Northwest made tackle its business, but the big ones are getting away
Many local fish-tackle entrepreneurships were launched in the Depression era. By the late 1970s, these small businesses had grown, collectively, into the largest fishing-tackle-manufacturing base in the world.
BRAIN POWER, legend has it, flows all around us. Within a 20-mile radius of Seattle's Smith Tower, it would be simple to find a man who could sketch out a 1 million-pound airplane and expect it to fly, a woman working on multiple cures for cancer, a guy ingenious enough to get insanely rich hawking blobs of melted, twisted glass.
So why is it — how is it — that after more than 10,000 years, the Northwest battle of man vs. salmon (the object of his truest affection) has been fought largely to a draw?
It is painful, but true. Right here in the Land of Big Thinking, the battle of wits between Homo sapiens (brain size: ripe cantaloupe) and Oncorhynchus (brain size: frozen pea) is pretty much even-steven.
We are talking here not about gillnetting or other nonsporting methods of salmon procurement, but lured capture — the well-considered act of casting a line into a river or the saltchuck and tricking a slab of liquid, waterborne lightning to bite onto a hook.
Humans engaged in this for millennia have learned that success necessitates thinking like a fish. And surprisingly, given the gullibility of many fish — this author once hooked a feisty warm-water species of some sort using a lure that came in the mail with a news release and had a bright red "SPOKANE" logo painted on the side — we have never been all that successful. Even the best anglers sometimes are reduced to buying farmed fish at Costco.
This is a major ouch, as salmon acquisition is in our blood. To see one swimming in a stream or jumping in Puget Sound is to want one in the icebox. Scheming ways to get the fish from Point A to Table B has been a Northwest pastime for as long as we've been here.
For many decades, it also was a successful business for those select few among us who proved able to think a little more like a salmon than everyone else.
Many local fish-tackle entrepreneurships were launched, often out of hard-times desperation, in the Depression era. By the late 1970s, these small businesses had grown, collectively, into the largest fishing-tackle-manufacturing base in the world.
Alas, we Northwesterners ultimately let this treasure slip, like an insufficiently hooked chinook, through our fingers. But that's getting way ahead of the story, which is about Northwesterners indulging that throbbing part of their DNA that just wants to bring home a fish for dinner — or at least post one on Facebook before turning it loose again.
AT BAIT SHOPS, you will still see the names of some of these Albert Einsteins of Northwest fishing. Some have become so synonymous with their product that few realize the names were once connected to real people. To name a few:
Dick Knight was a Seattle salmon angler who fashioned a small strip of brass into a fishing spoon that "swam" through the water in an irresistible fashion. Because of equipment limitations, he had to shorten his name to "Dick Nite" to make it fit on the face of small spoons first produced in the 1930s. It stuck, and it worked. The spoons, still handmade in Lake Stevens, remain a tackle-box staple of freshwater anglers.
Luhr (yes, his real name) Jensen, at times a timber worker, farmer and fisherman, launched his lure company from a converted chicken coop in Hood River, Ore., in 1932. He would go on to market an array of fishing gadgetry, much of it still in use, including the "Ford Fender" lake-trolling rig, the first crafted from headlight reflectors of a Ford Model A.
Also in 1932, a Tacoma fishing whiz introduced his namesake Les Davis Herring Dodger, a metallic flasher that wags its way through the water in front of a baited herring. Tens of millions more salmon have succumbed to the allure in the decades since. And if you walk into a tackle shop today and ask for a "Number 0 Les Davis," someone will know exactly what you want.
While those names have outlived the men themselves, other Northwest companies have crafted locally inspired tackle that has stood the test of time.
Yakima Bait Company, founded in 1930 by R.B. Worden (now 90), and still operated in Granger, Yakima County, by his son, Howard, is one of the largest remaining Northwest tackle companies, thanks largely to two major innovations: the Worden's Rooster Tail, a hackle-tailed spinner named in honor of Seattle's hydro races, and the ubiquitous "Spin-N-Glo," a winged spinner favored by big-fish riverbank anglers.
Mack's Lures, operating for decades in the Wenatchee River Valley, produces the well-known Wedding Ring spinner, a kokanee-fisherman's favorite distinguished by a bright bauble adorning its waistline.
And the Silver Horde company, owned by three generations of the Morrison family, has for more than six decades been a leading producer of plastic salmon plugs, trolling spoons and vinyl "hoochies" (imitation squid) — all still made in Lynnwood.
NORTHWEST FISH hardware from these venerable companies shares two winning traits: It appeals to both fish and fishermen.
"Let's face it. It's gotta do both," says Buzz Ramsey, 60, a Portland native and longtime fishing spokesman for Luhr Jensen who now works as a spokesman and tackle designer for Yakima Bait Company. "It's gotta look like it's going to catch something. It's gotta look fishy."
(Note: "Fishy," in angler parlance, is the highest compliment that can be paid a fish lure, or a piece of fishing water, for that matter. It is the polar opposite of the pejorative "fishy" more familiar to the non-fish-obsessed.)
Hence, fishing gear comes complete with a bewildering array of marketing paraphernalia: bright colors, action-hero names (the best incorporating the word "killer") big bears, hotrods, voodoo masks, unspeakably huge fish and other eye-catching macho-finery designed to lure the target prey — the adult male.
That man — and we focus on guys because they drive the fish-tackle-purchase bus — is both intensely brand loyal and notoriously fickle. Which probably also requires an explanation:
Once a lure connects him to his lifelong obsession, such as a 20-pound steelhead, an angler will remain loyal to that brand for life. He can't help it.
Yet he also has a wandering eye that would make Bill Clinton blush. Standing for hours at a time in a river, often in the snow or sideways rain, and getting skunked while others around are limiting out invariably leads a fisherman to conclude that, his own skill and dogged determination being beyond reproach, he's obviously fishing with the wrong thing. And the right thing — bet on it — will be sold out by the time he gets to the tackle shop.
"Anglers are always looking for the latest and greatest," says Ramsey, on the phone from a (cough) research trip in pursuit of Columbia River spring chinook. "They'll try just about everything . . . But if it's going to have longevity, it's gotta work."
It's no surprise, then, that truly iconic Northwest tackle has at some point had a fish of magnificent proportions attached to its business end. The Les Davis Herring Dodger, for instance, lured to its demise what is believed to be the largest chinook ever caught in Elliott Bay — a 52.5-pound lunker boated right off Seattle in 1938; 23 years later, the same device claimed a 68-pound chinook off Neah Bay. Getting those results is equal parts science, guesswork and years of field testing.
"I think it's just a whole lot of experimentation," says Phil Jensen, 76, one of three brothers who ran their father's enterprise for 40 years. "There's a whole lot of wisdom that comes from an enthusiastic fisherman. These guys . . . go out, see what's in salmon's belly; they carve a little thing that looks like it and put it in the water."
Modern designers, realizing that many salmonids will strike not only to feed but out of pure, territorial aggression, develop lures with "actions" to trigger that response. Once a given wiggle, wobble or wag proves successful, lure-makers tinker with sizes, shapes and colors to make the lure fishable in a variety of conditions, using a variety of techniques. A single lure becomes a product line.
Sometimes it's simply a matter of putting a literal new spin on an old standby. Ramsey, in recent years, has been perfecting the "Mag Lip," a re-branded version of Yakima Bait's old standby "Flatfish," a plastic plug that dives and swims erratically in river currents. The longtime salmon-catching plug has been resized for steelhead — and retooled to make it swim with an erratic, "wiggle-and-dart" action.
"I worked on that thing for a couple years to get it to swim right," he says. It worked. "It's going off the shelves so fast," he says, "we can barely keep up."
This is a good problem to have, but one of the industry's challenges, says Marilyn Morrison, the 71-year-old matriarch of Lynnwood's Silver Horde enterprise. The company, launched by her husband Barry's uncle Lew in 1948, made its name with plastic salmon plugs that kept their shape and color better than traditional wood. But they also produce metal trolling spoons, because commercial salmon fishers, both here and in the Great Lakes, sway back and forth between the two.
"I don't think the fish change their minds," Morrison says with a chuckle. "I think it's promotion. Maybe you have a couple of charter boats, three or four start using something and it works, then everybody's hearing about it."
The key to Silver Horde's success? Listening to people who spend their lives on the water, especially about lure color. A plug designed under factory lights might look completely different when it's being trolled in the gentle light of sunup in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
"I look at it and I can't really tell it's different," Morrison says. "But to the eye that's fishing, it is."
THAT KIND of market savvy has made Silver Horde a rarity — one of only a few local tackle makers that have managed to remain family-owned with a local production facility. Not that long ago, there were hundreds.
The boom began in the 1930s, but took off with the explosion of hand-carved wood salmon plugs, the favored lure of the 1940s and '50s. It was an era when Seattleites spent much of their leisure time watching hydro races and pursuing salmon, often via salmon derbies that offered lucrative cash prizes, and even automobiles, for the biggest fish.
Tacoma was home to so many manufacturers that local collector and historian Russ Christianson today has filled part of his Whidbey Island home — and pages of a self-published book — with old gear made only there.
Powered by constant innovations of local gurus such as Les Davis (a fishing pier in Tacoma bears his name), the industry continued to boom as long as salmon were king, peaking in the 1970s, when the Davis company was believed to be the world's largest tackle manufacturer.
Since then, most local companies have been swallowed up by ever-larger competitors. For two decades, one of the biggest feeders was Luhr Jensen & Sons, which ultimately bought more than 40 other manufacturers — including Les Davis in 1986.
In the 1990s, even as salmon continued to decline, Jensen & Sons was still growing, producing most of the Northwest's tackle in a sprawling Hood River factory that employed 350 workers.
"While the quality of fishing did dip — and it has been going downhill ever since Lewis and Clark, practically — the enthusiasm of the fisherman never went down," says Phil Jensen, who ran the business side of the company for decades . "They tried more stuff; they still kept buying tackle."
But over time, the lure of cheaply made foreign imitations became inescapable. Dick Figgins, who purchased the Dick Nite company from his parents in 2003, says he has been approached by Chinese factory reps who say they can make him a carbon-copy Dick Nite spoon for about 28 cents apiece. His own manufacturing cost today: $1.50.
He competes by constantly cutting costs — and putting out a higher-quality product. The Morrisons have done the same with Silver Horde, also touting their ability to meet demand for a hot lure quickly as an incentive to retailers.
Companies that survive have family legacy as a common trait, but even most of those, including Yakima Bait and Mack's Lures, now produce most of their tackle outside the country.
"We're getting to the place where there's going to be one manufacturer, one distributor and one retailer," Figgins laments.
Ultimately, those pressures were felt even at Luhr Jensen. In 2005, Phil Jensen sold his father's dream company to industry giant Rapala VMC of Finland. Price not disclosed.
"They basically packed up everything and took it to China," Jensen says. "It kind of broke my heart."
He is honest enough to admit he saw it coming, and says he sold largely because he couldn't bear to move manufacturing to China himself.
"I'm as big a whore as anybody, I guess," he says. "They offered me the most money. I took it."
Still, Jensen struggles with the decision. He hopes to open a museum in Hood River, to honor his family name and all the work that Northwest fishermen poured into their craft for a century.
"It's all going to be lost if I don't do something with it," he says.
The town, meanwhile, still is connected to the Luhr Jensen brand — in a deceptive way. Rapala's Chinese-made products still bear Luhr Jensen's familiar leaping-fish logo, along with the words "Hood River, Oregon." But in Hood River today, all that's really left are some Jensen family homes and a small plant producing electric smokers — the former Luhr Jensen "Little Chief" and "Big Chief" models that have emitted a sweet, smoky smell from garages and backyards all over the Northwest for five decades.
Phil Jensen, after failing to get his own son interested, sold that part of the company to a local buyer, who still employs 15 workers to build the boxy metal smokers that have cooked a major share of what once seemed a limitless bounty of fish.
Every one that goes out the door today bears a slogan both stubborn and bittersweet: "Proudly made and assembled in Hood River, Oregon, USA."
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW staff writer. Mark Harrison is a Seattle Times staff photographer.