News & Events
Discover Mid-America February 2009
more than just catching a fish
Karl White was eight years old when he decided he had to have one, even if it was the most expensive lure of its time to produce. But it was more than the buck ten it cost to buy it.
“It was the idea of seeing something like that going through the surface,” said White some six decades later, “that when you pull it, (the aluminum wings) go side to side.”
White still has that Heddon Crazy Crawler, a lure designed as surface bait and made to resemble a small bird. In fact, White also has tens of thousands of old lures, reels, boats, motors and just about anything that can fit in a tackle box, or not, having to do with fishing.
Karl and Beverly White spent 55 years collecting all things fishing, donating some 20,000 pieces, valued at more than $4 million, to the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks to establish The Karl and Beverly White National Fishing Tackle Museum, which officially opened June 2003.
The nonprofit Oklahoma Aquarium, which attracts approximately 400,000 visitors annually, considered housing the White Museum a “perfect fit,” said Ann Money, curator of the museum collection.
“It’s one of those things that sets us apart, a way of encouraging the community, particularly children, to get out in nature. Fishing is a way to appreciate the environment.”
As a complement to the aquarium, the museum has proven popular enough that an expansion is being talked about. “Quite a few items aren’t on display,” said Money.
The museum may be Karl and Beverly’s legacy, but Karl admits he can’t stop collecting ”anything that that has to do with fishing.” He’s proud of what he’s done and says he’s as fascinated now as when he started.
To those of us that aren’t a fisherman (or fisherwoman), Karl’s passion is a learning experience, particularly when he says that the most collectible lures — the ones that bring the highest prices — didn’t catch fish.
“Lures were built to catch fishermen, not fish,” said Karl.
Perhaps that bit of wisdom led Karl to help found The National Fishing Lure Collectors Club in 1976, which goes beyond just lures. With some 5,000 members worldwide, the NFLCC is the premier fishing tackle collecting organization, sponsoring shows around the country and publishing the NFLCC Gazette four times a year.
The sheer amount of lures and other fishing items made — from large companions, small-town operations to bench hobbyists — can cause many NFLCC members to specialize.
Dean Murphy from Jefferson City, MO collects only fishing tackle, including rod and reel, minnow buckets and traps, and patent drawings, made in Missouri. His collection dates from 1910 to current, including rare items made by the defunct C.A. Clark Manufacturing Co. once based in Springfield.
“They represent most fully what is Missouri lures — Yankee ingenuity,” said Murphy.
Nebraska collector Gary Zaruba splits his collecting energy between hunting decoys and lures, explaining, “There’s too much to know about everything (else).”
Zaruba, from Kearney, specializes in collecting Wright & McGill fly rods, reels and other items. The Denver-based company was founded in 1925.
“I have bugs, fake crickets, tiny mice, plastic lures — they stopped making lures in the 1960s and those are prized collectibles,” said Zaruba.
He is also into “color” collecting, especially Pflueger rainbow lures. That South Carolina-based company, better known for rods and reels, was founded in 1881.
The price in most everything in fishing-related collectibles, said Zaruba, is influenced by its rarity.
Old lures linger in advertisements
Few things have appreciated more than the artifacts once carried in a battered fishing tackle box. For those who cannot always acquire them, the next best thing might be vintage advertisements that originally lured customers to them.
From the ABC Minnow Company to the Zephaloy reel from Ocean City, there was much for the fisherman to choose from during the 1940s and 1950s. It was a golden age of fishing gear products and accompanying printed advertisements.
America had come a long way in the capacity of providing everything from casting rods and jitterbugging lures in a relatively few decades.
Until the 19th century most fishing tackle was imported from Europe. It began to become an American manufacturing thing in the early 1800s. As the decades advanced, the near-folk art of making fishing lures sprang up in various parts of the country. During the first half of the 20th century small operations dotted the country. Likewise rods and reels, too, became mostly made in the USA.
Cities and towns of the fishing gear trade appeared like train station stops — Utica, NY, Akron, OH, South Bend, IN or Dowgiac, MI.
“The late 1930s was a period of great expansion in the fishing product line for most companies as recovery from the Depression Era was nearly complete,” notes world-class expert Russell Lewis, author of the formidable four-volume Modern Fishing Lure Collectibles books. “Then all new developments were halted in the early 1940s as fishing lure companies geared up for production of war-time materials.
“It was not really until 1946 or 1947 that most companies had again switched back to full production of fishing tackle.”
The advertisements of that fine era reflected, in part, the equally fine workmanship. American workers were crafting lures from mostly hand-carved wood and spraying them with layers of enamel. The lures were given glass eyes and goofy names to enhance their appeal. Soon the mainstay of wood would give way to machine-molded plastic.
“As service personnel returned home from France, Italy and England, many brought with them a new idea in fishing — a reel that one could use without backlash,” explains Lewis. Or perhaps a sleeker designed lure or some other bit of fishing equipment.
Further, “Many small companies combined the new plastic manufacturing techniques that met the need for smaller, lighter tackle and offered their lures to the buying public. Many of these small companies had short lives and the lures are thus collectible due to rarity. Also, many went on to capture a large part of the market for many years.”
Either way, the advertising in major male-oriented magazines like True and hunting and fishing magazines like Outdoor Life was very much a part of the marketing process as the country approached the mid-century.
Probably the best-known name in the U.S. during the decades of the 1940s and the 1950s in terms of fishing gear was that of James Heddon. Back in the 1890s, Heddon formed the Heddon Tackle Company and — true to form — helpers carved out fishing plugs from solid wood and decorated them with women’s hatpins to look like beaded eyes.
Most of the Heddon items were still made of wood in the 1940s although most had evolved in plastic products by the 1950s. Notable and advertised items included the River Runt, Midgit Digit and the Crazy Crawler. Their Dowagiac Minnows meanwhile varied in colors from sienna-yellow to red.
Heddon grew diverse enough to even make frog-like lures and achieve some fame nationally with the Luny Frog and the Spoony Frog. Other small companies made frog-like lures as well including the Halik Frog, which as manufactured in Moose Lake, MN.
Still another significant lure maker was Fred Arbogast, who launched his business during the 1920s from a small brick shop in Akron, OH. Ultimately his remarkable talents developed such colorful artificial lures as the Hula Shirt and the Jitterbug. The Jitterbug, named by Arbogast for the dancing craze that was sweeping the country during the 1940s, was regularly advertised and became a bestseller of the fishing world.
In its heyday, the Jitterbug was available in six colors. Complete with “exciting surface action to fascinate fish and fishermen,” it sold for $1.21 each.
Other particularly appealing fishing-related items of that era included the Pflueger Wizard Wiggler sold by the Enterprise Manufacturing Company in Akron and the Speed Shad marketed by the American Fork and Hoe Company from Geneva, OH. There was also the colorful Amazin Maizie lure for P & K Incorporated in Chicago. It sold in 1948, along with the Walkie Talkie and Bright Eyes, for $1.25 each.
After those “golden era” days of American fishing gear manufacturing, the vast numbers of such firms dwindled considerably. Ultimately most firms ceased to exist or relinquished the existing market to imports from elsewhere in the world.
For those not so fortunate to have stumbled across the old tackle box hidden away in grandpa’s garage, there are always the vintage advertisements.
As expert Lewis concludes, “The advertising is a great photographic journey through years of fishing tackle development.”
UPCOMING ANTIQUE FISHING TACKLE SHOWS
Oklahoma Aquarium/Karl and Beverly White National
Fishing Tackle Museum
National Fishing Lure Collectors Club
Antique Fish Lures & Lure Boxes
Old & Antique Fishing Lure and Reel Clubs
Fishing Lure Collectibles
Joe’s Old Lures