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Hood River's Luhr Jensen & Sons decides to cut bait

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

By Dan Sadowsky

From his desk, Phil Jensen can look out across the Columbia River to the very spot where he and his father cast for salmon in the 1940s. Behind him sit bookshelves chock full of random bric-a-brac: a plastic Mr. Peanut figurine, a 1950s Yashica camera, a cigarette lighter adorned with the image of Mao Tse Tung.

Each item, says the nostalgic president of fishing-gear manufacturer Luhr Jensen & Sons, holds a cherished memory. Soon his family’s 74- year-old Hood River company will be but a memory, too.

In a blow to Hood River’s improving economy — and, to a certain extent, its pride — Jensen last fall sold his fishing-lure business and its brand names to the world’s leading luremaker, the Finnish company Rapala, which in June will start making Luhr Jensen lures in a four-story concrete factory in southern China.

Hood River will lose about 140 jobs, roughly one-tenth of the region’s manufacturing positions and the most layoffs by any local company since Golden Northwest Aluminum shuttered two smelters in 2001. For the first time since 1932, when a 45-year-old angler started handstamping metal lures in a backyard chicken coop, a brand synonymous with Hood River will no longer be produced here.

Phil Jensen, a spry, athletic-looking man with the garrulity of a salesman, says he sold the $9 million company because he’s turning 70 in July and didn’t have the stomach to do what he says is required to stay competitive: make his products overseas.

“To see Luhr Jensen products made in China would be an abdication of what Luhr Jensen is: an American fishing-tackle manufacturing company,” he says. In fact, a quarter of the company’s lures have been fabricated in Mexico since 1990 and Jensen has visited China several times since 1998 to explore possible manufacturing partnerships. But, ultimately, he says, “I really didn’t want to be the architect of just another marketing company of offshore product.”

Instead, he will let another company move jobs to China and continue a trend that has swept through the U.S. fishing-tackle industry over the past 15 years, according to the American Sportfishing Association. Jensen gets worked up over the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to China — he calls it “a national disaster” — and over the federal excise tax on fishing equipment, which he says is applied in a way that unfairly disadvantages domestic manufacturers.

“Every day, everything I’ve accomplished in my life is at risk. Essentially, I’ve taken two-thirds of that off the table by cashing out,” says Jensen, who still owns several properties and a $3.5-million-ayear electric-smoker business in Hood River County. “At my age, it’s not fun to be out there playing high-stakes with everything you’ve got.”

How many other Oregon manufacturers will face a similar dilemma is anyone’s guess. It’s hard to say how offshoring has affected the state economy so far, says Art Ayre, an Oregon Employment Department economist who has studied the issue. But he expects competitive pressures on Oregon manufacturers to remain strong. State forecasters project a net loss of nearly 9,000 manufacturing jobs in the next six years, mostly in wood products, computers and electronics.

Hood River’s job loss is more immediate. Federal dislocatedworker funding currently pays for two full-time job counselors to assist Luhr Jensen employees, most of whom earn between $8 and $10 an hour, plus benefits, and don’t have a lot of transferable skills. “It’s a significant impact on the county,” says Bill Fashing, the county’s economic development director.

Yet, Fashing and other local development officials don’t see Luhr Jensen’s closure as part of any worrisome trend. In fact, they say, the region’s overall jobs picture looks bright. New boutiques and restaurants continue to open downtown, insulating-glass fabricator Cardinal Glass has hired 170 local workers since January 2004, and small industry clusters such as software companies and high-tech engineering firms are growing steadily.

What’s more, notes regional economist Dallas Fridley, the 60,000-square-foot riverfront plant that Luhr Jensen will vacate presents an opportunity to recruit a light-manufacturing business to a city short on industrial property. “Hood River has, frankly, turned away some small manufacturers because they did not have something ready to offer,” he says.

Yet no newcomer is likely to match the local Horatio Alger-like tale of Luhr Jensen, an enterprising Hood River millworker and traveling salesman who began hand-stamping spinners during the Depression using dies made from old truck parts. Word of the wellcrafted lures he produced for himself and his fishing buddies soon spread and his business grew along with sportfishing’s post-war popularity.

When the elder Jensen died in 1972, he left the company to his three sons. Phil, the youngest, had become sales manager after graduating from the University of Oregon with an economics degree in 1960 and took over as president when brother Dave retired in 1978. Phil helped grow Luhr Jensen & Sons into one of the leading lure manufacturers in the country by acquiring smaller luremakers and developing a strong following among salmon, trout and steelhead fishermen.


“A lot of people knew of Hood River because of Luhr Jensen,” says John Alley, owner of Mid Valley Family Foods in Odell and a past president of the Hood River Chamber of Commerce. “It hurts to see a long-term company known throughout the world go away.”

Jensen skims over his own hurt, saying he feels sadder for the workers he must let go than for himself. For a man who revels in the past, he is most animated when discussing his own future: learning Spanish and Portuguese to better enjoy his regular Amazon River fishing jaunts, restoring one of his dad’s old buildings to house his sundry collections and expanding the only part of the business he didn’t sell — the 20-person smoker-products division, based in nearby Oak Grove.

He concedes that were he two or three decades younger, he’d relish the challenge of piloting Luhr Jensen along the hazardous shoals of the global manufacturing economy. But at 69, Phil Jensen’s ready to let go of the wheel.



john p. kraft
+1 #1 kwikfish #16john p. kraft 2011-02-19 09:24:43
im trying to find a kwikfisn k 16 in the outlaw pattern with no luck what so ever. can u tell me where i can buy one thank you
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+1 #2 old timerGuest 2012-09-12 22:49:48
i for one phil or mr jensen would like to say thank u for all your years u have put in to it to give us quality fishing gear that caught fish that being said enjoy your retirement
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-2 #3 ShoreThingGuest 2013-01-23 10:12:02
After many years of not doing much fishing I finally got right back into it and have almost exhausting my stock of Kokodile spoons in the hammered all chrome pattern. I thought I would just get on the net and order some more.

I must have purchase these a lot longer ago than I thought. Being in Australia I did buy plenty of several sizes to last awhile.

What a surprise firstly that Luhr Jensen have sold the brand, secondly that these fantastic lures are no longer made in America (not as shocked as when I found out Levi Stauss are no longer manufactured in America!!!) and thirdly the particular model I am after appears to be dropped from the range (although the model with a stripe is still available).

My previous dealings with Luhr Jensen were great - felt like you were dealing with a family business who had more than just a sale standing behind their product/service .

Will have to leave the two remaining Lurh Jesen Krokodile lures I have left in their packets to look at every now and then.

Love the lures and sometimes I would just cast them for hours as they are great to launch across some of the Ocean lagoons, bays and beaches here in Sydney.

Just watching (with the expectation that they would be hit any moment) the lure flash in the bright sun as I retrieved it through some of the shallow crystal clear water was always the best way to spend a couple of hours.

Caught many fish on these lures but like many iconic brands and items (got a long list of them) they just cant beat the economics of todays world. Many things get better as the world turns but the very simple things just simply get DELETED. As the article said I had only heard of 'Hood River' because of Luhr Jensen. Was hoping to visit there one day - probably not now. Certainly must be a big loss for Hood River.


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0 #4 Phil Jensen talks about Luhr JensenGuest 2013-10-28 03:13:59
Here's a cool video that features Phil Jensen and talks about his selling Luhr Jensen.
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0 #5 Phil Jensen talks about Luhr JensenGuest 2013-10-28 03:22:49
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-1 #6 KennyGuest 2014-05-13 04:31:08
As a kid of 12 in the late 50's our family owned and operated a small fishing resort on Tahkenitch Lake on the Southern Oregon Coast. Luhr and his wife would visit about once a week to fish crappie. He would leave his boat in our care during the week. One week his wife fell overboard and in his 70's he dived into the lake to help her back into the boat. Our family warmed and dried the pair out while my brothers and I salvaged his lost wallet to return to him. The next time he returned to the lake he brought us boys a large box of Luhr Jensen tackle, a shotgun and a .22 rifle. We grew up with those guns and the fond memories of Luhr and his wonderful wife.
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