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Mac McBurney's bejeweled lure, although not an antique, is quite good for catching the fancy fisherman -- and catching the readers' eye.
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The Big Bud, the Clewell BigMouth, the Crab Wiggler, the Phinney’s Helldiver, the Schoonie’s Scooter, the Silver Bird Fish Phantom, the Slim Jim, the Smitty Crawpappy, the Stump Dodger, and the Vampire…I know, I’m getting carried away, but how can anyone resist? With names like these, most anglers will never cast their lines, their imaginations untangling from knots of narrative possibilities. However, once dangling at the end of those anglers’ lines, those names danced in mid-air mysteriously, representing the funky titles of popular fishing lures that have transformed, through the passage of time, into elusive antiques, and some collectors will pay several thousand dollars for one of them.


However, fishing lures are not the only items that attract the most passionate collectors of antique fishing paraphernalia. The popularity of such collectibles has been growing for years, and cherished items include rods, reels, creels, nets, lure boxes, tackle boxes, lure advertisements, fishing licenses, and trout stamps, to name a few of the sundry items that seduce collectors. The volume of books written about the subject reveals this popularity: AntiqueLures.com is a good Website for information about antique fishing paraphernalia, and it has compiled a list of notable books about the subject. Carl F. Luckey’s Old Fishing Lures & Tackle is considered one of the better references.


cover art

Old Fishing Lures & Tackle

Carl F. Luckey, Clyde A. Harbin

Identification and Value Guide

(Krause)

The National Fishing Lures Collectors Club (NFLCC) is, however, the industry’s leading, authoritative organization. According to its Website, “The NFLCC is a non-profit, educational, international organization founded in 1976. The primary objectives of the NFLCC are to foster an awareness of fishing tackle collecting as a hobby and to assist members in the location, identification, and trading of vintage fishing-related equipment.” The organization publishes two periodicals, the NFLCC Gazette and NFLCC Magazine, which keep collectors informed of industry news, trends, and upcoming collectors’ shows. The NFLCC’s membership has been as large as 8,000 members. Another important organization is the The Old Reel Collectors Association (ORCA), whose purpose is “education through the collection and distribution of historical and technical data regarding fishing reels, their development and their inventors and manufacturers from the earliest times through the present day. In order to enhance the knowledge of these subjects, the collection and preservation of examples of post production reels is to be encouraged for the benefit of present and future generations.” ORCA started in 1990, but many state and local organizations focusing on fishing collectibles also exist throughout the country.


As with any collectible, the condition of antique fishing gear, and particularly lures, is vital. Expectedly, the better the lure’s condition, the greater its value, and such determinations are somewhat subjective, depending on owner and buyer. However, some common problems antique lures suffer are accepted within the collectors’ community as fundamental criteria. According to Antiquelures.com, “pointers” are marks made by a lure’s hooks, which can devalue its worth. “Flakes” occur when a lure’s paint or varnish begins to flake away, a condition that can be caused by various factors that also reduce a lure’s worth. “Crazing” is when a lure has cracks in its varnish or paint; the cracks do not result in flakes but do cause cracking lines throughout the lure. Of course, the body of a lure in general may be chipped, bent, or damaged, and hooks may also be bent or rusted. Key factors such as these will make the difference between a lure worth $500 and one worth $50.


Serious collectors of antique fishing gear inevitably develop an affinity for the companies that produced such finely crafted tackle. Three of the most popular are Heddon, Shakespeare, and Pflueger. Heddon, according to another good Website titled Antqiuefishinglures.com and compiled and written by notable collector Floyd Roberts, began in the 1890s when founder James Heddon started carving frogs from wood chips he found while waiting to fish with his childhood buddies. James connected hooks to the wooden frog and later caught a large bass; consequently, he carved more wooden frogs, and according to Roberts, those frogs mark the earliest traces of American fishing lures: “only eight authentic hand-carved James Heddon Frogs have been found.”


In 1902 in Michigan, James and his two sons, William and Charles, made lures in their family kitchen and positioned them in the oven to quicken the paint-drying process. Roberts reports the family later moved to a Florida resort and used its boathouse as a lure factory. The nearby lakes were a perfect testing ground for their alluring creations. Another factory was established in Wisconsin, and later, in Dowagiac, Michigan. Also specializing in the creation of bait-casting rods and artificial minnows, the “James Heddon’s Sons Company” rapidly grew. When James died in 1955, his sons took over, and by the late ‘50s, the company was producing approximately 15,000 lures daily. As time passed, Roberts reports, several other companies purchased and sold Heddon during the ‘60s, 70s, and 80s, and by 1984, it essentially folded.


According to Shakespeare’s Website, in 1896, “William Shakespeare, Jr., an avid fisherman of 27 years, wanted to improve on existing fishing reels so he came up with a device for winding fishing line evenly back on the spool. William patent(ed) the level-wind reel and his new design was superior to anything on the market. As a result, this feature is now common on most fishing reels.” With valuable experience in advertising, camera manufacturing, and medicine, he started The William Shakespeare Jr. Company, and with a slogan of “Built Like a Watch,” the company expanded to 12 employees by 1902; by 1920, more than 5,000 dealers were selling Shakespeare products. The Website reports that during both World Wars, the company specialized in making artillery and car parts, and by the mid-1940s, the company had become a leading producer of fly-fishing line and monofilament line popular for traditional spin-casting reels. The Wondercast spinning reel and creation of fiberglass rods are two of its most important products.


By the late ‘60s, with factories in several states, Canada, and Great Britain, the company eventually purchased the Pflueger Company and other tackle brands. In 1976, Shakespeare released what is arguably its most popular product: the Ugly Stick fishing rod. Other innovations would continue including forays into the ultra light spin tackle industry and using cartoon characters such as Scooby Doo and Bugs Bunny and the Barbie doll character to further market their products. Successful still today, Shakespeare has been for more than a century synonymous with quality fishing tackle. 


The Pflueger Company’s history is equally important. Roberts writes,


Pflueger was first called the American Fish Hook Company and was started in 1864 by a man named Ernest F. Pflueger. Ernest was born in Germany and came to the U.S.A. with his family and settled in Akron, Ohio. The Enterprise Manufacturing Company was incorporated around 1865. The company was a family business that was run by four brothers. Ernest Pflueger was president, Charles Plfueger was vice president, Joe Pflueger was the treasurer and William Pflueger was Sales Manager. Ernest Pflueger marketed his first two lures…the Flying Helgramite and the Luminous Crystal Minnow. The Enterprise Manufacturing Company specialized in mostly spoons, rubber baits, snelled hooks and the famous Phantom Minnow. Around 1899, Pflueger introduced their first line of wood lures called the Simplex, Monarch and the Globe. In 1907, Pflueger had to improve (its) underwater minnows…to compete with the Heddon Co.(’s) high quality minnows. Pflueger(’s) largest growth with lures was from 1907 into the early 1930s.


Other important companies that produced quality fishing tackle that are now valued as antiques include South Bend, Creek Chub, Paw Paw, Jamison, and Moonlight.


But what exactly is it that attracts collectors to these antique fishing collectibles? Robert Pavey currently works as the outdoors editor and environmental affairs writer for The Augusta Chronicle in Georgia and has been collecting antique fishing tackle for at least 25 years. His educational Website, Mr.Lurebox.com offers a broad range of information about antique lures and lure boxes. For Pavey, his grandfather ignited the flame that sparked his passion for collecting these items. Pavey recalls,


As a child, I really admired my grandfather. In a cluttered closet beneath the stairwell that led to his basement, he kept all his fishing gear. Sometimes, he would pull it out and take me and the other grandkids fishing. To a tiny child, the fishing trips were exciting – and so were the tackle boxes loaded with lures and gear. By the time I was a teenager, I was interested in antique lures, and when Grandad died, I inherited the few wooden baits he still had in his fishing closet. It was the beginning of what has become a lifelong fascination with lures, lure collecting and the history and culture that helped shape America’s recreational fishing tackle industry. It has also been a hobby that has given me countless close friends, which is what makes lure collecting even more special.


All collectors have their personal preferences, and for Pavey, it’s lure boxes. “I collect early lures that are new in the box, with the emphasis being on the box the lure came in. Early boxes are often much rarer than the lures themselves, and I’ve always believed that people will linger longer over a collection of boxed lures than just loose lures,” he stated. And what makes boxes so special? “They have wonderful graphics and jingles. And often have the name, patent date, manufacturer, city and state and ‘claim to fame’ printed handsomely on the box, which sort of makes them self-interpreting displays.


A lure that remains new in the box with all its associated paperwork is quite rare, compared to just the lure itself.” Interestingly, boxed lures can net an owner a lot of cash. “It is not unusual for an exceptional, early boxed lure to fetch several thousand dollars, although most antique lures are well below the $100 range, with many nice things that can be owned for under $10 or $15,” Pavey explained.


Pavey also believes that because angling is not a spectator sport, it has become America’s most popular recreational activity. “Fishing is the great American pastime. Unlike pro football or the World Series, fishing is something you do and enjoy – not something you watch. Just think of the stories the men who fished together and used all these baits might have swapped while casting for walleye or largemouths at their favorite lake,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. Unlike other objects that fascinate collectors, such as stamps, coins, or baseball cards, fishing lures have utilitarian purposes: they are used frequently, travel to exotic places, get stuck in fishes’ mouths, and wrestle with the rain, wind, ice, and mud. With antique lures, the memories of such events imbue them with a magical nostalgia. While stamps and coins have important purposes, they are more impersonal and less exotic or adventurous than fishing tackle’s purposes. And baseball cards’ purposes have generally been restricted to serving as collectibles.


Pavey also believes that antique fishing lures are uniquely democratic, and therefore, uniquely American items. “Best of all, the availability of old lures is almost limitless, and quality collections can be assembled for almost every income level,” he stated. More importantly, he believes these collectibles reflect important developments in the history of recreational sports and their economic impact on America. “Fishing with wooden lures is a uniquely American invention. Spoons, spinners, and flies were devised in Europe, but wooden lures that entered the market around 1900 were both artistic and utilitarian. Their appeal and availability (and high price at the time) made them a wealthy man’s sport in the beginning, but eventually everyone fished with lures,” Pavey wrote. “The important fact is that the lures we collect today helped create the transition of fishing from a sustenance activity to a recreational pastime. Lures helped fuel the rise of recreational sport fishing that has become so huge today,” he added.


Of course, pursuing antique fishing tackle represents an adrenaline rush comparable to finding other rare antiques. “I get as much satisfaction out of chasing old tackle as I do from owning it. There is a certain pride that goes with owing a near-mint lure that is almost 100 years old. But dusting off an old box from a long forgotten attic and finding that lure yourself, and being the first collector to sift through an unpicked tackle box, offers a wonderful thrill,” Pavey said. Since fishing is the aquatic or maritime version of hunting, and since, as Pavey notes, “Most of us love fishing, and most of us got started collecting because the lures bring us great joy,” logic suggests that anglers or hunters are even more predisposed to “fishing” or “hunting” for antique objects. According to Pavey, the quarry is more than abundant: “Collecting antique wooden lures is not only easy, but there are plenty of old tackle boxes still sitting in basements and garages, just waiting to be found.” Pavey also notes other features of this hobby that attract him: the opportunity to travel, the opportunity for substantial investments, and the opportunity to expand one’s social network reflect additional reasons why collectors pursue antique fishing paraphernalia.


The antique fishing collectibles industry has a bright future. “Quality lures can only go up in value, and I expect that many of the common plastic lures from the ‘60s, ‘70s, etc. that people who are in their 30s today fished with as children will become the next generation of collectible baits,” Pavey explained. He continued,


The best part about this hobby is the ever-widening availability of quality items. With the advent of the Internet, and places like eBay, it is easier than ever to find and buy antique lures. That has caused prices to fall steadily over the last half-decade, making it possible for beginners to enter this hobby at a distinct advantage. Also, it is important to mention that lure collecting – and the formation of the NFLCC – got its beginnings in the mid-1970s. Many of the older folks who collected back then have passed away or are growing very old, so their often bountiful and large collections (or accumulations) are now being split up and coming available, which further encourages opportunity among today’s collectors.


As I conclude this article, I hear my daughter asking my wife, “Mommy, where’s daddy?” My attention is seized. “He’s probably upstairs, honey, working on The Tackle Box,” my wife responds. Yes, but in about 30 minutes, I’ll be dusting off the tackle box in my basement that my grandfather used to catch fluke along the Jersey shore. With fishing, what you catch is not always in the water.


A salt- and freshwater angler for more than 30 years, Chris has been fascinated (or obsessed, depending on your temperament) with the sport ever since he caught his first sunfish in Lawrence Brook with his grandfather, Leo. He is an avid catch-and-release angler, and enjoys both spin and fly-fishing. Although he'll pursue anything with gills, his favorite targets are rockfish, trout, and shad. His PopMatters monthly column, The Tackle Box, explores the confluence of the sport and popular culture.


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