The Ultimate Lakeside Retreat

by Stevie Zvereva
Photography by David Vernon

The Herman family harnesses decades of experience to build the best in lakeside living… becoming reality TV stars to boot.

Twelve feet beneath the surface, they rest on a platform with handfuls of minnows, calmly breathing through a pair of Air Line regulators pumping fresh air from above. The two men freeze as a four-pound smallmouth bass approaches, swipes a tiny treat straight from their hands, and swims away, tail wagging. Excited, they push off the platform and emerge through the large dock’s center swim hole, an eight- by 12-foot opening they built just for this: the ultimate hand-feeding fish experience.

“Smallmouth bass are most friendly to humans,” explains Nate Herman. “They’re naturally inquisitive.”

“They’ll just sit there in your hands,” adds brother-in-law Jared Plattner, “almost like a pet.”

Situated on Norris Lake, this “VIP dock” is the centerpiece of Herman family gatherings—huge affairs involving the three Herman brothers and two sisters, their five spouses, and 18 children among them, plus grandma and grandpa. It’s outfitted to entertain, with a concrete countertop and sink to clean fresh-caught fish, a grill for cooking, an ice box for drinks, and a large table for dining. Nearby, two fish feeders pump food into the lake three times a day, making for an incredible feeding frenzy visible day or night, when it’s lit by green underwater lights. To an outsider, the scene is remarkable, if not a bit outlandish, but to the Hermans, it’s home. Turning wild, waterside concepts into reality is this family’s specialty.

While the lake boasts some of the finest fishing in the Midwest, it has come to mean much more to the Hermans, serving as a showroom and laboratory for cultivating the ultimate “lakeside retreat.”

“There’s something about water that’s therapeutic,” Nate explains. “People gravitate towards it.” He and his brothers have made it their job to harness that power, serving the specialized needs of clients through their business, Herman Brothers Lake and Land Management. If you can dream it, they will build it.

Throwing Out a Line
As the third generation of “sons” in Noah Herman Sons Builders, Nate, Justin and Chad—plus brothers-in-law Jared Plattner and Dave Kellenberger—grew up working jobsites from the bottom up, taught by their father, Greg, who now runs the Peoria-based building, construction and custom-home design company.

“We learned how to build, hands-on,” Nate says. “My great-grandfather started the construction company in 1949, and it’s been a family business for over 60 years.” But with a passion for waterfront work, he and his older brother Chad, vice president at Noah Herman Sons Builders, incorporated Herman Brothers Lake and Land Management in 2007, balancing their time between companies from the start. “We would clean people’s beaches… stock fish, do aeration systems, and build decks, docks and even lodges with our construction background. And it grew from there.”

Over the last nine years, the company has shifted toward consulting, traveling around the country to assess their clients’ waterfront properties, stocking lakes and “electrofishing”—temporarily stunning a lake’s fish population, which allows them to collect, examine and analyze their composition and health (and results in no permanent harm to the fish). This analysis informs the advice they put forth, like what size to harvest in order to grow bigger carp, or how stocking a specific size of fish can get an entire lake’s population to work together more harmoniously—all to help clients take full advantage of their lakefront properties.

“We help them create a plan for making it what they want it to become,” Nate explains, whether that’s a wildlife preserve, an optimal habitat for hunting and fishing, or “just a good place for their family to come and have fun.”

A few years ago, Nate and his brothers began posting a series of short videos online—feeding bass by hand (or even by mouth), shocking fish for pond assessments or ice fishing with their own children—“just to get a little bit of a following.” These clips captured their expertise and passion for the work, with no small amount of charisma: a delicate balance of wild, yet respectable. And it worked: they cultivated a small following on the web, which has been good for business. They also attracted the attention of a New York-based production company fixed on pitching the brothers’ antics as a TV series.

At first, they thought the proposition was junk mail. But the company kept after them, and eventually, Back Roads Entertainment sent a crew to film a sizzle reel. “They follow you around for a couple days, you do what you do, and they collect that footage and put it together to make a two-minute [demo],’” Nate recalls. “They told us, ‘We make hundreds of these and shop them to networks… You have a one-in-a-hundred chance that someone would even buy a pilot episode.’”

Sure enough, after six months of hearing nothing, the brothers wrote the idea off. Meanwhile, they were getting swept up in their own company’s rapid growth. “We just kept moving.”

From Coal Mine to Campground
Always on the hunt for the next project, a large property near Canton caught the Hermans’ eye in the summer of 2013. Having operated as a campground since the 1950s, the 828-acre Giant Goose Ranch was slated for auction as a number of split parcels. “The campground was just going to go away,” Nate explains. “But we’ve been stocking fish for campgrounds all over the state for years. We always joked around [that] we could do a campground because we’d seen so many.”

The idea of buying the entire lot was presented to the whole family. “We could use our skills with lake and land management, our skills with building, and our knowledge of other campgrounds… We all looked at it together, prayed about it and said, ‘Let’s do it!’

“We have big imaginations,” he adds with a sly grin. And just like that, the Hermans bought the property, decided to retain the name, and set to the task of turning it into the “Midwest’s premier camping, fishing and family recreation area.”

Before it was a campground, the land of Giant Goose Ranch was used for mining. As coal was stripped from the ground in the 1930s and ‘40s, dozens of gaping pits were left to fill with water. “Whenever they strip a property, a coal company has to reclaim it as better than when they got it,” Nate explains, detailing how the land was leveled—some turned into farmland, some into forests; lakes sloped to prevent erosion; and a number of residential lots developed. By 1954, it had become known as Sugar Knolls campground. In the ‘70s, it was bought by the Little Texas Corporation and renamed Giant Goose Ranch for the large flocks of geese roaming the property. Today, there are 52 lakes and old mining ponds on the property—including some of the deepest in Illinois. Ideal for fisheries, each lake has been earmarked for specific species by the Hermans.

A Family-Friendly Paradise
Like an artist describing his collection, Nate calls them “themes”—each lake’s fish population well-suited to that water’s medium. The property’s largest lake—the 121-acre, 80-foot-deep Giant Goose Lake—is themed for trophy largemouth bass, big bluegill and walleye, while the heavily fertilized, 65-foot-deep Spool Lake features tiger muskie, northern pike, walleye, largemouth bass, bluegill and crappie. Elsewhere, smaller, “experimental” ponds are slated to stock lesser-seen varieties: bowfin, alligator gar, sunfish and “many other oddball species.”

“With these strip-mine lakes, we’re able to grow nontraditional fish that wouldn’t necessarily be in any lake or pond in the U.S.,” Nate explains. And that attracts fishermen. The ranch offers annual fishing memberships and deluxe boat, mini pontoon and jon boat rentals, as well as fully-guided fishing trips and package deals. But increasingly popular are ranch family memberships.

“Our goal when we bought this place was to make the best sportsman paradise,” Nate says. “Well, that shifted really fast to family.” With 18 kids (and counting) in their own clan, it was a natural development, promising “a great way to introduce your family to the outdoors,” he adds.

With 310 lakefront campsites and 162 cabin sites, Giant Goose Ranch offers plenty of options to do just that. Private cabin sites—which include all septic, water and electricity fees, as well as access to the property’s lakes and amenities—have been a huge hit. Over the last 21 months, the company has built two custom cabins on-site per month, for a mostly local clientele: people looking for an accessible, yet private lakeside retreat not far from Peoria.

We take the hassle out of the equation, Nate adds. “We do all the developing; we do all the maintenance; we take care of everything. All they do is pay that yearly lot fee… And then if they want anything else built [like decks, docks or sheds], we build it for them.”

“The idea was to give… people a place to come where they can just enjoy it,” Jared explains. “All they have to do is have fun… and then go back to their work life during the week. It’s a good vacation retreat.”

This concept of “recreation without the responsibility” has been extremely popular; of the 100-some cabin lots on site, about half were spoken for by mid-summer 2014. “We started building these cabins, and we didn’t even have these roads in yet!” says Nate, pointing out the main drive that now winds through the property, and the electricity, septic and water lines that were put in last year.


Photo by Rachel Sauder

Attracting the Cameras
Shortly after purchasing Giant Goose Ranch, the brothers got the call; a network was interested in purchasing a pilot episode based on Back Roads Entertainment’s sizzle reel. “Out of the blue, they popped in and said, ‘Hey! We have a two-pilot episode for the DIY Network.’”

Amidst the growth of the business and construction at the ranch, the announcement came as a whirlwind. An executive from the DIY Network flew out to the ranch prior to filming. “His mind was blown away watching Jared’s wife, Amy, holding a baby while climbing a ladder and working on this project,” Nate recalls. “And he said, ‘Man, this is so much more than we ever envisioned.’”

“It was originally more of a scripted type of show,” Jared adds, recounting how the exec had arrived with a binder of ideas, plots and script notes. “But he just threw it all out, and they started filming.”

Life at Giant Goose Ranch is an accumulation of the whole family’s individual talents, Nate explains, “and Lake Life… became a family thing. We work hard, we play hard, and we’re outside—and that really attracted the cameras.”

In the pilot episode, Nate and Justin meet with the Larson family to construct a custom cabin and large deck, with stairs leading down to a floating dock on a small, private lake. Each family member contributes: Amy customizes the interior; the brothers construct the cabin; their father, Greg, serves as a consultant on the project; even the kids show up to pitch in.

And it’s hard not to fall for the Herman family’s charm. They’re warm and charismatic, energetic but refined, and above all, genuine. While the show embodies the family’s work ethic, it also reveals the trials and tribulations of a real family business. Their spirit is authentic, and because of that, the celebrity that’s come with the show can be a little awkward. “It’s still kind of weird,” Nate explains. “We’re just regular people.”

There have been other adjustments as well. With plenty of experience adhering to tight construction deadlines, TV production came as a bit of a shock. Nate and Jared recall a shoot last summer when they spent the entire day dynamiting narrow strips of land that separated four small lakes in order to merge them into one. “It was a fun day,” admits Nate. “An amazing day,” Jared corrects him. “But we filmed for a whole day, and all they used it for was like 12 or 14 seconds in one episode. When you’re filming, it comes out to be like a minute a day.”

“Everything we do is about efficiency,” Nate explains. “So, condensing a three-week project down to 21 minutes, where you’re filming the whole time and all that stuff goes away… It was hard for us to connect with.”

The show also pushed their physical limits, each episode serving to catalyze further development at Giant Goose Ranch. “[Each season is] 13 episodes of three- to four-week projects. That’s a whole year we have to cram into six months!” But if they can schedule and plan it just right, it works, Nate explains. Jared laughs, pointing toward a nearby construction site. “A year ago, this whole area was a cornfield and a swamp. A lot has happened in one year’s time!”

Lake Life has also allowed the brothers to pursue projects they dreamt up, but hadn’t had time for, like the “Teepee Village” they built along a secluded stretch of water (Season 1, Episode 6). The three teepees can be rented for a weekend, complete with concrete floors, beds, a fire pit and cooking tools. “We had it booked every weekend last year,” Jared notes. A similarly fun project, a customized, double-decker “Dock of Fun” with a slide and rock-climbing wall (Season 1, Episode 2) was built for a family looking to entertain the kids during summers on the lake. In another episode, the brothers construct a floating, volcano-themed fishing cabin for their own father, Greg, to fish from, while their mother, Beth, relaxes in the sun (Season 1, Episode 1).

In short, no project is too big. Other potential projects in the works at Giant Goose Ranch include backcountry tent camping and scuba-diving options; a “hobbit village” with cabins carved into mounds of earth; and a Swiss Family Robinson-style treehouse village with bedrooms connected via treetop walkways. “We dream about all kinds of crazy stuff, and eventually we do it,” Jared says, smiling.

“The TV show makes it possible,” adds Nate. To them, the atypical seems logical. “If you were going to go camping with your family and you could stay in a treehouse… wouldn’t you do that over staying in a [regular] campground?”

Around the Bend
It seems the Hermans have thought of everything at Giant Goose Ranch. Besides fishing and camping, there are miles of hiking trails, and wildlife-watching made possible by the sorghum, corn and natural bird feeders the family planted to attract migrating waterfowl and the resident deer, which they’ve affectionately named. And to encourage community, the ranch hosts community fish fries, hog roasts and breakfasts for members and residents. “There are people from all walks of life here,” says Nate. “To see everything coming together has been amazing.”

With the rapid pace of construction, it’s been a boon to the local economy as well. They’ve been able to keep one to two dozen employees on staff throughout the year to help build cabins, maintain the property and assist with projects. Plus, those workers and the site’s new residents often shop and eat in nearby Canton, boosting business. Nate points out the 50-foot swimming beach under construction at the west end of Ski Lake, set for completion by Memorial Day; the 45 resident chickens; and the three Appaloosa horses with largely free reign over the pastures.

“We’re realizing that… the world we grew up in is not the world out there today,” Nate adds, reminiscing on a childhood spent outdoors with his brothers and sisters. “People are growing up in cities, and they’re not interacting with real, live animals. [The kids]—and adults—are getting so excited to feed these chickens and horses!” he laughs. “I mean, that’s second-nature to us—that’s how we grew up.”

Driving through a tight bend around one of the lakes, Nate stops the truck and gets out, beckoning excitedly to Jared. “I just found our hatchery ponds for High Rise Lake!” he exclaims. “There’s a little water in them. We could dam them off… raise perch and stock them right like that!” Jared nods, agreeing the spot could be perfect for growing yellow perch. They hop back into the car, elated. Nate starts the engine, and wheels turning, they head into the next bend. iBi

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