An American Fishing Tradition
By Michael Jay
You can always tell when a gift is from the heart. On my 50th birthday, I received a package from my brother-in-law, Kyle Kayson, in Chicago. I slid open the red cedar boxes to find two treasures – hand-carved replicas of antique wooden fishing lures. In an instant, priceless childhood memories came flooding back of afternoons spent fishing with my father and picking out similar lures from his tackle box. I was so touched with the nostalgic gift, clearly carved with passion, that I Googled the artisan’s name – John Wilkinson. I found John in Washington, Illinois, and called him. The story of his love for preserving a bit of Americana from yesteryear had me captivated like a son listening to a father’s stories of an earlier time. We talked for hours and will likely remain lifelong friends, all thanks to a thoughtful gift. This is his story…
On a tranquil Seattle morning in 1954, 11-year old Johnny Wilkinson sat on the edge of a riverbank baiting his fishing line with salmon eggs to try his luck at catching trout. “When I caught my first fish, there were no parents around… because I was playing hooky,” John said with a grin.
At 15, John left home to work all sorts of jobs. “I wanted to be a cook; I wanted to be a jockey – I was the right size for it.” As fate would have it, however, John moved to the Midwest and spent 22 years as a machinist union representative. It was his passion for fishing that kept him going.
“I just didn’t want to catch fish, I needed to catch fish,” he explained. Wilkinson would travel to Lake Michigan in the wintertime just to catch something and then turn around and go back home. “As a union rep, I saw people in this worker-be-damned economy who were losing their jobs because plants were closing. I remember thinking, ‘they need to have something on the side – maybe a hobby they could make money at.’ But that was for ‘those people.’ I thought I’d be at the union forever.”
And then one morning, John woke up to find the results of the latest union election. He was four votes shy of retaining his job. “I realized then I didn’t have anything on the side myself,” he said. However, within 30 days, John was earning a living using his own two hands. Woodworking. He crafted traditional archery equipment. The entrepreneur also served as an insurance company’s public relations representative. “I always had that side hobby, just in case.” The Wilkinsons soon made cedar strip canoes, as well. With a laugh, John said, “It turned out that Peoria, Illinois, wasn’t like Maine or Minnesota, so I ended up with a yard full of canoes.”
And then, the unthinkable happened. John was diagnosed with aggressive cancer. “The doctor said if I hadn’t walked into his office that day, I wouldn’t have lived another year.” But persevere he did. In 2001, John finished radiation treatments. “I decided it was time to quit dreaming about stuff and just go do it.” He ran in the Chicago Marathon and checked all sorts of activities off his bucket list. At last, he knew, it was time to follow his life’s true calling: fishing. He gave up the archery business and started carving wooden fishing lures – replicas of the antique fishing lures he so fondly learned to fish with as a child.
“I’m like a little kid when I’m making lures in my shop,” John said. “I don’t look at it as a job; it’s what I do in life. From the time I left home at age 15 until today, I have never, ever, taken an Unemployment check. That’s not an accident. I’m a worker.”
The first fishing lure John carved was a replica of a 1920 Heddon Lucky 13. He named it the April 13. “I’ve caught so many bass on that thing! You could make one out of a broomstick if you wanted to.” Starting out, John used equipment he had from making the longbows. “At first, I painted every lure – it’s a nine coat, seven-day process. Then my wife Gina started painting and, quite frankly, she’s better at it. Our business is doing well.”
To show his gratitude, John created a lure he named after his wife – the Gina Lou – a replica of a 1938 Jitterbug. To date, John and his wife have made nearly 10,000 wooden fishing lures – all by hand. John sells them with a lifetime guarantee; and he’s never gotten one back. In fact, if John finds a blemish on one of his lures, it goes into the trash, or to a child who couldn’t otherwise afford one.
John’s son Bailey plays a role in the family’s handcrafted fishing lure company, too. “When my boys were in high school, I wanted them to learn the importance of earning a living – to always know how to make something on their own. Today, Bailey is in college studying mechanical engineering, but he still makes the wooden boxes in which the fishing lures are packed. He uses the money he earns to pay for school.”
John’s favorite lure – and most popular – is the Eagle River, a replica of the famous 1916 South Bend Bass O’Reno. “All of us old timers have several of these in our tackle boxes for one reason: They work!” he said. “I name most of my lures after people I care about. The Bailey Bait, a replica of a 1940 Bomber, is named after my son Bailey. It runs backward like a crawdad. If you hit a limb underwater, the backside gets hit rather than the hook side. But most important, it was the model 300 that holds the smallmouth bass world record since 1955. “I caught a few bass with it this morning,” he said. The fervent woodcarver also designed a lure for his other son, John Junior. The Johnny J. is a replica of a 1925 Creek Chub Injured Minnow.
John carves his diving lures from Eastern Red Cedar. He uses buoyant basswood for top-water lures. All of them have Mustad blood red hooks and stainless steel hardware. The average size of John’s lures is only 3.5 – 4 1/8 inches. Five of the lures have set world records; three still hold their world records today. John’s Trevor Creek lure, a replica of the 1920 Creek Chub Pikie Minnow, set the Muskie World Record in 1949. “It amuses me that there are all these guys making BIG Muskie baits for years, but the little one has held the record for decades.”
And then there’s the Samson. It’s the replica of a 1950 Cisco Kid lure, which snagged the world’s largest Tiger Muskie. Another lure in John’s repertoire is the Lil’ Luke – a replica of the 1924 Creek Chub Injured Minnow. It’s named after a local little boy whose mother bought him the lure as a gift for his 7th birthday. It earned the lad a photo in the Peoria Journal Star when he caught an impressive 19-inch, 4lb-9oz bass with it (incidentally, the lure is also the smaller version of the one John himself used to catch his very first bass).
Recently, John happened onto a nostalgic way to make his lures resemble the original antiques even more. “A fellow in Europe bought a factory just for the property, and inside of it were 50 gallon barrels of these old antique glass eyes, at least 100 years old. So now, I have a great source for real antique glass eyes.”
John personally fished with his old antique lures right up until a few years ago. “I have them hanging next to my lathe,” he said. “I make my replica lures within about a millimeter of the original. I want to keep things tried and true – because they work and they bring back memories. When people see them, they often get teary and smile because they’re reminded of good times fishing with their dad or granddad. People tell me they’re afraid to fish with the lures because they don’t want to lose them. I say to them, ‘Don’t worry, just keep casting them out; the fish will bring them back to you!’”
If you’d like to see more of John Wilkinson’s handcrafted antique fishing lure replicas, go to www.johnwlures.com or give him a call at (309) 868-0045.