Red Edgar reels in $100,000 a year by fooling fish. It all began with a broomstick and a homemade lathe

W. O. MITCHELL August 1 1949


Red Edgar reels in $100,000 a year by fooling fish. It all began with a broomstick and a homemade lathe

W. O. MITCHELL August 1 1949


Red Edgar reels in $100,000 a year by fooling fish. It all began with a broomstick and a homemade lathe


IN COOL POOLS, running streams and deep lakes across the land this month the fat trout lie, waiting warily to match wits with hook and worm, fly and wobbler, spoon or plug, or any of the other increasingly ingenious devices perfected by man in his seesaw battle with the fish.

Thanks to a chunkily built, red-haired inventor named Frank E. Edgar, the struggle between man and fish has become slightly more unequal in favor of man.

Edgar, whose friends call him “Red” and sometimes “Rusty,” started out carving plugs out of broomstick handles. In 22 years he has parlayed this into a half-million-dollar business—the Lucky Strike Bait Company of Peterborough, Ont. the only firm in Canada which manufactures fishing lures from hook to swivel to nickel-plated nose cap.

Edgar has nothing to do with trout or salmon flies. He concerns himself with what the fly fisherman sneers at as “that hardware.” Despite this an estimated two thirds of all Canadian fishermen prefer trolling with lures to casting with flies.

Trout are fascinated by Red Edgar’s lures — whether it be a spinning spoon, an undulating wobbler, or a wiggling plug. These lures are supposed to represent a small fish or minnow. The simple spoon of copper, brass or silver plate spins ahead of a hook -sometimes feathered. The wobbler faintly represents a shoehorn with a cluster of triple hooks. The plug is a torpedoshaped bait of wood or plastic so shaped that the pressure of the water makes it wriggle like a min now.

One theory is that the spoon and wobbler attract game fish by gleaming like minnows in the water. The plug attracts largely by its color, often bloodred.

Some fishermen say that this is all nonsense. They hold the lures don’t look like fish at all to a fish, but that the sparkle, color and shimmy of a lure merely enrages the trout so much that he strikes at it in anger.

Red Edgar has another theory: he thinks that some of the more elaborate lures are designed primarily to attract fishermen rather than fish.

baitmen, for example, make artificial lures

Some baitmen, for example, make artificial lures

containing small cartridges of compressed gas allowing the lure to eject a trail of bubbles like a live minnow. Another type has a built-in buzzer and battery to attract big fish. There are bass lures of the plug type which possess exotic plastic streamers like the skirts of a Hawaiian dancer and are fittingly called “hula baits.”

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He Lured Success

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At one time Red himself made plugs finished in phosphorescent paint which would glow and entice fish in dark water. (They’re now illegal.) Although he doesn’t go in for many fancy lures now, his Cobourg plant does plate spoons with 22-carat gold—for Trout of Distinction. And Red’s baits are made more attractive to fishermen by being packaged in neat little boxes with Cellophane windows.

Red now sells more than one million lures a year. One reason for his success is that his baits are designed for Canadian fish. One pattern group is made for the Maritimes; another for Ontario lakes; another for the Pacific Coast. He makes 1,000 different kinds of lure, selling from 10 cents to $1.95.

Red divides his time between his two factories: the one at Peterborough

where baits are assembled and packaged, and the one at Cobourg where the hooks, blanks, rough plugs and swivels are manufactured. (Swivels keep the fishing line from twisting or tangling.)

Into the latter factory comes the raw material for the lures: ten tons of brass a year for spoon blanks and wobblers; 19,000 pounds of wire for landing nets alone; 200 pounds of feathers for feathered hooks on pike and bass lures (calculating the feather weight of a fowl at an eighth of a pound that means about 1,600 chickens and geese go west to make Lucky Strike baits).

Before the war Red had to get his hooks and swivels from firms in Europe and the United States. When the war cut supplies he began making his own.

Invention in the Night

Assembled at Peterborough, the baits go out with such names as Beetle-back Wobblers, June Bug Spinners, Kenofca Bait, Toronto Wobbler, Devil Bait, River Rogue, Golden Bowl, Bear Valley Spoon, Serpent, Pi-kee Minnow.

Red’s inventive mind is never far away from his life’s work. He’ll tell you that a lot of his best ideas have been worked out almost subconsciously, or even while he was sleeping. He keeps a pad and pencil by his bed, wakes and finds that he has worked out a knotty factory problem or created a new lure. It was so that the Pi-kee Minnow Submarine Plug was born.

For a long time Red had concerned himself with two types of lures: those which traveled along the surface, those which swam along the bottom. But he often wondered how the two could be combined. The answer came to him one night; he jotted the details down; later patented the idea.

The result is the lure of which he is proudest: a plastic hollow plug,

rainbow colored, picked out with gilt scales, bearing a silver-plated cup under its chin and under its belly a rubber valve shaped like a tiny propeller. This valve may be twisted sideways to fill the plug with water so that it wäll sink as a deep lure; or, if the fish are rising to feed, it may be left empty and have corklike buoyancy.

Like many a Horatio Alger success, the Lucky Strike Bait Company had its beginning in boyhood years. “Red was always inventing or turning out something,” says his wife, recalling her husband’s youth. As kids she and Red both lived on Peterborough’s Sherbrooke Street. “He used to whittle monkeys out of peach pits. His father wore one for a watch fob up until he died two years ago.”

From the garage behind his red brick home to his business employing 60 people is quite a step. Red tells the story this way:

“I was a patternmaker for Fischer Bodies in Detroit and at the start of the depression you couldn’t buy a job so I came back to Peterborough.

“I got on with a cream separator plant here, making 35 cents an hour, two or three days a week. I always liked fishing and I ran out of plugs. We didn’t have the money to buy them so it was either make my own plugs or quit fishing.

“I’d made a small wood lathe out of bed angle irons, had it in an old garage at the back of the house. My wife suggested I make my own plugs. I did. Out of one of her old broom handles.

Mother Did the Books

“I caught four fish one day, from five to seven pounds. A friend saw them and asked me where I got my bait. 1 told him. He bought one off me for 50 cents.

“Then I started putting them around downtown, in the pool hall, the barber shop. People bought them. They caught fish with them.”

Red recalls that his first plugs were pretty crude affairs, heavy as lead, difficult to carve for the wood of broomsticks is hard and crooked-willed. He changed to cedar, using old fence rails for material.

A traveler for a manufacturers’ distributing firm dropped into the barbershop where some of Red’s plugs were on display. He became interested, asked Red if he could make a lot of plugs out of old cedar rails.

“1 thought he meant say a 25or 30-dozen lot,” says Red, “and 1 said sure. He told me to send them 10,000 plugs in three months’ time ¿o catch the year’s seasonal demands. 1 quit the separator factory job and started in making plugs full time.”

The first factory was the Edgar home on Sherbrooke Street; Mrs. Edgar, who had been a bookkeeper and stenographer, took charge of the bookwork end of the business. When Red’s lures caught on, and caught fish, that home became the first Lucky Strike plant. When he started manufacturing on a big scale he went 36 miles over to Cobourg and converted a large barn left over from Victorian days into his second plant. It stands under large maple and chestnut trees on a quiet street near the Calvary Baptist Church, one block over from the old home of Marie Dressier.

In his first big year, Red’s lures brought in $6,000 gross. Last year they brought in $100,000.

Gold and Silver Spoons

Though it’s now big time the Lucky Strike Company is just as personal an enterprise today as it was 22 years ago. Red’s Cobourg office is in one corner of what was once the loft of the barn; two sides are made of glass so that he has a clear view of the entire plant floor. On one creamcolored wall hangs an oval plaque with a stuffed and varnished rainbow trout, its mouth relentlessly open—six and a half pounds.

As Red comes in from lunch at Andy’s Restaurant he stops at a machine punching wobbler blanks out of brass, says to the workman, “Tell Anker he’s got a flat tire.”

He walks through a bedlam of sound compounded of the creaking, slapping, clacketing and hum of machinery, past a huge bucket tilted on one side and slowly revolving with the sound of a man turning over change in his pocket, goes upstairs, past the fish net people, the swivel snap girl, the pike feather lure tier, and into his office.

It. is payday. He sets out four piles of bills, tens, fives, twos, ones. When the pay envelopes are made up Red passes them out himself. His workers get 35 cents an hour to start and an increase of three cents an hour each month. Some earn as much as $42 a week.

The foreman comes into the office. “Where’s the iodine?”

Red looks up to the shelf under the window where the first-aid kit stands with aspirin, adhesive tape, rubbing alcohol, horade, Garoid and Bile Salts. “What’s the matter?”

“Joe ran a piece of wire into his hip.”

Red gets up from his desk. “I’d better see him.”

“It ain’t serious. Just wants to get some iodine onto her. Just a little pun’ture sort of.”

Joe attended to, Red returns to the task of making up the weekly pay cheques.

Another man comes in. The phone rings. Red picks it up. “I’ll rob some of the sevens.” A pause. “Ninety gross of snap swivels in your order—next Friday before we can gef them out.”

He hangs up and turns to the worker who holds a piece of machinery in his hand. Red explains to him. “All you have to do is . . . here ... a little pin . . . leave this up . . . half the thickness of your material.”

He returns to licking the flaps on the pay envelopes.

Most of the machinery, the tools, the punches, the dies for specific needs of the lure-making business are the result of Red’s own construction.

The making of a simple treble hook needed for plugs, spinners and wobblers involves 17 distinct operations to convert it from a five-inch piece of wire into a barbed and gleaming threat to the life of a game fish. It must be pointed, U’d into hairpin shape, barbed, formed, eyed, welded, inspected, hardened in an electric furnace at 1,595 degrees F., tempered at 450 degrees F., pickled in an acid bath, cleaned, tumbled in barrels, electroplated. When all this is done it has a value of one and a quarter cents. A spoon requires nine different operations; a swivel, seven.

Oleanders and Fishhooks

Throughout the factory small radios blare continuously; on the walls are movie star pin-ups.

A slight girl in a grey flannel coat with a pink blouse bends over her bench like a bookkeeper over figures. At her hand is a pile of wire lengths, a small heap of swivels. She threads the wire through a swivel, inserts it into a machine with two narrow arms.

The machine, as the girl pulls a lever, gives out a sharp clunk and a squeak and a clacket.

“What do you make?”

Pick up the wire and swivel, insert “We call” . . . clunk . . . “them snap swivels” . . . clacket, pull the lever and release . . . “Number seven.” She reaches for new wire length, another swivel.

On the other side of the loft factory a girl in candy-striped blouse with black kid gloves and welding hood welds treble hooks for lures. In a glass by her side the head of a pink oleander blossom floats. The radio, as the conveyor brings her 188 hooks, plays “Cruising Down the River.”

Success in business has not changed Edgar’s way of living appreciably. He has a modest orange brick bungalow on Peterborough’s Fagan Avenue, bought two years ago. The Edgars are a musical family. Red plays the clarinet as does his only son, Bill. Mrs. Edgar and Marilyn (who now does the bookkeeping her mother used to do) play the piano. The oldest of the girls, Jov, who is married, sings. Ruth, a baby of one year, does percussion work on the bars other playpen.

Bill is an apprentice tool and diemaker in a nearby factory; he expects at the end of his apprenticeship to go into the Lucky Strike Company with his father.

Red wears gold-rimmed glasses which he has a habit of adjusting frequently on the bridge of his nose, dresses usually in well-tailored chocolate or tan business suits with his Lion pin in the lapel. He speaks with a soft, easy voice, using his hands generously for illustration.

The fat gold ring on his finger winks in the light as alluringly as one of his Toronto Wobblers; its blood-red ruby twinkles just as fiercely as the faceted glass bead in the Rubyeyed Wobbler guaranteed as a sure-kill lure for pike, pickerel and other game fish.

Lures on the Sideboard

When everything’s running smoothly in the plants Red gets busy creating or testing lure patterns. He tests them for lifelike action off the end of the George Street wharf in Peterborough, or on his fishing trips in the north country.

One afternoon, just a street length away from busy Peterborough traffic, Red was testing an unpainted but hooked wooden plug to determine the sort of wiggle a new nose cup would give it. With eyes glued to the twisting lure he was startled to see a streaking flash, then for one breath-taking moment he was fast to what he is sure must have been a 20-pound muskellunge.

Happily it broke free. But for several embarrassing moments the head of a nationally known bait-manufacturing firm had on his line in broad daylight in downtown Peterborough a 20-pound muskellunge—out of season.

Red has no hobbies other than fishing; with the setting up of his second factory in Cobourg he has not had time for the golf he used to play.

Each May for 15 years he has taken 10 days to go by train, pack horse, or plane to Algonquin Park with Peterborough’s Dentist Long and Surgeon Gordon. Nothing is allowed to interfere with this trip; this year he got up from a severe bout of flu to go.

Mrs. Edgar says she can take fishing or leave it alone; after 20 years of seeing lures on the mantel, the piano, the dining-table top, the sideboard, of finding reels and fishing rods and disassembled outboard motors in her sewing room, she has not the fanatic angling interest of her son or husband or daughter Marilyn.

And in a wooden playpen on the veranda of the Edgar home sits a one-year-old child. In the light breeze swings a blue celluloid duck; blocks are in jumbled profusion over the playpen floor; a brown rubber Teddy bear with a wry expression lies there; a pink rattle on a handle.

The suburban sun catches red glints in the child’s hair as she leans forward. She does not grasp the duck, the bear, the blocks, the rattle. The hand of the youngest Edgar goes unerringly to a torpedo-shaped object the color of the rainbow. Scaled with gold lacquer, but without hooks or wiggle cup, the de luxe lure goes into her mouth for sucking — the Pi-kee Minnow with the frog-ee finish. ★