At 77, Karen Eppinger doesn’t fish as much as she used to, which used to be as much as just about anyone. Eppinger is the CEO of Dearborn-based Eppinger Lures, one of America’s oldest fishing tackle manufacturing companies — it’s more than a century old — and almost certainly the only one that remains a family business after all those years.
The company, founded by her father’s great uncle Lou Eppinger, produces one of the world’s most iconic lures: the Dardevle (pronounced like the Marvel superhero), a spoon that will catch just about anything that swims but is probably the world’s best-known pike bait. She started working in the family business as a young teen and has been at it since.
“I was 15 or 16, and I spent the summer changing prices in catalogs, putting stickers over the old prices,” she recalled. “It was boring.”
But it also was the beginning of a career in what is undoubtedly one of the most male-dominated industries there is. Over the years, she filled many roles, from tying bucktails and feathers to dressing the lures, personing the company booth at sports shows and fishing in tournaments. She was about the only gal in the boys’ locker room.
“When I first started going to tackle manufacturers shows, I think I was one of two
females in the whole coliseum,” she said. “But I was accepted because I was knowledgeable about fishing. And manufacturing. I never had any problems, but it was kind of weird.”
Eppinger fished salmon and lake trout tournaments across the Great Lakes region, as well as at destination lodges, often above the Arctic Circle. “One year, I think I had 27 fishing licenses,” she said. “And I did sports shows all over the world. I don’t ever want to get on another airplane again.”
In 1987, when her father died, she “just sort of took over,” she said. “I learned it through osmosis, just from being there.”
Though she has been approached many, many times to sell the company — the fishing tackle industry has consolidated significantly over the last few decades — she’s declined for two reasons: She is proud that the company has always been a family business, and she’s even more pleased that it continues to be based in Michigan.
“We’re one of the only manufacturers to still make our lures in the United States, and we’re not going to move out of America,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of tackle manufacturers have moved overseas. Our prices are higher because we’re not manufacturing in China or Mexico or Haiti.
“Once a big box store asked me to move overseas because they wanted me to get our prices down. We wouldn’t do it. And they still sell our lures.”
Fact is, Eppinger changed hook suppliers when that company moved its manufacturing overseas.
“We’ve tried to remain a completely made-in-America company,” she said. “The one exception is the glass eyes in our Red Eye Spoons (a company Eppinger acquired some years ago). The glass eyes are made in (Czech Republic) and nobody in America makes them. We didn’t want to go to plastic beads; we didn’t want to cheapen the product.”
John Cleveland, the marketing director at Eppinger who has been working at the company for 18 years, said Karen’s fierce loyalty — to family and community — is what defines her. A long-time member (and former president) of the Dearborn Area Chamber of Commerce, she is proud to provide jobs in southeast Michigan.
“She’s quite generous,” said Cleveland, who said Eppinger never hesitated to give him time off for family or personal business if he asked. “If money was important to her, she could have gone to offshore manufacturing. She’s stubborn, and I’m glad for it. Her priority is taking care of her family and her employees. She’s a good boss who has my respect and appreciation.”
The boss — who says she likes to putter around the garden, refinish furniture and play with her two dogs (a Pointer and a Lab) when she isn’t fishing — gradually began ceding business responsibilities to her daughter, Jennifer Bustamante, the heir apparent to the Eppinger empire.
“When I turned 70, I told my daughter I was taking summers off, so I’m here six months,” she said, referring to her Shiawassee County lake house, “then in Dearborn for six months. She’s been taking over the business and now she only calls me when she needs to know something odd, like a collector wanting to know the history of particular bait.”
For her part, Bustamante has the same goals for Eppinger as her mom — keeping everything made in America and keeping it a family business.
“It’s a legacy,” Bustamante concludes. ≈
Bob Gwizdz is a lifelong outdoor enthusiast and writer. He lives in East Lansing with his wife Judy.
*Photograph by David Lewinski