Russell Lewis ’70 figures he was born a collector. But he remembers the moment he became a collector of fishing tackle.
“I was a poor kid, so fishing meant a worm on a hook. But we had a neighbor, a retired millionaire, who had the good stuff. He got catalogs from all the major fishing supply companies. I remember lying on his floor and looking at his catalogs—all those rods and lures. I saw an Ambassador 5000 reel when it came out in 1954. It was $50! I tell you, I coveted it!”
Today Lewis owns 50-plus Ambassador 5000s, several hundred other fishing reels, rods (over a thousand) and lures, too. He’s not sure exactly how many lures. Somewhere near 20,000, including his first, a Baby Creek Chub Plunker the millionaire neighbor gave him in 1953 or ’54.
Lewis can tell you what every rod, reel, creel and lure is worth on the “fishing collectibles” market—not only the worth of the ones he owns, but of every one ever made.
In June, Collector Books published the fifth of his five-volume opus, Modern Fishing Lure Collectibles. One reviewer called the set “an essential encyclopedia for collectors.” Taken together, the books cover fishing equipment of every type and description made in the United States between 1937 and 1987, the year most domestic fishing supply companies went out of business. Divided by era, each book features detailed descriptions of fishing items and their trading value; more than 1,500 large, crisp photos (which Lewis takes himself) for clear item identification; and extensive histories of the companies that made the items.
“You don’t need the histories to identify and trade rods, reels and lures,” Lewis said. “I just like to tell a story.”
Lewis learned to tell historical stories at Calvin. Thanks to the tutelage of Professor Don Wilson and the graces of Grand Valley State University, he put together an anthropology major before Calvin offered one. He taught and did historical archaeology throughout the Midwest before becoming a lawyer in midlife. Now he teaches law and finance at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.
When he began to write books on collectibles in 2001 (he’s written 20 such books now, including volumes on other sporting collectibles, farm collectibles and American Indian artifacts), Lewis discovered, “It was like doing historical archaeology again. To reconstruct the histories of vanished fishing supply companies, I dug into archives and tracked down owners’ children, grandchildren and former employees.”
Lewis also tells stories of mom-and-pop shops. “There was a guy who worked for Baker Furniture and took home mahogany scraps, which he carved and painted at night, in his kitchen, into these beautiful lures he called Hollow Heads. He made 900 of them from 1947–1949. When I found him in 1995, he still had 450 of them in his garage.”
Lewis bought them all, because he not only writes about lures and other fishing collectibles, he trades them himself and serves as a broker for other traders.
He concedes that he is a prime specimen of the type he and other archaeological historians study. “Something as simple as a fishing lure exhibits one true trait of American material culture: We are believers in ‘bigness,’ in ‘moreness.’ There’s no reason that I ever needed more lures than the Baby Creek Chub Plunker and two others my neighbor gave me in 1953. There are only three or four basic fishing lure designs. With those a person can catch any fish any time.”Russell Lewis welcomes questions about fishing collectibles or his brokerage services at RussellLewis@ferris.edu or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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