A blast from Angling's Past
The first time tackle collector Bill Blauser saw a glass minnow tube, he thought it was one of the stupidest things ever invented.
Created in the late 1800s, the clear lures were designed to hold a live minnow safely inside -- attracting bites from hungry fish while allowing fishermen to use the same minnow all day long.
''One of those with me would last about five minutes,'' said Blauser, of Pittsburgh. ''If you didn't hit it on a rock or bang it around in the boat, then you'd have a fish flopping around with glass in its mouth.''
Apparently, most fishermen felt the same way 100 years ago. Minnow tubes haven't been commercially produced since the 1930s, and most contemporary anglers have never even heard of them.
''They were silly, and that's why they never caught on,'' said Blauser, a member of the National Fishing Lures Collectors Club. ''If they caught a lot of fish, they would have been popular. Fishermen will buy anything if they think they'll catch a lot of fish.''
Whatever minnow tubes lacked in effectiveness, they have more than made up for in nostalgia. Because they weren't widely used -- and produced in quantities far smaller than more conventional lures -- classic minnow tubes are now among the most highly coveted items on the antique tackle market.
Blauser said the most common antique minnow tubes now sell for $600-$800, while a rare, muskie-sized tube made by Welch and Graves -- which produced the first commercial minnow tubes in 1893 -- could be worth more than $10,000.
''It turns out, these are the rarest of all fishing lures,'' said Blauser, who has nearly 30 minnow tubes in his collection. ''There was probably one glass minnow tube made for every 1,000 other lures.''
Old is new again
The notion of owning an antique minnow tube is cost prohibitive for most modern-day anglers. But for $25, you can get your hands on a genuine Pennsylvania Minnow Tube -- a modern-day version of the old lure -- invented by glass blower Tom Doner of Butler County.
''That's 100 percent my design,'' Doner said of his minnow tubes, which are individually signed and dated to enhance their appeal to collectors. ''The reason I named it that is because in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was the Detroit Minnow Tube Company. I wanted to keep some nostalgic feel to it.''
Doner and his wife, Elaine, own The Glass Blowing Center in Hilliards, a 3,600-square-foot glass blowing workshop, school and demonstration facility. A former air compressor and auto body mechanic, Doner is a self-taught glass blower who took up the craft about a dozen years ago and now makes a variety of glass sculptures, jewelry, figurines, Christmas ornaments, perfume bottles and other items.
''I kind of get bored with doing the same thing all the time. So, I'm always searching for new stuff,'' Doner said. ''One time, I found out that years ago, powderhorns for muzzleloaders were made out of glass, so I did some research on it, and I started making glass powderhorns.''
Doner's interest in handmade glass fishing lures stems from his love of fishing. A native of Long Island, Doner grew up chasing such saltwater species as striped bass, bluefish and flounder.
''I used to be really into fishing until I found glass, and that became all consuming,'' he said.
About two years ago, a tackle collector showed Doner antique minnow tubes that dated from the 1890s to the early 1900s. ''They were really clunky designs,'' Doner recalls. ''They were too big, and they didn't have any ventilation to keep the minnows alive.''
Before he knew it, Doner was dreaming up his own, new-and-improved minnow tube design.
''I did extensive research on this,'' he said. ''I went down to the bait shop and measured minnows, put them in the tubes and…just refined it until I found something that would keep the minnows alive.''
The result of Doner's efforts is a clear, test-tube shaped body that is sealed with a special cork that has channels on either side to allow fresh water to enter. A small hole on top of the lure allows water to exit, providing a constant flow of fresh, oxygenated water for the minnow inside.
The Pennsylvania Minnow Tube also features small red stripes on either side, which Doner said gives predatory fish the impression the minnow is crippled. ''Red is a really good lure color because it represents blood, and it makes an easy target for fish,'' he said.
Doner rigs his minnow tube with three treble hooks -- one on the rear and two on the bottom -- using 45-pound monofilament and attaches a small metal swivel at the front of the lure.
''It's very tedious work. I'd rather just blow the glass and not deal with the rigging, but that's part of it,'' Doner said. ''Everything from soup to nuts is done by my hands.''
He even made a black-and-white drawing of his minnow tube and used it to create old-fashioned labels for the boxes used to package the lures.
''Only a trained collector could tell the difference between a rare, antique glass minnow tube and one of his,'' said Blauser, the minnow tube collector. ''Whether they were made 100 years ago or yesterday, they're hand-blown glass. For $25, you can't go wrong for a conversation piece when the alternative is paying $1,000 or more -- if you can find one.''
Doner said he only makes about 75 Pennsylvania Minnow Tubes a year, partly because of all the other work he has at his business and partly because of his respect for the artistic element involved.
''By nature, they are limited in number,'' he said. ''If these minnow tubes got really popular and Cabela's said they wanted to order 1,000 of them, I would turn them down, because it's not creative.''
More practical alternatives
Although Doner's minnow tubes are designed to be fished, he knows of only two people who have tried it -- and both ''retired'' the lure after catching a single bass.
Most people who buy a Pennsylvania Minnow Tube are collectors, and even a die-hard fisherman doesn't want to risk getting a $25 lure broken or snagged on a rock.
Still, Doner said the idea of people regularly catching fish with his handmade lures fascinated him. About a year ago, he developed a line of spinnerbaits featuring a variety of glass beads and fish reproductions. They come in a various sizes and colors and sell for $5 each.
''I wanted people to actually use [my lures], and that's why I came up with the spinnerbaits,'' Doner said. ''You can lose any $5 lure.''
Anglers worried about fishing with glass lures because they aren't durable needn't be concerned, said Doner, who demonstrates the toughness of his lures by placing them in the palm of his hand and smashing them down against tabletops.
The strength of the glass comes from a process known as annealing, during which the lures are slowly cooled from their molding temperature of 1,450 to 1,050 degrees. Doner said annealing allows glass molecules to align themselves before hardening, dramatically boosting the strength of the finished product.
Last winter, Doner met fellow lure maker Richard Whitehead on an online fishing site, and Whitehead volunteered to put Doner's spinning lures through their paces.
''I told him I wouldn't mind trying some, because I was really impressed with the looks of them,'' said Whitehead, who lives in a community with a private lake in Colmesneil, Texas. ''I thought it would be fun to try, because I've never fished a glass lure.''
Doner agreed to send an assortment of lures to Whitehead, who used them earlier this spring to catch 168 largemouth bass, crappies and sunfish.
''The way I fish them is I troll,'' said Whitehead, a former tournament bass angler who used to test lures, rods and other tackle for sponsors such as Zebco and Bomber. ''I would put it on the lowest speed and cast about 20 or 30 yards behind me, and those crappies were just knocking it dead. I caught up to some 171/2 -inch crappies, about 3 pounds, and I did this on just about all of the lures he sent me.''
Whitehead experimented with many of Doner's spinners and said his favorites featured a cobalt blue color that proved highly effective.
''These things ought to sell great, because there's nothing like it, and people are always wanting something different,'' Whitehead said. ''Besides, they catch fish, and I know it.''
HOW TO GET YOUR PENNSYLVANIA MINNOW TUBE
Local fishermen and tackle collectors who want to purchase a Pennsylvania Minnow Tube or any of Tom Doner's glass spinning lures can do so by calling The Glass Blowing Center in Hilliards at 724-791-2100. Inquiries may also be e-mailed to [email protected]
More information and photographs of Doner's work at The Glass Blowing Center are available online at www.glass123.com
By Christian Berg