California - #12 in a Series
By Jim Schottenham
The “Golden State” of California boasts so many interesting facts that it's hard to narrow down to just a few. The 31st state, entering the union on September 9th, 1850, is known today for its National parks, the Golden Gate Bridge, Hollywood, an amazing coastline that certainly draws anglers from around the world to fish the Pacific, and some of the best inland big bass lakes in the world. The state is also famous for the first McDonald's restaurant, opening in San Bernardino. While you no longer need to drive all that way to find a McDonalds today, there are some things worth traveling from anywhere in the U.S. to find, such as a few rare and important fishing tackle items that will have collectors shouting the state motto of – “Eureka! I have found it!”
The number of rare and obscure lures is admittedly short; however, the top miscellaneous baits produced in the state is a true rarity, and is at or near the top of many advanced collector's lists. The invention of Walter S. Ewert of Los Angeles was granted patent number 1313476 (Photo 1) on August 19th, 1919 for an "Artificial Bait." An interesting fact, often overlooked in the descriptive "wiggle bait used in deep sea fishing for game fish," odd since the eventual product was used to target freshwater species based on the size of the lure, measuring approximately 4 3/8" in length, perfect for bass, pike or walleye. In his patent renewal, dated August 15th, 1922, the use of "deep sea" was removed, and an emphasis on his right to adapt his design was stressed throughout the document, with the corresponding drawings now more closely resembling the finished product (Photo 2). Touting his invention as "An American Triumph" on the box lid, the revolving wheels were what set this apart from his competitor's lures, a fact that Ewert made clear when he claimed: "As this bait is fully protected by government patent, infringers will be prosecuted to the limit of the law"[i]. While he also claimed to offer the lure in two sizes, only one size has been discovered[ii], and even then only three have surfaced, including this one that sold through Lang's Auction (Photo 3), reaching $5,925 in the fall of 2015.
Much the same way the old glass minnow tubes are rare today due to the fragile nature of glass and inaccurate casting that always finds that rock or hard surface, old pottery jigs used to troll for big game fish are somewhat scarce today. The hand painted china jigs trolled for tuna can bring big dollars, even unsigned as most are, such as this example (Photo 4) with colorful paint finish, feathered tail and grooved head that brought $1,120 when sold in 2014 at Lang's auction. Little is known about the origin of these predominantly west coast angling jigs, but that has not slowed the interest in them; rather it seems to have fueled the desire to locate more and learn about the makers. And that is what makes tackle collecting such an interesting hobby.
Rod collectors are certainly familiar with the Winston name, originating from San Francisco in 1929, when Robert Winther and Lew Stoner started the now famous R.L. Winston Rod Co. With a detailed history provided by the company itself[iii], we learn that the name comes from combining the last names of the founders, and that the detailed records they kept on each handmade rod aided them in improving every new creation. In the 1930's, Stoner invented his hollow-fluted rod, later receiving a patent for it, number 2537488 (Photo 5), issued on Jan. 9th, 1951, 4 plus years after filing for it. That design aided tournament casters in setting world records, with Primo Livenais casting 623 feet in 1936, and Marvin Hedge, often associated with modifying Heddon fly rods, using a Winston rod to exceed the world fly casting record by 36 feet. When Lew Stoner passed away in 1957, Doug Merrick became the sole owner, and continued the company's expansion into fiberglass, using the same design that Stoner patented for bamboo. Still in business today, and offering rods in more modern materials from Boron, graphite and a cutting edge resin/Boron mix, the company is just as popular with anglers as it is with vintage collectors, though the early rods demand a higher price tag if the condition is right, such as the marked "Made for Douglas Merrick" rod (Photo 6) that reached $3,720, selling through Lang's.
Where California really shines is with the quality and ingenuity of the state's reel makers, especially those that targeted big game fish, such as C.R. Klein of Santa Monica and Arthur J. Stead of Los Angeles. While these men made great reels, the work of two giants in the reel making world stand head and shoulders above the others – J.A. Coxe and Arthur Kovalovsky. Coxe, a former Director of the Tuna Club of Santa Catalina Island and later its president, was making and selling his handmade reels during the 1920's. In his book, Salt Water Fishing Tackle, Harlan Major notes that Coxe had elite company making reels up to 9/0 size, with the Vom Hofe brothers of New York, Julius and Edward, his only contemporaries. It was Coxe however that vaulted his reel making career by providing "considerably larger" reels for none other than Zane Grey[iv]. Issued patent number 1495676 on May 27th, 1924 for his "friction control," or star drag with a spring lock (Photo 7). From cradle reels (Photo 8), such as this example that sold just last year through Lang's for $4,440, made after Coxe sold out to Bronson, to the early reels that include the rare Swordfish model (Photo 9) with Pat. Apl'd For stamp, all are in great demand today. Anyone interested in Coxe reels should obtain a copy of the book Men, Fish & Tackle, the story of J.A. Coxe as told to Ralph Bandini. Reel historians are also fortunate to have a work written about reel heavyweight Arthur Kovalovsky, penned by authors Philip Beguhl and Rick Edmisten, titled Handmade in Hollywood - The Reels Of Arthur Kovalovsky. Much of the information came directly from the family by way of Arthur's son Oscar, himself an accomplished reel maker.
Born in 1881[v], the son of a prison warden and metal working apprentice came to the US in 1904, married in 1906 and fathered four children. Moving to California in 1918, he was involved in the automotive business, and built his first big game reel in 1928. By 1938, he abandoned his career as a mechanic and started his life as a reel maker full time, with a rented shop on Santa Monica Blvd. His total output was estimated at around 750 reels, and while that sounds like a lot, trying to find one today is a challenge. His work has been broken down into model years, with the Standard reels - or Type 1 models - dating from 1928-1941[vi], type 2 reels from 1945-1958, rim control reels from 1934-1958, and "C" type reels ranging from 1932-1940. Kovalovsky was also awarded numerous patents for his reels beginning with number 1958919, issued on May 15th, 1934 (Photo 10). Using an automotive brake lining to aid in the drag, no doubt a result of his previous occupation, Kovalovsky was able to tame a problem that plagued his fellow big game reel makers; the long and powerful runs of huge fish and the effect it had on the reel's drag. Certainly aiding the popularity of his products was the endorsement of Zane Grey, often photographed with or using Kovalovsky reels. Huge examples such as this 20/0 size reel (Photo 11) that sold for $7,375 during a Lang's auction, are impressive for both their size and quality, as are the rarer still Micarta side plate examples like reel pictured (Photo 12), that topped the $10,000 mark at the fall 2007 Lang's sale. Passing away in 1958, Arthur left the angling world with a son who carried on the reel making tradition, his son Oscar. Known for his reel making activity as well, Oscar also produced a few rare examples, like the 2-speed 14/0 reel marked "O. Kovalovsky - Kernville, CA" that came in a custom box (Photo 13), reaching $7,375 at auction. Any Kovalovsky big game reel would be considered a prize if found, though space to display it or a shelf strong enough to hold it may be an issue for some. Of course there is always the option to take it out and fish with it - after all, all these makers would likely shudder if they thought the products they worked so hard to perfect were relegated to sitting in a display case.
So if the giant Sequoia trees or Disneyland or the Hollywood walk of fame are not enough to interest you in a trip out west, perhaps the lure of these treasures will. After all, there is more than just gold in those hills.
Next up – the “Badger State” of Wisconsin!
(Editor’s note: Jim Schottenham is an avid reel collector, past President and Director of the Old Reel Collectors Association, Appraiser for the American Museum of Fly Fishing and Lang's Auction's reel appraiser. Jim can be reached by phone: 315-750-1700 or email: Jim@LangsAuction.com. His personal website is: www.sidemountreels.com. More information: www.LangsAuction.com or Sales@LangsAuction.com)
Photo 1: The invention of Walter S. Ewert of Los Angeles was granted patent number 1313476 (Photo 1) on August 19th, 1919 for an "Artificial Bait."
Photo 2: Patent renewal, dated August 15th, 1922, the use of "deep sea" was removed
Photo 3: While he also claimed to offer the lure in two sizes, only one size has been discovered[ii], and even then only three have surfaced, including this one that sold through Lang's Auction, reaching $5,925 in the fall of 2015.
Photo 4: The hand painted china jigs trolled for tuna can bring big dollars, even unsigned as most are, such as this example with colorful paint finish, feathered tail and grooved head that brought $1,120 when sold in 2014 at Lang's auction.
Photo 5: Stoner invented his hollow-fluted rod, later receiving a patent for it, number 2537488 issued on Jan. 9th, 1951
Photo 6: "Made for Douglas Merrick" rod
Photo 7: Issued patent number 1495676 on May 27th, 1924 for his "friction control," or star drag with a spring lock
Photo 8: Cradle Reel
Photo 9: Rare Swordfish model
Photo 10: Type 1 models - dating from 1928-1941[vi], type 2 reels from 1945-1958, rim control reels from 1934-1958, and "C" type reels ranging from 1932-1940. Kovalovsky was also awarded numerous patents for his reels beginning with number 1958919, issued on May 15th, 1934
Photo 11: 20/0 size reel that sold for $7,375 during a Lang's auction, are impressive for both their size and quality
Photo 12: Micarta side plate examples like reel pictured that topped the $10,000 mark at the fall 2007 Lang's sale
Photo 13: Known for his reel making activity as well, Oscar also produced a few rare examples, like the 2-speed 14/0 reel marked "O. Kovalovsky - Kernville, CA" that came in a custom box reaching $7,375 at auction.