Fire and Fish Hooks
In 2005, Forbes chose the fishing hook as one of the top 20 tools in mankind’s history. Sport fishing is big business: The American Sportfishing association reports that 48 billion dollars is spent annually, supporting over 820,000 jobs related to the industry. $7.4 billion is spent on fishing equipment - an average of $150 annually per angler (https://business.realtree.com/business-blog/us-angler-expenditures-2016) - $852 million of that is spent on baits and fishing lures.
Furthermore, based on a 2018 special report conducted by the Outdoor Foundation and the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, we know that in 2017, more than 49 million Americans enjoyed fishing as a pastime. This represents 16.5% of the U.S. population ages 6 and up; 24.2% of American kids; and 20.1% of American teenagers. We also know that Anglers went on 885.2 million outings, averaging 18.0 trips per participant. The number one reason why Parents state they went fishing was to spend time with their families. Lastly, Freshwater fishing has the highest percentage of female and youth anglers compared to saltwater and fly fishing. (https://outdoorindustry.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2018-Special-Report-on-Fishing_FINAL.pdf).
The First Fishing Lures and Storied Tale of the Shell Game
The Abalone shell (aka: Paua), Mother of Pearl. The shell’s veneer is used today in the manufacturing of fishing lures, fishing rods, drums, guitars, knives, most any hard surface needing décor, and basically any of the marquetry trades. Whether or not the Abalone was also the first Trolling-style fishing spoon, we may never know. What we can say is that one look at it and you can tell that it makes a pretty convincing case.
As far as we can tell we humans have been fishing, with our bare hands, with woven nets, or handmade spears, for the past 40,000 years. The oldest known fishing hooks were fashioned from Sea Snail shells found off the coast of Okinawa, Japan and date back 23,000 years. Countless fish hooks carved from bone have been discovered throughout the decades in caves our ancestors called home.
The Chinese spun fishing line from silk and used rice as bait and carp as cut-bait. And, as early as 2,000 B.C.E the Egyptians were using fishing poles and barbed Bronze (an alloy of Tin & Copper) hooks that, due to their strength, could be sculpted down until they were very thin and less noticeable to unassuming bait fish and apex, pelagic predatory fish.
The ancient Greeks and Romans both advocated Sportfishing, as well as fishing as a healthy food source. The Roman Claudius Aelianus wrote extensively on trout fishing and fashioned lures made out of feathers, lead, bronze, wild boar bristles and horsehair.
In the 1650s, and himself in his 60s, Izaak Walton waxed poetically on fishing. Copies of his famous work, ‘The Compleat Angler…The Contemplative Man's Recreation’ describe topics such as fishing line, hooks, flies, and appropriate attitudes needed to be successful in the sport. His ideas resonate to this day: He enjoyed the sport; being active; the friendships made stronger; the scenic beauty of nature, and charm of countryside’s rediscovered.
150 Years in the Making: North American Silverware; Flutter, Casting, Jigging, & Trolling Spoons
1827: The story goes that a young Julio T. Buel was out fishing and stopped for lunch when he dropped his spoon in the water. As he watched it sink to the bottom of the lake a lunker of a Bass swept by. Seeing the flash of silver and flutter of the spoon himself, the fish gobbled the utensil up in one foul gulp. Luckily for us young Julio wasn’t eating with a fork that day because what he witnessed would change the course of history as Anglers know it.
1848: The spoon lure was officially invented by Julio as he and his father moved to Whitehall, New York (Not Whitehall, VT as others have suggested…you need to check the US patent office records to make this distinction ;)) and opened up a manufacturing facility. At the same time he has the foresight and marketing prowess to send his lures to writer, and avid outdoorsman in his own right, Frank Forester. Frank was known for publishing weekly columns titled ‘Spirit of the Times.’ In 1852 Julio was awarded his first patent. He would go on to invent and patent several lures over the next 20+ years of his life. His company was purchased by Eppinger Manufacturing (Aka Dardevle) out of Dearborn, Michigan in 1967.
1860: William D. Chapman, a jeweler and watchsmith with an affinity for the finesse arts of fishing would leave his mark on the sport forever. In 1866 he was granted his first of many fishing lure patents which were elegant in their complexity and attention to detail. W.D. Chapman & Son would go on to create the first known Trolling-style fishing spoon and market their unique brand as the ‘IXL’ (I Excel). When laborers were making 10 cents per hour ($6 a week/$300 per year) their lures sold for anywhere between 40 cents and $2. Two (2) dollars in 1860 would be equivalent to $66.98 in today’s money (ave. inflation rate of 2.20% over 161 years from 1860 to 2021).
1877: Following the success of Buel and Chapman other entrepreneurial-minded individuals began storied careers in lure manufacturing. Elmer Hinckley, Scott Sutton, and Skip Pierce where among those. Although many different lures were being produced, it was the Flutter-style spoon that was arguably the most popular. What made the Flutter spoon unique was, unlike severed silverware, it was molded out of thinner gauge metals (+/-.016) which created erratic movement at slow speeds. Both the Elmer Hinckley Fishing Tackle Company of Hartford, New York and the Sutton Company of Naples, New York are still in business as of this writing.
1898: The Heddon Frog was born in Dowagiac, Michigan when James Heddon carved the end of a broomstick into the first wooden lure. If you recognize the Heddon Basser lure (1922) as being the the first 'Salmon Plug,' you would not be wrong. Even though it would be years before their lures would be used for Salmon fishing, the lure hasn't changed much over the past 100 years. Although Heddon isn’t known for their fishing spoons per se, James was cut from the same entrepreneurial cloth as those names listed above. With the Heddon catalog and marketing Tour De Force, at their height the company was producing 12,000 lures per day (1950). They did produce the ‘King Stanley’ Weedless (First of the weedless variety we were able to locate while researching for this article) Casting spoon in 1927. By then Eppinger had been making casting spoons for the past 17 years. Although not the “Oldest lure company still in (production),” as the company’s website claims: They are still around today in Fort Smith, Arkansas and owned by Ebsco Industries (one of the largest privately owned companies in Alabama).
1908: Rufus Gibbs starts the first (and oldest) Canadian lure company still in operation in Vancouver. Purchased and then sold by another well known Canadian lure company, Len Thompson, Gibbs is now Gibbs Delta, still in British Columbia to this day. Gibbs was known for their durable brass lures and hand-cut glass beads that accompanied them. They were also one of the first companies to move into being an outsourcing manufacturing facility willing to produce lures for other designers and inventors. Among our favorite original Gibbs and company lures include the 'Bear Valley 6' which is what you might think of as an oversized Colorado spinner blade (possibly something found on a Musky bait today), and the 'Clendon Stewart 8' resembling a cross between a ruddered Williams Wabler and an Old School trolling spoon. In 2020 Gibbs Delta acquired a well-known trolling spoon brand, Michigan Stinger (Boyne Falls, MI).
1910: Lou J. Eppinger created and marketed the Dardevle Brand (Originally named Osprey and latter named after the Devil Dog Marines of WWI and purposely misspelled due to religious sensitivities of the time). His Casting-style spoon design, with a thicker/heavier body and tapered edges meant longer casts with fewer backlashes. Known for their Osprey spoon, and later, the Red and White-striped caster, “Eppinger bought large costly Ad space in Field & Stream magazine and began working closely with well-known outdoor writers to help publicize the lure. He began publishing an annual booklet that had facts and tips both related and unrelated to the Dardevle” (https://www.amazon.com/COMPLEAT-ANGLER-CONTEMPLATIVE-RECREATION-HERITAGE/dp/B000GPC8I6). Lou’s nephew, Ed, increased advertising and expanded lure colors and combinations. Lou’s Grandniece, Karen, runs Eppinger today and has kept the business in the family’s name.
1910s: The quintessential Jigging-style spoon, the Swedish pimple, has been in existence for the past 100 years or more. The design is unique among fishing spoon designations and recognizable by its sleek design, but relative heavy weight by its size. Also unique, is this type of lure can be used year round, even in winter months while jigging over hard water (i.e. Ice Fishing). Today the most popular of these is made by Bay de Noch, a Michigan based company out of Gladstone.
1916: The Williams’ Wabler fishing lure (1/2oz and 2.625” long) was patented. Canadian brothers, Sir name Williams: Fueled by passion and the success of victory over the Klondike gold rush, tinkering around in the back of their shop, created something grand. Although, based on its weight to size ratio, it’s more than likely that casting is what they had in mind – they are able to nonetheless be used as a Trolling-style fishing spoon. What has made trolling spoons unique is their ability to be trolled at a range of speeds without the drawback of repetitiously spinning out (e.g. Spinning out is when the lure rotates 360 degrees in a +/-12 inch circle, an action that is not desirable, nor known for triggering instinctive predatory responses from fish).
The Wabler spoon accomplishes steady lure action by using their patented ridgeback design; while modern-day trolling spoons rely on medium gauge metals (+/- .025) more suited to the task, as well as specific design engineering through rigorous R&D (research and development). “Williams advertised in print magazines and kept up good relations with outdoor publications, personalities, and organizations. They also sponsored a number of fishing tournaments, which served dual promotional purposes” (http://apr-sfld-sql3.farmington.apr/Reports/Pages/Report.aspx?ItemPath=%2fCollections%2fTCN+Export%2fTCN+Export+Rainmaker). Today Breck, Inc. owns and operates Williams brand lure facilities in Sherbrooke, Quebec.
1929: We would be remis not to include Len Thompson within our discussion. A WWI Veteran and farmer, Len began manufacturing his own fishing spoons after being underwhelmed by what was available on the market (a story we can certainly relate to). Another lover of brass and ball peen hammers, Len moved to Toronto in 1945 and began scaling his operation. Known for their infamous Red and Yellow 5 of diamonds casting lure, they also hold the genius book of world records for the largest fishing lure. More recently, Len Thompson purchased Northern King Lures (Rochester, NY) in 2016 and in doing so acquired a well positioned trolling spoon brand.
1960s: The story of Dick Yeck actually begins in the 1950s when Yeck was banging out trolling lures by hand for personal use and to give to his friends in Northern Michigan and up and down the coast of lake Michigan. Seeing a broader demand for his lures be started the Yeck Lure Company. Yeck's brother was a sign maker by trade which gave him access to vinyl materials he could cut by hand, affix to his lures, and later - with the success of his lures - learn just how susceptible Salmon are to shiny objects. Dick passed away in 2011, but the Yeck 'Zipper' is used to this day.
Consummate Charter Captain Doug Strzynski purchased Yeck lures after Dick's passing in 2012. Doug passed away in 2022 and knew Dick Yeck when he himself was a young boy . He was known for saying he '....always looked up to the man, back in those days there was Dardevle [Eppinger] and there was Yeck.' Brackets added. Like Eppinger, Yeck has been copied many, many times over. Yeck has been copied to the extent that other brands' 'famous lures,' were in actuality, original Yeck designs (See also Double Orange Crush, Blue Dolphin and Green Dolphin Zipper spoons).
Welcome to the Evolution
The Spoon, of all the Lures on today’s market, is still the most versatile (in terms of the variety of fish that are caught) and the most efficient (in terms of low maintenance and dependability). A good quality spoon you can abuse, neglect, abandon on a rocky shore, and when you return to use it, it’ll be as dependable as the day you tore it from its packaging. Spoons can last a lifetime and can catch the most memorable fish of your life.
Our ancestors used shell and bone because that worked for them better than anything else. The Egyptians used barbed Bronze, and the Greeks and Romans used Lead, Animal fur and feathers because that’s what worked for them better than anything else. My advice….find what works best for you and exploit its usefulness.
Julio T. Buel was inspired over lunch and patented the first Flutter spoon; Rufus Gibbs and company pioneered what we now all affectionately know as trolling lures; Lou J. Eppinger perfected and went all in on his Casting spoon invention; and Dick Yeck, a sign-maker's brother, created some of the most prolific trolling spoons of all time by combining vinyl and artesian craftsmanship.
The Evolution of Fishing Spoons is nothing short of fascinating. It’s a narrative full of Hard Work and Happenstance; full of Grit and Gratitude; of Conscientious effort, of Rigor, and Resilience. There may be a lot more lure manufacturers in today’s economy, but there’s a lot more of everything in today’s economy. That’s precisely what makes today’s fishing experiences more exciting than the last.
We certainly didn’t invent the first fishing lure, but what I can tell you is our team works very hard every day in determining the Good lures; Bad Designs; and the just plain Ugly tackle (in terms of lure action, etc…).
Whether you own or work for a lure manufacturer; Have a favorite lure; Built a lure of your own, we’ll test it in our state-of-the-art Lure Tank Lab. We Aim to bring you articles and videos showing the action of countless lures: Lures in production, lures no longer in production, expensive prototypes and lures you made in your garage. Tested by us and rated by you, the Angler.
Happy fish and Tight lines. Welcome to the Evolution,
Article written by Mike Hiller
updated on 2/09/2022