Tackle Box Treasures
Some old lures are worth big money; the rest are nice mementos.
Mike Zlotnicki, Staff Writer.
Modern anglers can have thousands of dollars wrapped up in a tackle box -- lures and tackle designed to catch fishermen as well as fish.
But way back in an attic, garage or shed may be a dusty box containing a single lure worth more than a boat.
The possibility is intriguing.
My foray into antique lures began at a family reunion last year. An uncle, Ronnie Campbell of Sanford, summoned me to his truck. Once out of earshot, he reached into the cab and pulled out two small boxes.
"Your granddad gave me these years ago," he said, "and I put them away and forgot about them. I figured they'd be of interest to you, given your job and all."
In my family, you never know what the walk to the truck will bring. In my case, it sparked a research mission and a little introspection.
Each box contained a big wooden lure -- a Heddon King Basser and a Martin 5KS-12 -- each with two treble hooks on detachable hook harnesses, glass eyes and metal lips. Made about 1950 by the Heddon Lure Co. and the Martin Fish Lure Co., respectively, they were a far cry from today's molded plastic baits.
My first thought? Another thoughtful gesture by a man who always has been full of them.
My second? I wonder what my grandfather was doing with these.
Third? I wonder what they're worth.
That thought has kept me occupied for months.
Lures can fetch hundreds and thousands of dollars -- the world record is $101,200 for a Haskell Minnow made around 1859 by Riley Haskell of Painesville, Ohio.
With any luck, my lures would be a part of that market.
Antique lure and tackle collecting has a small but fervent following, Jim Fleming of Nashville, Tenn., said via phone on Monday.
Fleming is a member of the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club and edits the club's publications, including a quarterly newsletter and a twice-yearly magazine.
"We have about 4,700 members," he said, "and there are probably 5,000 to 6,000 what we call 'closet collectors.' "
Fleming had just returned from the club's annual convention, which was held July 12-14 in Louisville, Ky. He said the event had 600 exhibit tables.
About 15 regional shows also are held each year, Fleming said, with millions of dollars passing among collectors.
The research begins
On the advice of fellow N&O writer Javier Serna, a veteran of Midwest fishing, my first call went to Dan Basore of Warrenville, Ill.
Basore inherited his grandfather's fishing gear, sparking his interest in collecting, and he has built a collection he estimates is worth "seven figures." He also administers the Honorary Member Program for the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club and often fields calls from folks like me.
"All the time," he said, "and I'm happy to do it. That's how I get to see certain things."
Basore shared a story about acquiring one prized lure.
One day he got a call at home from a man who was having a moving sale. He said he had tackle that was too old to fish with but might be collectible. He wanted $400.
"He had a very recent Plano tackle box," Basore said. "I opened it, and, lo and behold, there was a Haskell Minnow. It was like finding the Hope Diamond in a Cracker Jack box."
Haskell Minnows, hollow-bodied copper minnow imitations, start about $30,000 with collectors.
Basore had my attention. I had e-mailed him digital photos of my lures and their original boxes and eagerly waited to learn the total of my newfound riches.
"The Heddon is worth $75 to $80, and the Martin $20 to $25," Basore said.
So it wasn't a fortune, but it still was nice appreciation for lures that cost less than $2 new.
Several factors affect a lure's collectibility, Basore said.
Demand is No. 1. Rarity is another factor, but some lures can be so rare that no one really collects them. Condition of the lure is critical, and original boxes or packaging can boost value.
Still, the collector market is fluid, so values change.
Basore had sensible advice.
"I would keep them for sentimental value," he said. "I'd find a photograph of him [my grandfather] with some fish, maybe an old license of his, and keep it on display as a memory box. What good are they tucked away in a drawer?"
Sure, that sounded reasonable, but I was still thinking about my retirement and three daughters' needs for college funds.
I wanted a second opinion.
I turned to Wayne Williamson of Chapel Hill.
Williamson, 58, is an outdoorsman who collects a variety of gear -- including side-by-side and over-and-under shotguns; Smith & Wesson pistols; and white-tailed deer racks and mounts -- but his first love is antique fishing tackle, particularly Creek Chub lures
Williamson said his collection of Creek Chub Suckers and Gar Minnows is considered among the best around. He also collects a color phase of lures called dace (think rainbow trout hues).
His inspiration was local.
"The reason I collect Creek Chub is a fellow I knew in Hillsborough," he said this spring in the basement of his house, where a full-body brown bear mount presides over his collections.
"Gilbert Petty caught more big bass than anybody I knew, and he used Creek Chubs," Williamson said.
Williamson, whose father, Ernie Williamson, was executive director of the University of North Carolina's Educational Foundation for 30 years, started pulling one display box after another out of three massive gun safes.
"Most of my stuff I keep locked up off my property," he said. "Here, I have several alarm systems, and I'm extremely well-armed."
He brought out four glass cases of dace-colored lures, 29 in all. I said they looked valuable.
"I can tell you exactly how much they're worth -- $85,000," he said without looking up.
Each lure in his collection -- which fluctuates from 1,200 and 1,300 at any given time -- has a tag on it that allows Williamson to research date of purchase, location, cost and other data.
My two lures in a plastic sack felt like bag lunch at a banquet.
Another story to envy
Williamson shared a story similar to Basore's.
"I used to go to this tackle shop, Sid's, when I was the fishing manager at Sports Unlimited. They were good guys, and I stopped in there all the time," he said. "One time one of the guys set a shoe box on the counter and said 'Would you give $75 for this?'
"I looked down and saw four or five exceptional lures. I walked away to compose myself and said 'I'll give $50 for it.' I grabbed the shoebox and headed out the door."
His take: three mint Creek Chub Suckers worth $2,400, a Heddon Zaragoza worth about $250 and several Heddon lures worth $50 to $60 apiece.
"It was quite a good find," he said. "Because they were friends of mine, I went back a few days later and gave them some reference books so they could educate themselves."
Down to business
I could have stayed in Williamson's basement for hours, but finally got the nerve to ask about my lures.
He said the Heddon would go for around $250, but he needed to do some research on the Martin. The next day, I delivered prints of the lures, and I checked back with him several weeks later.
Turns out the Martin was worth a lot of money -- to the Martin Fish Lure Co. -- in 1937. Heddon had been sued by Martin in the 1930s over design infringement. The Heddon King Basser is essentially a copy of a Martin salmon plug, and Martin won "a substantial dollar settlement in 1937," according to "Old Fishing Lures & Tackle, 6th Edition," one of Williamson's reference guides. Today, the lure is worth about $30.
So much for college funds and early retirement. Instead, I'm shopping for a nice display box.
A reward anyway
Regardless of their monetary value, the lures still made me richer.
They gave me another point of reference with Uncle Ronnie, and they made me recall my grandfather, Michael Lyczkowski of Sanford, whom we called "Dziadzio," Polish for "Grandfather."
Dziadzio came to this country in 1950. When he took me fishing, it was cane poles and pinched bread for bream, all of which went back to the house to feed family and cats. What he was doing with these lures I'll never know.
But they opened a door for me to a different side of fishing. I may not ever get as deep into collecting as Basore or Williamson, but I'll never be able to pass a yard sale without least slowing to scan for tackle.
There could be treasure in those tackle boxes.
Published: Jul 19, 2007 12:30 AM