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Lure of the Hunt

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Gibby Gibson hooked on antique fishing gear

You might not believe that chatting about ancient artificial fishing baits could make a man laugh and cry at the same time.

Strike up a conversation with fishing lure collector Gibby Gibson, and you'll find out it can.

He holds up a case of antique lures and from behind the glass 18 or so vintage wood Arbogast black jitterbugs are staring you in the eye.

"This is my sentimental collection," says Gibson. "I grew up fishing with those at night on Fontana and Santeetlah lakes with my father and grandfather. This reminds me of that.

"The most exciting and fun fishing there ever was is throwing a jitterbug on a big mountain lake at night. You can hear crickets, frogs and whippoorwill. It's really quiet, really dark. You throw a black musky jitterbug, and a big bass comes up and wham! It scares the begeezus out of you, and it's a wonderful feeling.

"That's why I made this collection: to remember my father and grandfather," said the Maryville native, who grew up in the mountains where he fished for bass and trout and was a fishing guide by the age of 16, taking anglers on float trips on the Little Tennessee River below Chilhowee Dam.

For five years in the 1970s, Gibson was a professional fisherman, competing in the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and the Pro Bass Association. He seriously began collecting fishing lures in 1983.

"I got started when I found out I could not compete with the big boys: Bill Dance, Roland Martin, Tom Mann, since they were in tackle business," said Gibson, who spent 33 years with Delta Airlines, working practically every job available except flying and eventually specializing in security.

"When I was growing up I had tackle boxes from my grandfathers' buddies, and they would fill up my tackle boxes with old wooden lures. I opened them up one day and realized I had a great start on a collection. I started when you could still find lures easily because antique dealers were not looking for antique fishing equipment.

"That was the first 15 years. The other 18 years I've been collecting I've got a whole lot more competition. I was blessed to be on it early enough when it was easy to build a collection. When I realized I couldn't be a professional fisherman to support me the rest of my life, this has been a wonderful substitute."

Gibson searches for lures at estates sales, tag sales, antique malls and auctions. In the beginning he went fishing for these wooden critters at the Nashville Flea Market.

His wife, whose hobby is collecting antique purses, sent him in the right direction.

Said his first mate, Pam, "One day I told him, 'It's flea market weekend. We got to go.'

"He said, 'I just can't walk around. I got to be looking for something. I guess I'll look for lures.'

It's been explosive ever since," she said, adding, "Gibby is an encyclopedia on this stuff."

Two or three years deep into his hobby, he initiated a fishing lure collectors' show in Nashville. For the past 28 years he has held it in Pigeon Forge where it goes under the name of the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club (NFLCC) Region III Winterfest. The next one is set for Jan. 5-6, 2018.

"The NFLCC is a group of 3,000 to 3,500 members. We have 10 regions, and each region has a vice president in charge of the region, shows and memberships and is on the board of directors," said Gibson, Region III vice president, who has served a term as national president of the club.

The club holds 18 regional shows, and there is an annual national show, which revs up July 20-22 in Springfield, Ill. Region III will host its second show in September in Decatur, Ala.

"The great thing about the NFLCC is the long-term friendships. They help me. I help them," he said of fellow collectors.

When a newbie decides to enter the hobby, Gibson advises, "There are so many avenues you can collect in as the subject matter is so broad. You have to specialize. I used to have 200 minnow buckets. These days you have to find your niche. Some people will collect nothing but reels or lures from one company.

"When I began I started hunting every name available. You name something in fishing tackle, I probably got it. I like it all. I truly do. I was blessed to get into it early. Oh, I have my wish list," he confessed.

The two at the top are a Chautauqua Lake Minnow, followed by a Haskell Minnow, a metal lure made by a mid-19th-century Ohio gunsmith.

Gibson notes that the categories of collecting antique fishing lures are almost as wide as the ocean. A person can go after lures by their age, by the manufacturer and even by whether top water or underwater minnow. You can even go for either five-hook or three-hook underwater minnow.

While his collection features most every lure under the sun, Gibson creates colorful display cases built around an individual company's lures.

"I try to do a representation case so I have 18 baits made by Heddon. I try to find ones to upgrade [the condition]. I take one out, put one in. So a person might decide to just collect Lucky 13s, a Heddon crankbait minnow."

Gibson has passed his passion for lures along to his son, Abe, 15, who was a small fry of 9 when he began latching on to Heddon Sonics, Mini-Sonics, Super Sonics and Firetail Sonics.

Why this species of lures?

The Mt. Juliet Christian Academy sophomore said, "Dad picked out some and said, 'This is easy to collect. Why don't you do that?' They're contemporary plastic baits from the '60s on and easy to collect. I'm doing what is called a color collection, trying to represent a variety of lures manufactured by this company."

Abe's collection numbers approximately 90 lures and 30 more for traders.

As for what he enjoys best about the hobby, he says, "It's not just the collecting aspect but more so the friendship of the club. If you go to a show, you're gonna come out with 10 or 15 more new friends.

"The majority of members in the NFLCC are above 50. They love new members, especially young members, as they're trying to spur on this pastime," said Abe, who has been going to fishing lure shows since he was born.

Gibson points out that the grading of a collectible lure is determined by five factors: who made it, where it was made, how long it has been in production, color and condition.

"There is no book that will actually put a price on it. It will just give you a general value. I have a love-hate relationship with eBay," he said. "I spent 35 years learning about antique fishing lures, and now people can find it in three minutes."

Gibson shares that antique lures are divided into four different eras.


1: Pre-1900s: these were made by tinsmiths and coppersmiths. (Note: J.T. Buel of Whitehall, N.Y., was the first to patent a lure made in the U.S. in 1852.)

2: 1900-1920

3: 1920 to WWII

4: Post-WWII

He also pointed out that lure makers went from wood to plastic between 1952 and 1958. Three exceptions were the Bomber Bait Company in Texas, Creek Chub Bait Company in Indiana and Smithwick Bait Company in Louisiana, as they continued to make wooden lures into the 1980s.

There is a modern era, when all companies went to plastic, according to Gibson.

He names a couple of cool plastic lures such as the Heddon Super Sonic, which was churned out in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. And he is infatuated by Bill Norman's Little Scoopers, which have been coming down the pike since the 1970s.

Of the latter, he says, "It's the finest spring crank bait I've ever fished with because of the action. Bass love 'em when the water's cold in the early spring."

"The whole point is you can collect stuff from the last 20 years and enjoy it just as much. The joy in collecting is actually to collect. It's not in the money. The enjoyment is the search, the hunt, the treasure hunt."

The seasoned collector leaves a few nibbles for beginners.

"Realize collecting fishing tackle encompasses a lot of different things: rods, reels, anything you can imagine. Everything you can find in the bottom of an old tackle box. Don't try to collect it all. You can't. Find whatever turns your crank."


Third Annual Sportsman Swap Meet is Saturday

The Percy Priest Hybrid and Striper Club, in association with the Central Tennessee Kayak Anglers, will hold a swap meet 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28, at the community center in Charlie Daniels Park in Mt. Juliet. It will benefit the fish hatchery program of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. A $5 donation is requested at the door. The proceeds will go to purchase high-protein fish that will be used by the hatcheries in the stocking program. A wide variety of hunting, boating and fishing equipment, new and used, will be on sale; Academy Sports and Caney Fork Outfitters will be represented. Eight-foot-long tables are available for $20. The meet offers fishermen and collectors a chance to restock their tackle boxes, buy a depth finder, replace broken fishing rods and find antique lures. No firearms. Children 13 and younger admitted free. For more info or to reserve a table, call (615) 449-5431.


National Fishing Lure Collectors Club

For information about the NFLCC, visit nflcc.com. Region III Vice President Gibby Gibson offers appraisals on antique fishing equipment. Contact him at (615) 406-6814.

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fishing lures, Gibby Gibson, Ken Beck, National Fishing Lure Collectors Club
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