Millions and Millions of Mepps
Fishing Lures - I watched the rhythmic flash as the silver Mepps spinner throbbed through the clear water of Lake Julian in Colorado’s high country. Suddenly there came another flash, followed by a wrist- jarring jolt. The tip of the spinning rod almost doubled, and the line sliced a barely visible V in the mirrored surface of the lake. I was solidly attached to a two pound cutthroat, the native trout of this region. A few minutes later, the fish lay in a meadow ablaze with diminutive alpine flowers more than two miles above sea level.
As I looked about me at the jutting peaks of the Colorado Front Range, it seemed strange that the little Mepps fishing lure, made in a factory in Antigo, Wisconsin should have satisfied its destiny in that wild place so far from home. And there you have my personal Mepps spinner yarn. There are thousands more tales like it, for this inauspicious lure has earned itself a lasting place in the hearts and folklore of many thousands of loyal Waltonians. Any fisherman worth his salt knows what a French spinner is, and most recognize the Mepps name as the best French spinner around. But not well known, even among Wisconsinites, is the story of how this alluring device of brass and steel has assumed a role of increasing importance in the fishing community.
The Mepps spinner was invented by Parisian engineer, Andre Muelnart, in 1938. Muelnart, an avid sport fisherman, soon realized through personal experience that he had devised an extraordinarily successful machine for capturing finny monsters. If the trade name, Mepps, seems odd to you, it’s probably because, like so many words in our age, it is an acronym. M.E.P.P.S. stands for Manufacturier D’Engins De Precision Pour Peches Sportives or Manufacturer of Precision Equipment for Sport Fishing.
The lure first came to Todd Sheldon’s attention in 1951. A lifelong outdoorsman, Sheldon, then in his late thirties, was having a bad day on the famous Wolf River. He had flailed the water to a froth with all manner of American-made contrivances to no avail. Finally, out of desperation, he tied on a badly tarnished Mepps that had been languishing among his tackle ever since it had been given to him by a GI returned from Europe two years before. To his utter astonishment, he creeled four trout totaling more than twelve pounds within two hours. This is the first and most important of a host of Todd Sheldon’s Mepps spinner stories. At that time Sheldon was the owner of a thriving sport shop on one of Antigo’s main streets, right on the route of hordes of vacationers headed for the northern lake country. He began to stock the lure, but his supply line was tenuous at best. Frank Velek, the GI who had given Sheldon his first spinner, struck up correspondence with a French girl, who sent spinners to him in exchange for nylon stockings. But the lures were selling faster than the girl was wearing out stockings, so Velek arranged to supply Sheldon with spinners directly from Muelnart’s factory.
Once the lure started circulating, other fishermen experienced catches like the one Sheldon took from the Wolf, and they were bagging all kinds of fish, not just trout. The spinner’s reputation grew. Soon Todd Sheldon sold his store to devote full attention to the rapidly expanding import trade. By any standard, the growth of Sheldons’, Inc., has been phenomenal.
What started in a room ten feet square at the back of the sports shop has become one of the largest employers in Antigo, occupying a corporate quarters enclosing almost 50,000 square feet. But this is not the story of an expanding physical plant. This is the story of an exceptional fishing lure and how it has touched the lives of countless people, from the Sheldon family, to those whose daily bread depends upon a once-obscure spinner tarnishing in the pocket of a fishing vest, to millions of fishermen who swear by Mepps.
Mepps is anything but obscure today. By 1960, sales of the spinners in the United States had topped 500,000. In those ancient times, Sheldon had set a personal goal of annual sales reaching the staggering total of 3,000,000. “My Dad set that mark,” company president Mike Sheldon relates, ”because that was more than any lure had ever sold on this continent.” He adds with pride, “Our sales went sailing right past that goal.”
If this seems much ado about a single fish-capturing contraption, it is not quite that simple. The Sheldons, on their own and through expert anglers throughout the nation, maintain a steady and vigorous program of field testing. By this means, they have arrived at a bewildering assortment of lures. There are now about 5,000 different spinners that bear the Mepps name.
The basic lure consists of a metal shaft to which a slightly concave oval blade and a hook are attached. The blades are usually a gleaming silver or gold, and as they are drawn through the water, they rotate around the shaft, flashing irresistibly. The surface of the blade may be smooth of textured, plain or adorned with stripes and dots, or painted with hot or neon colors to satisfy the fancy of most anglers and every fish. The shafts are equally flashy, decorated with plastic and metal beads in vivid hues.
The hooks, too, are works of art, dressed by hand with tufts of natural squirrel or buck tail in shades of purple, fluorescent red, gold, or natural grays, browns, and blacks. Hooks were not always so gaudily attired, but that is another of Sheldon’s Mepps yarns. Todd was out fishing several years ago, and he had caught his limit of trout. He met a young boy who also had a limit, but his trout were all bigger than his, so he asked him what kind of lure he was using. He showed him and said it was made of squirrel tail. Todd began experimenting with squirrel tail right away.
In fact Mepps dressed the hooks of some of its lures with a number of different kinds of hair and hackle. Bear was tried as was fox, coyote, badger, skunk, deer, even Angus cow. But no other tail had the fine quality and provided the action in the water the squirrel or buck tail did. As soon as they were convinced of the effectiveness of these natural dressings, Sheldons’, Inc. was in the market for squirrel and buck tails. “Squirrel Tails Wanted” reads a large sign near their plant on Wisconsin’s highway 45.
The sign amuses most passersby, but intrigues others so much they stop to find out what Sheldons’ is all about. This is fine with the firm, which welcomes inquisitive visitors and offers them tours of the facilities on weekdays. Still others stop because they have tails to sell.
The best squirrel tails come from Wisconsin, where the late fall season assures that the animals are in “prime” pelt (in full winter hair), when they are taken. About 3-million squirrels are bagged nationwide annually, and 300,000 of the tails eventually find their way to the business end of a Mepps spinner. For buck tails, only the tail of the white tailed deer is suitable; Sheldons’ buys about 100,000 of these in an average year.
Processing the tails is a major undertaking. First, each is trimmed. Then they go through a large laundry room where banks of automatic washing machines launder them, not once, but several times to remove every last bit of oil and grime. Between scrubbings, they are laid out in neat rows and dried. After this scrupulous cleaning, the fluffy tails are ready to be dyed brilliant hues and then tied to the spinners by Sheldons’ experienced workers. The Sheldons have heaved their brand of hardware at lunker salmon and trout in remote waterways all the way up to the Arctic Circle. The paneled wall of Todd Sheldon’s trophy room is the showcase for a truly distinguished array of trophy salmon, trout, and arctic grayling, all of them, naturally, victims to the siren powers of the Mepps spinner.
Sons Mike and Bill, as well as Mike's son Michael, have tested the family product and their own mettle in the Alaskan back country as well. But though “Alaska fever” draws them to the northernmost state frequently, the requirements of staying on top of what is essentially an import business have prompted a bit of European travel. Mike visits the factory in France at least once a year. Even on these jaunts to the Continent, however, the Sheldons have always remained unreconstructed fishermen. They have fished for trout all across Europe, and with enviable results. But it isn’t just expert fishermen who do well using Mepps lures. People from all over the nation send in accounts of their catches to Sheldons’, complete with supporting photographic evidence.
The firm publishes scores of these unsolicited testimonials each year in its informative and entertaining full-color Mepps Fishing Guide. This Montana angler’s Mepps story is typical: This year I’ve personally caught approximately 500 trout on Mepps. No real monsters but 78 between 2-1/2 and 4-3/4 pounds.
In addition to such tales, and illustrations of the vast assortment of Mepps lures, the Guide offers valuable information and statistics about fish and fishing. Its homespun style makes the guide one of the few catalogs in history that’s genuinely fun to read. Best of all it’s free.
In their various sizes and shapes, Mepps spinners have proved the undoing of every game fish on this continent, with some oddities thrown in. Along with seventy pound tarpon and sixty pound lake trout, the tally includes a forty-four pound carp, snapping turtles, and even alligators. So, from Antigo, a community of 8,000 surrounded by the rich glacial potato fields of Wisconsin’s Langlade County, a new term has entered the dictionary of the fishing fraternity. Mepps! Since 1938 the Mepps folks have made more than 350-million Mepps spinners. . . one at a time!
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