By Mark Edson
When collecting fishing tackle comes to mind, many think of tackle produced by some of the giants in the business: Heddon, Pflueger, Creek Chub, and Shakespeare. Most of these companies at some point in their long histories manufactured reels, lures, rods, tackle boxes etc. In the past decade, however, a “non-mainstream” genre of vintage fishing tackle, “bone” jigs, has begun to gain popularity with collectors. These jigs have seen an elevation in popularity because of the wide variety of sizes and material designs that can be found. Additionally, many of these ornate and colorful lures appeal to more than just fishing tackle collectors.
Art Deco and Bakelite/Catalin collectors aggressively pursue these items too. Another facet to collecting these lures is that most are predominately found on the coasts where they were primarily used for salt-water fishing making them scarcer and regionalized. Just a few years ago, these lures/jigs did not carry the big value that many main stream wooden lures and even reels would bring. However, that is not the case now. These lures, in many cases, command prices comparable to other fishing tackle collectibles.
The term “bone jig” describes more a style and shape rather than what a jig is constructed of. Almost all bone jigs, regardless of material, are shaped like a tiny, tapered surfboard. Surprisingly, a great many early bone jigs (pre-1945) were made, but few survived due to the harsh saltwater environment they were fished in. Some of the more desirable jigs made of real bone have Abalone, plastic or other types of inlays. A jig constructed of multiple bone layers can prove to be a real prize.
The bone jigs that most people find are made of bone. Most were carved from the bones of whales, bovine or whatever material was readily available at the time. The majority of bone jigs that are found are quite plain and boring, usually consisting of a single or double hook attached by a rivet or screw to the jig body and fitted with a quarter sized line tie. A jig may be found with or without a metal tongue (primarily those made of actual bone) and can range in size from a few inches to well over a foot. On some bone jigs, you will find “Japan” or “Made in Occupied Japan” stamped on the flat side of the jig. This small difference can be loosely used to date them as pre- or post-war. On an occasion, some will be found with a Japanese company name on them such as National Tackle Company. It should be pointed out that Japanese markings, in most instances, do little to enhance value and marginally increase desirability.
Bone jigs were designed primarily for saltwater fishing. Many were initially made in Asia, Europe and later the United States and Mexico. The Japanese were probably some of the most prolific manufacturers of bone jigs through the United States’ occupation of Japan. The Japanese fished the jig by tying it to a long leader and attaching it to a large float. The float’s constant up and down motion was supposed to imitate a squid. In the U.S., however, the jigs were fished much differently. Commercial tuna boats and many sport fishermen trolled or cast and retrieved them with great success.
In the U.S., in the early 20s, the material for making bone jigs shifted from animal bone to Bakelite/Catalin which was used extensively through the 40s. When you ask an avid bone jig collector like Ward Coppersmith (who has one of the best bone jig collections in California) what his favorite bone jig is, he doesn’t miss a beat and responds, “HETZEL.”
Little is known about Frank Hetzel. He is believed to be one of the first to manufacture bone jigs of Bakelite commercially in the Western United States. Hetzel, it is believed, made them at his home in Hermosa Beach, California beginning in the early 20s stopping sometime in the 50s. His lures broke the typical bone jig stereotype; they were colorful and carefully designed and crafted, indicative of many things made during that period in American history. In certain cases, Hetzel manufactured jigs to resemble brightly colored sardines. The sardine style is difficult to find and can be found with and without glass eyes.
It is speculated that Hetzel chose to use Catalin because of the variety of colors available. Catalin’s wide range of colors was thought to be a much better fish attractor than the plain, white bone jig normally used. In most cases, the more desirable Hetzel jigs are multi-colored and range in size from a few to several inches in length. There are instances, however, where certain solid color designs, because of their scarcity, are highly sought after. Many of Hetzel’s jigs do carry his name but there were several made that are unmarked.
In later years, other companies entered the fray. The most notable was SECO. Many of their lures were made of bone but have been found made from other materials also. In the 50s, a great many bone jigs were made of plastic and metal and are quite common. Many you find today in plastic carry the Baldy or Miller name and some of these are not only becoming collectible but valuable. What does hold true for bone jigs, like with most vintage fishing tackle, manufactured prior to World War II, is by far the most desirable. Bone jig collecting isn’t as name driven as most fishing tackle but lends itself to more on design and eye appeal.
There is still a great deal to be learned about bone jigs. If you have any pertinent information to a better understanding of the history of bone jigs, or know of any HETZEL relatives who can share information regarding his days as a lure maker, please contact me. If you just want to talk fishing tackle, please email me at email@example.com or contact me at 619-972-3488. Happy collecting!
I would like to dedicate this article to Ward Coppersmith of San Diego, California. Ward is mentioned in this article and he does have one of the best bone jig collections is the United States. Unfortunately, Ward recently passed away. He will truly be missed by his family and many a fellow collector. He was an outstanding man and a great fisherman. Tight lines to you Ward and rest in peace.
Do you have or just find your great grandfather’s tackle box tucked away in the attic and it’s full of vintage fishing tackle? Would you like to know what you have and its value? Please feel free to email me and include pictures if you would like to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, check out my pictures of vintage tackle at my FACEBOOK Page: Antique Fishing Tackle! Until next time, “Tight lines.”