A passionate collection of fishing history – Green Bay Press Gazette

Jim Fritz’s rural Waupaca home celebrates all things fishing from floor to ceiling.

And whether you’re admiring Fritz’s lures, reels, rulers, reel-oilers, worm boxes, tackle boxes, minnow buckets, antique rods or split-shot tins, one thing’s for certain: Almost everything is older than Fritz, who’s 46.

In fact, only one thing is more certain: Fritz’s next home will have one large room in the basement or far end where he can display his vast collection. If you doubt it, just ask his wife, Velonnie. She respects her husband’s passion for old-time fishing tackle, and she appreciates the collection’s value and heritage, but she’d just as soon not make it the dominant décor of her dining and living rooms.

To be fair, Fritz has made concessions in their home’s interior decorating. When the couple’s children started crawling a few years ago, he moved all the fishing lures beyond their reach so they wouldn’t hurt themselves on the hooks. Further, he no longer buys as many old tackle boxes and minnow buckets, even though he really likes the ancient buckets made of copper. Trouble is, they have little space to store many such large items in their home.

Fritz started fishing at age 3 and said he loved it from the start. He thinks he probably started setting tackle aside at a young age when it caught his eye, but didn’t get serious about collecting until he was 12 or 13. That’s when he started stashing and displaying some of his dad’s old bass lures and obsolete items like live-frog harnesses.

That might be when his obsession began, but Fritz has always kept it in check. And he knows his priorities. He would rather go fishing than scouring for old tackle, and he’s more interested in the gear for its own sake than for money. Yes, he monitors the current value of the hundreds of items on his home’s walls, shelves and floors, but doubts he’ll ever cash it all out.

“This isn’t a business for me,” he said. “I know some guys collect only high-end stuff, but I like all the old stuff whether it’s valuable or not. I like all the small stuff like reels, lures and rods. I seldom sell anything, but if I have doubles and triples of something, every now and then I’ll put them together for sale just to get some cash to buy more stuff.”

Fritz figures he amassed the bulk of his collection by his mid-30s. He said it’s gotten tougher the past decade to find collectible fishing tackle because more people today realize it might be worth something.

“A lot of guys collect it now,” he said. “I haven’t gone to an estate auction since about two years ago, but I used to go to them all the time. Ten years ago, you could buy just about any old fishing tackle you wanted in Wisconsin, but now it’s doubled and tripled in price. It’s definitely harder now than it was 10 to 20 years ago.”

Still, he’s not looking for handouts. He paid for nearly everything in his collection, and gives people fair deals when asked to look through garages and old tackle boxes. He said the Waupaca area has been great for his hobby, because lakes and ponds abound, and fishing goes back several generations in many families.

Years ago he would go door to door at cottages on area lakes, asking if they had fishing tackle they’d like to sell. Today, however, he mainly drops in on garage sales and rummage sales, and answers requests and referrals from people who hear of his expertise. “Word-of-mouth is the most reliable source,” he said. “Some people don’t want to sell. They just want to know what it’s worth. They know where to find me if they change their mind.”

No matter what the tackle is worth, Fritz said he never fishes with anything in his collection. He uses current-model gear to fish walleyes in the Wolf River, Lake Poygan and Lake Winnebago. “I’ve always thought it might be neat to go out and try fishing with some of it, but it’s just not convenient to rig it all up,” he said. “The most I’ve done is take some the old reels from the 1920s and 1930s into the backyard to see how they cast and retrieve. I really like how they made stuff before World War II.”

Among his favorite items are some old Pflueger reels and Heddon Pal rods from the 1950s and ’60s that he got from a family friend. And when asked to name his favorite items, he points to shelves holding small metal flask-like cans for oiling reels. “I really like those old reel-oilers, but I don’t know why; maybe because there’s nothing like them anymore,” Fritz said. “If I see one, I buy it. I can’t walk by them.”

Still, he doesn’t consider himself a specialist. He collects all brands, all models and all varieties of fishing tackle. But he admits a soft spot for Mitchell 300 spinning reels, which were a standard for many anglers into the 1990s.

“I grew up using Mitchell 300s and still like them because they always work,” he said. “The really old ones can be worth something. I had an early model from France with its original box and paperwork that was worth over $200.”

Meanwhile, Fritz keeps looking and listening for leads on old tackle. He never tires of poking through old tackle boxes, maybe because he never knows what he’ll find. Besides old lures, cork floats, pinch-on weights and ancient June-bug spinners, he sometimes finds old rulers, folding fishing knives, and tiny old bottles of pills or iodine.

“I looked up the drug listed on one of those bottles, and found it was used for diabetes,” he said. “It’s always interesting. Those old tackle boxes are like opening Christmas presents. Some of the stuff is worth nothing, and most of it’s worth only a dollar or two, but you never know. Some of it could be worth $1,000.”

Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. Email him at patrickdurkin56@gmail.com.

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