By Louie Stout
Randy Whiteman loves a challenge.
That’s why he loves fishing muskies and has devoted his time collecting antique fishing tackle produced by the former South Bend Bait Company.
“Muskies and antique South Bend Baits share something in common – they are both hard to find,” joked the Wakarusa angler. “If something is easy, I tend to lose interest.”
He’s had quite a bit of success at both. He’s caught several 50-inch muskies from Indiana waters and has one of the rarest, if not most extensive South Bend Bait collections in the country.
From the early 1900s until the early 60s, South Bend Baits were among the most coveted by anglers. The company was best known for its Bass-Oreno, but other popular items include the South Bend Minnow, Fish-Oreno, Pike-Oreno, to name a few.
The company was developed in 1896 by F. G. “Bucktail” Worden who invented “Bucktail Baits” he made out of his garage and eventually sold and became part of the South Bend Bait Company.
During the early days, the factory was located at 1108 S. High Street. The company sold in 1964 for $1 million and moved to an unknown location before it fizzled.
“During their prime, the baits were as popular as Creek Chub, Heddon and Shakespeare,” said Whiteman. “What’s interesting is all three of those tackle companies were among the biggest of that time and existed in this area.”
The original Creek Chub was made in Garret, Ind., Heddon in Dowagiac and Shakespeare in Kalamazoo.
Whiteman primarily collects South Bend Baits manufactured in South Bend. He finds them from other collectors, at garage sales and through word of mouth.
“I’m fascinated with the bait company and its history,” he said. “I’m always looking for people who are still around who either worked at a plant or had a family member affiliated with the bait company. As years go on, it gets harder and harder.”
He knows there are still relics lying around in attics, garages or old tackle boxes and it’s not uncommon for him to pay $500 to $1,000 for a lure that’s in great shape and its original packaging. He’s even run ads in newspapers and surfs the internet daily looking for rare and good condition tackle.
“The condition of the bait, its rarity and having the original box makes it that much more valuable,” he said. “I just know there are some lying around South Bend stashed in corners or attics and people have forgotten about them.”
He estimates he has well over 1,000 lures in his collection and has one of the rarest items, a muskie Surf-Oreno.
“There’s only four known in existence and I have two of them,” he said. “One of them I got from a lady in California who bought it at a flea market.”
He also has saltwater Coast-Oreno and King-Oreno baits made in the 1920s that he obtained from the late Zane Grey collection of which only a few were made. They are valued between $750-$1,000 each.
He uses a few of his antiques in his fishing. In fact, last summer he purchased antique tackle from an Elkhart widow whose husband was an avid muskie fisherman.
“I got an early Heddon fishing rod (1960s era) and one of the original Abu Garcia 5000 reels,” he described. “I’m going to have those reconditioned and fish them with a South Bend Lunge-Oreno topwater next summer and try to catch a muskie on it. I think I can. It’s a way to tie my muskie habit with my antique tackle collecting habit.”
How cool would that be?
(If you have some information about the South Bend Bait Company or have antique tackle you’d like Whiteman to see, call Whiteman at 574-370-8077 or email him at email@example.com.)