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The Paul Bunyan Bait Company, casting a Minnesota original

By Tom Goeritz

Every fisherman that I have ever talked with can tell you their favorite bait. In fact, most of us can rattle off five or six that we especially like or are the “go to” baits in the tackle box.

Lures and more from the Paul Bunyan Bait Company. Photo by Tom Goertiz

I have a fishing buddy that has collected baits for many years. After reading some of my stories in Outdoor News, he said I should write something about antique fishing lures. As I thought about it, I came to realize that after fishing for some 60-plus years I had not paid much attention to the origin of the many baits that I have used.

It should be noted that lure and flies are really deceptions designed to resemble live bait. Recorded history of artificial baits goes back to the 17th century. They were hand made by anglers. Flies made from feathers and yarn were thought to be some of the first lures created along with wooden floating type of baits.

There are some great stories about the evolution of bait and tackle companies. Heddon, is legendary in developing American fishing lures and stands out among all the others. The story of how it started in Dowagiac, Michigan is special. Sometime in the late 1880’s, James Heddon was waiting for a friend by a small mill pond and decided to carve on a small piece of wood. As he got up to leave, he tossed the wood into the pond, immediately a bass rose to the piece of wood. As they say, the rest is history. It marked the beginning of Heddon Lures.

It was 1896 when the level wind reel was created by William Shakespeare Jr. It was a revolutionary improvement to the reels of that time. As a result, the Shakespeare Fishing Company had a dozen employees by 1902.

Pre-World War II started the emergence of more companies that began to produce lures, casting rods and reels. Copper, aluminum, plastic, steel, and wood were common materials used to create lures of all kinds. During this same period the Pfluger and South Bend companies were starting to rise in prominence creating competition to Heddon.

We all know about Paul Bunyan’s blue ox. What about the Paul Bunyan Bait Company? Located in Minneapolis, it was started in 1939 and produced lures and fishing equipment through the 1940s. It was considered Minnesota’s largest and most popular lure manufacturer. They made the Transparent Dodger, Twirl Bug and Centipede Spinner (pictured on above). The Weaver, Silver Shiner, Goldfish, Ladybug and numerous variations of the 66 Spinner were manufactured as well. They created the Flash Eye which became the popular Red Eye Wiggler.

Cover of the 1939 catalog for Bunyan Baits. Photo by Tom Goeritz

What made the Twirl Bug Wiggler so practical was the fact that the nickel or copper fins spun one direction and the small front spinner spun the opposite direction giving it great action causing it to wobble. The many variations of colors in the tail feathers and the spinner made it adaptable to all types of fishing.

The Paul Bunyan Company made rods, reels, and a variety of other fishing equipment. So, the next time you hear of Paul Bunyan, you will know that in addition to the Blue Ox, Minnesota had quite a fishing lure company as well.

Mark Fuhrman a Minnesota lure collector and historian has been collecting lures since 1980. According to his research, at one time, there were over 65 cities that had companies producing fishing lures and equipment in Minnesota. That may not be surprising given our number of lakes and rivers, and I thought Lindy/Little Joe were pioneers. (It is still hard to beat the “Lindy Rig”)

You may be interested to know that an unidentified first American Wooden Minnow sold for $42,560 and the 1853 copper Giant Haskell Minnow, a production lure sold for$101,200. You might want to check that old tackle box from Grandpa, it might hold a valuable lure or a piece of Minnesota history.

Fishing has been part of our American culture for hundreds of years, I hope the generations that follow will have clean rivers and lakes to enjoy their passion for fishing and the great outdoors.

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