Early on the morning of June 5, 1967, 106 men gathered on Beaver Lake, Ark., to fish what was touted by a very convincing ex-insurance salesman as a completely honest and fair fishing derby, pitting the top anglers of Tennessee against the best of Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and other surrounding states. Little did the competitors know that Ray Scott had given them an invitation to make history: Not only was the modern day tournament born, but the bass tackle revolution began, as did the evolution of the pro angler.
In the fishing business, nothing has been the same since. Different items of tackle had been available commercially since James Heddon opened in 1901, and by 1967 anglers had a fairly large variety of equipment with which to chase their quarry, not only from Heddon, but also from firms such as Pflueger, Bomber, Creme, Gilmore and others.
For the record, Bill Dance remembers that in addition to a Fliptail worm, he had four self-wrapped rods made from BC60 HF Browning Silaflex blanks, Ambassadeur 5000 reels, an Eagle Claw hook and Stren line.
Nonetheless, to understand the quantum leap the fishing industry has made since Dance caught the first bass in that tournament, it's interesting — and significant — to reflect on what Dance did not have available to him that sparkling June morning.
Yes, he had plastic worms, but all were of the straight-tail variety; the swimming tail design so widespread today was not introduced until 1973. He did not have any Yamamoto Senkos — later to become the world's most popular soft plastic — either, because they wouldn't be designed for another 30 years.
Dance had only a limited supply of metal-lipped crankbaits, primarily by Bomber and Whopper Stopper; Fred Young's famous Big O, which changed crankbait design forever, would not be made until 1972, the same year Bill Lewis started making a lipless crankbait he named the Rat-L-Trap. A forerunner of that lure, the Bayou Boogie, was around, however, and in wide use.
Rod and reel-wise, virtually all the Beaver Lake competitors used stiff 5 1/2- or 6-foot fiberglass casting rods with pistol grip handles. Graphite, straight handles and longer lengths were still years in the future. Practically everyone clamped red Ambassadeur 5000 revolving spool reels on their rods and filled them with either DuPont Stren, Berkley Trilene, or Perlene monofilament line, usually 17- or 20-pound test (Dance was actually using 12-pound test). No one at Beaver had even dreamed of fluorocarbon in those days.
"Looking back on those years, you sometimes wonder how we caught any bass at all when you compare what we used then and what we have now," laughs Jimmy Houston, who as a high school senior in 1966 won the Oklahoma State Fishing Championship using a Zebco 33 spincast reel, then spent the following summer learning to cast with an Ambassadeur 5000 his father had given him in order to compete in the World Series of sportfishing later that year.
"We really thought we had a pretty good selection of lures available at that time," adds Roland Martin, who in 1967 was a successful guide on Santee Cooper and still three years away from fishing his first BASS event.
"I was actually using a crankbait named the Big E, which was a handmade shallow diver that some people think Fred Young copied to make the Big O. Mine was made by someone named Estep, and I still use them today on occasion."
Spinnerbaits in 1967 were reasonably well advanced, and Bomber even had its Bushwhacker, available with one or two blades. In 1967, Houston, already a spinnerbait fisherman, began making his own Redman spinnerbaits, which came only with a single No. 4 Colorado blade and a trailer hook. His first sales were to Sam and Bud Walton when they had just 13 Wal-Mart stores.
Overall, the rod of choice measured 5 1/2 or 6 feet in length, had a pistol grip, and was very stout. Everything was fiberglass; graphite wasn't introduced officially until the early 1970s.
"Many of us actually used hand-wrapped rods, and both Fenwick and Browning were popular blank choices," says Martin. "My favorite was Fenwick's 614. The '6' meant 6 feet, the '1' designated one-piece, and '4' meant it was a stiff four-power action."
For reels, Dance, Houston, Martin and others were using the recently introduced Swedish-made Ambassadeur 5000, easily identifiable because of its red color. Other revolving spool baitcasting reels had been around for some time, including the Pflueger Supreme (and earlier models) and the Langley 330.
Today, Martin's old red 5000s are stored on a closet shelf, as later models have been dramatically improved many times over, utilizing better braking systems, different gear ratios and thumb bar spool releases. The same basic design has remained intact, however, and Abu Garcia remains one of the most prominent brands in fishing.
Abu has been joined by many other reel makers now, including powerhouses such as Pflueger (which had been overshadowed by parent company Shakespeare for a number of years), Daiwa and Shimano, among others. All use the same original design concept.
In rods, the pistol grip has virtually disappeared, replaced by long, straight handles. Overall rod length has increased to an average of 7 feet, with longer sticks very common. For more than a decade now, actions have been tailored specifically to various lures and lure presentations, an idea largely unheard of in 1967.
The biggest change over the past 40 years has been in lures. Old companies have simply disappeared or been absorbed by newer ones, and with competition increasing almost daily from new companies, the sheer number of products available is uncountable.
"Many of today's younger anglers have never heard of some of the lures we used, much less fished them," concludes Houston. "But in another 40 years, I wonder if fishermen will remember what we're using today."
Early reels had no drag system and a 1:1 ratio. Avid fishermen called 'em knucklebusters because if a big fish hit and you set the hook without your thumb on the spool, the handles would spin out of control and leave a nice mark on your fingers. They improved very slowly until bass tournaments became a big deal. Then, innovation seemed easy to come by. Drag systems became very effective, the profile of the body was lowered to make it more comfortable in the hand, and gear ratios have soared to 7:1.
You were one lucky angler if you actually owned a bass boat in 1967, as there really was no such animal that applied to every bass fishing situation. The first Skeeters appeared in 1948, but hadn't caught on nationally yet (their first fiberglass boat was built in 1961). Ranger opened its doors in 1967, sharing the same anniversary date as BASS, and for good reason. As BASS tourneys became popular, boat manufacturers began to embrace the specific needs of bass anglers.
Nowadays, the pros match their tow vehicle to the boat they drag, offering sponsors a rolling billboard for the many products available to fishermen.
Hooks used to have to be sharpened. Weird, eh? And they were only hooks. Now, hooks have bait keepers, rattles, weights and colors that further enhance the bait they hold.
CRANKS: CRUDE TO CRITICAL
In the early 1960s, most crankbaits were clunky, metal-lipped numbers with glitter for scales, if you were lucky. Some dove down as promised, while others swam sideways and upside down. By the end of the '60s and the early BASS tourneys, the crankbait was redefined and anglers realized how effective the bait could be. Manufacturers took notice. Today's cranks can easily be mistaken for a real forage species, with realistic scales and color patterns.
GREAT, GREAT GRANDWORM
Although there were slight variations in the early days, most worms were straight, resembling nightcrawlers. It might be impossible to count the variety available today, with soft plastics manufacturers molding every forage species available, and even some that seem like they are from a different planet.
NOT YOUR DADDY'S JUMPSUIT
Men in the late '60s wore jumpsuits for work and fishin'. They were easy to maintain and it didn't matter if a little fish slime found its way on the leg.
Today, pros wear jerseys riddled with sponsor logos. Perhaps, though, they should consider the retro look: There's no telling how many patches would fit on a jumpsuit.
As long as it held a reel and didn't break when a good ol' big 'un latched on, it was a bass fishing stick. Today, anglers can choose rods by what sort of bait they will be fishing, and the action is pre-planned to accommodate the bait perfectly.