “I believe that was his last fish.”