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The art of the lure.

Always lively and often odd, old wooden saltwater fishing lures have become sought-after pieces of folk art.

When Dad passed away, I got his fishing tackle. As his only son, it was mine by default, I guess. Since I prefer to do my fishing with a camera, it was quite some time, years in fact, before I looked into the old wooden box where he kept his saltwater gear. In the top tray were jigs, metal spoons and about a dozen lures. Beneath that were a pair of heavy, monofilament-laden spinning reels, some red and white plastic bobbers, and a small assortment of snap swivels, lead weights and Eagle Claw nickel-plated hooks, the usual stuff of fishing.

The lures were wooden, with blue, green and silver finishes. They were bigger and heavier than the freshwater bass plugs I fished with when I was a kid. And they were simpler, without all the metal propellers, hula skirts and wire weedguards. Some of them had "PIKIE" printed on the back in gold letters, indicating that they were made by one of the most prominent manufacturers, Creek Chub Bait Co. of Garrett, Indiana. In the 1950s and '60s, Dad had been an avid and skillful fisherman, and I could imagine him in bait and tackle stores, picking up the little boxes one by one and examining the shapes and colors of the lures inside, pondering the relative fish-fooling potential of each.

The more I looked at the old lures, the more interesting they became. It wasn't just because they had belonged to my father. Each one seemed to have a personality of its own. Some were playful, unabashedly goofy. Some were odd, even a little unsettling. Some had gold-painted eyes with black pupils, omniscient as the eyes of owls. Others had beady glass eyes, or no eyes at all. Some had red grinning mouths and red, comma-shaped gill slits. A few, like the Pikies, had a big metal lip designed to make them dart back and forth and wiggle around when you reeled them in.

Each lure was finely crafted and meticulously painted by hand. Like other forms of American folk art, their designs were unconventional, stylized and naive. I decided to learn more about old lures. Maybe I thought that somehow, along the way, I'd learn a little more about Dad as well.

I began casting about for fishing lure aficionados. Within a few calls, I landed a couple of keepers: Randy Runey, owner of one of the best collections of sportsfishing memorabilia around, and Bill Stuart, director of the Museum of Fishing (recently relocated to the Polk County Courthouse in Bartow) and co-author of the monumental reference guide, "Florida Lure Makers and Their Lures." I had a stringerful of questions about Dad's tackle, the history of lure making in America and the increasingly popular hobby of collecting antique lures. Everything they told me added to my appreciation of the lures.

In Florida, the average tackle box is as likely to be stocked with bigmouth bass baits as it is with saltwater gear. Prior to June 2, 1932, the day George W. Perry landed a 22-pound, 4-ounce leviathan on Georgia's Altamaha River, the world's biggest largemouth hailed from a lake in tiny San Antonio, Florida, just two hours north of Sarasota. Perry used a surface lure, a jointed Creek Chub Wiggle Fish. It was a typical shallow-running freshwater plug, designed to look and act like an injured shiner. Other bass baits are traditionally patterned after frogs or baby birds. By comparison, most saltwater lures are built to sink fast and run deep. They're equipped with heavy, rustproof hardware and usually painted to resemble baitfish.

The national companies refer to the Big Five: Heddon, Shakespeare, South Bend, Pflueger and Creek Chub were all well-established by the 1930s and all produced lures of exceptional beauty and craftsmanship. Their wares graced the shelves of bait shops and hardware stores throughout the state. They competed with more than 400 homegrown lure makers, ranging from prominent entities such as the Eger Bait Company of Bartow and Barracuda Brand Fishing Tackle of St. Petersburg to unassuming, independent fishermen such as Tampa's Henry Bunta, who whittled speckled trout lures out of mangrove splinters.

Snook Pies and Kingfish Wobblers. Zara Spooks, Tarp-Orenos and Torpecudas. Even the names are peculiar. Only obliquely - if at all - do they refer to what the lures do in the water, or what fish they're meant to attract. Sometimes they're named after movie stars or cultural icons, like Mae West, Dillinger, Barnacle Bill. Other times they're inside jokes that only the manufacturer and a few fishermen understand. (For instance, Heddon's "Zaragossa" was supposedly named for an infamous street in the red light district of Pensacola. It was said that fish found the lure's wriggling action so irresistible that the fisherman who used one always got lucky.)

While no Florida manufacturer ever rivaled the Big Five in terms of national prominence, many produced lures of peerless quality. Here are a few of the most significant. For the sake of symmetry, we'll call them the Florida Five.

1. PORTER BAIT CO. (Daytona Beach). In the 1920s, Richard Owen Porter began making saltwater lures from wooden clothespins. As demand for his products grew, he designed and marketed a variety of baits, including the spectacularly successful Porter Sea Hawk, said to have caught more saltwater fish than any other lure. Porter lures usually have painted eyes with three concentric rings and a small painted bull's-eye on the belly.

2. PFEFFER LURES (Orlando). Jim pfeffer began marketing his hand-carved lures in 1927. Although his designs were copied by other manufacturers, including South Bend, none could match the exquisite paint patterns his wife applied to the lure bodies, with matchsticks and a stencil made from window screen.

3. EARL GRESH'S WOOD PARADE. St. Petersburg's Earl Parker Gresh was a renowned angler and a master craftsman. He made elegant wooden purses for the Fifth Avenue fashion elite and wooden tackle boxes for presidents Hoover and Eisenhower. Beginning in the 1950s, Gresh sold his finely crafted lures in custom presentation cases, six to a case. A number of these gift sets are still floating around, as recipients often found them too attractive to use. All Gresh lures are eagerly sought by collectors.

4. EGER BIT CO. (Bartow). In the 1930s, William F. Eger designed a number of highly innovative fishing lures, including some that were covered with frogskin. Another Eger bait, the Florida Special, proved so deadly to both freshwater and saltwater gamefish that it was nicknamed "The Dillinger."

5. BARRACUDA BRAND FISHING TACKLE (also known as the Florida Fishing Tackle Manufacturing Company). Barracuda produced many successful lures, including, after 1949, the Dalton Special, said to be the most popular and effective largemouth bass plug ever made. The St. Petersburg-based company is probably best remembered for its logo, which features the word "Barracuda" in bright red letters on a pale green background.

The era of the hand-carved fishing lure ended in the 1960s, when most manufacturers switched from wood to injection-molded plastics. Though some plastic lures are extremely rare, few collectors find them interesting. There is something offputting about them; even familiar designs seem cool and impersonal. They may be no less attractive to fish, but they're certainly less inviting to the hand and less appealing to the heart.

As it turned out, none of Dad's old wooden lures was particularly rare or valuable. But I wouldn't part with them even if they were. They remind me of those times when he'd disappear for part of the day, then show up later, relaxed, cheerful and sunburned. They may not be worth much to collectors, but those memories make them precious to me.

RESOURCES

Help for the novice collector

WEBSITES

Michael Echols Antiquelures (www.antiquelures.com/) Joe's Old Lures (207.201.129.18/) Ron Gast Antique Fishing Lures & Tackle (www.geocities.com/yosemite/6310/)

CLUBS

National Fishing Lure Collectors Club (NFLCC) P.O. Box 1791 Dearborn, MI 48121

Florida Fishing Tackle Collectors Inc. P.O. Box 420703 Kissimmee, FL 34742

BOOKS

Florida Lure Makers and Their Lures. Douglas J. Brace, Russell D. Riddle Jr. and Bill Stuart. The Museum of Fishing, Bartow, Florida 1997

Old Fishing Lures and Tackle. Carl F. Lucky, Books American, 1996
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Title Annotation:saltwater fishing
Author:Phillips, James
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:May 1, 1999
Words:1380
Previous Article:Adventures in learning.
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