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Article as it appears in Chasing Silver Fly Fishing Magazine 3 / 2012

William R. Olson, Maker

Stanley Edward Bogdan died in his hometown of Nashua, New Hampshire, on March 27, 2011, at the remarkable age of 92 years young. His career is a monument in a regal history of salmon and trout reels with manufacturing roots in the German-American tradition of Edward Vom Hofe and Otto Zwarg. Stan built reels in New Hampshire for 70 years, crafting reels by hand to impeccable standards on a 130-year-old Flather lathe and more recently a 50-year-old Van Norman milling machine. With son Stephen as his partner, Stan constructed the most distinguished and desirable reels for rivers throughout the range of the King of Fish.

I recently spoke to Steve Bogdan, who informed me that the future of S.E. Bogdan Custombuilt is uncertain. He has a few salmon reels left—all are pre-sold. It is the end of an era and a sad time for me personally. Stan was a very good friend, and I’ve fished his reels for years. I will continue to do so. In a world defined by the assembly line and the anonymous toil of distant workers, it is rare to own anything made by someone you know. If the maker is a friend, you carry a tangible piece of that relationship every time you put reel to rod and step into a river. It is impossible to duplicate that experience in a marketplace dominated by cookie-cutter manufacturing and the sober realities of offshore production.

Fortunately, for those of us who enjoy the supreme precision and sublime aesthetics of salmon reels crafted by hand, a new maker emerges: William R. Olson of Murray, Utah. I say “new,” but William has been quietly making custom salmon and steelhead reels of the highest caliber since 1995. The American magazine Fly Rod & Reel ran an article on Stan Bogdan in 1989, planting a seed in the febrile mind of a young man consumed by a passion for steelhead, cane rods and classic salmon reels. William first pursued reel making at the hobbyist level as the pressures of work and raising a family exacted their toll. He purchased his own equipment in 1999, carefully honing his skills.

I first met William while working as a shop rat at Western Rivers Flyfisher in Salt Lake City. Utah is trout country with a healthy population of high-desert steelheaders, happy to talk about their favorite fish when the next trip to Idaho, Oregon or Washington is a long way off. William was caught in the meat grinder of corporate politics and long hours in a job he detested. I urged him to quit the rat race and get down to the important business of supplying impoverished, unreliable and properly obsessed individuals like me with reels we could fish. Thank goodness he did not listen, waiting instead until his finances solidified before making the leap to full-time reel making in 2008.

The practicality of the Olson reel is informed by regular forays to salmon and steelhead country in the western United States and Canada, the Gaspésie in Quebec, the River Tay in Scotland and the north coast of the Kola Peninsula. William eschews the short-head craze in spey casting, preferring a 15-foot Carron rod and Jetstream 95 or one of several Bruce and Walker rods paired with double-taper lines. (I successfully convinced him to buy a Scandinavian shooting head last year for a trip to Quebec—a minor miracle.) A staunch traditionalist with regard to fly patterns, he ties and fishes the Mar Lodge, Green Highlander, Jock Scott, Silver Doctor, Dunt, Akroyd, Carron, Black King and Black Dog for both steelhead and salmon. This subtle yet exquisite commitment to traditional aesthetics blended with contemporary materials and manufacturing extends to all facets of the Olson reel.

William builds three versions of the Olson reel: a Sealed Disc Series, a Gear and Pawl Series, and a Raised Pillar. The Sealed Disc Series features a sealed titanium/graphite drag with a one-way roller clutch. The Gear and Pawl Series uses heat-hardened tool steel for maximum life of gear and pawl. The spool turns on a pair of sealed ball-bearing races. Both the Sealed Disc and the Gear and Pawl Series feature fully machined frames and spools, ranging in size from 3 ½ inches (outside diameter) to 4 ¾ inches. A new frame, the Raised Pillar Series, may be ordered with either a sealed-disc or a gear-and-pawl drag. All reels are available in all-black frame and spool, silver frame and spool with black side plates, or gold frame and spool with black side plates (the Raised Pillar may be ordered in all-silver). The reel foot and drag knob are clear anodized. The name badges, crank retention washer, handle shaft and counterweight are nickel silver. The “S” crank is polished aluminum, left “in the white.” All reels are built to order—these are not off-the-shelf reels.

I fish a 4-inch, all-black Olson reel with a sealed-disc drag. I ordered the reel with a wide range of low-end drag. I don’t use a lot of drag when playing a salmon, but I like it when I need it. The reel has enough drag at the top end to prevent a salmon from spilling over a set of rapids, still affording the extensive range at the low end I require. William accommodated my preferred drag settings, and the reel performs flawlessly. The Gear and Pawl Series is available with a rotating back plate for finger-tip control or with a non-rotating back plate for those who prefer to let fish run. All models feature in/out clickers. The song of the reel when losing line to a fish is more pronounced for the Gear and Pawl Series than the Sealed Disc Series.

The workmanship of the Olson reel meets or exceeds that of any other maker in the world today. William is a perfectionist, unwilling to put his name to a reel with any flaw discernible to the eyes or fingers of its maker. The side-plate-to-frame fit is machined to exacting tolerances: I doubt the reel would assemble if the thickness of a single sheet of cigarette paper came between them. With the exception of the fully machined frame on the Sealed Disc Series and the Gear and Pawl Series, the appearance of the Olson reel owes more to Vom Hofe than it does to Bogdan. The “S” crank of the Olson evokes the graceful curve of the Edward Vom Hofe Model 423 Restigouche Salmon Reel; the “witness marks” encompassing the drag knob on the side plate of the Disc Drag Series are similarly observed in red. The nickel-silver medallions on the front side plate, one of which may be configured with your name, personalize the reel with greater elan than standard engraving. The Olson Raised Pillar may be the closest modern take on Vom Hofe. As I came to classic reels from Bogdan not Vom Hofe, I prefer a fully machined frame. We are all different. For that reason, the Olson reel is built to individual specifications.

You do not need a custom-built reel to land a salmon. Most off-the-shelf reels do just fine. Need, however, is a relative concept. A custom-built reel puts a spring in your step affixed to your favorite rod as it leans against a tree or rests on the rod rack. When the fishing is slow, you gaze at the reel between your hands and all is right with the world. Presuming you have two weeks on a salmon river each year, a custom-built reel resides the other 50 weeks of the year in its place of honor among the favorite books of your sporting library or perhaps above your fly-tying desk. Each time you enter your private man cave, a custom-built reel reminds you that you are a salmon fisher, that you pursue the greatest game fish with respect for your quarry and a reverence for tradition. Like fine automobiles, double guns of a certain vintage and unopened bottles of spectacularly aged whisky, the custom-built reel provides year-round satisfaction and pleasure. It’s hard to put a price tag on that.

© Topher Browne

 

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