My father’s tackle box was filled with odds and ends—an assortment of hooks, lines, sinkers, and a variety of colorful lures. My favorite bait was bright green, rubber, and shaped like an over-tentacled squid. I was never sure of its intended target, but I’m certain it wasn’t the tiny bluegill that hung around the docks I fished from.
Needless to say, I never caught anything with it.
Though that cephalopod would likely be considered “vintage” today, it would be worth far less now than when my father purchased it decades ago—if he still had it, that is. I imagine it’s stuck in the weeds at the bottom of Mark Twain Lake right now, one, maybe two tentacles hanging on to its rubber base for dear life, the rest chewed off by time and minnows.
But there is a market for vintage and antique fishing lures, and estate sales are a great place to find them.
The use of fishing lures is almost as old as fishing itself, but the business of them truly began in the mid- to late- 1800s when people began designing, patenting, and selling their contraptions. And those lures, made by the founding fathers of the modern angling industry, are sought out by collectors today.
What's it worth?
Made mostly of metal or wood by companies like Shakespeare, Heddon, Pfleuger, South Bend or Creek Chub, vintage lure prices can range from a couple bucks to thousands of dollars, depending on age, quality, artistry, and scarcity.
The Giant Haskell Minnow, for example, is one of the rarest—only one of these 10” copper lures are known to exist, and it sold at an auction for over $100,000. The smaller versions of the minnow are also rare, though slightly less so, and have sold for more than $10,000. The metal craftsmanship displayed in the one-of-a-kind minnow, and Riley Haskell’s fame as a gunsmith created a perfect storm of intrigue and interest, which drove the price up.
It’s a rare occasion for a tiny lure to bring in such a big price, but there are plenty worth a pretty penny. “There are so many different lures valued over $1,000,” Stuart Strange, president of the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club, said in an email. He spoke of the “all-time classic” Miller’s Reversible Minnow made in Cayuga Springs, NY in 1914. “Even though this lure doesn’t have glass eyes or hand-painted gill marks, it has such a unique design that combines both metal spinners and a 3-sectioned wood body. It was only made in three colors that are all very appealing, and to top it off, it was originally sold in a paper label maroon box with a picture of the lure on the top,” Strange said. “The lure was not made for a very long time, so of course the simple economics of supply and demand play a role in elevating the price of this lure.”
The law of supply and demand also means many of the more rare lures are also the least successful, as far as the ability to catch fish is concerned. When it was discovered a lure was not bringing in fish, production was discontinued, creating rare, if useless, lures.
Those that are successful are still in production today. Manufacturers may make slight adjustments, but the many lures go basically unchanged over the decades. The Johnson Silver Minnow, Helin Flatfish, and Red Eye Wiggler, for example, have “undergone limited or no design changes in over 80 years,” according to Strange.
Some people see the lures as a business opportunity, that “It’s easy to buy a tackle box at a garage sale for $20, piece it out. . .and make a few hundred dollars,” Strange said.
But most collectors are drawn to the hobby by stronger stuff. Many of those angling for the best vintage lures are anglers themselves, and are seeking the lures their fathers and grandfathers used. Others simply appreciate the artistry that goes into them, often handcrafted, sometimes handpainted, and frequently fragile.
It’s also easy to appreciate the innovation of design. From the Thoren Minnow Chaser, a wood and steel lure made to look like a small fish chased by a larger fish, in the hopes of attracting a full-sized catch, to the Detroit Glass Minnow Tube, which, as the name suggests, was simply a glass tube meant to hold a live minnow as a means of attracting its predators. And let’s not ignore the wide variety of frog-like lures, with arms and legs of varying degrees of articulation and lifelike movement.
Because these lures can cost a considerable amount of money, it’s important you know what to look for. Collectors naturally seek out the best specimens they can. If the box is included, even better.
Quality counts. Careless repackaging and time can both create visible wear on an otherwise valuable lure. The many hook points on the Bass Oreno, for example, can scratch and chip the paint. Exposure to the elements can dull the varnish.
Though the lures pictured here are not of high value, they serve as good examples of the damage that could be done, that you should watch for. On the left, see the faint circles caused by a dull end of a hook, through the freedom of motion created by its split ring. Below, severe scratching caused by the sharp hooks themselves.
And check the hooks as well. Though they may not be painstakingly handcrafted, the original accoutrements are important regardless. You can see, there is a hook missing on the left lure which, honestly, I didn’t notice at first. The hooks—all of them—should be in good shape, or at least the same condition as the lure itself. If they’re not, there’s a good chance something has been replaced or refurbished. Which brings me to me next point.
Watch for repairs and refreshed paint on a lure. A bad repaint job, or any re-paint job, really, will affect the resale value. Many of these lures are hand-carved and hand-painted. They’re works of art to some. And just as the Ecce Homo fresco of Jesus lost much of its value when a well-meaning art-lover attempted to restore the famous painting, so too will a repainted lure.
Resale value isn’t necessarily important to all collectors. Some cast their antique lures out into the water, hoping to make a catch. It’s a more popular activity overseas, though. “Fishing the vintage tackle seems to be more popular in Japan where I have seen several photos of fish being caught on collectible Heddon lures from the 1930s,” Strange said. He, too, is no stranger to vintage fishing. “I have cast a few South Bend Bass Orenos, CCBCO [Creek Chub Bait Company] Pikie Minnows, and regularly fish inexpensive lures.”
Strange suggests new collectors should take it upon themselves to educate themselves through books, not just websites. “Take the time to read about the lure manufacturers, their offerings, and how they evolved over the years,” Strange said. Online resources and even longtime collectors can have inaccurate information, he said. Some makes and models of antique lures are still made today, and it’s important to be able to differentiate between the evolutions and identify the original.
“It’s important to note that our hobby has changed immensely over the past 30 years,” Strange said, “but one fact that hasn’t changed is knowledge is power.”
Images of the Halik Frog and Royal Brand Fishing Lure courtesy of www.mrlurebox.com.