It was November 2003 that the world became aware of a little known, tight-knit community whose passion for collecting fishing lures knows no boundary in terms of money, enthusiasm and dreams.
That was when the record $101,200 sale of a rare lure in a Massachusetts phone auction captured the attention of the national media. Six figures for a fishing plug? The absurdity of it to the outside world and the intrigue among anglers made South Carolina construction company owner Tracey Shirey a media darling for his purchase of a 10-inch Haskell Minnow.
The sale cast an unprecedented spotlight on the so-called "hobby" of antique lure collecting.
Just don't call it a hobby when talking to guys like Kerry Chatham, the Guntersville, Ala., collector who quietly bought the world's most expensive lure from Shirey two months later for considerably more money. It is the crown jewel of this all-around sporting collector whose upper-echelon collection is, in part, on display at the Guntersville Museum of Art. (He keeps the Haskell Minnow in a safe-deposit box, mounted in a shadow box with three smaller versions from the same lure family.)
Although Chatham won't reveal what he paid for his prize possession, he admitted turning down an offer of a half-million dollars.
"It was tempting to accept the $500,000 offer, but it's not the money," he says. "It's about having the opportunity to own the Holy Grail of fishing lures. And I know I won't own it forever because I'm a steward and, really, we just do it for a while anyway. At some point, somebody might call me and say, 'I'll give you this much,' and I might say, 'You know what, I've enjoyed it a while so I will sell it.' So in a way everything is for sale."
Chatham and Shirey represent a cross-section of those who enjoy the art of collecting antique lures.
Chatham, 43, dwells on the stewardship aspect. But Shirey admitted the Haskell Minnow was an investment. Before the purchase, he had sold about $350,000 worth of old lures out of his collection to finance a new home on the Saluda River. Yep, there is big money involved in this "hobby."
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Antique lure collecting began in the 1960s and then exploded during the '90s with the launch of numerous Web sites, books on the subject and even auction houses that stage telephone and online competitions like the one where Shirey outbid Chatham for the Haskell prize. Today, the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club claims 5,000 members worldwide. Founded in 1976, the NFLCC (www.nflcc.org) is a nonprofit educational organization with a primary objective of fostering "an awareness of fishing tackle collecting as a hobby and to assist members in the location, identification and trading of vintage fishing-related equipment."
Lure collectors range from hobbyists who occasionally add to their collection to others who make a living from participating almost daily in the underground network that buzzes with news of the latest rare find.
"I don't know if you can explain it," says Bernie Schultz, a Bassmaster Elite Series pro and dedicated collector. "People are pack rats and collectors by nature. I think everybody collects something. And I just think that fishermen collect the things that make the most sense to them, and that's lures.
"Lures are the tools of my trade and it just makes sense for me. I've designed lures myself and I have a patent on a lure through Hildebrandt. To me, it's intriguing to see what has come down through the years of lure development and how it's evolved."
"A lot of the interest comes from people's fascination with history," adds Karl White, the king of antique tackle collectors. "History means everything. And part of the fun is knowing that you have something that someone else wants. It's fun to dangle a lure out there and see if you get any bites. Once you reel in a deal, it is very satisfying."
White should know. The Oklahoma expert began collecting old lures at the age of 8 and since then has influenced the antique tackle scene as much as any individual. In addition to being the antique tackle consultant for Bassmaster Magazine, he is a founding member of the NFLCC and has an estimated 20,000 items in his collection of rods, reels, lures, lines, hooks, harnesses, spoons, spinners, reference guides and more on display at the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks (valued at $4 million). He values his overall collection at $10 million.
Although White has collected such items as antique outboards and bass boats, you can tell that his heart lies in finding and securing the lures of our forefathers. No longer beating the bushes for finds, he still harbors a certain, refined enthrallment with them.
"I really got into the essence of collecting around 1962," recalls White, who was a member of the original Tulsa Bass Club with the late Don Butler. "That's when I really got my first big find of antique plugs — and that set me off."
Chatham epitomizes the big-time collectors of today. There were no announcements when he bought the most expensive fishing lure ever sold.
"I tend to be a guy that's kind of quiet behind the scenes, but the word has gotten out that it has been sold so I don't mind talking about it now," Chatham says. "Fishing tackle (collecting) hasn't gotten a lot of publicity until the last couple of years.
"In the scheme of things, fishing tackle is way behind other sporting collectibles. For example, several duck decoys have sold for over a million dollars, and that's pretty common. I was reading an article the other day about mechanical coin banks. It's nothing for those to go for $600,000 to $700,000."
Chatham started accumulating old plugs in 1980 — without the sophistication in terms of taste and collecting that he has today. But he still enjoys it as much as ever.
"It's a lot of fun. You can find little clues and take and put pieces together," Chatham emphasizes. "I had a friend ask me the other day, what is it about lure collecting that I find so interesting? I said, 'It's just like fishing and hunting because it's the thrill of the chase, the search for the fish. It's the journey you take to find what you want."
It will be hard to top his find-of-a-lifetime Haskell Minnow, which destroyed the existing record price set by a 1920s Chautauqua Minnow (sold on eBay for $45,855 in 2002). Although he owns three smaller versions, his prize Haskell Minnow is believed to be the only one of its size still in circulation. The hollow-bodied copper lure, with its scale detail, defined fins and spinning tail section, came with an original wooden sliding-top box with "R.Haskell" stamped on one end. It was made in 1859 by gunsmith Riley Haskell of Painesville, Ohio.
Research indicates that the 12-ounce lure likely has had just three owners (Chatham, Shirey and the unnamed man who consigned it to auctioneer Lang's Sporting Collectibles of Waterville, N.Y.).
Chatham was asked what makes this the most prized and expensive fishing lure in the world.
"That's a good question," he replies. "It just has everything going for it. It articulates, moves. The craftsmanship is incredible. Its condition is fabulous. And it's an American piece. It's got a lot of history with it."
The rarity of the lure is a big part of its price tag, as well. "Being one-of-a-kind and by a maker that is highly sought-after really ups the value. We knew of these other three sizes up until this one was found. We can't emphatically say that this is the only one ever made. But if you look at it, the way it was made and the size that it is, you can figure the maker decided this was just too big and heavy to fish with. Can you imagine what you needed to cast this?
"The giant Haskell is marked R. Haskell. That's the only marking on it. All the other lures that he's made that we've found are usually marked Riley Haskell, Painesville, Ohio, with a patent date. So, we surmised that this was a very early marking because we found guns and a bullet mold marked just R. Haskell."
As with other collectibles, establishing the value of an old wooden or metal plug is not an exact science.
"Value is in the eye of the beholder," Schultz says. "Yeah, there can be a market value, but when you're talking about rare collectibles there has to be enough of them trading hands to establish a market value. But in many cases, there are lures that are just too rare to establish any kind of value.
"Then it comes down to what somebody is willing to pay for it.
"Don't get the idea that getting involved in antique lure collecting requires a fat bank account and the negotiating skills of Donald Trump.
As a result of the Internet's growth, lure collectors like White, Chatham and Schultz say the game has changed significantly. Today, it is easy to determine the estimated value of older baits, which means that there are few coveted steals out there.
"I would encourage anybody to get involved," Schultz said. "The stuff just keeps coming out. Fortunately, people now realize that there is a value to these old lures. So much was lost over the years because of ignorance — because people didn't realize that the stuff is collectible and that it has value. Not just for historical and nostalgic reasons, but among collectors.
"It's incredible how much of this stuff was just thrown away by survivors of people who died. There's no telling how many supervaluable lures ended up in the dump or used by some kid that didn't know any better."
The Florida pro recommends joining a lure-collecting club or studying books or online sources before investing money in baits. As with any type of collectibles, he points out that misrepresentations and counterfeits occasionally emerge.
"Knowledge is key," White adds. "You've got to study value books and learn. Before 1962, I was not a collector; I was an accumulator."
Most collectors begin by accumulating any older lures that catch their eye. It quickly becomes a potpourri of types, colors and sizes. The usual evolution leads to streamlining the collection and even specializing in a specific series or offering from a select luremaker such as Heddon.
Schultz's impressive collection consists of old baits made by Florida-based companies. His prize lures include a 1926 Kinney Bird made by Herbert Kinney of the Hickory Rod & Tackle Co. and the Billy Eger Nature Frog Lures (1928-32).
"Many of the lures I collect now I remember as a kid, and many of the lures were out of production by the time I was born," he says. "To me, it makes sense because my background is in Florida and there's a lot of rich luremaking history in the state of Florida. And that's been my focus the last few years."
Even highly accomplished collectors like Chatham still possess a childlike enthusiasm in their search for the next great find.
"You know, we daydream as collectors," he admits. "We're always trying to come up with maybe a lure that was made that we've never found. There's always that idea out there — that there's something better."
HOW KARL WHITE DETERMINES VALUE
For the past 15 years, Karl White has authored the "What's It Worth?" column in Bassmaster Magazine.
Ever wonder how he determines the value of antique fishing tackle?
"I consider the history of each item," he replies. "I've got books here that I can use to look up the history of any lure or any reel and how much each one of them has sold for.
"I take an average from the books, and then give it a little more if the reference material is old. Everything doubles in 10 years. That's basically how I do it."
COLLECTING OLD LURE BOXES
Believe it not, among serious collectors the original boxes of antique lures are especially prized — sometimes more than the bait itself.
"To find lures in their original packaging is a real treat," says Karl White, Bassmaster's antique tackle expert. "It increases the value of the lure tremendously. I'd say normally the box is worth more than the bait because it's oftentimes more rare."
Alabama collector Kerry Chatham was doubly fortunate when he set a new record with his purchase of the Haskell Minnow. It came with the original wooden slide-top box stamped with the maker's name.
"I'd have bought it either way, but obviously I give the box a value because I know the stamp is correct and there's no doubt in my mind that the lure went in the box," he notes. "Typically on a rare piece, you can add another 50 percent to its value if it comes with a box in good shape. But this box, being a wood box with no pictures, no label, probably would not add that much — maybe 10 or 20 percent."
Boxes also add value by helping date a lure.
Perhaps the country's authority on antique boxes is Rob Pavey, outdoors writer for the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle and owner of www.mrlurebox.com. He also is author of The Heddon Legacy: A Century of Classic Lures and Warman's Fishing Lures Field Guide: Values And Identification. His collection of early lures and boxes is among the most comprehensive ever assembled.
"I have always noticed that noncollectors and people in general will linger longer over a display of boxed lures than just a display of lures. One of the cool reasons is that the boxes will have patent dates to give you an idea of the year they were made. Some have poems and jingles. Some have wonderful graphics. A lot of them will tell their claim to fame."
Pavey's prize box contains a 1902 Heddon Dowagiac Perfect Surface Casting Minnow and instruction sheet. All are in mint condition.
Some coveted boxes have sold for more than $30,000 — without the lure.