Maine’s lure fishing artist relies on inspiration from God, or maybe the universe

PORTLAND, Maine — Artist and angler David Engel doesn’t claim that his ideas for handcrafted fishing lures come directly from God, but he doesn’t deny it either.

The truth is, Engel isn’t sure where his dazzling and intricate designs come from. For him, divine inspiration is as good as any other because he is certain that ideas do not arise from his imagination alone.

Portland angler and artist David Engel still owns most of the hundreds of fishing lures he has sculpted since 2009. Engel has only sold a few because they are hard to part with. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

“I only have four white walls up there,” Engel said, pointing his head. “Therefore, they come from somewhere else.”

Paradise or not, Engel has used the ideas that come to mind to craft nearly 600 working fishing lures since he started making them in 2009.

He compares the experiment to being a radio antenna, shooting a distant broadcast from somewhere in the universe. Once Engel sees the finished decoy in his mind, he draws it first in a notebook and then on a small piece of laminated wood.

A laminated wooden block with a sketch on the side sits next to a finished fishing lure in David Engel’s small workspace in Portland on Monday, February 28. Engel sculpts and paints his standing decoys, using a bass guitar amplifier as a work surface. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

After that, he says, just cut out all the pieces of wood that aren’t the decoy and paint it to match the image in his head. It’s a process of revelation, rather than creation, he believes.

“All the things that exist already exist,” said Engel, 68. “Where does an idea really come from?”

With a background in design and photography, he started making lures after returning to fishing in 2008. Engel grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan but fished from a family home in Monsey, New York, when he was a child.

After buying a few plastic lures at a big box sporting goods store ten years ago, Engel thought he could probably make a better lure for less money. It was then that he received his first transmission from the universe.

A handful of the hundreds of handcrafted fishing lures David Engel of Portland has created since 2009 include several fish, a mouse and a grasshopper. All Engels lures are designed to work, although most never touch the water. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

“The first one was like a freshman’s idea for a decoy,” he said.

Hundreds of decoys later, Engel is now much better at translating his inner visions into sculpted and painted realities.

All are wooden. He used poplar, spruce, basswood and even mahogany. His choice depends on what he wants the lure to do in the water. Some woods float, some sink. The translucent fins are cut from plastic hook wraps and sometimes contain lead wire, to balance the lure in the water.

Most of Engel’s lures are solid and one-piece, but others have moving parts, including tails and fins that spin like boat propellers. Some have fluffy fly-like tails or jointed bodies that snap and spin in the water like a real fish.

Some of Engel’s lures aren’t even fish.

One looks like a baby squirrel, others look like frogs. There’s more than one mouse-shaped decoy in his collection, and his take on a grasshopper is both beautiful and compelling.

Some of Engel’s lures are hollow with noisy rattles inside. All are painted with colorful attention to realistic detail. Spots, translucent flesh and scales are included.

“These are all handmade and no two are alike,” he said. “I caught fish on a lot of them.”

David Engel’s first two hand-carved fishing lures reside in their own wooden box at his home in Portland on Monday, February 28, 2022. Engel carved them in 2009. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

One of his lures is a recreation of an earlier design he lost while fishing on Pequawket Lake in Limington. The largemouth bass had his lure in his mouth and Engel almost had the fish in the net when he escaped.

“He looked at me, broke the line and swam to the bottom,” he said. “I cried for an hour.”

Tears over losing one of his lures is the reason Engel only sold a few. He needs hundreds of dollars to make the deal worthwhile and to break his personal attachment to his creation.

PORTLAND, MAIINE – 02/28/22 – Portland artist and fisherman David Engel holds one of his intricate and functional fishing lures in his home on Monday, February 28, 2022. The particular lure has spinning side fins. Troy R. Bennett | NDB

Everyone is precious to him. After all, they are all mini-miracles of transcendent inspiration and physical creation.

“It’s like Noah and the Ark,” Engel said. “Ideas come, all formed, all at once. I’m just supposed to get there.

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