Uncle Carl favored red-and-black plaid woolen shirts, even on a cool summer morning, and I can recall him rowing our wooden boat across Perry Lake near Fairview with me gripping our fishing rods in the bow. Dangling on the end of his pole was a Helin Flatfish, his favorite lure for northern pike. He caught a lot of fish on that battered old plug with its paint rubbed raw from toothy northerns trying to throw the hooks.
Fast forward 60 years: Whenever I see a Flatfish — they were introduced in 1934 by Charles Helin in Detroit and still are being made — I think of those lazy summer days spent fishing with Uncle Carl.
Michigan has long been a hotbed of creativity for fishing lure designers. According to the late George Richey, author of “Made in Michigan Fishing Lures,” the first known lure patent was issued to George R. Pierce of Grand Rapids on September 14, 1875, for his Pierce Spinner, only two of which are known to exist today.
Every year, new creations show up at consumer fishing shows throughout the state.
On the other hand, Helin Flatfish lures are so common as to be worth only a few dollars each, even new in the original box. That’s also true of a fishing spoon called the Dardevle, invented by Lou Eppinger of Dearborn in 1906. Originally called the Osprey, he changed the name to Dardevle after the Teufel Hunden, or “Devil Dogs,” the name the Germans gave to a U.S. Marine brigade after tangling with them at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918.
The family of fourth-generation Eppingers annually produces upward of two million fishing lures in its Dearborn factory. Dardevles may be the most-copied lure in the world; over the years, more than 300 imitators have come to market.
According to Richey, more than 600 different Michigan companies made fishing lures from 1875-1963. An abundance of water resources is one reason. The auto industry that brought thousands of people looking for work is another. As the state’s population increased, the thirst for outdoor recreation — and the products that made fishing safe, comfortable, successful and fun — also grew.
In 1897, William Shakespeare Jr. of Kalamazoo patented a fishing reel that wound line evenly back on the spool. Within 25 years, more than five thousand dealers were selling millions of Shakespeare product inventions, including fishing lures, around the world.
The Michigan industries, built by entrepreneurs like Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison, spawned scores of specialty supply companies. These, too, were run by — and still are staffed with — mechanical engineers, pattern makers, injection-mold experts and tool-and-die skilled tradesmen. The birth of new fishing lures occurred not only in factory tool rooms but also in basement workshops. Every year, new creations show up at consumer fishing shows throughout the state.
From ice fishing spoons, like the Swedish Pimple (made by Bay de Noc Lure Company in Gladstone) to salmon-trolling lures like the Silver Streak (made by Wolverine Tackle in Orchard Lake), some Michigan cottage industries have become highly successful at growing into world-famous mass producers.
What is collectible and what is not? As with any product, scarcity and singularity boost desirability and value to collectors.
Consider Heddon lures. Established in 1902 by James Heddon & Sons in Dowagiac, the company claims to be the nation’s oldest lure maker still in production. You can buy a Heddon River Runt for peanuts on eBay; you can also pay up to $400 for a genuine Heddon Dowagiac Minnow.
The highest price ever paid for a Michigan-made lure? According to Terry McBurney, an Ada expert who is revising Richey’s book, an auction house sold a Moonlight Dreadnaught (Moonlight Bait Company in Paw Paw) in its original box for $24,000 in October 2015. In 2005, another auction house sold a Shakespeare Muskellunge Minnow (pictured) for $23,100 (without the box). McBurney says private sales of rare Michigan lures (up to $50,000) or boxes (up to $85,000) supposedly have occurred but can’t be substantiated.
What’s in your tackle box? If you’re like me and own a Helin Flatfish, hang onto it. If not for the money, then for the memories.
Tom Huggler is a freelance writer from Sunfield and the author of 20 books.