Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Journey to the Center of an Obsession: My ABU Tour, Part I by Espen Olav Sjaastad

Today and tomorrow, we are absolutely delighted to offer you a glimpse into the world of ABU, written by our Scandinavian friend Espen Olav Sjaastad. Espen--a dedicated collector and historian--gives us unique insight into both ABU history and the state of reelmaking today. We should ALL thank Espen for this delightful and brilliant essay. He is co-authoring a new book on ABU small baitcasters, my favorite reels maybe ever, which will be one of the most anticipated offerings in the coming year. Enjoy!

Journey to the Center of an Obsession, Part 1
by Espen Olav Sjaastad
© 2009 Espen Olav Sjaastad. All right reserved.

The E6, or European Route Six, is a Scandinavian artery. It starts at the southern tip of Sweden and ends at the northern tip of Norway. Or is it the other way around? Monday, June 1, a sunny Oslo morning, I pack my bags and head south. At the border, I show my reels to Swedish customs, just in case their Norwegian counterparts try to charge me VAT on my way back. I skirt Gothenburg, Falkenberg, Halmstad, catching an occasional glimpse of the Swedish west coast. Boats and lighthouses and a million small islands. Get your kicks on Route Six? Not likely. I get my kicks in mysterious ways, so just north of Helsingborg I turn east.

International news. The radio is blaring about this Swede who upset Rafael Nadal in the French Open. After about an hour of this, they mention the collapse of General Motors, 240,000 workers facing an uncertain future. I reach the Swedish east coast at Pukavik. Another good-looking coastline, with larger formations and more vegetation. They’re raising tents for the Sweden Rock Festival, where bands like Heaven & Hell and Twisted Sister are expected. Almost there. I turn north before I reach Karlshamn, pass through the small town of Mörrum, drive another eight kilometeres or so, and there it is, the even smaller town of Svängsta with the great big factory where they made all those fishing reels that I love.

It’s early evening. I check into Lotta’s. You won’t get any breakfast at Lotta’s but you’ll get a bed and free Internet in your room. I get my room keys and make a phone call to Karl-Eric Svensson, also known as “Svängstakalle” among Swedish collectors.

Karl-Eric Svensson prepares to stamp a number on a foot

Karl-Eric started working on the ABU factory floor in 1957. Before retiring in 2003, he had held almost every imaginable position within the firm. Karl-Eric and I are planning a book about small Ambassadeurs, the reason for my visit. For the next three days, I have the privilege of being guided through the ABU legacy by a true veteran and expert.

Tuesday morning, we meet outside the ABU museum and the curator, Henning Karlsson, lets us in. ABU owes its existence to the collapse of the Halda watch factory in 1920. Carl August Borgström, suddenly unemployed, started his own watch-making business in a small wooden building a stone’s throw away from the Halda factory. That’s where the ABU museum is now.

From the ceiling hangs an old photo of the workshop as it appeared in 1939, just before Göte Borgström, Carl August’s son, decided to make the transition to fishing reels. The interior displayed in the photo has been meticulously reconstructed in the museum itself. But the photo also shows the workers. And there, in a far corner of the room, is the thirteen-year-old Karlsson at work at his machine.

The museum also contains a couple of reels of more than passing interest to Karl-Eric and me. Karlsson unlocks the displays and gives us a licence to shoot. I take a few snaps, the anti-shake on my camera working overtime.

A rare, early Ambassadeur 1500CDL

Sightseeing is next. ABU nostalgia is scattered like spare parts all around this neighborhood. At Lotta’s, a life-size cardboard cutout of the bikini-clad ABU girl greets me just inside the entrance. Walk into a restaurant or hotel in Svängsta or Mörrum and you’re as likely as not to find a couple of glass cabinets full of old reels. Residential streets are named after brands of fishing tackle.

In Mörrum, next to Kungsforsen (the King’s Falls), is the House of Salmon and the Royal Salmon Fishery. You can buy your fishing licence here or simply enjoy the view. There’s also a weighing station, a restaurant, and an exhibit. The latter contains a vast number of Ambassadeurs, of course, but also some good Hardy Perfects, a wall full of lures from around the world, and a few enormous, wall-mounted salmon.

The old ABU watch factory, now the ABU Museum

Further down the river, a flyfisher is just about to take a break. He’s German, has been here a few days, but has had no luck. We talk for a while, before he asks why I’m staring so intently at his reel. Instead of trying to explain to the man that this is simply one of my bad habits, I ask him whether the reel is any good. Yes, yes. It’s a German reel, a Vosseler. A modern, large-arbor salmon reel. It looks to be of decent quality.

The Mörrum River

Another of my bad habits is the wanton purchase of reels. There are twice as many specialist tackle dealers in this little town as in my hometown of Oslo, Capital of Norway. In one of them, Bringséns Sportfiske, Mr. Bringsén even makes his own brand of reels, including “the only antireverse fly reel that truly works.” In another, I almost buy a tiny Loop trout reel, a model no longer produced that is hard to find outside Sweden. Somehow, though, the reflexive grab towards my credit card fails to materialize, probably because I’m subconsciously afraid of offending Karl-Eric by buying a non-ABU reel.

Our final stop this day is Ekebergstugan, a timber cottage imported from Finland that sits on a hill above the Mörrum River. Karl-Eric still patrols the ABU beats and possesses keys that will open most doors. This is where the King of Sweden came to fish and recreate in 1976 as a guest of Lennart Borgström, son of Göte and third in the line of ABU owners. The King brought his uncle, Prince Bertil, and a friend, President Uhro Kekkonen of Finland. He also brought his fiancée, the lovely Silvia, who is now Queen.

Karl-Eric and I sit down at the royal table, unpack pizza and beer. We talk about collecting and collectors. There’s a Scandinavian club for reel collectors, Samlarklubben Rullen, mostly populated by Swedes. Karl-Eric has organized a couple of get-togethers in Svängsta in the past, it’s a popular venue because you are still likely to find rare ABU tackle that hasn’t yet reached collectors. He knows of only one other dedicated collector among the employees and ex-employees at ABU, but there are plenty of old reels and lures among them. Walk-ins can still produce a number of gems if a meet is held in a public place and properly advertized.

We walk down a flight of stairs to the basement. President Kekkonen’s old bedroom has portraits on the wall but no signs of luxury. Kekkonen was a tough guy, a hunter and fisher with a legendary capacity for something called Koskenkorva. In the hallway, crates of empty bottles are stacked along a wall but none of those bottles ever contained Finnish vodka. ABU clients occasionally still come here to fish, but there haven’t been any Finnish presidents for a while. No kings or queens either.

Outside, the grass is long and the fishing piers lie unmounted and unused along the banks of the river. In the 1960s and 1970s, a dozen employees were charged with upkeep of the ABU stretches, but those jobs were cut along with other costs during the last 30 years. The piers don’t matter right now, the salmon and the sea trout won’t reach this far in June. An upstream dam is rationing the water, saving it for another time of year when electricity prices are higher, so the fish are stuck below the falls further down.

At the age of 14, on a fishing trip to the western fjords of Norway, I picked up an ABU catalog at a local tackle dealer. The compact beauty of the multipliers caught my attention, and those images stayed with me through the winter. Somewhere in my brain, the seeds of an obsession – acquisitive, probably unhealthy – were germinating. For my 15th birthday, after a campaign of threats and pleas, my parents gave me my first Ambassadeur, a 6600C with black sideplates and red thumbar. Backlashes were surely a feature of the early days, but they have disappeared from memory. What I remember, mostly, is casting twice as far as my non-Ambassadeur-owning friends. I did not catch more fish than them (I still don’t), but I had the finest reel (I still do).

I don’t have reels as fine as those that Karl-Eric displays in his tackle room, however. If you are an ABU collector and could pick a career, his would have to come pretty close to the top of the list. We spend Wednesday morning examining, discussing, and photographing reels. The perfect vacation.

Wednesday afternoon, it’s time to visit the factory. We park the car, walk up to the entrance, and take the external elevator to the top floor. Karl-Eric presses a button and someone inside presses a buzzer. We enter. As it’s my first time, I’m feeling I should have made more of this moment, but animal sacrifices or other elaborate rituals might not go down so well with management. Instead, I spend some time admiring the reels displayed in the lobby.

The ABU factory entrance

Tomorrow: Part 2

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