Working at his kitchen table bathed in natural light, Tony Smith of Holland, Mich. (pop. 35,048), skillfully carves a piece of basswood the size of his thumb into a lure so beautifuland valuablethat it will never be used to hook a fish, only a collector.
I like creating something that will outlive me, says Smith, 60, about the lures and spearfishing decoys that he has handcrafted for 33 years.
Wood shavings, some as delicate as threads, curl from his knife as a tiny brook trout takes shape in his hands. With precision cuts, he slices grooves for copper fins and drills 1/64th-inch holes on the fishs sides, mouth and tail for hooks and propellers. He sands and seals the wood, primes it, then paintseight coats in allthe red, green and yellow markings of a genuine brook trout. Strung on a wire to dry, Smiths realistic lures resemble a good days catch in miniature.
Each masterpiece he creates, from the 2-inch trout lures to the foot-long frog decoysused for spearing fish through a hole in a frozen lakefeatures glass eyes, handmade copper or brass parts, and sometimes hardware salvaged from antique tackle. The jointed wiggly-legged frog has 30 parts.
Smith, a retired engineer, began carving lures and decoys in 1973 as a hobby that combined his love of fishing with collecting and researching antique tackle. Buoyed by the popularity of his contemporary lures among collectors at fishing tackle shows, Smith founded his home-based business, Macatawa Bait Co., three years later.
Theyre distinct. Theyre beautiful baits, says Herb Proctor, 80, of Topsail Island, N.C., who met Smith eight years ago at a National Fish Lure Collectors Club show. At the time, Proctor collected antique tackle, but he fell hook, line and sinker for a bluegill lure made by Smith. Since then, hes collected 87 Macatawa-brand baits. I feel like its a good investment.
Prices range from $85 to $200, depending on the size and amount of work invested in each lure. Smith devotes up to six hours carving and painting a 6-inch lure, while creating a 20-inch decoy may take several days.
Along with fish lures and decoys, Smith carves replicas of trophy-size catches based on photographs and measurements supplied by the angler. In June, he completed a reproduction of a 35-pound, 55-inch-long tiger muskellunge for a fisherman who paid $700 for the wooden keepsake.
Each year, Smith makes about 70 of what he calls the worlds most expensive lures”: exquisite wooden beetles, crawfish, grasshoppers, perch, pumpkinseed, catfish, turtles and whimsical species, such as patriotic red, white and blue frogs and fish. He sells and swaps them, along with rare antique lures from his collection of 2,000, at shows across the nation. Sometimes he buys back his own early creations, when he can afford them, for their sentimental value.
I bought a frog back and had to pay three times as much as I sold it for, Smith says. When hes not carving lures, Smiths favorite pastime is fishing. Once or twice a week, he and his buddies fish for walleye, salmon and sheepshead from a pier on Lake Michigan, a few miles from his home.
And what does the artistic lure maker pack along for bait? Worms, Smith says. I mainly use live bait.