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Hooked on Tackle : Collector Gets Lured by Reel Appeal of Fishing

April 14, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Like all fishermen, John Dickens sometimes gets to talking about the ones that got away. But rather than the fabled fish other anglers go on about, he's more likely to be talking about lures, reels, rods, creels and other aged tackle that has eluded him.

Dickens, 30, has a large collection of fishing tackle that predates his life by decades, even centuries. One prized fish hook in his collection was in use more than 1,500 years before he was born.

He's in the process of converting the garage of his Santa Ana home into a tackle room, because his three kids have recently expanded into his former display room in the house. One of his vintage glass cases now sports a ball-induced hole. As we talked, the youngsters cavorted on a couch, watching a seal being dissected on a TV nature program. Garage ho!

Dickens has a lot of his collection packed up at present, but there was still quite a bit of rare tackle about. He has reels valued in excess of $2,000 apiece. One, a Milam No. 3 Kentucky-style reel, is a small jewel of polished brass and German nickel silver, near-mint, with its original wooden box from the 1870s. Of equal value or greater are huge ocean game fish reels, built in the '30s and '40s by famed Hollywood craftsman Arthur Kovalovsky and favored by Western writer/sportsman Zane Grey.

His ancient fish hook is a simple copper thing, used between 300 BC and AD 500 by the Hopewellian Indian culture in the area that is now Ohio. He purchased that from a museum. Some of his finds come from other collectors--Dickens is far from alone in this hobby--while others result from flyers he leaves around the Balboa Peninsula landings and bait shops he haunted as a kid.

He loves all things having to do with fishing. He has creels--the graceful wicker fish baskets seen in the film "A River Runs Through It"--lure-detangling poles from Victorian England, California fishing licenses (as richly illustrated as European money) from the 1920s, old tackle boxes and everything that went in them, right down to the aged bottles of 6-12 Insect Repellent.

He'd probably have a collection of vintage bait, if it would keep.

"I do have cardboard boxes from the '50s that worms were kept in," he said enthusiastically. "And I have a lure that was made out of a real minnow in the '40s. If it wasn't entombed in plastic it might be a little smelly by now."

Growing up in Santa Ana and then Costa Mesa, Dickens was the sole fisherman in his immediate family.

"My dad didn't like fishing. But he'd drop me off at the Newport Pier, and I'd fish all day. Give me a rod and $2 for bait, and I'd be gone all day. In 1969 we got a boat, and the family got into water-skiing. My dad made me a promise that if I didn't bug him while they skied all morning, then that afternoon he'd take me out for an hour or two to fish," Dickens said.

He did have a great-uncle who fished and taught Dickens a few things. He also gave the young angler an old $5 reel, telling him to hold onto it and someday it would be worth something. It never did appreciate much--and recently was stolen from Dickens, breaking his heart--but it spurred his fascination with old things.

"Then I really got the love of old fishing and old fishing tackle from the old-timers out there on the pier. I consider myself to be a decent listener, and I love to talk to older people. I did a lot of volunteer work at a convalescent hospital, and I'm just fascinated with them and the wonderful stories they can tell.

"There were quite a few old anglers, the kind where it took them two hours just to get to the end of the pier. I would fish next to them and they would give me every bit of information they had to offer, just because there was somebody listening. There's a lot of wonderful history there, of how the fishing was back in the '20s and '30s. Today you can't even catch a mackerel off the pier. Back then they were catching albacore there. I never saw those days, so that fascinates me," Dickens said.

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He collects tackle from all over, but he has a special love for local gear. One such item is a handmade wooden drying reel made by a Seal Beach fisherman to dry out the old linen fishing line used before World War II and the advent of nylon. Another item he's proud of is a marlin flag flown by a fishing boat out of Newport Harbor.

"If they caught a marlin they'd fly the flag. It was a status symbol, and, if you caught the first marlin of the season, a very prestigious thing," Dickens said. "When I acquired it I thought I'd wash it and clean it up. Then I discovered that in pencil on the hem of the flag they'd written down the dates and the size and number of Marlin they caught. The dates run from 1945 to '54, with catches up to 147 pounds; these were very aggressive fishermen. So it's never been washed."

The centerpiece of his collection is a medicine cabinet-sized, glass-and-wood case displaying a 1930's Meiffelbach reel in various stages of undress.

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