Angling for Antique Fishing Lures

Legend has it that many years ago, after hours of fruitless fishing, a rather disgusted angler sat in his boat lamenting that all-too-familiar refrain: “Why aren’t they biting?!”

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After pondering his situation, he expressed his frustration by angrily flinging an empty cigarette pack into the water. After the package landed, something happened. An unseen force jabbed hard at the box sending it several inches into the air. Not a little unsettled, the angler watched as the box was struck again. This time however, the force was seen. It was a big black bass. An idea was born.

Perhaps this tale is a bit far fetched, but who’s to say?

Lure development from that point was painfully slow at first. It was a gradual process, covering many years, from the first crudely painted, haphazardly hook-rigged, carved blocks of wood to the works of art we fish with today.

Probably the oldest manufactured ancestor of today’s plugs was the “Phantom Minnow,” sometimes called the false minnow. This English-made lure originally appeared in America during the early 1800s. The first of these consisted of a metal head with metal fins on either side and soft body usually made of silk (illustrated above).

The Phantom Minnow remained essentially the same for the next 75 to 80 years. The lure was one of the first artificial baits to sport both the barbed and the treble hook together. The number and type of hooks varied. An 1890s William Mills & Sons catalog shows a “Celebrated Phantom Minnow,” available in 12 lengths, describing the lure as being “… made of silk, coated with rubber, very light, very fine for black bass and pickerel.”

The Phantom Minnow can be found in several catalogs under various “Phantom” names until the 1940s. It appears that manufacturers settled on three treble hooks as the best design. Most of the illustrations in these old catalogs show three treble hooks in various configurations.

The first American artificial bait incorporating wood as a component — and known to have actually been manufactured — is listed in the U.S. patent records is H.C. Brush’s “Floating Spinners,” manufactured in Brushes Mills, N.Y. The patent was granted to Brush on Aug. 22, 1876. The lure is essentially a spinner bait, not a plug. It consists of a red-painted, natural wood (cork) float, center-mounted on the shaft of a revolving spinner.

There were no major innovations in artificial lures until around 1890 when the first U.S.-made artificial minnows, with the look of a real fish, began to appear. This bait was usually made of wood. Early copies of the original are sometimes found made of hollow aluminum. This particular bait is the first “plug.” Early on, artificial lures were fashioned to look like other critters and made of other materials. Frogs, mice and crawfish seem to have been the most popular.

Although they were eclectic in their offerings, American fishing tackle companies had little to offer the bait-casting angler prior to 1890. The early catalogs catered primarily to the fly fisherman, but did offer limited choices for those who wished to troll or cast spoons and spinners. The plug was rarely mentioned. It was just too new and not yet widely popular. Plugs began to appear more frequently in catalogs around 1892. Along with the “Phantom Minnow,” such things as the Caledonian Minnow, the Protean Minnow, the Devon Minnow. and various hard and soft rubber minnows began to appear. The rubber minnows were sometimes offered in a luminous version.

James Heddon, the founder of James Heddon & Son tackle company, was one of the early pioneers in the lure manufacturing industry. There is no concrete evidence to support the contention that he was the first to manufacture what we today refer to as the plug, and certainly his company was not the first to produce artificial baits. His story, however, illustrates what was happening in that era.

In the years 1898 to 1901, Heddon whittled out a few wooden frogs and minnows for himself and some friends. These early plugs became the basis for the company, founded in 1901.

Naturally these baits were extremely limited in number and precious few exist today. A version of each was made commercially available by the infant Heddon company, but no early catalogs were found that illustrated them.
About the same time, the other bait companies were beginning to show a few plugs in their catalogs. One of the first was a revolutionary concept developed by William Shakespeare, Jr. This is the famous Shakespeare “Revolution” Bait and a variation, the Shakespeare-Worden “Bucktail Spinner.” Both were made of wood.

Shakespeare writes in a 1902 catalog that the Revolution Bait “… takes its name from the fact that it has revolutionized fishing in the vicinity of Kalamazoo (Mich.), where it was developed. Whereas formerly all anglers used live bait for bass, pickerel, pike and other game fish, now nothing is used but the Shakespeare baits. The reason is very apparent, as these baits catch good strings of fish where every other kind of bait fails,” this as seen in Fine Points About Tackle-Being a Catalog of Fine Fishing Tackle, suited to the Needs of Anglers Who Follow the “Art of Bait-Casting,” 1902, by William Shakespeare Jr.

The Shakespeare-Worden Bucktail Spinner derives its name from Shakespeare’s modification of the Revolution Bait by adding the bucktail originated by F.G. Worden of South Bend, Ind., the founder of the South Bend Bait Co.
There were many other developments in the first decade of the 1900s. Ans B. Decker originated a top-water plug, the “Lake Hapatcong” plug.

There were several close copies of this design, not the least of which was the Mills Yellow Kid. Named after a popular comic strip character of the times, this lure was made of copper. Mills also brought out a similar plug made of wood called the Jersey Queen.

Also during this period were born the famed “Dowagiac Minnows” by Heddon, the “Coaxer” and the “Teaser.”
The “Coaxer” and “Teasers” were developed by the W.J. Jamison Co. The original models were made of cork enameled white with wings of red felt and the tail was composed of a number of red feathers.

Variations of the original “Phantom Minnow” continued. The year 1906 saw the first Bing’s “Weedless Nemahbin Minnow” by A.F. Bingenheimer of Milwaukee, and in 1907 the K&K Manufacturing Co. of Toledo, Ohio, touted their “Animated Minnows” as an unprecedented development. They consisted of a divided wooden minnow, jointed in middle so that they wriggled along in the water.

A 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch catalog illustrated a soft rubber mouse covered with real skin. “A splendid bait for black bass. Mounted with single hook of proper size and watch-spring swivel.”

The “Famous Moonlight Floating Bait” appeared first in a 1910 copy of the Angler’s Guide. This curious bait was called by its maker the “Original and only successful night fishing bait.” This apparently was because it was painted with a luminous paint which glowed in the dark.

About the same time, the Detroit Glass Minnow Tube Co. introduced a lure in which one could place a live minnow. It was a glass test-tube-like affair with a cap allowing circulation of water, and four treble hooks. According to its advertisement in the May 1915 issue of Field & Stream, the bait had a “Magnifying glass tube” and the minnow would remain alive all day.

The earliest plugs with a design allowing water to flow through the body, thereby imparting movement and water disturbance characteristics, were developed around 1912. They are called “sonic” lures.

“The Booster Bait,” advertised in a pre-1915 Bob Smith Tackle and Camping Goods catalog, states it was a prize winner at the Seattle Exposition. It was a plug “ … filled with edible matter and containing a capsule which, when placed in water, dissolves, throwing off a strong taste and smell.”

Somewhere in this time period the Vacuum Bait Co. was formed. It marketed an oddball affair ostensibly developed after years of research by a “Professor Howe.” (See Howe’s Vacuum Bait.) The plug was a surface lure and the shape caused a spray while retrieving. It was later produced by South Bend.

A particularly clever weedless plug developed around 1914 was called “The Captor.” It was invented by J.B. Fischer of Chicago.

Another ingenious invention, a “Spinner” plug, was the “Chippewa” introduced in 1913 by the Immell Bait Co. in Blair, Wis. It is a wooden plug with the center portion cut out and a piece of twisted metal placed on an armature in such a way as to revolve when retrieved, causing a flashing effect. (See Immell Bait Co.)

It was during the years between 1900 and 1920 that Creek Chub, South Bend, Heddon, Pflueger, Jamison, Rush, Mills, etc., established themselves firmly in the lure business. Many of the designs developed then are still in use today.

From 1920 on, there were other developments in plugs, but these were more of a technical nature, such as improved swivel designs and better hook hardware. The experimentation with materials other than wood and metal, such as the use of Tenite and mother of pearl, are good examples. Perhaps one of the most important developments influencing design and manufacture was the arrival of plastics.

Other important influences were better paints and increasing interest in researching the habits of fish. The latter still has an enormous influence on plug body design and surface decoration. ?

We hope you enjoyed this exclusive excerpt from Old Fishing Lures and Tackle. Save today when you buy your copy at

You may also enjoy these articles by Russell E. Lewis:

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•  Duck decoys fly beyond utility: they’re art
•  Collecting North American Indian artifacts

Related articles and sites
•  Fishing collectibles — Reel them in
•  Old and Antique Fishing Lure Collector’s Site
•  Historical perspectives on antique fishing lures

Here’s a clip on Carl F. Luckey’s Old Fishing Lures and Takle, 6th edition by Krause Publications.


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