Fishing collectibles — Reel them in

Charlotte, N.C. Memories stirred by antique tackle are often larger and more lingering than tales of fish that got away. Through these collectibles, anglers feel a connection with previous generations who also spent Autumn days along peaceful rivers backed by colorful foliage.

Recalling an old rod he used 40 years ago, Ron Schara wrote in the foreword of Eric L. Sorenson’s Classic Fishing Lures and Tackle: “I don’t remember the fish we caught together, but I haven’t forgotten the rod was a good and reliable fishing partner.”

Evolution of fishing rods moved at a slow pace prior to the late 1800s. Individually  hand-crafted wooden poles were made for those who could afford them. Those who couldn’t made their own.

A pole’s length was always a factor in earlier times. Wooden rods, connected by metal sleeves or leather strips, resulted in longer, but less stable and heavier poles. The angler had to stand away from shore to accommodate the pole’s length, then move further back to pull in the fish.

American-made rods had been considered inferior to Britain’s. With the importation of exotic woods in the 1800s, especially light weight and strong bamboo, commercial rod-building exploded. Eric L. Sorenson wrote in Classic Fishing Lures and Tackle, that bamboo “catapulted American rod builders into the spotlight.” British domination ended when Americans started making split-cane bamboo rods commercially in the mid-to-late 1800s.

Angling for business were Samuel Phillippe and his son, Salon; Charles F. Murphy; and Hiram Lewis Leonard. Their exquisitely made rods remained unaffordable for most. Charles F. Orvis Company used mass production to make rods more attainable. South Bend Bait Company; Shakespeare Company; James Heddon and Sons; Montaque Rod and Reel Company followed Orvis in the 1900s. Commercial split-cane rods saturated the market. Sport fishing had splashed into every community. Today these are more easily found than individually made rods and usually sell for around $50.

Another 19th century innovation was bait casting rods. Dr James Henshall made a rod that was adaptable to the multiplying reel. This shorter, lighter, and easier-to-handle rod was manufactured by Orvis Company. Not long afterwards, James M. Clark introduced a shorter split-cane rod, called the Chicago, designed specifically for bait casting. Although Chicago’s popularity blew Henshall out of the water, both innovations spawned the lure industry.

Fiberglass rods of the 1940s were popular until graphite rods were introduced in the 1970s. These stronger, lighter, and smaller-in-diameter poles couldn’t be better for fishing performance. Most new rods today are made of graphite.

The majority of collectors hone in on handmade split-cane bamboo rods of the late 1800s through mid-1900s. Although early fiberglass rods are gaining popularity, the former fetch the highest prices. Enthusiasts prefer the beauty of handmade over factory-made ones.

Sorenson wrote that the union of rods and reels has “endured for more than two centuries.” The reel is the receptacle, casting tool, and brake for the fisherman.

The Chinese combined rods and reels in the 12th century and they emerged around the 17th century in Europe. The first notable American reel-maker was Kentuckian George Snyder whose early 1800s innovation was a multiplying reel which allowed the angler to cast from the reel.

Frederick vom Hofe and his sons, Edward and Julius, are known for producing high-quality reels in the late 1800s. North Carolina collector Max Hand’s main interest is early reels, both saltwater and freshwater…an enthusiasm that began twelve years ago after seeing his first vom Hofe reels. He explained, “I love the reels of Edward and Julius. Edward was a demanding perfectionist who made the best saltwater reels around the turn of the century. Julius was innovative and unafraid to go in new directions…The quality of their reels is astounding…almost like works of art. They maintain their allure even today.”

While the vom Hofes created for anglers who were fishing with hand-made, top-of-the-line reels, other companies started mass production of more affordable ones. Brothers William and August F. Meisselbach began making reliable gear for the average angler in 1888 and continued doing so until 194l. Although there was a spike in the number of companies mass-producing reels in the late 1910s and 1920s, few matched those produced by the Meisselbachs.

Popularity in Florida and California’s big-game fishing brought a surge in saltwater reel manufacturing. William Boschen’s early 1900s drag-and-clutch system was a solution to enormous fish stripping the lines off reels. Julius vom Hofe produced his design.

Stainless steel reels introduced in 1916 were especially important for saltwater gear. Anodized aluminum was even better. Reels made of aluminum alloys were lighter weight and more resistant to saltwater pitting. The 1920s plastic debut not only provided the previous advantages, but also wouldn’t rust. It’s remained a material for reels.

Sorenson considers the spinning reel designs one of the greatest innovations in the first half of the 1900s. Notable companies in that reel development include: Pflueger; Shakespeare; Heddon; South Bend; and William H. Talbot Reel and Manufacturing Company. Sorenson wrote, “Today their work lives on in the hearts of collectors who cherish the wonderful reels they produced.”

To identify early American reels, old patents, letters, and literature must be researched to ascertain when specific models were built. Most marks are those of stores or patent numbers. Early reels are nearly impossible finds, making them highly prized.

“Do we quit when the fish are not biting? Not me. Not you. We change lures.” (Ron Schara, Classic Fishing Lures and Tackle.) Max Hand appreciates the variety, colors, and prices of lures. Attributes shared by both fishing tackle enthusiasts and folk art collectors. Hand, who belongs to the Carolina Antique Tackle Collectors Club, said even though male members might also collect other tackle, lures are the most highly sought. Very few of their women members collect something other than lures…and Hand has learned, “You don’t want to get in their way if they spot something they want!” But he quickly added, “I guess we are all like that.”

Lures seemed the answer to the angler’s ageless question, “Why aren’t the fish biting?”

Until the 1800s, flies were the predominant artificial bait. Earlier fly fishermen concentrated on how flies acted in water, rather than using bright colors. Those in modern times focus on specific colors to attract fish. Authenticating flies tied by famous fly fishermen is nearly impossible. Just owning old ties or outstanding examples is sufficient for most collectors.

Lures changed with the first mass-produced bait, the Phantom Minnow, which made its way from Britain to America’s fishing lines by 1810. Its basic form didn’t change for almost 150 years. Resembling a baitfish, it’s metal head and silk torpedo-shaped body had metal spinner fins and two or three sets of double or treble hooks. A wooden version, Ideal Phantom, was introduced in the 1900s.

The American-made Haskell Minnow, patented in 1859, became one of the most valuable lures ever made. One of the few surviving examples sold in the 1980s for just over $20,000. Higher prices for antique tackle have been paid since then, but this little minnow triggered an explosion in the fishing collectibles market. Approximately three dozen copper and brass (or combination of the two) have been found.

James Heddon changed lures during the 1890s by inventing the plug, a wooden lure. Although a stampede of plug development followed, Sorenson wrote that James Heddon and Sons led the way in innovations. After James’ 1911 death, the company became James Heddon’s Sons and remained in the family until 1955. Sales of less than 10,000 lures a year in 1902 grew to more than 10,000 per day in 1950.
Lures by such companies as Heddon; Plueger; Shakespeare; South Bend; Creek Chub; and Moonlight Bait, made during the first half of the 1900s, are the lures most cherished today.

When Vesco Bait Company produced the first plastic plugs in 1922, other manufacturers rapidly followed with these cheaper and more durable lures. Although wooden ones are favored by most enthusiasts today, Hand finds some collectors, especially younger people, are branching out into plastic.

Another early 1900s colorful folk art are hand-crafted fish decoys. They had the same task as lures…attracting fish. Decoys were mostly created by individuals for winter fishing in harsh climates like the Great Lakes. (Few commercially made decoys did well.) All are expensive collectibles today, often commanding thousands of dollars, whether made by known or forgotten craftspeople. A cautionary word, it can be difficult distinguishing the real McCoys from those made by forgers.

Why has the collecting of fishing memorabilia grown so much today? Rob Pavey answers this question in his introduction to Old Fishing Lures & Tackle (by Carl F. Luckey), “The bottom line is that fishing is the great American pastime, and those of us who revel in the lures of the past are also sharing in the good times of anglers of long ago. We love to fish and we love nostalgia. It’s a match made in heaven.”

“I was drawn to lures because of their names: Dopey, Grumpy.,” Hand says. “You can visualize fishermen of past generations rushing off to catch The Big One with lures like: Go-Getter; O-Boy; Never Fail; Jim Dandy; Fish-Oreno; Viking Frog; Lucky Dog; Whopper-Stopper; Daredevil; and Turbulent Tiger."

Advertisements heightened expectations:

The Brawlers “Start stirring up action the minute they smack the surface.”

Twinkle Bug “Lights up under the water.”

Luny Frog “Floats just like a real frog~Dives and swims.”

Flip-Flap! “The only lure that swims with an up-and-down movement.”

Paw-Paw “Sits like a frog; Kicks like a frog; Looks like a frog.”


“I also collect North Carolina hunting and fishing licenses. These celluloid pin-back ‘buttons’ were made from the late 1920s to 1940. North Carolina issued metal stamped licenses in the late 1930s. One is even shaped like a fish! Very few states went to the trouble of issuing metal licenses, so the North Carolina ones are quite collectible.” (Max Hand on collecting remnants from his state’s history.)

Focusing on rods, reels, and lures, collectors often pass over fishing accessories …until something comes along they cannot resist. Others collect only accessories, either limiting their focus to particular categories or gathering miscellaneous pieces of fishing remnants. Some to catch: Fish and Game warden badges, floats, creels, boxes, vests, stringers, baskets, knives, bait containers, and even outboard motors.

Antique Art and Literature

“To own a slice of that tradition enables a collector to grasp and hold on to a moment in time, while gaining a greater understanding of how anglers of previous generations perceived the sport.” (Eric L. Sorenson, Classic Fishing Lures and Tackle”)

Paintings: Artist Winslow Homer helped fishing paintings gain esteem. The value of paintings, like most fishing collectibles, depend upon who created them and when.

Literature: There seems to be a thirst for materials like manuals, journals, or tales of adventure (whether fiction, non-fiction). Age, edition, the number of copies printed, and condition affect prices. Demand also is a factor, not every old book is valuable. Signed, first editions tend to command higher prices.

The Compleat Angler, by Isaak Walton, is considered one of the most highly acclaimed books ever written about fishing. The first edition, 1653, is nearly impossible to locate, but later editions are worth watching for.

Magazines: Reading magazines with first-hand accounts and looking at their ads help link collectors to past generations of anglers. Magazines can also help date collectibles. The first American magazine for outdoors sports was American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, 1829. Later others, like American Angler, Fishing Gazette, and Forest and Stream, fed anglers’ hungry appetites for adventures, tactics, and technology. Outdoor Life and Sports Afield followed. Illustrations and photographs on magazine covers are moments of fishing history frozen in time.

Catalogs: Before radio and television, companies used catalogs to advertise. These play a vital role in helping collectors research memorabilia.

Trade posters: While catalogs advertised through the mail, these colorful signs pitched tackle sold in stores. Other products, like cigarettes, Life Savers, and cars, used fishing scenes in their advertisements. Usually discarded by store owners, few posters remain and those that do, are valuable collectibles.

Wooden signs These painted advertisements are one-of-a-kind. Signs created by decoy carver, Oscar Peterson, are extremely rare.
Calendars: Those created in the early 1900s are rare. Search for calendars with all the months, no torn pages, no turned back corners, and no writing.

Other items: fishing regulation books, matchbook covers, post cards, carved or mounted fish, postage stamps, sculptures, and brochures

“The amount of stuff you will see is mind-boggling.” (Max Hand) This is Hand’s advice to beginners:

1. Once you establish an area of collecting that appeals to you, try and find the best examples available. Hand believes it is best to have one great example than several mediocre ones.

2. Look for lures in original packaging or boxes. Search for colors and styles that are more scarce. Lures of the most recent vintage (1960-1980) are more reasonably priced.

3. Attend shows such as the Carolina Antique Tackle Collectors Club or National Fishing Lure Collectors Club where members have a wealth of knowledge to share. Hands says of this experience, “The amount of things you will see is simply amazing. Buying, selling, or trading at the shows is half the fun.”

4. Knowledge is key as your collection grows. Hand suggests making a purchase of something you like, then research to learn as much as possible about it.

5. Hand buys at auctions, club shows, private sales, and on-line. He admits to having made mistakes when purchasing on-line and tries to limit those bad experiences, but finds buying on-line is worth the risk. However, his most favorite way to buy is at auctions or shows for the camaraderie, fun, and hands-on experience of it. “That would be tough to replace,” said Hand.

The Karl and Beverly White National Fishing Tackle Museum

Located in Jenks, Okla., this museum is part of the Oklahoma Aquarium. According to their website, they have the largest and most comprehensive antique fishing tackle collection in the world. When Karl White was 8 years old, he saved his ten cents a week allowance until he could buy his first lure, a James Heddon and Sons, Crazy Crawler, selling for $1.10. This lure is included in his donated collection of over 30,000 pieces, valued at more than four million dollars. (Phone: 918-2916-3474)

Carolina Antique Tackle Collectors Club

The club’s mission is to: Enhance and promote the collection & preservation of antique fishing tackle and memorabilia; provide a channel of communication for collectors in the region; further interest in the hobby through interaction with the public; and promote and host collector meets twice a year. They raise awareness by offering free appraisals at meets and provide information on reference material to any who seek it.

Contact: Max Hand, President, 704-365-3653 or

National Fishing Lure Collectors Club

The National Fishing Lure Collectors Club (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 NFLCC encompasses every aspect of collecting fishing-related tackle and ephemera (i.e. Reels, rods, catalogs, advertising, minnow traps and buckets, creels, photos, etc.), not just fishing lures. (info courtesy:

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