In Pursuit of the Muskie

Bill Looney of Amma, W.Va., has been making Muskie lures for 30 years.

By Jessica Marghella and Morgan Young | 06/01/2011

Dried, mounted Muskie heads, a string of squirrel tales, and hundreds of handcrafted fishing lures are among the many things that hang along the walls of a small, paint splattered room in Bill Looney’s home in Amma, W.Va.

The 65-year-old retired pipe fitter has been making wooden fishing lures, known now by the fishing community as “Amma Bamas”, in his basement workshop for 30 years.

Looney started by making lures for Muskies, a predatory fish native to West Virginia, in 1973, because his purchased lures didn’t effectively mimick the movement of Muskie bait fish.

“For some reason [the purchased lures] weren’t working right,” he said. ‘I started making lures because of the foreign products that were inferior.” His lures are now internationally sought after.

When Looney was 10-years-old, soon after he had recovered from a diagnosis of Polio, his father, a Muskie fisherman, first introduced him to the monstrous fish. They can grow up to 72 inches, and in some cases, live more than 20 years.

“My dad was casting one day and this big Muskie hit, and it got off. As we were going home he just stopped, handed me the rod and said ‘it’s all yours,” he said. “I started right at that moment, fishing for Muskies.”

Muskie (muskellunge) is a fish from the pike family. In W.Va., they are found in waters, such as North Bend Lake, Stonecoal and Stonewall Jackson lakes, and the Elk River.

Fishermen can only bring Muskies home if they die in the process of being caught, and Looney makes sure to take special care of them.

“They’re just like little children to me,” he said.

Karen Hudson, Fishing Division secretary of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources says that, under section one of the agency’s regulations for favorite fishing waters, “All muskellunge caught must be returned to the water at once.”

DNR regulations also require fishing waters to be stocked with Muskies, after surveys are taken to determine where they are needed.

The waters are stocked with young Muskies, which are allowed to reach full growth because they are considered C-P-R fish, “catch picture release.”

Looney’s “Amma Bamas” are specifically designed for Muskies. Looney says foreign made products cannot copy the appearance or behavior of a real Crappie, Green Walleye or Banded Perch.

Customers, who have fished with the lure, are loyal to it. On the “Amma Bama” website, an endorsement from fisherman Robert A. Anderson says, “There is simply no other lure that will last your lifetime and produce fish in size and numbers like this one will.”

Amma Bama lures typically range in size from 4-10 inches. They come in all different colors: golden, black-orange, gray ghost and more. Looney can combine colors for any original look, and custom colors are available. His lures’ sprayed and spotted eye-catching finishes imitate the markings on real fish, making them genuinely resemble the Muskie’s desired prey.

The lures are crafted through a 32-stage process. Looney uses wood from a native Linn (basswood) tree and a heavy-gauge stainless steel wire for specific through-wire construction. Each lure needs a certain amount of lead weighting for the guarantee of natural buoyancy.

The methodic activity involved in making Looney’s 13 different signature lures, ranging in appearance from a crappie to a walleye, also helps to alleviate the physical pain that is residual from his bout with Polio.

In 1954, when Looney was diagnosed with polio, there were nine cases of the disease in Roane County, where he lived, and approximately 400 cases in West Virginia. At least some of those, including the lure maker’s, were due to a manufacturer’s error in the vaccine. Dr. Jonas Salk’s Polio vaccine was a field trial sponsored by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

Looney lost the use of his legs and had to use a wheelchair during that time, but after two years of rehabilitation, he regained strength in his legs. The effects of the disease remain.

“My shoulders hurt and my legs hurt, but when I’m making fishing lures I’m not hurting,” he said.

While it only takes two weeks for Looney to go through the 32-stage process resulting in a batch of 60 lures, the preparation time is much longer.

The Linn (basswood) tree takes two years to dry out enough for the crafting process to begin. Looney dries the wood himself in his garage.

Of the 300 lures Looney makes annually, 12 lures a month are sent to Wisconsin, where there is always a waiting list.

Rollie and Helen’s Muskie Shop in Minocqua, WI was one of the first bait shops Looney supplied with his lures, selling them for $25 to $50. It is the largest Muskie fishing supplies shop in the world.

Jay Esse, an employee at Rollie and Helen’s Muskie Shop, said that it’s hard to keep Amma Bamas in stock.

“As soon as the lures are in our store, they are gone within a week,” Esse said. “They are hard to keep because the demand is very high. The lure is popular, not only here, but throughout the country.”

It wasn’t long before the lure’s popularity attracted imitators. The shapes of the baits have been copied 13 times that Looney is aware of. He was forced to copyright the trade name “Amma Bama”.

Looney functions as his own quality control manager, testing every Amma Bama before it is sold. He personally tests every lure in the water to make sure it works just right.

“I guarantee [my lures] 100% forever,” he said. “It gives the people who are buying them confidence. I’ve only had one complaint in 30 or so years.”

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