Jeff Savage is proprietor of Drexel Grapevine Antiques in Valdese NC, and creator of the Fishing and Hunting Pins and Badges site featured in our Hall of Fame.
I’ve been a collector of antique fishing tackle for over 20 years, and have been selling antique tackle in my shop since 1990. I collect all aspects of fishing memorabilia. In this column, I wanted to offer a primer for antique dealers, beginning collectors, and anyone interested in old tackle. It is not intended to be all inclusive.
Collecting antique fishing tackle has become very popular in the last few years. At one time you heard “You collect what?”, and “I didn’t know anyone bought that old stuff”. Now everywhere you turn there are collectors and dealers in old tackle. Brand names like: Heddon; Creek Chub; South Bend; Pflueger; Shakespeare; Paw Paw; and a large list of others are eagerly sought by collectors. There are collectors for lures, reels, bamboo rods, nets, creels, and just about every type of fishing memorabilia you can imagine. Popular sources for antique tackle are antique shops, flea markets, yard sales, the internet, sports shows, and antique tackle clubs. The value of tackle have risen sharply, and there seems to be little slowing in appreciation.
Wooden lures, sometimes called plugs, are the mainstay of this category. The first wooden lures in general use were made in the late 1800s, the golden age of wooden lures was from about 1915 to the 1950s. For lure collectors condition is very important. A “mint” lure, with no damage will bring far more than the same plug in average or less condition. For some lures certain colors of paint, or paint designs, are considered rarer than others and will bring a premium price. Lures that have been repainted, or that have lost most of their paint, have little or no value, unless they happen to be very, very, rare.
Many people collect lures made by one company like Heddon; Creek Chub; Pflueger; South Bend; and Paw Paw, which are all names of major lure manufacturers. The box a lure came in may be worth as much as the lure itself, in some cases more. Early boxes, for some companies, were sliding top, box jointed, and wooden. These boxes are rare, and bring a premium price. Most boxes were made of cardboard, and many had beautiful graphics. Early metal spoons, and spinners, have some value. Some can be very expensive, but so far they have taken a back seat to the wooden plugs.
Reels by the better makers have been collectible for years, and most tackle collectors have had a few reels to add color to their lure collection. Though the most collectible reels are expensive and hard to find, many of the more common reels are still inexpensive and relatively easy to find. Early fly and casting reels with names like Hardy, Vom Hofe, Conroy, Meek, and Milam are very collectible, and can be expensive. Reels by Pflueger, Shakespeare, South Bend, Bronson, and others are much less expensive and are a welcome addition to many collections. Single action fly reels, multiplying fly reels, are both eagerly sought. Automatic fly reels less so.
Casting reels, both level wind, and non level wind are also collected. Spinning reels have received some attention, spin casting reels have received little notice. Ambassador casting reels made by ABU in Sweden have gained a loyal following both from bass fishers and from collectors. Early reels from England and Europe have sparked some interest, but with the majority being unmarked, or in less than perfect condition, the top of the line reels have received the lions share of collectors attention. Top of the line American reels, the “Kentucky” reels, Vom Hofe’s, and the like, are quickly disappearing, and are escalating in price.
Rods are dominated by split bamboo fly rods. Lately some have begun collecting some of the earlier fiberglass rods, some of the split bamboo casting and spinning rods, and some of the steel casting rods. The earliest European fishing rods were made of different types of wood, spliced together, and were often very long, 18ft. being common. Tips were often made of greenheart, whale baleen, or on the later rods, bamboo cane. these early rods are hard to find, but aren’t eagerly sought. It was only with the late 1800s that split bamboo was being used to make the entire rod, except in some rare instances.
Some of the names of bamboo rod makers to look for are Granger, Young, Dickerson, Phillipson, Devine, Edwards, Thomas, Payne, Leonard, Hardy and rods made for trademarks such as Abercrombie and Fitch, Heddon, South Bend, and Abbey and Imbrie. In split bamboo rods, shorter is better, and condition is everything. The shorter a Bamboo rod is the more collectible it seems to be. 6ft.-8 1/2ft. rods seem to be the most collectible. A seven foot rod by a famous maker will usually be worth 4-5 times what a 12 foot salmon rod by the same maker, despite the salmon rod being harder to find.
Condition is a tougher subject. A split bamboo rod, restored to near original by a professional restorer seems to retain much of its value. The same rod poorly restored, or used long and hard has little value. Beware of made-up rods, that is poor quality cane rods, that an unscrupulous restorer has attached a handle from an expensive rod, and then will try to pass the whole conglomeration off as an expensive rod. Of course having a rod’s original cloth bag, and rod tube will add to its value. Make sure any split bamboo rod is original length. Many tips will be short where rod tips have been broken. Many rods came with more than one tip. A good rule of thumb, is to lay the rod on a table, each section should be approximately the same length. Not all rods were built this way, but most were. Also, any split bamboo rod should be checked for a curve, or a set. Again, a good way to tell is to lay the rod sections on a flat surface, and roll them around, watch for gaps formed by a bow in the rod.
Fly Fishing Tackle
There is an attraction to fishing with older fly tackle, and many old split bamboo fly rods, old fly reels, and old fly fishing accessories are purchased for this purpose, even at a high price. It gives you a feeling of class, history, and being part of an earlier age to fool the wary trout with tackle from your grandfather’s era. Split bamboo rods are still being made to feed these urges, as well as hand made reels, available but albeit, expensive. A great deal of old fly tackle is purchased for decorative use, creels, old landing nets, old bamboo rods, and etc. look great hanging over the mantle.
There has always been a cachet of class and gentility associated with fly fishing. A piece or two of classic fly gear brings nobility and class to the home, as well as serving as a reminder of pleasant days a field. Flies, particularly those by famous tiers and full dress salmon flies are eagerly sought, and are often beautifully framed as the works of art they truly are. Fly rods, reels, creels, and the like are eagerly sought. Being part of the heritage of gentility, prices for fly tackle lead the collectibles market, and there seems no end in sight. Some other more recent tackle that has received collector’s attention are some of the reels by Bogdan, Abel, Marryat, Walker and other of the custom/hand built modern makers.
Saltwater/Big Game Tackle
In many ways this area of the hobby is in its infancy, but there is just not that much big game tackle out there to feed much growth. In its early days, big game fishing was a hobby for the rich. Hemingway, Zane Grey, and other wealthy notables were big game fisherman. Early big game reels by Hardy, Vom Hofe, Kovalovsky, Coxe, Zwarg, are eagerly sought. As well as rods by Tycoon, Edward Vom Hofe, and Hardy. Photographs, books, trophies, medals, are also collected. Recently a trend has begun in collection early salt water fly tackle. Salt water fly reels by Pate, Fin-nor, and others are being purchased and are expensive.
Fishing accessories are also being sought by collectors, items like creels, fly vices, unusual tools and gadgets, split shot tins, hook containers, fishing knives, and just too many others to count. There are collectors for anything to do with fishing: photographs, postcards, sporting goods letterhead, paper memorabilia, to taxidermy fish, liquor bottles shaped like fish, fish plates from Europe. Some of the items that fit this category are still inexpensive and readily found, others are expensive and quickly disappearing.
Books dealing with fishing are very collectible. Popular trends tend toward fishing story books, rather than books on methods of fishing, unless they are very early. They range from outrageously expensive, such as early copies of Izaak Walton’s Complete Angler to more modern, and inexpensive Ed Zern’s A Fine Kettle of Fish Stories. Book collectors, and we have to group angling book collectors here, are among the most sensitive to condition. Any damage will significantly reduce the value of a book.
Hunting and Fishing Licenses
Many fishing collectors have a few hunting or fishing license badges to add variety to their collections. Dedicated license badge collectors are a small group, but are growing. Many states used small (typically under two inches) badges for anglers and hunters. Some used them as early as the teens, many in the 1920s and 1930s. With the exception of Pennsylvania, most states stopped using them in the 1940s. Some states issued license holders after the 40s, into which you could insert paper licenses.
The most eagerly sought badges are from the southern states, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and etc., badges are also sought from Hawaii, Michigan, Connecticut and others. New York and Pennsylvania badges are collected, but are relatively common and inexpensive. Canadian hunting and fishing license badges have started an upward trend. Demand for other foreign license may soon start growing. Non resident (out of state) badges are typically harder to find, also trapping and other specialty badges. Paper fishing and hunting licenses are collected, particularly the very early ones from the turn of the century into the 1920s.
Trends in Tackle Collecting
A growing trend is the collecting of late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s Bass fishing tackle. Fed by the popularity of bass tournaments, interest in the early history of the tournaments, and enthusiasm from Japan. Early Fiberglass rods, early crank baits, UMCO tackle boxes, Ambassador reels. There are many Japanese and American collectors who eagerly seek tackle from this era. So far prices have remained reasonable, especially when you compare the prices of modern day tackle. There are even tournaments that have been organized using fishing tackle from this era. Information, photographs, early tournament patches, trophies, are all popular.
Lately, with advanced collectors, I have noted a movement toward quality in tackle, it seems collectors are narrowing their collecting field, buying top of the line tackle in excellent condition. Rather than purchasing 20 $5 lures, they are waiting to buy one $100 lure, This seems to happen as all collecting fields mature. As these maturing collectors narrow their collecting interests, there are still scads of beginning collectors, and dealers, buying just about anything to do with fishing.
Fakes and restoration
As with any antique/collectible area, as prices climb, unscrupulous individuals will start seeing a profit to be made. So far, this hasn’t been a big problem with antique fishing tackle, but there are fakes out there. First came the repainted lures. Wooden lures, with their enamel paint jobs, are prone to losing paint because of the environment that they were used in. Wood swells with moisture, shrinks as it loses moisture. Bad paint can kill the value of a very good lure. In recent years, some people have started buying these lures (called beaters in the hobby) and taking them and reproducing the factory paint job. Some are honest, and tell their customers the lure has been repainted, but some are not. Even some very advanced collectors have been fooled.
All repaints should be plainly and indelibly marked. A few outright fake lures have been found. Usually these are reproductions of very early lures, that because of their simplicity, are easy to fake. The Moonlight Dreadnaught is a good example, of which I have seen several fakes. Once again, these reproduction lures should be permanently marked. Reels haven’t been a problem, the equipment needed to reproduce them has been just too expensive. The major problems that have arisen, were fake markings stamped on unmarked reels with steel stamps. There has been some word of fake British brass reels, crudely made in India, or the orient, but so far not many of these have surfaced. Fake creels have shown up, typically hand woven copies of what are called turtle creels. Some bamboo rod restorers do such good work that their finished product rivals factory new finishes, my personal belief is that rod restorations should be permanently marked. Some people are taking early rods by famous makers that are in poor condition, taking the handles (where they are typically marked) and fitting cheaper bamboo blanks to the handles, with an intent to deceive novice buyers. I have seen a few of these rods.
Finding Information on Antique Fishing Tackle (think about this – maybe just the clubs)
There are many excellent books available on Antique Tackle. I particularly recommend Karl White’s Fishing Tackle Antiques and Collectibles, Dudley Murphy and Rick Edmisten’s Fishing Lure Collectibles, and Carl F. Luckey’s Old Fishing Lures and Tackle all three of which are good general guides.
The different antique tackle clubs are also good sources for information, most publish either magazines or newsletters. National Fishing Lure Collectors Club, Florida Antique Tackle Club, Carolina Antique Tackle Club, Old Reel Collectors Association, and the Michigan Lure Collectors Club.
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