Jim Swann can convert a $2 pair of flip-flops into $500 worth of fishing lures in one day. Swann, who owns and operates Swann's Fly Fishing Shop, combines plastics, chicken feathers, human hair, foam packing material, nylon dusters and electronic fiber-optic wire to create tiny turtles, crabs, birds, bugs and minnows.
He can teach a novice about casting and catching fish in five minutes. But Swann is a sportsman, who describes true fishing as "an art form for catch and release."
Swann, 69, returned to Dade City — and the old-fashioned craft of fishing lures — in 1994, after a career as a General Motors tool and die maker.
"Computers turned us into dinosaurs," he said. "That's when my six-month trial period to make a little money with a fishing shop turned into 19 years."
He has built his business at 13650 U.S. 98 bypass through word of mouth, and now builds fly or spinning rods for customers from Sarasota to Gainesville. He also sells trotlines, gigs and traps.
And now he has a protege: Kenny Roy, a 14-year-old student at Zephyrhills High School who wandered into Swann's shop earlier this year. Roy makes a little extra money by helping craft popper bodies.
"Kenny designed the hollowed-out bullet casing to drill lures from flip flops," Swann said.
Swann clamps Roy's templates into a desktop vise and punches a hole through the center of a half-inch piece of rubber with a wire hook. He uses flat wax nylon string and glue to wrap and tie down the big thumbnail-sized creature.
"I take matched sets of trimmed chicken feathers and combine them with deer hair and transparent foam to create a wing base," Swann said. "I hold it up to an overhead light to get what a fish is looking at."
Swann figured out that the red thread brings out a predator/prey relationship.
"A big gulp of air flares the gills of a fast-escaping victim," he said. "The fish knows that time is limited to get him."
Swann admits he can't get inside fishes heads, but he believes they bite as a line of defense, rather than out of hunger. He doubts they have any memory. Swann said he sometimes catches the same fish over and over again.
For people who can't fish, Swann recommends a bucket of minnows or any live bait. That's what separates a meat fisherman from a sportsman who tricks the fish with handmade lures.
Swann fishes everywhere from streams out West to Midwestern freshwater lakes to the deep seas off of the New England coast. In Florida, he prefers rapid-moving river waters and, of course, the waters of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. A 7-foot sailfish is mounted above his desk.
Swann most enjoys chasing rainbow trout in their beautiful habitats, as well as pursuing graylings, which he describes as the "blue gill gems of clean northern waters." And he relishes the showdowns with aggressive stumpknockers.
"A 5-pound stumpknocker will try to turn over the boat and eat you alive," he said.