Helin catalog 1940 - front cover

Last year I wrote a piece titled Flatfish, World’s Largest Selling Plug. It was a walk-thru of the Helin Tackle Company’s 1956 catalog and fishing guide. This time, in World’s Most Active Lure, we’re going to look at the Helin company’s catalog from 1940, 16 years earlier. As you might expect, a lot changed for the Helin Tackle Company from 1940 to 1956. They did not yet have the numbers to proclaim the Flatfish as the “World’s Largest Selling Plug.” At this point, in 1940, Charles Helin settled on the rather subjective tagline, “World’s Most Active Lure,” which is printed on the front of the catalog. 

According to Helin’s intro in the 1940 catalog, production of the Flatfish, which Helin had invented seven years prior in 1933, had risen to 30,000 units a month. By 1956 he could comfortably declare that he was selling between 10,000 and 100,000 lures a day. Also by 1956 Flatfish sales had surpassed the 17,000,000 mark, with more than 2,000,000 in 1956 alone. But in 1940 I’m not entirely sure what Helin meant by “World’s Most Active Lure.” Was he speaking of the action the Flatfish had in the water, or was he talking about the ever-climbing sales of the bait? Since Helin, in his intro, gushes about the Flatfish’s action in the water, I’m sure that’s what he meant by the word “active.” But it could just as well have been about the skyrocketing market growth and demand for the relatively new lure.

Helin catalog 1940 - page 9

In any event, there are a few more differences, and some similarities, between the 1940 and 1956 catalogs that are worth noting. Firstly, this catalog doesn’t have nearly as many pages – only 16 – as the larger later catalogs. After his introduction, Helin has six pages where he talks solely about the Flatfish lure (its features and benefits, how to use it, the effectiveness of its hooking arrangement, etc.), with the text framed by successful angler photos. This is followed by two pages of Flatfish size and color charts, and then seven pages full of angler photos and testimonials. Understandably, there are many more angler photos and testimonials in later catalogs. 

The fish species shown in the angler photos in later catalogs also varies a lot more than in the 1940 publication. One thing I noticed and appreciated in this pamphlet is that there are a heckuva lot of photos of successful anglers holding bass. Practically every page has multiple testimonials and photos of bass caught on the Flatfish. Of course, as the years went on and more anglers submitted pictures of themselves with fish caught on Flatfish, the variety of fish caught naturally increased as well. But the preponderance of bass in this catalog had me wondering if bass anglers may have seen the value of the Flatfish before other anglers did. Or maybe Helin’s ads spoke to bass anglers more directly, I don’t know. It’s worth noting that the catalog cover also remained largely the same for many years, with a drawing of a leaping largemouth trying to desperately throw a Flatfish from its lower jaw. But it’s a welcome sight if you’re a bass angler, to see so many vintage photos of fishermen holding chunky bass

Prize-winning smallmouth caught by a Mr. Frederick of Detroit, MI.
Great photo of a happy Louis Foreman holding a 6.25 lb. bass he caught with a Flatfish.
8+ lb. largemouth caught by Charles Helin on a U20-OG Flatfish.

Helin apparently hadn’t been around long enough yet or the Flatfish hadn’t built enough of a reputation to solicit other writers to contribute to his 1940 catalog. In the ‘56 edition he had Jason Lucas, Ed M. Hunter, Joseph D. Bates Jr., and Guy Fillmore writing praiseworthingly about the Flatfish and about Helin himself. You got more of Charles Helin, the inventor and adventurer, in that later catalog, through the eyes of other writers, as well as by way of his own writing (recall the poem he wrote, “An Angler’s Nightmare,” in the 1956 edition). But he was just as confident in himself and dismissive of his critics in 1940 as he was later on. There was just more of it later on!  

Mrs. Irving Short of Florida with a beast of a largemouth - 9 lb. 10 oz.
Another Michigan angler, Claude Snarey, claims to have caught 1700 bass on a Flatfish.
William Endress looking serious as he holds a seriously nice bass - 5.75 lbs.
Charles Helin with a stringer of bragging-worthy bass he and a friend caught on his famous Flatfish.

Another difference is that this 1940 catalog for the World’s Most Active Lure was dedicated to that one lure alone. The Flatfish was it. By 1955 Helin had perfected his second lure, a surface lure called the Fishcake, and he featured both the Fishcake and the Flatfish in the 1956 catalog. Charles Helin invented and marketed three lures in his lifetime: the Flatfish (1933-currently manufactured by Yakima Bait), Fishcake (1956-’89), and Swimmerspoon (1960-’89). Yakima Bait Co. bought Helin Tackle in 1989-’90. Charles Helin was an exacting and effective lure maker, but he was an even better salesman and entrepreneur. From making $40 a week at Detroit’s Chrysler plant to struggling in the early years of the Helin Tackle Co., Helin built an empire and became a very wealthy man, thanks not only to the effectiveness of his fishing lures but to his eccentric salesmanship and passion.

To view the entire 16 page 1940 Helin Tackle catalog, click on the first image in the gallery below and use the arrows to scroll through.

GALLERY – World’s Most Active Lure