By Ed Wall
It’s a tribute to the power of marketing in a free enterprise system that certain products can be identified just by their brand names. Simply say “Model T,” “Kleenex” or “Pepsi” and folks know exactly what you’re talking about. You don’t have to clarify.
Among anglers, the word “Mepps” is a good example. Utter it and, automatically, an image of an inline spinning lure with a broad blade, treble hook and heavy metal body comes to mind. That’s been the case for a long time and there are good reasons for it.
For one thing, Mepps spinners are durable. Each one is crafted by hand from components designed to withstand the rigors of fishing in all kinds of water. The shaft of each lure is made from Swedish Sandvik stainless steel and the blades from brass coated with silver or copper, or painted with an epoxy that will last pretty much forever.
With brass or plastic beads, or a brass cylinder on the shaft, they have enough heft to be cast with minimum effort and sink rapidly. In fact, about the only obstacles a Mepps spinner has is getting snagged or hooking a big fish and the line breaking. The lures themselves will generally outlast the person casting them.
The real test of a lure, though, is whether or not it will catch fish. Mepps spinners rank among the best the world has ever seen in that respect. With a natural, easy spinning motion that looks like a baitfish, they trigger a reflexive strike instinct, often when the fish aren’t even actively feeding. No special action is needed on the retrieve – just cast, let the lure sink to the preferred depth and crank.
The size of the lure is one feature that can make a difference and Mepps has all the bases covered in that respect, offering spinners from the 1/8 oz. #00 to the 1 3/4 oz. #5. For panfish of all kinds and mountain trout, the smaller sizes, either with plain or dressed hooks are hard to beat. The bigger ones can be deadly on largemouth or smallmouth bass, pike, walleye or big trout pretty much anywhere those species are found. In salt or brackish water, a large Mepps looks just like a finger mullet or other minnow delicacy to red drum or bluefish.
In fact, Mepps spinners have been the undoing of just about every species of fish that swims in North American waters, as evidenced by the huge display that adorns one whole wall of the company’s headquarters in Antigo, Wisconsin. It consists of mounts or replicas of scores of trophy fish, all caught on the iconic lures.
An example of the impressive fish that have succumbed to Mepps lures is one that angler, Calvin Johnston caught in Arkansas’ White River a few years ago. The Kansas fisherman was casting a #5 Mepps Comet Mino with a silver blade and rainbow-trout colored body from shore on a day when the temperature had dipped to 17 F. As he retrieved his lure past a dock, something nailed it and a 20-minute battle ensued. When the fish was finally netted, Johnston was amazed to see a 38 lb. 7 oz. brown trout, the largest ever caught in the White River and third largest in the state. By comparison, most brown trout caught in the same area run around 2-5 lb.
Of course, not every fish landed on a Mepps spinner is a wall-hanger but the lures have put an awful lot up there and, along the way, have accounted for as many or more fish than any other artificial bait. They also have a colorful history that spans almost seven decades.
The Mepps spinner was invented by French engineer Andre Meulnart in 1938. It didn’t really take off, however, until Todd Sheldon of Antigo was given a couple by a World War II veteran who had discovered them while in Europe. The year was 1951.
Sheldon, who owned a tackle store, tried the lures on Wisconsin’s Wolf River and was astounded by how effective they were on trout. His G.I. buddy, Frank Velek, knew a French woman who sent spinners to Sheldon’s tackle shop in exchange for nylon stockings and the lures were offered for sale in America for the first time. As the story goes, the lures sold faster than the woman was wearing out her stockings, so Sheldon began buying the spinners directly from Meulnart’s factory.
The lures were an instant hit. Anglers found that they would catch all kinds of fish, not just trout. The demand grew and, in 1960, Sheldon acquired the North American distribution rights to Mepps lures. He purchased Mepps France in 1972 and annual sales were soon in the millions.
Todd Sheldon, who was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, passed away in 1995 at the age of 81. Known as a quiet, unassuming man who was an anonymous donor to a number of worthwhile causes, Sheldon may have never realized the impact the spinning lures he introduced to North American fishermen would have. The millions of anglers who have used them over the years, and continue to do so, could tell you however.
The name Mepps comes from a French acronym for “Manufacturier D’Engins De Precision Pour Peches Sportives” – which in English means Manufacture of Precision Equipment for Sport Fishing.”
There are about 4,000 color and style combinations for Mepps spinners. The Mepps Aglia was the original model in the line and still accounts for more sales than any other kind.
Over 3 million Mepps spinners are sold each year, every one of them hand-made in Wisconsin.
Since the early 1960s, Mepps spinners have been available with treble hooks that are “dressed” with squirrel tail hair. About 300,000 squirrel tails are used by the company each year.