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Tinkering away on reels

Ernie Dennis fixes fishing reels, mostly as a hobby. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 2
Reel repair is meticulous work. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 2

By Sarah Smith

Ernie Dennis is careful to label his part-time profession as a hobby, not a business.

“I don’t make a lot of money doing this but it helps people and keeps me occupied,” said the owner of Ernie’s Reel Repair. “I’m not getting rich off this by any means.”

Using WD-40, small tools, a dab of grease and a soak in mineral spirits, Ernie works with store-bought paper towels at his dining room table, fixing fishing reels.

“All gears should have grease,” he said. “All bearings should have oil.”

The quiet room is lightly punctuated by Cowboy the Corgi snoring underneath the table. It seems to bug his master.

Ernie doesn’t turn on music. He doesn’t like the distractions.

He works mainly on Shimanos, Daiwas and Abu Garcia reels.

He grew up on a lake and loved to tinker and take things apart.

“I’ve fished since I could walk,” he said. “Fishing makes me a better reel guy.”

He charges $10 per reel and it usually takes him an hour to complete a single reel. Parts are extra.

It could take less but he’s a perfectionist.

If he doesn’t like a sound or the feel of the reel when he’s done, he takes it all apart and starts from scratch.

It’s mostly dirt and sand that make reels malfunction. Sometimes a bent bail is the culprit.

He takes reels through Delaney’s Sports Center year-round in Park Rapids.

But the work does slow down a bit in summer when the reel repair guy dips a line himself.

“Summers are more difficult,” he says with a sheepish grin. “I have a few more things going on.”

He starts bleeding profusely into the reel he’s working on. Cut fingers are an occupational hazard.

He wipes the blood with his paper towel and keeps working.

“This particular reel is quite dirty,” he acknowledged. “It’s been quite neglected for a while.”

He keeps working, oblivious that blood has once again filled the reel.

He seems unperturbed that work has come to a brief end. “It’ll stop bleeding once I find a Band-Aid,” he said. His work towel is speckled with blood.

He has customers who will spend $25 fixing a $70 reel just to avoid replacing it and others who leave it at his table when the repair price outweighs the value of the reel to the customer. Those, he uses for parts. Otherwise parts come from a shop in Maine.

But if a customer is sentimental about the reel, the repair cost is secondary.

And Ernie understands.

He’s collected old reels for years, mostly as sentimental or novelty items. This is the fourth year he’s been doing professional repairs for others.

And yes, the technology has changed, he noted, dropping a washer on the floor.

“This is why you work on vinyl flooring,” he said as his hand sweeps over the linoleum trying to locate the washer.

He repairs up to 75 reels each season and advises anglers that it’s getting to be crunch time.

He hates for reels to be sitting in his house waiting for parts to arrive.

“Sometimes they’re over-greased, sometimes over-oiled,” he said about new reels.

The vintage of most of his clients is 1980s or 1990s, but he has repaired antiques from the 1920s.

“If maintained well, reels can last a long time,” he said. “Dirt is what wears out reels.”

He works in a sunny room tastefully decorated with wildlife prints and mounted fish. There’s the 40-inch muskie caught in 1979, a set of antlers used to display fly rods and a wicker creel that’s an antique.

“I’ve always been interested in tearing things apart,” he said. “Anything from reels to computers.”

He’s completely self-taught.

He twists the reel again and still doesn’t like what he hears.

“It’s probably a speck of dirt or sand,” he said, beginning the dismantling process again.

He doesn’t sigh at the frustration factor, or swear.

He just quietly begins disassembling the parts to check for the offending noise.

“Eighty-five to 90 percent of the reels I take apart, I just clean and put back together,” he said.

He makes sure the sliding parts slide, the gliding parts glide, the line counters count and you can hear a pin drop when they’re working just right.

Spinning reels, casting reels, free spools and fly reels all must perform quietly once fixed. A push-button spin cast reel may spin on the way out – but quietly.

That’s the Ernie way.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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