Rotaryhead Fishing Lures: Vintage & Modern Classics
From Living on the Lake magazine
By Sue Schneider
What makes a big fish rise to the surface, follow a lure and finally strike in an exhilarating splash?
For generations, anglers have been fascinated with the process of catching the elusive beasts. Terry Oxley grew up in Woodruff and spent many years casting into Northwoods waters.
While Terry has his own theories about fishing equipment and techniques, the rotaryhead lure that spins across the surface of the water captured his imagination. “My brother, Gale, got me into it first; he makes his own lures. Then when I retired, I had the time and money to start seriously collecting,” he says. “I joined the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club (NFLCC) and started getting to know some history and old stories about the rotaryhead lures.”
Terry is familiar to locals as the band director at Rhinelander High School from 1975 to 1984. He spent the next 24 years teaching music at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, where he still lives for most of the year. But he returns to the Northwoods for the summer months with his wife, Wendie, and hosts his children and grandchildren, anglers all.
Rotaryhead lures have been in use since the 1890s. They come in all sizes and colors, of differing materials, with one defining characteristic: a head with attached blades that make it spin and whirl while the body containing the hooks follows quietly behind. “The idea is to mimic something struggling in the water,” Terry explains. “Sound is part of it, too. It clicks and clacks. Some are set to spin off-center, so they kind of skip along.”
They may be painted to resemble frogs, ducklings or mice, but according to Terry, this doesn’t have much to do with their effectiveness with the game fish. “The fancy paint jobs are really to catch the fishermen,” he says. “From under the water, looking up at the surface, the fish only sees a dark form. It’s the movement and sound that makes them hit.”
For well over 100 years, rotaryheads have been created by professionals and amateurs in factories and basement workshops. Patents have been issued for some designs; others have been traded, copied and shared. Many are one-of-a-kind creations, painted lovingly by real artists.
“There was one lure maker named W.I. Snyder,” he says. “I didn’t have much luck finding out details until I realized he started out in the baseball trading card business. He was connected to Spalding, the sports equipment manufacturer. But some of the stories I found referred to him as Irving instead of Washington Irving, so it’s been hard to put together all the pieces.”
There seems to be a lot of interest in rotaryhead lure making right here in Wisconsin. “There are the Kagies, a husband and wife team; he makes the lures and she paints them,” says Terry. “Greg Nimmer in Tomahawk makes nice ones. Cory Meyer attended RHS and lives in Merrill and is a well-known musky lure maker.”
Collectors like Terry can get pretty creative themselves trying to identify the lures. “There are lots of lure-makers. Some guys you can tell because there is a soldered line-tie … or not,” he says. “Some old lures we know probably come from New Jersey because for a while, in that state, the law there only allowed for three hook mounts.
“I realized it was hard to pin down information on many of these lures,” Terry says. “I have about 2,500 in my collection, and there are a good thousand that are still a mystery.” The research began to fascinate him, and tracking down stories using the Internet and conversations with other collectors filled up the winter days at his home in Pennsylvania.
“I say it’s taken me seven years to write this book,” he says, “but, really, that doesn’t count the summer months when we live here in Woodruff and spend time fishing, kayaking and taking photos of wildlife. Then there’s Packer season and if that goes long, I don’t get much work done before January.”
It was some years back, attending an NFLCC conference, that Terry met a fellow lure enthusiast who was also the owner of a publishing company called Whitefish Press. “We were talking, and I asked him if he thought there would be any interest in a book about rotaryhead lures,” Terry recalls. “He said, ‘Absolutely.’ He was intrigued by the idea of including old designs and new lures together in the same book.
“You can buy 20-volume sets of books that include all the different types of lures,” he explains, “but then you’d end up going through thousands of pages. This is one book about one type of lure and it’s primarily for readers to be able to identify any particular one.”
Originally, the timeline gave Terry and Wendie – his main proofreader and editor – until next winter to have final pages ready for the publisher. “Then he called and said he had an opening in May and asked if I could have it ready for press,” Terry says. “We had a lot of long nights up until two or three in the morning, getting it all ready.”
The best part of the timing is that the book will be ready for the NFLCC national show set for July in Missouri. “We’re excited to see how much interest we get,” says Terry. “We’ll be attending other regional conferences, including the one in Baraboo, to let people know about the book.”
More about Terry’s book can be found at whitefishpress.com.
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond magazines.