Last week, Gary Deppe posted a boxed lure on Joe's Board marked "Ruff-Nek Lures, tied by Larry Koller, Middletown, New York." I thought I'd spend a little time expositing on the history of this fascinating gentleman, who started his career as a Catskill fly tier.
Larry Koller (1912-1967) was a Brooklyn-born writer who rose to fame in the 1940s and 1950s as one of the most prominent outdoor writers in America. Having moved to Orange County, New York in 1919, he took to the woods like the proverbial fish to water, and by the mid-1930s was a popular local guide as well as a budding gunsmith. His expertise was so great that he was hired by the Middletown Times Herald as an outdoor writer, his first experience in the field. He wrote a regular column for the paper until the start of World War II. We'll have some of his early writings from these columns in forthcoming Voices from the Past features.
In the middle-to-late 1930s (I believe around 1936 or so), Koller opened up a sporting goods store in Middletown. It was from here that Koller sold hand-tied flies and bass bugs under the Ruff-Nek name. When World War II started, he closed the sporting goods store and went to work in New Haven, Connecticut as a barrel department foreman, which honed his gunsmithing skills to the point that from this period he would become a renowned American gunsmith and gun designer.
After World War II, Koller's fame spread widely as both a fishing and hunting writer. As outdoor editor of the popular magazine Argosy, he had a unique finger on the pulse of the sporting nation. He began publishing books (his hunting books far outnumber his fishing ones), and some of his most popular titles include Treasury of Hunting, Larry Koller's Complete Guide to Handguns and Shots at Whiteails. The latter is still in print today, forty years after its first publication. He founded Guns and Hunting magazine in 1957 and lived to see it become a successful publication.
He wrote a number of fishing books, too, and these include Treasury of Angling and The Complete Book of Tackle, among others.
Koller was a prominent Catskill fly tier even at a relatively young age. For example, when he was 24, the August 19, 1936 Middletown Times Herald noted that at the State sportsmen's exhibit that year "Larry Koller who featured last night with a varied demonstration of fly tying and bass-bug making will return Thursday and Friday." It is not known when he began tying commercially, but the earliest advertisement I could find is dated 1937, although it referenced the lure as available in 1936.
Gary Deppe's Ruff Nek lure was clearly the Bug pattern, as there were two styles of bass bugs made by Koller (Bug and Minnow). Each was available in ten patterns.
They were .75 each, which was not cheap for the time (that same year Pflueger offered the Pal-O-Mine wooden, glass eyed lure for .75). Koller also noted it "accounted for nearly all catches of large bass on the fly rod" in the region the previous year.
There is an interesting mystery tied to Larry Koller. Bill Stuart asks:
"What relation was Larry Koller to J. J. Koller of Goshen, NY (it says on his box that the lures were designed by Larry Koller, who later moved to Florida)? J.J. Koller continued to sell some of his hair baits in the Goshen box with Goshen marked out and a Miami, Florida address written in hand in pencil under the crossed out Goshen address.
Well, I don't have a definitive answer. I believe, however, that John J. Koller of Goshen, New York was Larry Koller's brother. My current theory is that when Larry shuttered the sporting goods store in 1941 to take over as barrel foreman at Winchester, his brother (who was living in Goshen in the time) began selling his excess stock for him. He had the address changed to his Goshen home, and when the war ended and J.J. moved to Florida, he took what remaining stock he had and sold it in the same boxes, crossing out the old address and adding a new Miami one. Koller's sister Mrs. Frances Craig also lived in Miami at the time.
Regardless, Larry Koller was a great outdoor writer and, for a brief time, a prominent local tackle maker. His Ruff Nek lures are rare as hen's teeth, and the owner of one, like Gary Deppe, is lucky indeed. I believe they date from 1936-1941.
-- Dr. Todd