Ellis Whiteaker, 11, didn’t know what he might find when he went hunting in his basement in Fayetteville, N.C. But he had seen a call for fishing antiques on a social-networking app he uses (he’s been an avid fishermen since age 4) and knew that his grandfather, a former Air Force pilot who passed away before Ellis was born, had left some very old stuff in boxes.
What he found were six antique rods — one with a handle carved in the shape of a baseball bat. He looked it up, and a similar model on eBay was selling for around $700.
“It was really neat-looking,” said Ellis’s mom, Sarah Whiteaker. And, of course, the value of the item “made him feel excited.”
Vintage fishing gear falls into a category of collectibles sometimes dubbed “mantiques,” which includes hunting paraphernalia like antique rifles and duck decoys. But unlike antique cars, say, which can’t be hidden for decades in the basement of one’s home, antique fishing lures and reels can be packed away and appreciating in value for years, unbeknownst to their owners.
John Stephenson, a buyer for the British fishing auction house Thomas Turner, said he fields 10 to 20 phone calls a day from people inquiring about items they’ve found. Of those, he estimates, one in 10 have some value. Once a month, someone brings in something to his auction house that is worth five figures. “There are many more people looking for them now than there were 50 years ago,” he said of fishing antiques.
Over the past several hundred years, there have been endless variations of fishing tackle — rods, reels, flies and lures — providing fertile ground for collectors, who thrive on subtle distinctions and rarity.
“The 1850s period to the 1950s is the golden hundred years, where after that point fishing tackle became virtually all mass produced, and it lost the handmade appeal,” said Jim Schottenham, the valuator for Lang’s Auction, which specializes in fishing tackle.
In an effort to uncover some of these forgotten gems, Lang’s Auction worked with Fishbrain, the app for avid fisherman, to encourage people to go treasure hunting in their own homes, using a catalog-style listing of rare items as inspiration. (This initiative is what prompted Ellis to ransack his basement.)
According to Mr. Schottenham, the market for fishing antiques accelerated in the late 1970s. In 1985, The New York Times reported that an antique reel fetched $5,000 at auction. In the 1990s the market got even bigger, as buyers and sellers began connecting online. Today, fishing auction houses advertise heavily, encouraging people who aren’t necessarily fishermen to go sifting through their attics and basements.
One of the holy grails for collectors is the Giant Haskell Minnow, a large hammered copper lure with a flexible tail that wiggles in the water. Patented in 1859 by an Ohio artisan named Riley Haskell, the lure was “a real masterpiece of craftsmanship,” according to the fishing antiques dealer Fred Kretchman.
Only a handful of Giant Haskell Minnows have ever been located; in 2003, Lang’s sold one at auction for $101,200, setting a record at the time for antique fishing gear. The amount shocked collectors and sellers, and brought new buzz to the market.
“Somebody said to me, ‘50 grand or something is a lot of money for a Haskell,’” recalled Mr. Stephenson (referring to the sale figure in British pounds). “I said, ‘Well, it’s bigger than a diamond.’”
Today, people are often shocked by the value of objects they find. In a 2018 article for the American Museum of Fly Fishing, Mr. Kretchman described a client who brought in an antique rod her husband’s father had received as a gift from a craftsman. When he told her it was worth $8,000, “you could have knocked her over with a feather,” he wrote in the piece. “She was speechless.”
Mr. Lyons believes the draw for collectors is connected to romantic myths of American frontiersman identity, citing Huckleberry Finn and Daniel Boone. Fishing has one of the deepest repositories of literature of any sport: tens of thousands of books have been written on the subject, dating back to at least 1496, when an English prioress named Dame Juliana Berners wrote an instructional overview titled “A treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle.”
And rare fishing texts are as collectible as tackle. The Lang’s listing includes the “Preston Jennings Book of Trout Flies,” written in 1935, which sold at auction for $94,400 in 2007.
But even more appealing to collectors than a literary pedigree is a fishing item’s nostalgia factor. “I don’t know any adult male or female who fishes who doesn’t want the rest of his family to fish,” said Mr. Lyons. “There’s the affection; the great mystery of what’s under the water.” Many people grew up spending afternoons on the water with parents or grandparents. Decades later, those memories exert a powerful hold.
To that point, Ellis Whiteaker didn’t end up selling the valuable rod he found. “To him, it’s worth a million dollars; he will never get rid of it,” Ms. Whiteaker said. “It’s his connection to my dad, who he’s never met.”
As for the other antique rods, Ellis plans to divide them among his first cousins. “It’s the right thing to do if we split them up,” he told his mother, “and let everybody have one.”