Don't Toss Those Squirrel Tails

Turn your squirrel tails into one (or more) of the nation's most popular fishing lures, the Mepps spinner, or exchange them for cash.

Don't Toss Those Squirrel Tails

This carved wooden sign sits along State Hwy 45 in Antigo, Wisconsin, soliciting squirrel tails from passing hunters to be made into Mepps spinners. 

In most parts of the country, squirrel season is in full swing. Whether you pursue bushy tails for table fare, to hone your hunting skills or just to spend some time with friends and family in the woods when the weather is still nice, you may be throwing away money.

That's right, there's a place in northern Wisconsin that will pay you cold, hard cash for squirrel tails that were likely going to be tossed anyway. What's even better is they will double the cash value when you choose to exchange the tails for lures. That place is Sheldons' Inc., maker of Mepps spinners. 

Humble Beginnings

The original Mepps spinner was invented by a French engineer by the name of Andre Meulnart in 1938. Todd Sheldon discovered the Mepps spinner in 1951. One had been given to him by Frank Velek, a WWII veteran who brought it back as a souvenir. After a poor start to a day of fishing, Todd decided to tie on something different and try to change his luck. Not long after tying on the Mepps spinner, Todd had caught four trout weighing more than 12 pounds total.

Luckily for the fishing industry, Todd wasn't just your average fisherman. He was also the owner of a successful tackle store in Antigo, Wisconsin, and he recognized the potential of the Mepps spinner. Some of the first Mepps spinners sold in Todd's tackle shop were procured by trading a French woman nylon stockings for the lures.

Demand for the lures grew so greatly that Todd began buying the lures directly from Meulnart's factory. Sheldons' Inc. now owns Mepps S.A. (Mepps France) and Mister Twister. The company started in a 10-foot-square room in the back of a sport shop, and now occupies a 50,000-square-foot corporate headquarters run by Todd's son, Mike Sheldon, manufacturing more than 4,000 different Mepps spinners and spoons.

The story of how the hooks of the Mepps spinners came to be tied with squirrel tails has a similar serendipitous start. Todd Sheldon was out fishing once again, except this time he had some decent luck and caught his limit of trout. On his way back to his car, he met a boy who had also caught a limit of trout on Mepps spinners, but all of his fish were bigger than Todd's. Todd noticed the Mepps spinner on the boy's line had a small tuft of squirrel tail tied to it. Soon after, Todd was experimenting with different types of hair and fur for the tail dressings, finally settling on squirrel and deer tails.

Why Squirrel Tails?

Now you're probably wondering, why does Sheldons' Inc. use squirrel tails instead of something more abundantly available?

Todd experimented with hair from numerous animals before deciding on squirrel tails. He tried bear, fox, coyote, badger, skunk and even Angus cow. However, no other material could replicate the pulsating action in the water created by the squirrel tail. That's because the hair on squirrel tails is just that, hair, with no dense underfur. Another benefit of squirrel tail is they're otherwise an unused byproduct of squirrel hunting. So rather than letting them go to waste, hunters can exchange them for lures or cash.

From Tail to Tackle Box

Lucky for me, I only live a couple hours from the Sheldons' Inc. facility and I was welcomed with open arms for a tour. When I pictured the assembly process that pumped out millions of lures per year, I was not imagining a single person in a back corner room surrounded by squirrel tails, a dye pot, washing machine and a dryer. But that's what I found.

That back room is where all the sorting, washing, dying and drying, and some of the tying, is done. I say some of the tying because Sheldons' Inc. also employs a handful of home tyers who receive sorted tails and bare hooks to tie on their own schedule. Each tail must be sorted and inspected for quality; tails that are damaged, losing hair or otherwise unusable are discarded. The rest are washed and dried and either left their natural color or dyed based on the lure's color scheme. 

Each dressed hook on a Mepps spinner is tied by hand and paired with either a red or black hackle feather.
Each dressed hook on a Mepps spinner is tied by hand and paired with either a red or black hackle feather.

They utilize tails from gray and fox squirrels, as well as the smaller red or pine squirrels as long as the hair at the base of the tail is at least one inch long. The tail hair is paired with either a red or black hackle feather and tied onto the hook to be sent on down the line for final assembly. At the next assembly station, the dressed hooks are attached to the backbone of the Mepps spinner, a heavy-duty stainless steel shaft. Then the beads and the signature concave oval blade are added and the line tie is twisted shut.

From there it is packaged, labeled for sale and inventoried before being sent to retailers. You can buy them at just about any sporting goods store or bait shop. Or you can send them a box of squirrel tails and they will send you lures in return. 

Handling Squirrel Tails

After you've had a great day chasing squirrels, it only takes a little more effort to properly preserve the tail for shipping. It's worth mentioning that Sheldons' Inc. is only interested in recycling tails taken from squirrels that have been harvested for the table. They do not advocate hunting squirrels strictly for their tails.

Also, you should check your state regulations before sending your squirrel tails. At the time this article was published, some western states prohibited selling tails of certain squirrel species. Check out the Squirrel Tail page on the Mepps website for more information. 

It's important that the tails be properly cared for so they can be used to make Mepps spinners. The tails should have the bones left in them, salted at the butt end and stored in such a way that they dry straight. Tails should be shipped during cooler weather so they don't spoil en route, and shouldn't be shipped in a plastic bag where they could heat up and spoil.

The best part is, if you save your tails and send 50 or more at a time, your shipping fees will be refunded. That's straight profit! You can decide to take the cash offer and receive a check in the mail (or get paid right away if you drop off the tails in person) or double the value of the tails by exchanging them for Mepps lures. 

For all good quality tails, Mepps pays the following:

  • Gray, Fox and Black Squirrel Tails
    • 16 ¢ each — under 100 
    • 19 ¢ each — over 100
    • 21 ¢ each — over 500 
    • 22 ¢ each — over 1000

Premium tails are worth 4 cents more than the prices listed above. They also purchase red squirrel tails as long as the hair at the base of the tail is at least 1 inch long. Red squirrel prices are as follows:

  • 8 ¢ each — under 100 
  • 9 ¢ each — over 100
  • 10 ¢ each — over 500 
  • 11 ¢ each — over 1000

One Last Cast

Squirrel hunting is likely how most hunters were introduced to the great outdoors. As skills develop and ambitions grow, sometimes certain pastimes must be set aside to make time for grander pursuits and bigger game. There's been an undeniable decline in hunting participation over the years, and squirrel hunting is no exception. Sheldons' Inc. used to receive hundreds of thousands of squirrel tails each year; however more recently those numbers have shrunk to about 50,000.

Squirrels are a plentiful, prolific and sustainable resource. Besides that, they taste great. Maybe it's time to blow the dust off that old .22 and take a new hunter out to the squirrel woods. You could even come away with some new fishing lures for your efforts.

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