Dardevle by Eppinger is one of the most widely known fishing lures in existence — it’s made right here in Michigan.
By Allen Crater
As a kid, there was nothing more intriguing to me than my granddad’s tackle box. When I was with him, I spent more time rummaging through the contents than fishing. Bobbers and baits, plugs and poppers, spinners and spoons, and a variety of suspicious-looking materials floating in vaguely opaque yellowish liquid all were wonders. “Don’t get that on your hands, boy, you’ll stink for days,” he’d say, Pall Mall hanging sideways from his mouth.
I can still picture those outings in my mind’s eye. I can still smell them — gasoline from the old two-stroke outboard chug-chugging along, cigarette smoke hanging on a muggy summer morning breeze, a whiff of something fishy in the air, and the musty scent of that old metal tackle box with its wealth of wonders.
And that is where I was first introduced to the Dardevle. The famous red-and-white spoon; you know it, it’s ubiquitous to tackle boxes everywhere.
Peter Kaminsky wrote this in the May 1984 issue of Field and Stream:
“….there are some American inventions that endure, without improvement, and are as effective today as the hour they first saw daylight. In the world of fishing there’s a little red-and-white lure with a picture of Lucifer on the bottom that belongs right up there in that shining assemblage of old American reliables. They call it Dardevle.
Next to bait, the Dardevle is probably the most universal and effective fish catcher ever. It is every kid’s first lure and, years later, when young boys become good old boys, it is the one lure most likely to be found in every tackle box. It may be old and beat up, the hooks rusted, the finish covered with bits of plastic worms, crushed salmon eggs, and old Hershey Bar wrappers, but whatever its condition it is the lure we tie on when we first search the water and the lure we tie on last, when all else has failed, and only the Devil remains to tempt the gods of fishing.”
It’s damn accurate — even 40 years later. The Dardevle unquestionably ranks among the most iconic fishing lures of all time. It’s as American as apple pie, baseball and the automobile, and the story of how it came to be, right here in Michigan, is almost as alluring as the contents of granddad’s tackle box.
It all started with Lou Eppinger. Lou was born on November 14, 1877, and grew up in a German-American community called Germantown on what was then the East side of Detroit.
Lou was an outdoorsman from the start and often fished and hunted the surrounding rural area, exploring the local inland lakes, the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers, and Lake St. Clair. He built duck blinds on Belle Isle and ran a trap line along the Detroit River — where Waterworks Park is currently located.
In 1891, at age 14, Eppinger began apprenticing with a taxidermist on the corner of Chene and Charlevoix Avenues. Four short years later, he inherited the business when his boss passed away unexpectedly.
Taxidermy in those days qualified as seasonal work, so in 1910, Lou took $25 and bought a small selection of tackle that he began to sell through his shop. About this same time, the famous Eppinger Osprey spoon was introduced. While the water is a little murky about exactly how and when that transpired, this version, paraphrased from the 1979 book “The Spooners” by Harvey W. Thompson and Todd E.A. Larson, seems to be the most widely accepted.
During the lumbering years, Michigan had become crisscrossed by railroad lines. Men bringing in their larger prize catches for mounting had taken advantage of rail transportation which took them to northern lakes, and some had crossed the SOO to experience the fabulous fishing in Canadian waters. September of 1906 found Lou deep in the Ontario bush. He was taking a month’s leave of absence to visit those wilderness lakes and soak in the solitude. He camped on small islands and saw no one, sometimes for days at a time. He cast into the shallows for northern pike. The lure he found most successful was one he’d made himself. It was a spoon, the metal hammered to varying degrees of thickness. This gave it a tantalizing action in its retrieve. That winter he worked on a number of prototypes, changing the curves and thickness to improve on his original attempt. In the spring he visited a friend who was a die maker and with a borrowed hand stamping press produced several dozen brass samples. The project all but drained his bank account but began the legacy we know today.
Lou eventually renamed the Osprey Spoon the Dardevle — allegedly after the 4th Marine Brigade that performed so gallantly in WW1. After the bitter fighting in the Belleau Woods in 1918, captured German soldiers claimed the Marines had fought like “Teufel hunden” — the legendary wild devil dogs — and the allies called them Dare Devils. As the story goes, the spelling was modified from Devil to Devle to avoid the irritation of the local church-going crowd and pastor Dumas of Lou’s Lutheran schooling days.
The business steadily grew, with sales jumping from 500 in the first year to 6,000 shortly after that as soldiers returning from the war with money and a desire for fishing and camping took to the road en masse in the newly introduced automobile.
In 1918, Lou’s 13-year-old nephew, Ed Jr., joined the business after a “labor dispute” with his former employer, the local grocer. In 1925, Lou moved the business from 310 Congress Street to 131-137 Cadillac Square in downtown Detroit. The four-story building featured sporting goods, taxidermy, a shooting range, lure manufacturing, and meeting space. The retail store flourished, and he eventually added a catalog advertising the extensive product line that was carried.
Outdoor writer John B. Thompson, AKA “Ozark Ripley,” became a spokesperson for the brand in the late 1920s, and Eppinger started publishing a free annual booklet initially called Fisherman’s Luck that contained a combination of Dardevle items and outdoor tips and stories. Many well-known writers contributed to the publication, including Dave Richey, Al Spiers, Homer Circle, Ron Shara, Jack Perry, Tom Opre, Boyd Pfieffer, Mark Sosin, Harold Blaisdell, and Buck Rogers.
Eventually, the company outgrew the Cadillac Square facility, and the retail store moved to 4404 Woodward, across from the Detroit Convention Center. Lou started easing out of the business during WWII, spending more and more time in Florida, making Ed Jr. a partner and leaving him in charge. By 1952, lure sales increased, so the production facility was moved to 1757 Puritan Ave.
About that time, Lou and Ed worked out a buy-sell agreement — leading to a reorganization that conveyed ownership of the retail store and wholesale company to other family members and gave Ed sole ownership of the lure manufacturing side of the business.
Ed’s hard work and unique talent for manufacturing, promoting and selling fishing tackle brought increased sales, and soon, more production space was required. In 1960, the plant moved to its current site at 6340 Schaeffer in Dearborn. Appearing at sports shows coast to coast, on television and in outdoor films, Ed Eppinger soon became known to sportsmen as Mr. Dardevle.
Under Ed, the business steadily grew, and Eppinger acquired some of its competitors over time. First, in October of 1967, the J.T. Buel Company became part of the Eppinger Manufacturing Company. In 1974, Ruth Jackson sold Northern Specialty Company to Eppinger, and the dies, blanks, and machinery all moved to the Dearborn facility.
Ed passionately ran the company until he died in 1987. Today, his daughter, Karen Eppinger — Lou’s grandniece — is President of Eppinger Manufacturing and runs the company with help from her daughters Jennifer and Heather.
I had the chance to visit the facility earlier this fall on the invite of my friend, Dardevle’s Director of Marketing, John Cleveland. I pulled into the nondescript grey building on Schaeffer Street, in the heart of Dearborn, entered through the shipping door and immediately found myself transported back in time. Old Tom Wolf fish decoys adorned the walls. Fish mounts from around the world hung next to time-weathered photos, ads, magazine covers, and a personal note from Fred Bear. Display cases highlighted historic lures, packaging, and catalogs – all in a setting that looked like it hadn’t changed much since it opened here in the 1960s.
I caught up with John, just back from a Saskatchewan trip for pike and lake trout, running the pad printer in the back. Before taking a tour, he offered me a quick rundown. Dardevle currently produces about three-quarters of a million spoons annually, and they are sold across the country and in Japan, Denmark, Canada, Chile, and Germany, among others. Eppinger has over 17,000 SKUs, but the majority of sales come from about 2,000-3,000 of them. While the large bulk are sold through retailers, Eppinger processes about 30-40 orders daily in direct sales through their website (dardevle.com) built by Jennifer’s son, Brian.
The two things that immediately struck me when we began the tour were the age of the equipment and the labor-intensive process required for making each lure. John joked, “We have a ton of antiques here, and we use them every day; it’s like our own version of Greenfield Village.”
In the making of each spoon, everything (literally) is done by hand and right here in the U.S. After plating and stamping the brass, each spoon is hand cleaned and polished, hand painted, hand ringed and hooked (and riveted as needed), and then hand packaged for shipping. Every painted spoon receives two coats of aerospace-grade etching primer, which runs $500/gallon, before receiving anywhere from two to five additional coats of paint.
In the paint room, we found Jennifer, who has worked here full-time since 1992, hand painting a tray of spoons for a current order. As a fourth-generation family business owner, Jennifer has been carrying on the legacy of her grandfather, Ed, and great-granduncle Lou, since she was a little girl.
Outside of the paint room, I was introduced to Millie, who immigrated to Detroit from Yugoslavia and has worked at Eppinger since 1971. Millie rings and hooks every spoon that goes out the door, and she is shockingly fast. Once everything is finished and quality checked, it gets hand-packed by Margarita and shipped worldwide. From start to finish, it’s fair to say that each lure is touched by at least five people in the process. There are no conveyor belts. No robots or automated systems are present. Just the experienced hands of passionate workers and the antiquated manual equipment, some of which dates to the 1800s.
As Jennifer told me, “We could have done things cheaper. We could have outsourced the production, we could have skimped on the materials, we could have used lower-quality enamels, but that’s not who we are and that’s not how we do things. We’re not in it for a quick buck; we’re here to carry on a family legacy.”
And there’s a pride and work ethic that you can sense, each spoon reflecting the time-honored quality, craftsmanship, and attention to detail its founder instilled over 117 years ago. At Eppinger, the Devil (or Devle for the church folks) really is in the details.