Bait makers are plenty in the Mountain State

For a small state, West Virginia sure seems to have a lot of muskie-lure makers.

“I tell people about that all the time,” said Jeff Hansbarger, a fisheries biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources. “It’s really surprising that so many muskie-bait makers have become established here, and new ones seem to be popping up all the time.”

The state’s lure-making tradition started in the early 1970s, when a handful of die-hard muskellunge anglers became disillusioned with the quality and fish-catching ability of mass-produced lures.

“There were only about five baits to choose from at the time,” said Bill Looney, maker of the Amma Bama series of lures. “One of them was the Pflueger Mustang. I was in a boat with my cousin, Bill Crane, who was teaching me to muskie-fish. We were fishing with a Mustang, and we couldn’t get it to work right. We both figured we could do better, and we each went home and started designing lures of our own.”

Their home-crafted lures worked — so well, in fact, that even after more than 40 years they remain in high demand. Those baits, along with those made by Mr. and Mrs. J.C. Dicks of Parkersburg, Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Jones of Pennsboro and the late Jack Cobb of St. Albans, set standards of craftsmanship and effectiveness for future generations of lure-makers to imitate.

As muskie fishing grew in popularity, so did the number of makers. “At events like the Elk River Muskie Expo, it’s getting hard to find enough room to put all of them,” Hansbarger said.

No one seems to know exactly how many makers are active in the Mountain State at any given time, but current estimates place the number between two and three dozen. “For a state with this small a population, that’s a pretty big number,” Hansbarger said.

Why so many? Hansbarger believes it has to do with West Virginians’ make-do attitudes.

“A lot of our lure makers are hard-working, blue-collar people,” he said. “They’re welders, mechanics, people who are tinkerers by nature. They start making lures because they think they can improve on the lures they’ve been using.”

For Crane, who with wife Sharon produces the Crane Baits line of lures, necessity truly is the mother of invention.

“We’re rural people,” Crane said. “We tend to try to make do with the things we have on hand. I live on a farm my grandpa and grandma worked; if they needed something, they didn’t go out and buy it. They just made it. We kind of do the same thing.”

Mike Milam couldn’t agree more.

“West Virginia is a place where people have always made their own stuff,” said Milam, who manufactures his line of Fat Belly Baits from the basement of his home near Hurricane. “It’s an ingenuity thing. We see how we could do something better, or to put our own little spin on it.

“When I started fishing for muskies, I bought baits and knew in my mind I could make my own. I did, and they ended up catching fish.”

Most other makers got started in much the same way Milam did — they had a notion that they could produce a bait that worked better than the lures they’d been using. They made prototypes, tested them and re-tested them. They shared their most successful patterns with friends and, when the word got out and anglers began clamoring for the hot new lures, they started marketing their innovations.

“Someone fishes with you, sees a lure you’ve made and wants a couple of them,” said Jeff Cantley of South Charleston, maker of Ownage Muskie Baits. “I’m sure every bait maker has a similar story.”

Gregg Thomas

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