Antiques With Allure

By Ryck Lydecker

When he's not wetting a line, BoatUS Member Doc Gamble is collecting, restoring, appraising, buying, selling and swapping the tools of the angler's trade.

When Doc Gamble says he's "goin' fishin'," it might mean he's headed for the flats on Florida's Peace River in his 19-foot Bonita sport fisherman to fly fish for snook or tarpon. But just as likely, it could mean he's out trolling flea markets, hoping to reel in an old tackle box full of long lost bass fishing lures that he can swap for the vintage fly fishing "bugs" that he collects. Or Gamble might be casting about garage sales for a neglected but collectible fiberglass rod that he can restore and sell in order to buy the split bamboo fly rod he really wants. Then again he could be fishing in local auctions and pawn shops, hoping to land a once-loved fly reel that he can give a place of honor in his growing collection of antique tackle.

Gamble, a BoatUS member, is a California transplant who brought a life-long passion for the pursuit of fish to the Ft. Myers area when he retired there in 1992. Since then, like a lot of anglers in recent years, he's been hooked by antique tackle as well. So now, when he's not wetting a line, Gamble is collecting, restoring, appraising, buying, selling and swapping the tools of the angler's trade.

He's got a lot of company, too. Collecting antique American fishing tackle, nearly unheard of 20 years ago, has spawned something of a feeding frenzy across the country and abroad in the last decade.

What's the Catch?

"Prices of antique tackle always seem to be going up and that catches a lot of people's attention," says Gamble, who is now on the board of directors of Florida Antique Tackle Collectors, Inc. The organization preserves the history of sportfishing in the Sunshine State and sponsors four exhibitions each year.

Each year the group holds its annual Daytona International Antique Tackle Show, reputed to be the world's largest. Collectors from Great Britain, Germany, Australia and Japan are often in attendance. They come from all over the U.S., too.

"One guy came to our Daytona show last year with some old lures to find out if they were worth anything," Gamble says. "When he left, he'd sold one for $700, another for $950 and a third for $1,050."

Similar stories abound from the early days of tackle collecting 10 or 15 years ago but that doesn't happen too often anymore, Gamble says. When it does, however, it's likely to make the newspapers and that sends people up to the attic, looking for gold in Grandpa's tackle box, or down to the basement to find the rod they used as a kid, blow off the dust and troll it around the next tackle show.

"A lot of the stuff you see now is junk but sometimes there's a gem," Gamble says. "Three years ago a man brought me what was left of his late father's tackle after his mother had sold off what she could in a garage sale."

"I bought four items for $250 and we helped him sell the rest for $400 at the Daytona show," he adds. "Kinda makes you wonder what treasures slipped through his mother's fingers at the garage sale."

Antique tackle aficionados tend to fit in one of three broad categories and most, like Doc Gamble, are anglers first and foremost. Some specialize in reels, others in rods and still more — the largest group — collect only lures.

Collecting styles vary. One may target the products of a particular manufacturer, aiming to collect every rod the company ever made or every variation in color or paint pattern for a particular lure. Another might aim to collect all the types of fishing gear made in a particular state or region.

Many also collect what is often called fishing "ephemera," that is, related gear like creels or landing nets as well as old time catalogs, advertising materials and even fishing photos. Within these categories, serious collectors may focus on gear for a particular type of fishing from a certain period — freshwater fly fishing before World War II, for example, or bass fishing in the '50s.

Just how many people collect tackle is anybody's guess but artificial baits and lures, produced by the millions over the years, hook the most collectors. The Old Reel Collectors Club has just under 1,000 members while the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club has 5,300.

Metal lures date back to around the 1860s and curiously, it wasn't until the turn of the 20th century that wood became the material of choice for fishing lure manufacturers.

The Father of the Lure

The U.S. Patent Office isn't known for a sense of humor. But when it awarded Patent No. 696,433 for an invention to fool fish, the issue date it chose was April 1, 1902.

The patent owner, a Michigan beekeeper and angler named James Heddon, is regarded as the father of the modern casting plug. According to a somewhat hazy history, Heddon liked to whittle small fish shapes and some years earlier when he tossed one of his creations into a lake, a large bass hammered the wooden "plug."

The company he and his two sons went on to establish under the family name became one of the largest manufacturers of artificial lures in the world.

Today many anglers get their feet wet in tackle collecting by specializing in lures made by Heddon or another of the large American manufacturers of the 20th century: Pflueger, Creek Chub, Shakespeare and South Bend. Quite often these are names that conjure up fond memories of fishing with Dad or Grandpa or Uncle Bob.

Wooden plugs and pre-1950 metal spoons and spinners are desirable although later plastic lures offer an easy way to get into collecting and some made as late as the 1960's can command relatively high prices.

Condition, says Gamble, is everything. Even a rare lure with chipped paint or a glass eye missing could have little or no value. Sometimes the original box can be worth as much or even more than the lure.

Reel Gems

When it comes to fishing reels, the Holy Grail would be one of the early 19th century brass baitcasting reels handmade by a Kentucky watchmaker George Snyder, according to a review of the Old Reel Collectors Club website.

Prior to that time, reels served primarily to store the line, not to cast and retrieve it. With the advent of gearing mechanisms, the multiplying reel became the norm and "Kentucky reels" stamped with names like Sage, Harman and B.F. Meek are very valuable today. One Kentucky fly reel made by Talbot recently brought $1,647 on an Internet auction site.

Reelsmiths in the Northeast later developed nickel silver "New York" style reels for mass production. Names like vom Hofe, Conroy and Krider are eagerly sought by collectors. A rare 1883 vom Hofe sold for $4,400 at a live auction last year.

Once mechanized production began, lure makers like Pflueger, South Bend and Shakespeare produced millions of reels for all types of fishing throughout the 20th century and beginners can find working, collectable reels at reasonable cost, even below the price of new product, Gamble says.

Spare the Rod

Curiously, bigger is not always better when it comes to fishing rods. Split bamboo fly rods from six to eight and a half feet command the most attention while a longer rod by the same maker might be worth less than half as much in the collector market. Most makers signed their work and names like Young, Granger and Dickerson are most sought after.

The watchword in rod collecting, however, is "caveat emptor" says Gamble, who has a dozen fly rods that he's restored and will never part with. Unscrupulous dealers have been known to take a handle from a broken specimen from a desirable builder, affix it to a poor quality cane rod, and try to pass it off as an original. Even a rod from a famous maker that's been fished hard or restored poorly can be of little value beyond a wall ornament.

Early 20th century steel rods are becoming more collectible today and even fiberglass baitcasting and some spinning rods are now gathering devotees.

For tips on tackle collecting, advice on how to evaluate your own gear or histories of the various tackle companies, visit these websites: