The allure of old fishing lures

Noel Lyons has been collecting antique fishing gear for about 25 years, most of it was obtained at garage sales and auctions around the Emporia area.
Noel Lyons has been collecting antique fishing gear for about 25 years, most of it was obtained at garage sales and auctions around the Emporia area. The Wichita Eagle

Noel Lyons roamed northwest Arkansas waters as a small boy. A rigged cane pole and a can of worms were his only equipment.

At 80 and with health issues, his roaming days are largely over. He’s spent more time lately enjoying fishing inside than outside.

“I guess I got started collecting fishing equipment about 35 years ago,” he said from a sizable garage loft, its walls coated with lure displays and ceiling a patchwork of racks holding old fishing rods. “I don’t even know what a lot of this stuff is. I’ve been a fisherman all of my life. I just like being around it.”

Lyons doesn’t remember the first lure he got as a boy or the last he bought as an adult to add to his collection. Unlike some collectors, who only buy what they know to be rare and valuable, Lyons said he bought most of his gear “because I knew I didn’t have it, so that made me want it.”

He also doesn’t know the highest amount he’s paid for old fishing gear, but it probably wasn’t much.

“I got most of this stuff at garage sales or (estate) auctions. Sometimes the (sale) bill might just say ‘fishing equipment or Zebco reels,’ he said. Often he bought boxes of “fishing junk,” and found collectable gear inside. If the stuff wasn’t old, or unique enough for his collection, he’d piece together and often repair rods and reels and give them to local kids.

“Every kid should get to fish. Teach a boy to fish and you have friend for live,” he said. “That goes for girls, too.”

Some of his trips, mostly in Kansas and Arkansas, paid off well.

On a nearby table sat a small, silver cylinder with the unmistakable look of a Zebco spincast reel. But that wasn’t the brand printed on the bottom of the reel seat.

“It says Zero Hour Bomb Company, they made the first Zebco reels,” he said. “They say they originally were making bombs to drop down oil wells, and for (World War II). Then they started make these reels. They really changed fishing. There’s a history there most people don’t know about.”

Not far away, he reached to a rod rack on the floor, then lifted a soft case, first extracting a primitive casting reel, then a willowy metal rod. It took a bit, but he got the two connected.

“This here was made by the Hurd Lock Company in 1946,” he said. “The used old antennas from Sherman tanks to make the rods. I’m not sure I’d want to fish with it because when you wiggle that rod it shakes you down to your toes. But I do enjoy things with a story like that.”

Leaving Arkansas as a young man, Lyons worked his way around the country doing everything from logging in the Pacific Northwest to several decades with a Kansas telephone company. From all the manual work he has a crushing a handshake. From all those years of angling, he has a head full of fishing trivia and personal stories, and he’s not afraid to share them.

Hanging from a long section of net from the ceiling are an array of midge-orenos, one of his favorite lures. Some were factory made, others he whittled from wooden dowels. It’s hard to tell the difference, if not for some unique paint and sparkle jobs he put on some of his own creations to catch more bass.

On the topic of hand-carved lures, he’s quick to tell the story of the Heddon Lure company, one of history’s most innovative and popular fishing gear manufacturers. Lyons said it all started when Mr. Heddon started whittling as he awaited on a friend to show up so they could go fishing. That whittling turned into a lure that promptly caught a nice bass that day so many thousands of Heddon lures eventually followed.

One collected items bring up a story of his own personal fishing trips, like the one when he and his son were in a small boat when it was towed around a local lake before the fish came unhooked.

“I just figured it had to be a big ol’ catfish,” he said, “but Steve said, ‘It was a bass, I saw it twice and I know what a bass looks like.’ That must have been a heck of a fish.”

His personal best bass was right at nine pounds, and also from waters near Emporia. He still fishes those same waters when he can, though he needs someone to go along to help him with things like electric motor battery.

“I still like to go when I can,” he said, still on the couch amid the collection, his little dog, Ginger asleep at his side. “But I sure can’t go as often as I used to.” His fishing equipment collection also doesn’t mean as much to him as it did when he was younger and in better health. Some he’s given to friends. Some of it he’s sold and those sales are an on-going process.

“I don’t know, I really can’t explain it, but none of it means as much to me as it did years ago,” he said. “It needs to be somewhere where somebody can appreciate it every day, like I used to.