By Drew YoungeDyke
This Michigan Outside column was originally published in the January 2020 issue of Woods'N'Water News.
The cliché is that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but can you get to know a fisherman by his tackle box? The concept has been on my mind since I brought my great-grandpa’s tackle box home from my parents’ house a couple months ago on the way back from the Upper Peninsula cottage where it had rested since he died in 1981, the year after I was born. While I have a few pictures of him holding me as a baby, I never had the chance to fish with him. I hoped, though, that I could learn more about him as a fisherman by examining the contents of his tackle box.
Some background on my great-grandpa helped get me started. His name was William Lantta, “Grandpa Bill,” and he lived in Ironwood, Michigan, as an electrician in and later underground foreman of the Geneva iron mine. He bought the family cottage on Chaney Lake – the one I write about so often lately – in 1959, but he also used to fish Island Lake in Wisconsin, where his siblings had a cottage. Chaney Lake has been a northern pike lake for as long as my family has been fishing it: the first cottage log entry is post scripted as “Grandpa Bill caught a beautiful 24 ½” northern.” A quick Google search for Island Lake tells me it holds muskies, northern pike, panfish, smallmouth bass, and walleyes. And family photos of him from the 1910’s and 1960’s are adorned with stringers of northerns.
Grandpa Bill’s tackle box is green and metal with a leather-wrapped handle. It’s dinged and dented and well used, resembling the condition of the old aluminum rowboat at the cottage and the color of its oars. Even without knowing the specifics of the lures in his tackle box, a quick glance at the five and six-inch painted wood lures in the top tray tell you that it belonged to a mid-century pursuer of big toothy predator fish.
The most distinctive lure is a six-inch wooden Mud Puppy made by the C.C. Roberts Bait Company. It was invented in 1920 by Constance Roberts of Mosinee, Wisconisin, and was a widely-used muskie lure in the mid-twentieth century. Its short revolving tail provided enticing action to muskies and northerns, and its glass eyes indicate it was made before WWII, when the glass eyes imported from Germany became unavailable, according to a detailed history of the lure written by Dan Basore in Midwest Outdoors.
Another distinctive wooden lure in the box is a Heddon Basser, with “head-on Basser” scripted in a metal plate across the open smiling mouth that would provide a topwater splashing action for smallmouth or, more likely, hungry northerns. In place of the treble hook on its tail, though, a lead sinker was wired to the eyelet, maybe for use in jigging the last time it was fished.
A five-inch jointed wooden minnow reminded me of the articulated streamer I used to catch my first northern with a fly rod earlier this fall. At first I thought it was a Creek Chub Pikey Minnow, but the hardware looked different. The metal lip and cup rig for the hook looked more like photos I’ve seen of old Isle Royale lures, which were made in Jackson, Michigan. The purpose would be the same: enticing northern pike to strike.
Classic lures fill out the tackle box, including a wooden South Bend Bass Oreno, a Creek Chub mouse lure, and a Johnson’s Silver Minnow in its box which looks more like a 1930’s box than a mid-century one. There is also a weedless spinner, a fish-shaped painted metal Phleuger lure, and two spoons, one stamped as the “Spindare” from B & E Bait Co of St. Paul, Minnesota. Additional tackle includes a wire trolling leaders with flashers, cork and wood bobbers, sinkers, chicken bouillon cubes, treble hooks, swivels, a spool of 18-pound test “All Silk” casting line, and a spool of 15-lb. test “Best-O-Luck” braided nylon casting-trolling line from South Bend. He likely cast these from a South Bend No. 1000 Anti-Backlash Reel, as indicated by the empty box for just such a baitcasting reel. A1952 Michigan Legal Fish Rule from Merschel Hardware in East Tawas, Michigan, ensured the fish he kept were legal to keep.
What does all this tell me about the fisherman who fished these lures, though? I already knew he fished for northern pike and musky, and the lures confirmed it. The bass plugs are also effective topwater lures for northern pike, but he might have also used them for smallmouth. He used both casting and trolling line, and had a metal trolling leader rigged with flashers, as well as a Heddon Basser rigged for jigging, so he probably used all three methods. And the fish rule tells me he made sure to follow the size limits set by the Michigan Conservation Commission, later the Natural Resources Commission.
That’s just the fisherman he was on the surface, though. Below the surface, his tackle box tells me even more. It wasn’t filled with multitudes of lures and baits for any given situation; it had just a handful of well-worn classics that could have probably been found in the tackle boxes of most freshwater predator anglers of the region and time. And most of the lures ranged from the Depression through the 1950s. And yet, Grandpa Bill lived until 1981. So it suggests that he was a fisherman who took care of his equipment. He fished a handful of lures he trusted for decades, and the chipped paint and tooth marks indicate that they were well-used as he enjoyed the woods and waters of the western Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin on days off and later retirement from subsurface toil in the iron mine to provide for his family.
There was one more object in the tackle box, though, from which no firm conclusions can be drawn. It’s a folded advertisement and order form for Flatfish lures from Helin Tackle Company of Detroit, Michigan. With no Flatfish in the tackle box, I’m left to wonder if he had a notion of ordering one but never did, or if it came with one that maybe broke off one day while reeling in a beautiful northern on Chaney Lake.
Maybe one day when I jump in Chaney Lake after taking a sauna at the cottage I’ll find a long-lost Flatfish lure on the lake bed. Or maybe I never will and the purpose of that ad will always remain a mystery. The nature of my great-grandpa as a fisherman is just a little bit less of a mystery to me, though.
Tackle boxes like his adorn shelves and back corners of garages and sheds throughout the upper Midwest, and lures like his fill pages of eBay auctions. My great-grandpa’s tackle box gave me just a little more insight into who he was as an angler and a man, though, and that’s much more valuable than what his lures could fetch in an online auction. Those lures are going to stay in that tackle box for future generations of my family to rediscover.
POSTSCRIPT: I received an message from my mom's cousin Gretchen, who used to fish with him as a child and teenager, after she read the article. She wrote, "I recognized some of the baits, especially the yellow one (Mud Puppy). I remember the ones we (he) used most often were a red and white metal bait called a daredevil... We fished a lot with him. He was very quiet and would go out in ALL sorts of weather... sit for ever and ever. There was no joking around. He was very good at cleaning fish and did so on a narrow slab of wood on stick like legs on the hillside in front of the cottage. There were so many fish when we were young that he had made a homemade smoker (made from an old refrigerator and wood burning stove)... we had crappies for breakfast! Ina (his second wife) was a very good fish cook. I think he mostly smoked the northerns."
That's sisu in so many ways.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and manager of sporting communications for the National Wildlife Federation. He is also the host of the National Wildlife Federation Outdoors podcast, a national board member for 2% for Conservation, a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association, and a state-appointed member of the Pigeon River Country State Forest Advisory Council.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the PRCAC, or any other entity.