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.
By Drew YoungeDyke
This Michigan Outside column was originally published in the November 2019 issue of Woods'N'Water News.
Water wolf, hammer handle, gator, snot rocket: northern pike go by many names in Michigan, often by bass anglers upset at their ruined baits. Esox lucius has a distinction no other fish can match, though: the only circumpolar freshwater fish in the world. These ambush hunters are the top predators in most of their waters, ranging across the lakes and rivers of the north with a rich history in both biology and mythology. And catching one on a fly has been an obsession of mine for the last year.
The obsession started last summer while trolling for walleye with Mike Avery and Tom Lounsbury on Saginaw Bay. I caught a 28-inch northern pike, and it awakened a long-dormant connection to the fish after over a decade of focusing mostly on trout when I fished. My grandpa and I used to troll for northern pike on Lake Skegamog, Elk Lake, and Torch Lake out when I was in college. We never caught many fish but those days with him during his last few years were priceless.
Northern pike go back much further in my family history, too. The extended Finnish side of my family has a cottage on Chaney Lake in the far western Upper Peninsula. The first entry in the cottage log ends with the postscript, “Grandpa Bill caught a beautiful 24 ½” northern.” Chaney Lake is a small lake home to many northerns, if not big ones. Photos in the family albums show a succession of proud anglers holding northerns throughout the years.
I thought of that one I caught with Mike as beautiful, too. The dark green body, the light spots giving it camouflage, and especially the intricate black swoops and patterns on its golden fins. They were as beautiful to me as the red spots on brown trout. The next day I went bowfishing with John Cleveland, a representative for Dardevle lures – the classic pike spoon - and he told me about fly fishing for northern pike up in Canada. I envisioned fly fishing for northerns out of the old aluminum rowboat on Chaney Lake and it made perfect sense.
Like any new obsession, I started with the literature. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources released a Management Plan for Northern Pike in Michigan in 2016. “Habitat is a key factor in determining Northern Pike population dynamics in inland waters,” it notes. Northern pike spawn in shallow aquatic vegetation and flooded wetlands adjacent to water bodies, and their loss through shoreline development has reduced northern pike habitat, especially in southern Michigan. One of the DNR’s top goals for northern pike is to “protect, restore, and enhance habitat on Michigan waters,” noting that the loss of spawning habitat, especially through aquatic plant management, is “a major threat to the state’s Northern Pike fisheries.”
A 1988 report for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations gave a synopsis of all the biological data known about northern pike at the time. What I found most interesting was how they hunted. Using camouflage to blend into cover, often vegetation, northern pike first see the prey with one eye, then slowly turn their body to face it, then stealthily approach it until it’s just a couple inches away. Then it bends its body into an “S,” coiling like a spring, straightening into a strike, its mouth closed until the final instant, when it opens quickly. This creates a suction drawing the prey in, where the pike’s inwardly-inverted teeth make escape almost impossible. For 60 million years, this design has allowed northern pike to thrive throughout the northern freshwaters of the world.
In Finland, northern pike are called hauki (which has become my favorite hashtag to follow on Instagram). Northern pike play a prominent role in ancient Finnish mythology, as preserved in the national epic poem The Kalevala. The hero of The Kalevala, Vainamoinen, slays “the mighty pike of Northland,” feeds everyone with it, and creates a magic harp from its jawbone. A prayer to the water-god Ahto asks him to “stir up all the reeds and sea-weeds, hither drive a school of gray-pike, drive them to our magic fish-net.”
I wondered if my great-great-grandpa felt a connection to the Finland he emigrated from at age 17 catching pike in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula where he lived to age 95. Pike fishing is still popular in Finland and other northern European countries. I found some YouTube videos from Finland-based Vision Flyfishing helpful in learning the basics of fly fishing for northern pike, along with the Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing Series episode on pike and muskie. The Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast with Tom Rosenbauer had some good pike-focused episodes, and talking with outdoor writer Tim Mead helped, too, who has fly fished for northern pike in the Upper Peninsula with a float tube.
Over the spring and summer I geared up. I ordered an 8-wt Orvis Encounter fly rod and reel package and an assortment of large streamers and popping bugs. I ordered from Orvis to ensure that the weighted eyes and bead-heads in my flies were nontoxic: Chaney Lake supports a pair of loons, which can be poisoned when they ingest lead fishing weights lost or broken off. It also hosts bald eagles which fish its waters and can get lead poisoning from eating fish which have broken off line with lead weights attached.
I also bought a used fishing float tube which I tried out on a few likely pike waters over the summer, without catching any. This would be harder than I thought. My friend Chris Engle took me to a favorite pike lake with his daughter and my dad. I didn’t catch any but his daughter, Paige, caught a dandy with a spinning outfit. I also fished sections of the Huron River near my home in Ann Arbor that I thought likely for northern pike, and had a couple strikes, but no catches.
Finally, I got up to Chaney Lake in September, along with some friends from different conservation organizations for a weekend of hunting grouse and fishing for pike with non-lead ammo and tackle. Michigan United Conservation Clubs president George Lindquist brought his 17-foot fishing boat and we also had the cottage’s aluminum rowboat. George caught the first northern of the weekend off the dock in the early evening, and since they were biting we figured we should get out on the lake and catch them!
George took a crew in his boat and I set out in the rowboat with my National Wildlife Federation colleagues Aaron Kindle and Marcia Brownlee, who manages Artemis Sportswomen. As Aaron rowed, I cast an articulated streamer with (non-lead) weighted eyes and stripped the line back. The northern stalked it, and I waited until it struck to strip-set the line, and it was on. Aaron netted it and I finally had my first northern pike on a fly! It wasn’t large – maybe 20 to 24 inches – and I released it without measuring. I caught another the next day after losing the articulated streamer and molding tungsten putty around the head of another streamer to give it the same effect as weighted eyes.
By the end of the weekend, everyone caught at least one northern. Sarah Topp, AmeriCorps coordinator at Huron Pines in Gaylord, caught a keeper that we grilled for a delicious lunch snack the next day. And after a summer of not catching any, and on Chaney Lake, out of the aluminum rowboat - just as I had envisioned - I finally had the water wolf of the north at the end of my fly line.
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.