The lure of vintage fishing gear has led Billy Prince to build an epic ‘tackle box.’
“The Bible says we can expect to live three score and 10 years — I’m a couple of years past my warranty,” quips Billy Prince.
One thing that keeps him going is adding to his whopping collection of vintage fishing tackle. “It’s my hobby, I’ve been doing it almost all my life,” he says. “I’ve got more than 6,000 pieces, some going back to the 1800s.”
Many are still in their original packaging (which increases their value and vintage appeal). “I mostly find them at yard sales and tackle shows,” he explains — including the annual autumn one in Decatur that he founded.
If fish haven’t evolved much in millennia, the gear used to catch them has. An outbuilding behind Prince’s Decatur home brims with a dazzling diversity of lures and other tackle, most of it neatly grouped and displayed on pegboards. He calls it “my tackle box,” an epic version of the one he had as a boy, when he and his grandfather would organize their tackle boxes before going fishing. Many of the most valuable are stored inside, in a room where a police scanner crackles with calls (retired from a General Motors plant, he’s a chaplain with the Decatur Police Department). A sentimental favorite is the uncommon “Jim Bo” lure.
“I found a newspaper ad for it in my grandfather’s wallet after he passed away,” he says. “It was one of my quests to find one. I finally did, more than 25 years later, at a show in Florida.”
Most of Prince’s collection was commercially manufactured. But he made some of it himself, using everything from metal molds sold to DIYers to shotgun shells, balsa wood (a frog designed to skim over aquatic grass), fluorescent fringe and more. In size the lures run from less than an inch (an ice-fishing jig) to more than two feet — a store-display model of a Heddon Torpedo lure (not meant for actual angling, though a fisherman might dream of the really big one it could catch).
The profusion of forms and finishes attests to the endless ingenuity of makers and to anglers’ eternal desire to fool fish. A manufacturer like Heddon (for whom Prince tested tackle for eight years) often made the same lure in dozens of variations — of spots, stripes, scale patterns, iridescent sparkles, etc., in a spectrum of hues — and chances are he has almost all of them.
Some of his most valuable lures simulate swimming bait: clever hinge or swivel designs that shimmy or dart (one with a restless mercury blob). Some simulate schooling minnows, others emit sounds or bubbles that draw fish like moths to a flame. Still others feature spring-loaded or fish-triggered hooks or simulate mice with a gray flocked finish. Some cases hold entire choruses of one-of-a-kind frogs; others display the evolution of the humble bobber, from simple designs of wood, cork and plastic to floating Disney characters, Power Rangers and ice cream cones.
The latter fall into the novelty category that Prince collects because “they make me laugh,” he says. “I love my old lures but I really love novelty lures — though they’ve probably caught more fishermen than fish.”
It’s hard not to smile at lures that sport miniature beer bottles or SEC logos, a rabbit’s foot (the Lucky Bunny), a pair of miniature dice, or “merminnows” (half mermaid, half minnow). Or the official Chicago Police Department lure that reads “We Don’t Catch And Release.” Or “presidential lures” such as the peanut-with-hooks Jimmy Carter lure or the Bill Clinton one that guarantees “fish won’t inhale it.”
Prince’s prizes include a gleaming array of trophies from 17 years of fishing tournaments. Among them is a plaque with an empty stringer for placing last in a Smith Lake contest — “a reminder that you don’t always win,” he says. He continues to angle for additions to his museum-quality trove — and for the fish that inspired it.
“The fishing is good in Alabama,” he declares. “I wouldn’t trade it for anywhere else.”
– Jeff Book