In this interview, Joe Yates talks about collecting antique fishing lures and tackle, from the big five manufacturers (Heddon, Shakespeare, Creek Chub, Pflueger and South Bend) as well as smaller shops. Based in North Carolina, Joe can be reached via his website, Joes Old Lures, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I grew up fishing. And I always had a few old lures – several came from my grandfather – and I just decided one day that they were pretty pieces of art as well and it would be neat to have a collection of them. I went out and started looking for them and got collecting that way. That was about 20 years ago.
I have a couple thousand lures now. The lures themselves are small, but you also get into things like point-of-sale display pieces and advertising pieces which can be a good deal larger than the individual lure. When you start with hundreds and thousands of lures, of course, you have to have a place to put them all. Most of mine are in display cases, and they take up a whole lot of space.
You pretty much have to focus on a specific type of lure. I started out acquiring pretty much anything that I could find. Back in those days, there was no Internet; I would go to flea markets and yard sales and buy whatever was available, which really wasn’t all that much. Over the last 20 years, the Internet has become available, there have been more lure shows, and you’re just exposed to a lot more fishing items, so you have to specialize.
About the only thing I’m really interested in anymore are lures that were made in the state of Florida. I was born in Florida, I lived in Florida off and on before moving back to North Carolina, and I think the Florida lures are prettier than any others made.
Florida had both large commercial lure-making companies and a lot of small mom-and-pop backyard lure-making operations, so you get the whole gamut, from the very professionally slick-looking lures to the real folk art-type homemade lures. I like the folk art look of so many of the Florida baits and the fact that so many of them were hand-painted.
There were several large lure making companies, like Heddon and Creek Chub and Shakespeare. You’ll find collectors who specialize only in Heddon or only in Creek Chub, or even particular lures made by those companies, like Creek Chub Wiggle Fish or Heddon Spin Divers or Shakespeare Underwater Minnows. You can have a very large and very expensive collection, collecting only a single lure by a single company.
Collectors Weekly: How many types of lures did each manufacturer make?
Yates: There were some that only made one lure, and others literally made hundreds of lures. Within each lure, you have to know how many different colors might have been made, there are lots of variations within each lure.
Several popular manufacturers got started around the turn of the century, like Heddon. Pflueger and Shakespeare got started in the late 1800s. Creek Chub and South Bend, the last of the big five, started in the 1920s and ’30s.
The only one of the big five that’s still in business is Shakespeare. They began operations in Michigan and are now out of Columbia, South Carolina. Heddon is now owned by another company that makes Heddon-brand lures. The Heddon Company as people knew it is no longer in business, but they still own the older patents and copyrights. There are also a few Creek Chub lures being made the same way. Creek Chub has been out of business for a long time, but somebody else owns all the rights to their materials and still makes a few lures.
Collectors Weekly: Why are the big five lure makers so popular to collect?
Yates: They’re the guys that invented commercial lure manufacturing, and their products were what you saw when you went to the stores to buy fishing lures. They had more ideas, more different lures, they were the big gorillas in the room.
Fishing lures go back as far as the Native Americans, and tribes in Europe would make fishing devices – you could call them lures, I suppose – out of bones and stones and whatever else. Somewhere along the line in the 1800s, people started making metal spoons and lures that were called phantoms and demons. Fishing tackle really sprang up in England before it did in the United States. They tended to be metal.
I like some manufacturers more than others. Florida had hundreds of lure makers, and some of them were very small, single-person operations that might have made one lure. I really like some like Jim Pfeffer, for example, or Earl Robinson, but I collect a lot of different Florida makers. I probably have lures from a couple of hundred different Florida makers.
Jim Pfeffer is probably my favorite. His work was all handmade and hand-painted. He would carve the lures by hand and his wife would paint them. She would take a wooden matchstick and dip it in a bottle of paint and put those little dots on each lure with the tip of the matchstick. It was just a very small operation. They did some beautiful work.
Collectors Weekly: When did people start collecting fishing lures?
Yates: When I decided I wanted to start collecting, I really thought I would be the only person in the world who collected fishing lures. I thought I would be able to go out to the flea market and buy as many as I wanted and just go crazy collecting the darn things. I went to the flea market, and sure enough, there was somebody out there selling fishing lures. I couldn’t believe how much he wanted for his old fishing lures. I thought he was crazy! He wanted $10 apiece for them, and I thought that was lot of money for a stupid, old fishing lure. Little did I know there were a lot of people collecting a long time before I ever heard of such a thing.
“Jim Pfeffer would carve his lures by hand and his wife would paint them.”
There are several organized fishing tackle collector clubs and some regional clubs, and there’s also the National Fishing Lure Collector Club, which has over 4,000 members. All the clubs put on shows. The national club has shows throughout the country. As for the regional clubs, the Florida club, for example, holds four shows a year in Florida. The larger show generally has about 600 tables, 8-foot tables that people rent and bring parts of their collection for display or sale or trade. Some of the shows are just really big events, with thousands and thousands of lures.
Beyond the people who belong to the clubs, who knows how many thousands of closet collectors there are out there, people who just collect for fun and choose not to belong to the organized collecting world. There are a lot of lure collectors, believe me.
Collectors Weekly: Do people collect lures in Europe as well?
Yates: They sure do. There were a lot of European-made tackle. A lot of folks in Europe specialize in the stuff that was made there. There are also European collectors who collect American tackle, and there are a lot of collectors in Asia. You’d be amazed at how many collectors there are in Japan, for example. They have a passion for American lures. One of their main areas of interest is American plastic lures that were made in the 1960s. Just like me, they’re fascinated by lures, and they collect what they can identify with. This is what they might have fished with when they were kids, and they just collect them because they like them.
In some other cases, they collect because there are a lot of bass fishing clubs in Japan. Bass fishing is a big-time serious hobby in Japan, and there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of bass fishing clubs. Some of the clubs have rules that say, you have to have this, you have to have that, you have to have something else. You have to have a Phillipson bait-casting rod, you have to have a Heddon fishing reel, and you have to have Heddon plastic fishing lures if you want to be a member of our club. Some of these guys just pay incredible sums of money to buy this stuff. It’s crazy.
Collectors Weekly: What are fishing lures made out of?
Yates: Anything – wood, metal, plastic. I’ve got one that was made out of a fishing shell. Shells, bones, plastic, wood, metal, paper, feathers, fur, rubber, anything.
The mainstream of the fishing collectible world will tell you that the most valuable lures are the ones made from wood, generally the wooden lures with glass eyes. A lot of people will tell you if a lure was made of plastic, it’s not worth collecting, and the people who collect plastic lures will tell you, well, those are just the elitist snobs. It all comes down to point of view. But generally the old wooden lures, they’re the most desirable and most valuable.
There was a lure sold at auction a couple of years ago that brought a little more than a hundred thousand dollars. It was an American-made bait from the 1800s, and it was rare for a number of reasons. It’s the first American-made lure where wood was mentioned as a material for the construction in the patent design for it. It was actually a metal bait, but it had a wooden interior, and it happened to be in a size that nobody has ever seen before. It’s a one-of-a-kind size of this particular bait, which was made in several sizes. So this was a metal bait with a wooden core, and it’s the most valuable lure ever sold.
Some lures would have been made in one size. Others would have been made in who knows how many, two or three or sometimes 10 or 12, just depending on what the maker chose to do.
Collectors Weekly: Do most collectors search for the lure boxes as well?
Yates: Most people who are interested in boxes would want the lure to go with it. They wouldn’t collect just the box itself, they would obviously want the lure to go in the box, but as a general rule, the boxes are worth more than the lures themselves. The boxes are just more rare. If you think about it, you’d go to the store and buy a lure. You’d take it home, open it up, throw the box away and go fishing with the lure. Over time, the lure’s still there, but the box was in the trash can. Many times you’ll find a lure that may be worth a hundred dollars, but the box it came in may be worth 10 times that much.
Collectors Weekly: Do most fishing lure collectors fish?
Yates: I would say so. Although I know some who don’t fish, who just don’t care anything at all about fishing. Some people collect this stuff as a financial investment. It’s like precious metals and diamonds and that type of thing. But most people who collect fishing lures are probably fishermen. I am an avid fisherman. I love saltwater and freshwater fishing, and I have a ton of fishing lures and tackle that I fish with that are not considered collectible at all.
I’ve fished with some of the older lures, but it’s always if I find a beat-up, old lure where the condition is not very good, just to see how it works, what it looks like in the water and whether it catches fish. For the most part, most of my fishing is done with newer fishing stuff, not collectible tackle. There are some guys that collect old lures and actually fish with them. There are guys who go fishing with hundred-dollar lures, and maybe they’re using old rods and reels. Of course you’re not going to hurt them, you’re not going to lose them, but they’ll use the old rods and reels and maybe a hundred-dollar lure or more. More power to them.
Collectors Weekly: What’s the difference between collecting fishing lures and collecting tackle?
Yates: Tackle includes things like rods and the reels and creels for the fly fishermen. There are other ancillary things, fishing bobbers and line and hooks and sinkers and all of that good stuff.
There are some who collect nothing but reels, some who collect nothing but rods, some that collect nothing but lures. The fellow who bought that hundred-thousand-dollar lure that I mentioned earlier, he used to collect fishing bobbers, the cork and wooden floats, and he had just a mind-boggling collection of bobbers. He had lures also, but the bobbers were really what he collected. People collect what they like. In my case, for example, 90 percent of my collection is lures, but I also have the rods and reels and hooks and bobbers and creels and glass minnow traps and all kinds of things. It’s a broad fishing collection even though most of it is lures.
Collectors Weekly: Did the big five make other tackle too, or just lures?
Yates: Heddon made just about everything I’ve mentioned – rods, reels, hooks, sinkers, floats, the whole ball of wax. Pflueger made a lot of those, particularly the rods and the reels. Shakespeare and South Bend made most. Creek Chub were much more a lure than a tackle company. Then there are makers who did not make lures at all, but made rods or reels or minnow traps or hooks.
What makes a lure rare is how many were made and how many survived. But the fact that something’s rare doesn’t mean it’s desirable, and the fact that something is desirable doesn’t necessarily mean it’s rare. For example Jim Pfeffer made maybe 20 different general types of lures, and within each general type, he might have made one color or 50 colors. Of his lures, he made a lot more of this kind than he did of that kind, and he made a lot more of this color than he made of that color. There are two or three lures he made that are just extremely rare, because he only made 10 or 12 of them in the first place, and of those 10 or 12, some of them got lost. It depends on how many survived.
Most of the colors were made to catch fishermen more than anything else. A lure maker might have a lure on the market, and he had it available in two or three colors, and next year he’d come out with a new color and he’d tell the fishermen, “This is the exciting new color that all the fish are going to just eat up, so you have to come get the new stuff.” It’s just like the stuff you go to the store to buy today that’s new and pretty. Of course, they used colors because they thought they would catch fish, but I think it was more about catching fishermen than catching fish.
Collectors Weekly: What do you look for when you’re collecting lures?
Yates: Things I probably don’t already have, to help round out a collection I have going. And I’m looking for the condition of the lure. I want it to be in as good a condition as possible. It may be very rare; it may be very common. Who knows? A lot of these lures, there are so few of them that you have to take whatever’s available. Maybe it’s in great condition, maybe it’s beat up and bruised, but if that’s all there is and you want a complete collection, then that’s what you have to settle for.
Collectors Weekly: How many variations did the major lure manufacturers make?
Yates: Take for example a lure made by the Creek Chub Company called a Pikey – one of their popular lures, one of the first lures they ever made, and they made it for probably 60 years. They made tens of millions of them. There were certain colors they made every year, year after year, and needless to say those are not nearly as rare as colors that might have been made for only one year or colors that are special-order colors.
They had a deal where you could place a special order with them. You’d say, “I want this lure, but I want it in a special color that I want you to paint just for me,” and as long as you ordered a dozen of them, Creek Chub would paint anything you wanted. So there are examples, literally, where somebody may have ordered a special color, and there were only 12 that were ever made.
Some lures have names marked on them and some don’t. Even within a particular manufacturer, some of their lures are marked with names and some aren’t. Jim Pfeffer, for example, some of his lures say Pfeffer and some of them don’t. It just becomes a question of learning what particular lure makers’ products look like, and that can take years and years of study. Believe me, I don’t recognize every lure I see. I can’t pick every lure up and tell you who made it, when it was made and what it’s called. Probably most of them I can, but there are many, many that I cannot. There are lots of books that have been written about lures in general or books that have been written about specific companies, and most people who get serious about collecting the old lures have a library of books that they can use as reference material.
The book I would recommend you start with would be the one by Carl Luckey. He did six or seven volumes over time, and it’s a general collector guide that’s got pictures of the lures, stories, information about the lure makers and when they were in business, that type of thing. Probably the next best one would be the books by Karl White. By that time you go through those books, you’ll probably decide, well, I’m interested in this company or that company, and at that point, there are specific books about most of the companies that you might want to turn to.
There’s a fellow in Florida, Bill Stuart, who started a project probably 12 years ago, and the thought was to document every known lure maker in the state of Florida. Right now he’s done six volumes of that book, I believe, and there will be at least one more, probably two more volumes that will come out. Each volume typically covers 75 or 80 different Florida lure makers.
Bill is a tireless researcher. He’s always looking. He’s always talking to new people. He’s a great guy, and he’s done an awful lot to document the history of Florida lure making. I have a whole shelf of fishing lure books and I have all six Florida volumes. They’re about the only ones I ever even look at anymore, but I have a whole bunch of other books.
Collectors Weekly: Any big recent trends in collecting fishing lures?
Yates: Yes. They got a whole lot more expensive somewhere along the line. And of course values fluctuate. The Japanese collectors are the best example. Ten to 15 years ago, they were paying a lot higher prices for what they were interested in than they’re paying today, and some of the things they were interested in then, they’re less interested in now. People’s interests, whether they’re foreign or here in America, change over time, and the value of certain lures goes up and comes down. I guess there are a lot of reasons.
Whenever somebody comes out with a book, there tends to be a flurry of interest in whatever the book was written about. Dr. Harold Smith wrote a book about Creek Chub seven or eight years ago, and as soon as that book came out, Creek Chub lures were the hottest lures out there. The number of Creek Chub collectors skyrocketed and the value of Creek Chub lures skyrocketed, and I think it was all because of the book.
It seems like a new book comes out every couple of months. There’s a fellow – I think he’s in Minnesota – his name is Dr. Todd Larson, and he teaches at one of the universities, but he’s also involved in book publishing. He has facilitated the publishing of a lot of small runs of very specialized collector books. I could write a book about something, and he would make it very easy to publish it.
Collectors Weekly: Do you ever encounter fake lures?
Yates: Absolutely. Its a real problem. There are lots of fakes. There are a lot of absolute forgeries, fakes, repaints, total fabrications. Even more so repaints than fakes. You learn over time what colors were made by different makers and what those colors look like and what paint is supposed to look like. But some of the stuff is so well done that it’s very difficult to know the difference between good and bad, particularly if you’re buying from a photograph on the Internet. It’s a lot different buying online than buying at a show where you could hold it in your hand. The key is education: knowing what things look like, what they feel like, just educating yourself of what to look for.
Jim Pfeffer is a good example. His stuff is folky looking, folk art, homemade, hand-carved, hand-painted product, and it would be real easy to fake that, to repaint some of his work or to just totally fabricate it, fake it from the start, a lot easier to do some of his stuff than a mass-produced, factory-made Heddon lure that was done with machines.
I don’t know anybody who, over time, has not been burned by buying a fake or buying a repaint. I have. Everybody I know has at one point or another, and you just chalk it up to experience. It’s buyer beware. If you’re seeing something you’ve never seen before, then maybe it’s real, maybe it’s not. The way I approach it is if I’m seeing something I have never ever seen before, you have to prove to me that it’s real. Demonstrate to me that so-and-so actually made this, or else I just don’t need it.
Collectors Weekly: Any advice for someone new to collecting antique fishing lures?
Yates: Get yourself a good book, read it, study it, and if possible to attend one of the collector club lure shows. Keep your hands in your pockets and walk around before you spend your money. First time I ever went to a show, I couldn’t believe it. There’s this great, big room with I don’t know how many tables, just a huge room full of people and tables of fishing lures. I walked in and my jaw just dropped, and I think I spent all the money I brought with me before I got to the end of the first aisle. Then, of course, years later, I wondered why I was stupid enough to buy any of them in the first place… because I didn’t know any better!
If possible, strike up a friendship with somebody who already collects and use them as a mentor. Join one of the clubs. The national club publishes a magazine and a newsletter with educational information about lures and lure makers, and if you’re serious about learning about the old tackle, that’s the way to go about it. If you just want to start collecting, go to the flea market and buy something and take it home and put it in a display case. I guess it just depends on how deep you want to get into the hobby, but education is the key.
The good thing is that there are a lot of websites about old lures now. When I started my site in 1996 – I think there were two other sites that had anything to do with old fishing tackle. Now there are 100, 200, it’s hard to know. A lot of websites have very good information about old fishing lures and who made them and what they look like and what to look for.
Collectors Weekly: Anything else that you’d like to mention?
Yates: Fishing is more fun than fishing lures. That’s a joke, but, well, I’m probably more than halfway serious. They’re both fun, but I will tell you this: there are a lot of collectors who need to get a life. I might be one of them, I don’t know, but there are a lot of people who take this stuff a lot more seriously than they probably should. Get a life.
If you’re going to collect anything – and I don’t care if it’s fishing lures or stamps or coins or diamonds or whatever it is – the most important thing is to keep it fun. If you can’t enjoy it, then you need to find something else to do. You go to a show and maybe you see something you want and you have to deal with a jerk to get it, and maybe you’re dealing with somebody who wants to rip you off. There are lots of points along the way where it’s not fun, and if you can’t enjoy it, then it’s time to stop, move on, and do something else.
Another thing you can do is to take an old lure and give it to a kid. Get somebody else started. This is a hobby that’s difficult to get started in. There are hundreds of thousands of lures out there. You can buy a lot of junk little lures for a dollar apiece, but the good stuff is expensive. The stuff that people want costs a lot of money, and it’s real tough to get started in this hobby financially anymore. I don’t know how people can even do it. It’s just so expensive to get the better stuff. The best thing you can do is give some lures to the kids, get them started, get them interested and help them along the way. Have fun and support the future of the hobby!
(All images in this article courtesy Joe Yates of Joes Old Lures.)