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Montana father, son invent one-handed reel for paralyzed friend

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 8, 2018, 6:23 p.m.

Frank Ewalt, at right, sets up a motorized fishing reel for his friend Larry Rennich, to demonstrate how the device works. A stroke paralyzed Rennich’s right side. (Casey Page / Courtesy of the Billings Gazette)
Frank Ewalt, at right, sets up a motorized fishing reel for his friend Larry Rennich, to demonstrate how the device works. A stroke paralyzed Rennich’s right side. (Casey Page / Courtesy of the Billings Gazette)

BILLINGS – There’s a metal meat-processing table in Frank Ewalt’s shop that he built himself, complete with a recessed drawer that opens to allow removal of plastic wrap and butcher paper. The door to the drawer has a serrated edge for cutting the wrap.

“He’s always tinkering with something,” said his son, John. “If he needed a part made or he’s trying to make something better in the garage.”

“I’ve always tried to come up with things to make life easier,” Frank said.

More recently Frank – a Billings City Council member, small businessman, 25-year teacher of hunter education and retired firefighter – has turned his inventive expertise to making a motorized fishing reel for his friend, Larry Rennich, who is paralyzed on his right side and must use a wheelchair.

“I started about three years ago and kept working on perfecting it,” Frank said.

Although he’s still tinkering with making the setup better, he’s managed to modify a Zebco 33 reel so that a small 3-milli-amp motor powered by batteries can reel in the fishing line with the push of a button. The battery, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, is rechargeable and has never run down while trolling, Larry said, although someone casting and retrieving from shore would put more demand on the charge.

“We’ve used it for the better part of two years,” he said.

Rennich, a lifetime Billings resident and city firefighter for 30 years, suffered a stroke two years ago that left him partially paralyzed. Frank created the motorized reel specifically for Rennich, allowing him to again enjoy a hobby he had resigned himself to giving up.

“It’s quite an operation,” Rennich said before demonstrating how he could power the reel.

He’s used the rod and reel “half a dozen times” to fish mostly for perch and walleye, as well as rainbow trout.

“He was always active,” Frank said. “So I thought, ‘Gol dang it, we need to get him out fishing again.’ ”

Rennich used to hike in the Beartooth Mountains, fishing the many trout-filled lakes. Now he said he spends a lot of time staring out his window.

“There’s not even much to stare at,” he said.

Power-assisted fishing reels, designed for deep sea fishing, are available from big tackle manufacturers like Daiwa. Those reels can cost $600 to $4,000, depending on their size. Before building his device, Frank went to local sporting goods stores seeking a one-handed rod and found nothing.

So he searched online and discovered several devices for one-handed fishing, including rod holders and electric reels. Those electric rod outfits can cost $500 to $700. Now that he’s made his third-generation reel, Frank figures he can produce it for $70 to $80 and sell it for around $120 to $150, once he gets the manufacturing process more streamlined.

“If I find a veteran, I’d probably just give it to him,” he said.

“That’s my hope, to get more people out. Fishing is pretty good therapy.”

The low-torque, 120-rpm motor Larry uses has enough power to reel in a 5-pound northern pike. Larry has caught a 23-inch walleye with the gear at Castle Rock Lake near Colstrip.

“There’s nothing fancy about my stuff,” Frank said, but it works.

The latest big problem has been de-tempering the motor shafts so he can drill and tap them, so the motor can be screwed onto the reel’s crank. Frank has ruined two motors in previous attempts. His son, a computer engineer who lives in Denver, helped build some of the parts for the reel with a 3D printer. It’s their first collaboration other than when John was a youngster and would help hold this or that piece of material as Frank crafted his inventions.

Now John is working on developing a mold so that the plastic parts could be made of a tougher resin and won’t break as easily.

“I don’t see it going into mass production, but we could make 20 to 30 a year to give out to people so they could go fishing again,” John said. “I’d like to see it turn into something bigger than that: Partnering with a rod-and-reel manufacturer would be pretty cool.”

John and Frank came up with the product name Kingfisher to attach to their setup.

“I just think it’s a neat thing,” Frank said.

“The whole purpose was to get Larry out of his room.”


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