Kenneth Kieser: Branson’s fishing museum has it all

The Examiner
Zane Grey and many other celebrities' fishing gear are displayed at the Branson History of Fishing Museum.

Zane Grey, author of 87 books, will always be one of my heroes. He set 14 all tackle deep sea fishing records between 1924 and 1936. Perhaps the most impressive was his bluefin tuna, weighing 758 pounds, caught close to Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1924, or his tiger shark weighing 1,036 pounds caught close to Sydney, Australia, in 1936. His deep-sea fishing exploits were actually dangerous.

This adventurous author used what was then called a “widow maker” fishing harness that slipped around the angler and hooked to the rod, not the boat. Keep in mind that Grey was fishing for various species that outweighed his body weight by several times. Legend claims that several fishermen lost their lives when large fish pulled them and their rod and reel overboard and into the deep, blue sea.

Grey, once a college baseball player, had enough strength to stay on board the fishing boat while fighting fish like his record bluefin. I was privileged to hold one of his rod-and-reels he used and was shocked at the weight. The reel with two star drags weighed about 50 pounds and the bamboo rod at least another 20 to 30 pounds.

Grey’s reels were built out of Monel alloy and featured a 2 1/2 to 1 1/2 gear ratio with a sophisticated drag mechanism that could deal with saltwater species up to 1,000 pounds and beyond, the best built reel from that era. 

Stories like this and many others are why I love to visit Branson’s History of Fishing Museum. Bill Bramsch, History of Fishing Museum curator, loves to share legends about the various lures and other items.

Every fishing enthusiast young or old should see this incredible collection that outlines the history of fishing from stone or whale-bone hooks to more modern versions many of us used during the last century. I find something unique on every visit because the collections grow larger annually. You can easily spend hours scanning this amazing collection.

One of the oldest collections are Buel Trolling Spoons that were patented in 1852. Julio Thompson Buel, born in 1806, loved to fish. During a bait-fishing trip, he ate his lunch while his boat drifted. The boat bumped against a rock, causing him to drop the spoon he was using into the lake. He watched the spoon spiral down toward the bottom and was surprised to see a large fish swoop down and grab the shiny object.

Legend claims he had longed to catch one of the large trout he'd been told existed in the lake, hurried home and snatched another spoon. He sawed off the handle, soldered a hook to the concave side, and drilled a hole in the handle stump. Next day he tied a line to his creation and put it in the water, rowing back and forth across the lake until he'd caught a large trout and then a second trout.

J.T. started making the lure for other anglers and eventually opened a shop to sell the first fishing spoons. He crafted spoon-shaped blades out of nickel silver, painted the convex side red, and attached treble hooks and feathers. By 1827 he continued to craft his lures and improve them, but he only sold a few.

This changed when sports writer Frank Forester wrote about the spoons in his book “Warwick Woodlands,” creating an overwhelming interest in this angling breakthrough. J.T. transformed his furrier business into manufacturing fishing lures in 1848, obtaining his first patent in 1852 and the fishing spoons we use today were born.

Like any industry, some stories are sad. Lures like the Pontiac Radium Minnow were hand-painted and part of the delicate work entailed moistening the tip of the brush between the lips to paint better details. Artists used a luminous paint that contained radium, the same that was used on watches and compass faces.

This dangerous paint glowed in the dark without being exposed to light and was radioactive and deadly if ingested or inhaled as fine dust. Many that used these paints eventually died horrible deaths. Rumor has it that a Geiger counter will tick over their graves this many years later.

“People that come here think they are going to see a hundred items like in a garage,” Bramsch said. “They are shocked to see our 40,000 fishing items displayed in shelved cases. They will even find Elvis’ and Johnny Cash’s manufactured lures.”

Here are just a few of the items from this outstanding collection:

• Nut Lures: “We have the only existing set of bass lures made from nut shells,” Bramsch said. “The Dr. Haas collection, numbering 23 lures, were made during WWII when metal was scarce, so the ophthalmologist melted down old eye glasses for metal lips on each lure.”

• Spike Reel from the 1730s, the first reel known to exist. Made in Europe, these reels were used by American anglers.

• “The Snyder Reel from 1840 is the first casting reel made in the United States by George Snyder from Paris, Kentucky, and one of our most rare pieces,” Bramsch said. “Mr. Snyder, a watchmaker and silversmith, made 12 reels for his family.”

• Haskell Minnow made by Riley Haskell in 1859 is the first American plug-type bodied bait. The minnow imitation with a metal body and revolving tail has dual hooks that point upward. The lure was made in silver, copper, brass and bronze. The museum has the only bass size made of silver. The only Haskell found with the original box was a 10-inch copper musky size sold in 2003 for $101,200 at auction.

• Comstock Flying Hellgrammite is the first wooden lure, made by Harry Comstock in 1883.

The History of Fishing Museum is located off of U.S. 76, you can find this amazing destination at 225 N. Wildwood Drive, Branson, MO 65616, or call 417-239-FISH for more information.

Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at kieserkenneth@gmail.com.

Kenneth L. Kieser