By Annette Hinkle
They’re the kind of thing you’ll occasionally find at East End yard sales, particularly when a homeowner – or more likely, the descendent of a homeowner — is clearing out decades’ worth of family possessions. We’re talking old fishing lures here, and in any seaside community worth its salt, there are bound to be boxes of them sitting forgotten in dusty corners of attics and basements.
But for lure collectors, it’s like finding gold.
Though they may not look like much to the uninitiated, some vintage fishing lures can, in fact, be considered a near art form. Among those who collect locally is Bob Jones, an avid surf fisherman who divides his time between Springs and Massapequa. When he first began amassing lures, Jones concedes he wasn’t so concerned about lineage.
“I have always been a fishermen who used lures and have always appreciated a well made lure that would do the job,” explains Jones. “It had to have the right colors, the right hooks, be sturdy, hold up and catch a number of bass. I wasn’t really a collector – I didn’t distinguish from valuable or rare. I generally hoarded the plugs that were good fish catching colors. I had 1,000 plugs – four or five in every color.”
“Then in the winter I had this lull in my life where there was nothing to do,” he adds. “In December, I’d clean up my gear, get ready for next year and go to a couple fishing shows. But I had no real passion.”
Then his friend, Frank Pintauro, introduced him to his collection of historic lures and he was hooked, so to speak.
“I said I wouldn’t mind a few to put in my den or on the wall,” says Jones. “One thing led to another. I started collecting one of each builder throughout the U.S. most in New England.”
Jones and Pintauro (a part time North Haven resident) are founding members of the Salt Water Lure Collectors Club. Both men will be at the Water Mill Museum this weekend for a three day show where they will display and discuss their extensive collection of vintage New York salt water fishing “baits” (as they are technically called) and lures made in the years following World War II.
“I was always attracted to the New York stuff,” explains Jones. “In my mind, it’s real quality and the craftsmanship in the other areas didn’t compare to guys like Charlie Russo and Jerry Ferron.”
Ferron (whose New York City tackle shop was a legendary surf fishing hangout) and Russo were part of a group of 13 avid fishermen who, in 1938, founded The Gramercy Surf Anglers, a club in lower Manhattan.
“They were hard core fishermen and would go all over — to Long Beach and Montauk, and up in the Cape,” explains Jones. “They competed with each other and were talented guys.”
But there was one significant challenge. At the time, the only lures available were those designed for use on freshwater fish — they just weren’t up to the challenge of the ocean species.
“Freshwater fish aren’t as big as striped bass and they don’t put the demands on a lure that a bass would,” explains Jones. “Bass would tear them apart and they would generally loose them.”
As a result, Ferron and Russo were among those fisherman who, in the 1940s, started making their own lures specifically for striped bass rather than relying on what was then on the market.
“They wanted bigger lures to attract the bigger fish and they customized them,” explains Jones. “They created a lot of these ‘New York Baits” and that’s when it was developed.”
Six of the founding members of The Gramercy Surf Anglers eventually took their talents to the next level by going into the bait business. Before long, the bait makers were selling their lures at tackle shops up and down the East Coast.
“They were kind of pioneers,” says Jones. “They actually branched out and became the lure companies themselves.”
Jones explains that surf fishing really took off on the East Coast in the 1940s following World War II. It was considered the “golden age” of the sport. It was also in the ‘40s and ‘50s that New York Baits really hit their stride and lures from that period are considered the cream of the crop.
“These lures were around $2 when new – back then that was a lot of money,” says Jones. “They were not cheap. In the 1940s $2 was quite a bit if someone was making $10 a week.”
Today, a vintage lure collector can expect to pay far more for a vintage lure.
“A primo bait can go for $500 – in a box it can be almost $2,000,” he says. “It can affect the price that much. But it has to be the correct box, with a label on the side stating the lure should be this color.”
Of all the makers of New York Baits, which does he like best?
“My favorites are by Charlie Russo,” says Jones. “Charlie was a mystery man. He was a bookmaker and gambler, but he was also very talented. Some of his lures have the most beautiful paint jobs I’ve ever seen. You look at them now and they’re still beautiful and in great condition with fine finishes.”
“These guys hand painted them,” says Jones. “It was a bit of work. The paints they used are illegal now.”
Though they were works of art in many ways, it turns out that the pinnacle of lure craftsmanship was fairly short lived — limited to the 1940s and 1950s. That’s because mass production soon took over. Jones explains that bait makers realized they didn’t need to produce lures with fancy paint jobs or subtle details in order to catch fish. Color was all that really mattered to the bass — painted eyes, scales and fin marks were just extras.
Today, Jones says that finding these vintage lures can be quite a challenge. Though there may occasionally be a secret stash found somewhere in a tackle shop storeroom, in general EBay and online auctions are a more reliable way to go these days. But Jones admits that some of his best lures can still be found close to home.
“Garage sales are great. I’ll overpay for stuff – especially if its from a widow,” says Jones who is careful to not take advantage of someone who may not know what they have.
“If I feel a lure is worth $200, and I pay you $5, you’re not going to like me when you find out, and you won’t contact me again when you have others,” says Jones. “But If I buy that lure for $100, I got a bargain and you got a good price.”
“It’s not good karma to cheat people — and you’ll probably get skunked next time you go fishing,” he adds.
“Vintage New York Salt Water Fishing ‘Baits’ and Lures From the 1940s and 1950s” will be on view Friday to Sunday, September 23 to 25, 2011 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Water Mill Museum, 41 Old Mill Road. For more information, call 726-4625.