Walter ‘Poppee’ Matan dead: His ice fishing lures helped him achieve American dream

The Demon.

The Rocker.

The Ratfinkee.

The Slip Dropper.

Walter “Poppee” Matan made popular ice-fishing lures with names like amusement rides. He crafted perhaps a million of them over the years, hand-pouring the lead, hand-soldering the hooks.

Mr. Matan and his son Walt sold them through their company, Custom Jigs & Spins. The jigs — weighted hooks — are sold online and at retailers including Bass Pro Shops, Dick’s, Scheels and Walmart.

Mr. Matan, a longtime Wilmette resident, died Feb. 4 at the Knox County nursing home in Knoxville, Illinois. He was 87 and had dementia, according to his son.

Mr. Matan liked nothing better than to go ice fishing. He’d kiss every fish he caught and sip a little slivovitz — plum brandy — to stay warm.

Poppee Matan always had a freezer full of panfish from his ice-fishing expeditions.Provided photo

“He was the grandpa of the fishing world,” said Chauncey Niziol, host of the ESPN Chicago radio show “Chauncey’s Great Outdoors.”

After a grandchild started calling him “Poppee,” everybody else did, too. The company even had a “Poppee” jig.

“He was the face of Custom Jigs,” said Bob Gillispie, who bought the company from the Matans. “He really was one of a kind.”

The elfin Mr. Matan starred in low-budget commercials for the company, which ran on MidWest Outdoors TV. In one, he played a patient asking a doctor about his ailments. The doctor prescribed a “Gill Pill” — one of the company’s jigs.

“If he was fishing with a kid, and the kid caught the fish,” Niziol said, “he was more excited than the kid.”

Poppee Matan was a genial face for the family business, Custom Jigs & Spins.Provided photo

He came a long way from an impoverished youth in rural, post-war Croatia, where he grew up in a small village near the town of Karlovac and was known as Vlado.

“He had nine brothers and two sisters all in a one-room house with a dirt floor,” his son said. “There was one cow and two chickens and one pot over the fireplace.”

Around 1953, he and his brother Josef were conscripted into military service.

“They had to guard the border, and they didn’t have any weapons, so they gave them a wooden gun,” his son said. “After two or three days when they didn’t get any food, they just put the guns down and walked. They decided to walk to Germany.

“You’d either go to jail, or get shipped back to Croatia, or work in coal mines in Germany.”

They chose the coal mines.

Eventually, they were immigrated to the United States, where they had relatives in Whiting, Indiana. They landed jobs at Inland Steel and became crane operators.

He spotted Helen Bukvich, his future wife, at a bowling alley in Whiting.

“She was going to be a nun,” their son said — just three weeks from entering a religious order.

They were married at St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church in Whiting in 1959 and, over the years, helped 22 of Mr. Matan’s relatives move to America.

Mr. Matan worked as a janitor and property manager at apartments and condo complexes in Skokie and Wilmette, where the family moved in the 1970s.

In the late 1980s, the family bought Custom Jigs & Spins, which was founded in Pekin by William Klingbell, a laid–off Caterpillar worker.

They operated it for more than a decade, making their lures in the basement of a Glenview hair salon.

“We would hire kids from high school. . . and we’d make jigs for three, four hours, and we’d package them till 10, 11 o’clock at night,” his son said in a video history.

Mr. Matan’s wife was in charge of painting the jigs.

“They’re beautiful colors,” Niziol said. “Chartreuse, red, blacks. Some of them glow in the dark.”

In a nod to Mr. Matan’s heritage, the company features some lures with Croatian names, like the Majmun (monkey), Jaje (egg) and Glazba (music).

Eventually, “it was just getting too big for us to handle,” his son said. “And we also, we just couldn’t quit our other jobs.”

They sold the business, now based in Iowa. Walt Matan still designs and markets lures for the company.

Poppee Matan (right) and his son Walt appeared in fishing commercials for Custom Jigs & Spins.Provided photo

Mr. Matan’s wife died in 2018. Besides his son, he is survived by three grandchildren, his sister Dragica and brothers Charles, Steven and Michael.

Mr. Matan was cremated. His son plans to scatter the ashes at his father’s favorite fishing holes.

In a tribute for MidWest Outdoors magazine, Dennis Leppell, senior producer for MidWestOutdoors TV, wrote: “Poppee gave me probably the No. 1 piece of advice I’ve ever learned: ‘Start the day off with the lure that’s already tied onto your rod. There’s a reason why it’s still tied on there.’ Sometimes, we over-complicate this sport that we love.

“Poppee was just like many of the lures he designed. Not too flashy, not too complicated, and they got the job done.”

Contributing: Dale Bowman

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