Artist and fisherman David Engel holds one of his intricate, working fishing lures while standing at his tiny work space atop a bass guitar amplifier at his house in Portland on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. Engel carves and paints each lure by hand, standing in the spot, near the foot of his bed. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Artist and fisherman David Engel doesn’t claim his hand-crafted fishing lure ideas come to him straight from God but he doesn’t deny it, either.

The truth is, Engel isn’t sure where his dazzling, intricate designs originate. For him, divine inspiration is as good a guess as any because he’s positive the ideas don’t spring from his own imagination alone.

Portland fisherman and artist David Engel still has most of the hundreds of fishing lures he’s carved since 2009. Engel has only sold a few because it’s hard to part with them. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“I’ve just got four white walls up there,” Engel said, pointing at his head, “Therefore, they come from somewhere else.”

Heavensent or not, Engel has used the ideas that pop into his brain for crafting nearly 600 working fishing lures since he began making them in 2009.

He likens the experience to being a radio antenna, pulling in a distant broadcast from somewhere out in the universe. Once Engel sees the lure finished in his mind, he sketches it first in a notebook, then on a small piece of laminated wood.

A laminated block of wood with a sketch on the side sits next to a finished fishing lure at David Engel’s tiny workspace in Portland on Monday, Feb. 28. Engel carves and paints his lures standing up, using a bass guitar amplifier as a work surface. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

After that, he said, it’s just a matter of cutting away all the bits of wood that aren’t the lure, and painting it to match the image in his head. It’s a process of revealing, rather than creating, he reckons.

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

With a background in design and photography, he started making lures after getting back into fishing in 2008. Engel grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan but fished at a family home in Monsey, New York, as a child.

After buying a few plastic lures at a big box sporting goods store a decade ago, Engel thought he could probably make a better lure for less money. That’s when he got his first transmission from the universe.

A smattering of the hundreds of hand-made fishing lures Portland’s David Engel has created since 2009 includes several fish, a mouse and grasshopper. All of Engels lures are designed to work, though most never hit the water. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“The first one looked like a first-grader’s idea of a lure,” he said.

Hundreds of lures later, Engel is now much better at translating his internal visions into carved, painted realites.

All are made from wood. He’s used poplar, spruce, basswood and even mahogany. His choice depends on what he wants the lure to do in the water. Some wood floats, some sinks. Translucent fins are cut from plastic fish hook packaging and sometimes contain lead wire, for balancing the lure in the water.  

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

A few of Engel’s lures aren’t even fish.

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

Some of Engel’s lures are hollow with noise-making rattles inside. All are painted with colorful attention to lifelike detail. Speckles, translucent flesh and scales are included.

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

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

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

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

The tears at losing one of his lures is the reason why Engel has only sold a few. He needs hundreds of dollars to make the deal worth his effort 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, working fishing lures at his house on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. The particular lure has spinning side fins. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Each one is precious to him. After all, they’re all mini miracles of transcendent inspiration and physical creation.

“It’s like Noah and the Ark,” Engel said. “The ideas come, fully formed, all at once. I’m just supposed to make it.”

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.