Jul 10, 2015

Fishing Vintage Gear

I collect old fishing equipment. I guess it started when my grandmother gave me my grandfather’s gear after he died. He left me about half a dozen old rods with metal level wind casting reels, his old tackle box and his deer hunting rifle. This was shortly before I joined the Army and left on what would become a twenty year career. During those years I moved ten times but through all those moves I kept grandfather’s old gear.

Grandfather’s rifle is now in my gun safe and his fishing gear sits on the base of the fireplace in my family room with a lot of other gear I have collected since.

After retiring from the Army and settling down in Hudson, Wisconsin, I had room and time to collect more vintage fishing gear. I found old rods and reels in antique stores and junk shops. Some friends, knowing I collect that stuff, gave me more old rods or reels which were sitting in their basement or corner of their garage.

In addition to rods and reels, I started picking up old baits. Many of them I remembered from my boyhood in the 1950s and 60s. I recall looking at them in the sport shops and hardware stores. In those days, most hardware stores also sold hunting and fishing gear. As I look back, it seemed to me many of those sport shops and hardware stores, especially the farther north you went, were dark and dusty. I suppose when you are selling grass seed and fertilizers in the same store with fishing gear it would be a bit dusty. Even the sport shops seemed dark and dusty. I don’t think dusting was a priority for owners in those days.

In the stores I looked at all the baits, usually hanging from pegs on peg boards or sometimes swing out boards attached to the wall. I loved to look at the baits and dreamed that one day I would own a bunch of them. The dream was hard to realize in those days with my allowance and the occasional grass cutting job, but dream I did.

I remember two sport shops. One was on a back street in Oshkosh and I think I recall the place was call Matt’s. The other was a sport shop in Sheboygan. Both stores had large front windows where they laid out a number of plugs (we call them crankbaits today) and other baits. I loved looking in those windows.

Back in the day, there seemed to be a lot of different baits but there were relatively few in comparison to what you find in today’s bait shops and fishing stores. They were packed in card board boxes with such names as Heddon and Cisco Kid. The one I remember the best was the River Runt. For collectors today, the boxes are worth as much and, in some cases, more than the baits themselves. That seems strange to me. If you can find both the bait and the box together, it’s even  better.

Many of these baits are no longer made. The Cisco Kid is now owned by Suick and they do have a Cisco Kid Topper still in their inventory, but the rest of the Cisco Kid baits are gone. The River Runt is also long gone. It was one of the first baits made with plastic. Most baits prior to World War II were made from wood, but plastic became more popular in the late 1950s.

My bass fishing buddy, Scott Clark, of Hudson, Wisconsin, and I have discussed over the years whether any of those old baits could still catch fish today. Many fishermen theorize fish eventually become used to certain baits and when they do, they catch fewer fish. If that is the case, then many of these older baits have long passed out of the collective memory of today’s fish. With that in mind, Scott and I set aside a day every season to fish with vintage gear to test our theory whether these old baits still work today or perhaps, in some cases, even better than some of our modern baits.

In keeping with the vintage theme, I have a replica of an old wooden tackle box. It is easy to forget today with the modern plastic tackle boxes and soft sided tackle bags that most tackle boxes were first made of wood and later metal. I remember my father having a metal tackle box with the bottom of the trays lined with a thin sheet of cork. I still have my grandfather’s metal box and it retains the comfort smell of fish and oil for his reels and outboard motor I remember so well. My wife, Becky, gave me the wooden tackle box for Christmas one year and I knew instantly I was going to use it as my vintage tackle box.

The box is filled with baits which are no longer available. I have some River Runts and a Cisco Kid as well as several other baits from the 1950s and 60s. I have some newer baits which are no longer made either. I also have some baits, although still manufactured, but are no longer made in the colors I have. It is something of an eclectic collection. My grandfather’s old fishing knife is also in the box. That knife is probably 50 years old. There is one bait I do not have in my vintage tackle box. It is a green plug with a metal lip. There is no brand name on it so I am not sure who made it. It had been my father’s and I remember seeing it in his tackle box from the time I was a young kid. My father died almost fifteen years ago and now that bait sits in a display case in my family room. I will never use it, not because I don’t want to but because I couldn’t take the chance of losing it.

To add to the ambiance of the day, we fish with old rods and reels. That started a couple years ago when I was in an antique store and found a Ted Williams spinning rod and reel. Although Ted Williams is known for his baseball career with the Boston Red Sox, he was also a big outdoorsman. After retiring from baseball, he became a promoter for Sears and Roebuck sporting goods. I remember seeing Ted Williams rods and reels, guns, tents and other items both in their catalog and in their stores when I was a kid. I got that old rod and reel for $30 and it was blast from the past for me when I bought it.

I noticed it still had old yellow monofilament line on it and it got me thinking. Why don’t I put new line on it and try fishing with it again? I imagine that old rod has probably not been used in over 30 or 40 years. I put new line on it and took it with me the next time I went bass fishing. I used it for about an hour before I switched back to my modern gear. In the hour I fished with it, I caught four or five bass and felt a mixture of joy and nostalgia while using it.

Over the years, I have been collecting old Mitchell 300 reels. The Mitchell 300 was the first spinning reel I owned as a kid when I finally could afford to purchase one which fostered a soft spot in my heart for them ever since. They were big, heavy reels but rugged. They were indestructible which is why they are still around and work today. I rummaged around my basement and found some old fiberglass rods from back in the 1960s and 70s which I found in junk shops or people gave to me. I matched those rods with the Mitchell 300s. It took me back to early fishing days and they were not only a great memory but fun to use again.

Now, when Scott and I go on our vintage fishing day, we use old baits on old rods and reels. For the day I also wear a straw hat. When I was a kid I remembered all the old fishermen seemed to have one. It wasn’t just any straw hat but one with the front of the brim cut off, replaced with a green plastic piece like a sun shade. I looked for one for a number of years. Some people told me of a store or two they thought still carried them but when I check they didn’t. I thought I might find one in a junk store but I didn’t find any there either. One December when I was in Key West, Florida, I found a pile of them in a store. I searched through the pile for one which fit me and bought it. I wore it on the flight home to walk out of the airport in Minneapolis to find snow on the ground.

The day is warm and sunny. Sunlight dances off the water. It is a great day to go fishing and a great day to use vintage gear. Scott jokes we didn’t need to go to a sport shop to go fishing today; instead we went to the antique store.

We start fishing right from the boat landing. We are fishing over deep water with a thick mass of weeds on the bottom. I start with a Lazy Ike. It is a color Lazy Ike no longer offers. I remember I bought this bait from a hardware store in Oshkosh in the mid-1970s. The store is long gone now like many of those baits they sold then. The bait is not running right and after several unsuccessful attempts to tune it I finally put it back in the tackle box and switch to a Heddon Sonic.

One of my fishing buddies told me Sonics were one of his father’s favorite baits in the 1960s so I found some on Ebay and bought them to add to my vintage collection. I try them in a couple of different colors for about twenty minutes and never get a strike. I guess today is not a Sonic day. I will try them some other time and feel reasonably assured they will work. I switch to a yellow River Runt. It doesn’t run right so I take it and put on another one in the same color which seems to work fine.

Scott catches the first fish. He catches a foot long bass on an orange spoon with black spots. I know spoons are still sold today but Scott’s spoon is somewhat unique as it has two small spinners at the bottom of it. I remember them from the 1960s and 70s and I haven’t seen them since.  He got it from his father’s tackle box. It also brings up the question as to why today’s bass fishermen do not use spoons more often. With all the other baits out there, spoons may be a much overlooked bass bait.

A few minutes later I feel a fish slam my River Runt. It puts up a frenzied fight and a couple moments later I see a thin shadow in the water.  It is a northern pike. I switch to a perch colored River Runt and a few minutes later catch another northern.

I switch to a lure called The Charmer. I found several of them in a junk shop in Oshkosh some 30 years ago. The junk shop is now a sandwich shop. One of the interesting things about buying and using old lures is to research them. The computer and internet helps a lot. I did a Google search on The Charmer and found they were made by the Hunt Lure Company and billed itself as “The King Of Bass Lures.” Dewey Hunt was making and selling these lures out of his gas station in the early 1950s, and by 1960 started to make the lures full time. By the late 1960s, the company was out of business but in its day they made two other baits plus The Charmer.

The Charmer does not run right and after trying to tune it I give up and change to a Cisco Kid. As we fish, Scott and I talk about these old lures. It seems at least one out of every two we try doesn’t seem to run properly. We recognize many of these lures are forty years old or more. Perhaps they lost their action simply because they were fished a lot and are now too beat up.

But some baits seem to be working just fine and one them is the Cisco Kid I now am using. It is a plastic bait with a metal lip probably from the 1960s. A slip of paper in the box tells me it is a “Proven Killer For …. BASS, WALLEYE, TROUT, PIKE and many other game fish.” On the box it also claims to be “America’s No. 1 Fish Getter.” On the first cast I see a flash in the water but the fish misses the bait. A couple casts later I feel a solid strike and set the hook. The fiberglass rod I am using is doubled over as the fish races off but I quickly turn the fish and get it coming to the boat. A moment later I pull the fish in the boat. It is another northern pike.

I enjoy fishing with old spinning rods and reels but notice these old rods are much heavier than those we use today and much softer which makes it harder to set the hook. I know we used those rods for a lot of years and marvel at how many fish we caught with them in spite of their drawbacks in relation to the rods we use today. Also after a day of fishing with the older, heavier rods I can feel it in my shoulders which I never remembered years ago. But then I was a lot younger then too.

I stick with my Cisco Kid and see a number of fish chase it. Every now and then one hits it hard enough for me to set the hook. The other thing with the older, softer rods is they bend a lot further when a fish is fighting against it which is exciting. Scott is switching between his favorite modern baits and the older baits but doesn’t seem to do any better with one over the other. Maybe the old baits are just as good as our modern lures.

Finally I catch a bass. It is a foot long fish and puts up a good fight. The soft rod is bent in half and the rod tip is plunging. I get the fish into the boat and release it. We fished until late afternoon and by the end of the day we caught 15 fish; nine bass and six northern pike. By any standards, whether it be today or 40 years ago, it is a good day of fishing. The old stuff still works and a day with an old Mitchell 300 reel, or a Ted Williams spinning outfit and River Runts and Cisco Kids brings me back to the days, the memories and dreams. I enjoy the memories and days of fishing from the past and the dreams I once had. My dreams have come true and more, so I have been lucky and fishing vintage gear reminds me of that.