Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By bill heavey

The mak­ing of an iconic lure—the Mepps Dressed Aglia—starts with a squir­rel hunt and ends with a bent rod.

TThank God they flick their tails. I’d been hear­ing one bark for five min­utes, but it’s only that visual cue that re­veals the ro­dent, flat­tened and frozen against a hick­ory 30 yards away. I brace the .22 against a mas­sive tree and am set­tling the crosshairs on the crit­ter’s head when the trunk goes rub­bery. But then, 150-year-old oaks aren’t that eas­ily rat­tled, so it has to be me.

I’m well ac­quainted with buck fever, but I’d never dreamed it might ex­tend to the small­est of small game. On the other hand, this was my first squir­rel hunt, and there was more at stake than din­ner. I’d conned my ed­i­tors into send­ing me to Wis­con­sin to write about the Mepps Dressed Aglia, an iconic lure with a squir­rel-tail dress­ing—the lure that I (like many oth­ers) caught my first fish on, the same lure that the read­ers of this mag­a­zine once voted the best all-around choice for trout.

The plan was to fol­low a squir­rel tail from the tree branch to the Mepps fac­tory and, even­tu­ally, into the mouth of a fish. I had three days in which to ac­com­plish this, and get­ting the squir­rel tail was step one— with­out which there would be no fur­ther steps. If you have a nat­u­rally op­ti­mistic out­look like I do, you’ll un­der­stand my thought process at the mo­ment of truth: No squir­rel equals no story fee, equals even­tual un­em­ploy­ment, equals home­less­ness, equals a fu­ture squeegee­ing wind­shields at stop­lights for spare change. I’m sure not all writ­ers think this op­ti­misti­cally. I only know what works for me.

Fi­nally, I get the squir­rel more or less lined up, shoot three times, and miss three times.

Step One: Kill a Squir­rel

I’m hunt­ing with Merl Schon­herr and his two sons on 3,000 acres of rolling hard­woods near Ridge­way, Wis­con­sin. Merl is the first squir­rel-hunt­ing ar­chi­tect I’ve ever run into, but then he’s not like any other ar­chi­tect I’ve met. He’s mod­est, friendly, thrifty, and talk­a­tive. He puts on the An­nual Hyde Area Squir­rel Hunt­ing Tour­na­ment, head­quar­tered at nearby Hyde Store, a pub so old, no­body seems to know who owned it first or when. Hyde’s has a pool table, $2 beers, pizza, stuffed deer and fish, and a loyal lo­cal clien­tele. The tour­na­ment en­try fee is $20 per two-man team, and Merl doesn’t make a dime off it.

“It’s fun,” he ex­plains. “I grew up hunt­ing small game. Kids these days hardly know what it is. It’s how you learn.” He shrugs. I’ve met up with Merl and en­tered his con­test to get my squir­rel tail. He and I call our team the Squir­rel Nut Rip­pers. His grown sons, An­drew and Austin, name them­selves In One Ear, Out the Other.

Merl and I start out hunt­ing to­gether but split up af­ter a while. I’ve brought out­door­writer weather with me. The wind blows 15 mph, and oc­ca­sional bouts of rain fore­tell the stead­ier down­pour due this af­ter­noon. I pic­ture the squir­rels holed up with a bowl of nuts, watch­ing col­lege foot­ball—just like the reg­u­lars at Hyde’s right now—chuck­ling at the thought of any­one dumb enough to be hunt­ing to­day. Put me in a deer stand and I’ll see 10 squir­rels for ev­ery deer. To­day, I’ve seen six deer and a to­tal of one squir­rel— the one I missed.

I stalk ahead at tur­tle speed, paus­ing for min­utes at trees where I can steady the Rem­ing­ton Model 597 that Merl has lent me. Fi­nally, at 10:20 A.M., com­ing down a steep hill, I hear bark­ing close by. I freeze and fi­nally spot the an­i­mal in the crotch of a tree. When I shoot, the squir­rel drops with a soft thud into thick brush. Con­vinced that I’ll never find my prize if I take my eyes off the spot, I walk straight through the briers un­til I have the an­i­mal in hand. The Squir­rel Nut Rip­pers will weigh in a sin­gle squir­rel that goes 1 pound 6 ounces.

But I have ac­com­plished step one. Things are look­ing up.

Step Two: Make a Lure

All Mepps lures sold in the U.S. are now made at the fac­tory in Antigo, Wis­con­sin. But they were in­vented in France by An­dre Meul­nart, an an­gler, en­gi­neer, and steel buyer for Peu­geot. Meul­nart patented the Mepps Shimmy in 1938, and “Mepps” de­rives from the name of the com­pany he founded: Man­u­fac­ture d’En­gins de Pre­ci­sion pour la Peche Sportive, or Man­u­fac­ture of Pre­ci­sion Tackle for Sportfishing.

In 1949, a GI named Frank Velek, who had picked up a few Mepps lures in France, re­turned home and gave them to Todd Shel­don, a Wis­con­sin an­gler and tackle-shop owner

in Antigo. Shel­don thanked him but wasn’t par­tic­u­larly im­pressed, and the lures spent two years work­ing their way to the bot­tom of his tackle box. Then in 1951, on a slow day on the Wolf River, Shel­don tied on one of the alien-look­ing spin­ners— and in two hours had a limit of four trout that went 12 pounds. Shel­don started mak­ing plans to im­port, mar­ket, and sell the lure in the U.S.

In post-war France, ny­lons were more valu­able than dol­lars, and Shel­don found a woman will­ing to send him lures in ex­change for stock­ings. But even the most reck­less woman goes through only so many pairs of hose, and when Shel­don’s de­mand ex­ceeded hers, he trav­eled to France. He and Meul­nart hit it off, and Shel­don started bring­ing the lures to the U.S. In 1956, he formed Shel­dons’ Inc. to fo­cus on his grow­ing im­port trade. By 1960, U.S. sales of Mepps lures had topped 500,000. Shel­don thought they could do bet­ter—3 mil­lion.

“My dad set that mark,” Shel­don’s son Mike, now com­pany pres­i­dent, says, “be­cause that was more than any lure had ever sold on this con­ti­nent. Our sales went sail­ing right past that goal the next year.”

Cut to the early 1960s. Shel­don had again lim­ited out on the Wolf River, but as he left, he ran into a boy with his own limit. There were two im­por­tant dif­fer­ences, though. The boy’s fish were big­ger, and he had dressed the tre­ble of his Aglia with hair from a squir­rel’s tail. Shel­don ex­per­i­mented with bear, fox, coy­ote, deer, skunk, and badger. But the boy had nailed it. Noth­ing per­formed like squir­rel tail.

The com­pany started buying squir­rel tails from hunters and boosted pro­duc­tion. To­day, Mepps sells some­where be­tween 4 mil­lion and 6 mil­lion lures an­nu­ally. (Fam­ily busi­nesses are tight-lipped about ex­act num­bers.) Fac­tor in hook sizes from 00 to 7, a hun­dred or so blade and dress­ing col­ors, and var­i­ous blade de­signs, and you’re look­ing at over 8,000 dif­fer­ent lures. But the back­bone of the com­pany re­mains the Dressed Aglia. Mepps buys 160,000 squir­rel tails a year and, Mike says, would pre­fer to get twice that num­ber.

The com­pany is care­ful to pitch the deal as a squir­rel-tail “re­cy­cling pro­gram” and winced when some­one put up a “How to Make Bank on Squir­rel

Tails” post on Face­book that got 3.6 mil­lion hits. Not that you could ac­tu­ally get rich at it. A pre­mium tail fetches 20 cents. If you’ve got 100 of them, it goes to 23 cents, and if you have 1,000 or more, 26 cents. The av­er­age is about 10 cents. But hunters still show up at the plant at the end of the sea­son with tails. (The record for an in­di­vid­ual is 1,435.) The tails are then graded, washed, dried, boxed, and frozen un­til they’re needed. Even the folks at Mepps aren’t ex­actly sure what draws so many hunters with boxes of salted squir­rel tails. Maybe their fathers did it. Maybe it speaks to some in­ex­pli­ca­ble de­sire to be part of some­thing big­ger, to know your tail is out there catch­ing fish for some­one else. Then again, since you can ei­ther re­ceive cash or dou­ble that value in Mepps mer­chan­dise, maybe it’s just a fun way to stock up on lures.

Peg Doucette, who has been ty­ing for Mepps for 51 years, smiles when I pull my one tail from a plas­tic gro­cery bag. “That’s prime,” she says, fin­gers fluff­ing the hair. She snips a cou­ple of inches off one side with lit­tle Fiskar scis­sors, bunches the hair neatly in her fin­gers, and in­serts a long bit of red turkey quill into the clump, a strike at­trac­tor. She ties all this around the short shaft of a tre­ble hook with 20 or 30 wraps of red ny­lon thread. Fi­nally, she snips the thread and ap­plies a few drops of two-part epoxy. Her move­ments have the un­hur­ried ef­fi­ciency that comes from hun­dreds of thou­sands of rep­e­ti­tions, and she is fin­ished in sec­onds.

In no time, she ties two more hooks us­ing hair from my squir­rel. Doucette tied at home part-time for 17 years, do­ing 700 hooks a week. In 1966, she was asked to work in the fac­tory, a block from her home. On oc­ca­sion, she has com­muted by snow­mo­bile. Doucette could have re­tired years ago, as could many of the 30 or so em­ploy­ees at Mepps. But she likes the work and the peo­ple.

“Be­sides, what else would I do?” she says. She has been head of the Squir­rel De­part­ment for years. Think­ing how great that would look on a busi­ness card, I ask if she has one. “Busi­ness card?” she asks.

My lures move on to assem­bly. The parts come ready­made from France and are put to­gether here. The back­bone of ev­ery Mepps spin­ner is a Sand­vic stain­less-steel wire, which comes bent in a tight U shape with one shorter end and one longer. The hook is threaded onto the bend, then the dou­bled wire goes through the lure’s body, and the short end is clipped to hold it in place. Next come three small but cru­cial pieces: a tiny ball called the pearly, a larger cupped piece called the bell, and an­other, slightly larger piece, the bead. Each of these turns in­de­pen­dently so that the cle­vis— the C-shaped yoke that se­cures the blade to the wire—can turn with min­i­mal re­sis­tance. The cle­vis with the at­tached blade comes next. On most other spin­ners, the cle­vis is a piece of wire that’s bent, flat­tened, and then drilled. But a bent piece of wire is eas­ily bent fur­ther, im­ped­ing the blade’s abil­ity to spin. Mepps uses a folded brass cle­vis, which is more ex­pen­sive but more durable. The last step is the winder, a ma­chine that twists the long end of the wire to form the eye to which you tie your line. Done.

Step Three: Catch a Fish

I now have a No. 4 Dressed Aglia with a firetiger blade, a No. 5 with a chartreuse blade, and a sil­ver-bladed No. 3. They’re gor­geous, made just for me, and I’d much rather frame them than risk los­ing them to a snag or a fish. But that’s not the plan. And owner Mike Shel­don has agreed to try to get me a fish, so we pile into his truck and tow his boat to the Wis­con­sin River, half an hour away.

He backs the trailer into the root-beer-col­ored wa­ter, and we head up­river to just below a dam. I tie on the No. 4 firetiger and cast. The wa­ter is shal­low and grassy.

“We’ve had a dry spell,” Mike says. “These aren’t ideal con­di­tions, but we’ll give it a try.” Af­ter 15 min­utes, some­thing slashes at the lure, and I reel in a 19-inch north­ern pike. I shake Mike’s hand. Mis­sion ac­com­plished. A few min­utes later, I get a 22-incher.

I have an early flight to­mor­row from Madi­son, and I ask if I’m cor­rect in think­ing it’s about 90 min­utes away. “Ac­tu­ally, it’s more like three and a half hours,” he says. He sees the look on my face and pulls the an­chor. It’s al­ready close to 5 By 6, I’m on the road south, hav­ing bagged one squir­rel, three lures, and two fish. Suc­ceed­ing at what I set out to do is a strange feel­ing for me. But as I bomb down In­ter­state 38, it feels like some­thing I could get used to.

Af­ter 15 min­utes, some­thing slashes at the lure, and I reel in a 19-inch north­ern pike.

Tail Spin­ner One of three Dressed Aglias made by Mepps for the au­thor, us­ing hair from a squir­rel he bagged.

Old Standby The au­thor’s No. 3 in clas­sic sil­ver is much like the Dressed Aglia he caught his first fish with.

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