It was June 1967 and Ray Scott's first-ever bass tournament on Beaver Lake, Ark., was less than a minute old.
A young Bill Dance, who had zipped across the cove to a sunken roadbed within sight of the marina where the tournament started, killed his 60-hp engine. He picked up a blue, Texas rigged plastic Fliptail Worm and tossed it into the water before his boat had stopped gliding.
The moment the worm thunked the bottom, Dance felt the telltale tap and set the hook on a 2 1/2-pound largemouth.
Other contestants were still running to their spots.
"There's no doubt in my mind I hooked the first bass ever caught in a BASS event," grins the jovial television personality. "And I caught it on a worm."
Bass fishing has changed dramatically since that day. Boats and motors are bigger and faster. Electronics provide vivid images of the lake floor and GPS units pinpoint hot spots in the middle of the lake. Fishing lines and rods are made of Space Age materials, and a plethora of lures give the angler multiple choices.
Remarkably, the basic plastic worm that Dance used that day hasn't changed much in appearance and has remained a top fish producer for 40-plus years.
Sure, we have more shapes, sizes and colors. Materials have improved and interesting fish attractants have been added.
But when you get right down to it, the worm shape of yesteryear still catches the lion's share of the fish.
"It remains the dominating bait in the fishing industry," says 1983 Bassmaster Classic champion Larry Nixon, a legendary worm fisherman. "If you look at the tournaments over the years, the worm has played a role in more than 50 percent of the wins. Day in, day out, no other lure gives you a better chance to catch fish."
Throughout the past 40 years, soft bait manufacturers have altered the tails and body shapes and added appendages to give the quintessential worm different looks or more action.
Those shapes and actions have their place, but none has dethroned the original straight-tail worm as the king of soft plastics.
There have been numerous designs and some gimmicks that help sell baits and, to some degree, catch bass," offers Missouri pro Denny Brauer. "But the reality is that many of the best worms today are much like the original. Just look at what we use for shaky head fishing and drop shotting. The basic, straight-tail worm."
That's because a worm is a worm is a worm, says Nixon.
"Dig 'em up and they're all the same — long and straight," he jokes.
Which raises another interesting, if not debatable, question: Why do worms captivate bass?
They live in the earth and generally aren't found in water except for those that wash into our lakes and streams.
"I believe they're more prevalent in the water than we realize," explains Nixon. "It's a natural bait burned into the bass mind, just like a chicken or steak is to us. They see it, they eat it."
Dance agrees, noting that lifelike plastic worms are as popular today as they were 40 years ago because of their visual appeal to the fish.
"Bass instantly recognize the profile as something that is easy to swallow and that they can eat with little effort," he explains. "That, coupled with the fact you can fish them slowly at any depth, makes them a high percentage lure."
Versatility is another overlooked attribute, adds BASS veteran Harold Allen, who caught his first bass on a worm in the '60s.
The beauty of the worm is that you don't have to trick it out or modify it to catch fish," he explains. "It is the most versatile bait ever made."
Through those early tournaments and the subsequent coverage in Bassmaster Magazine, word spread about the phenomenal catches made by plastic worm anglers. Manufacturers took notice.
Dance, who finished second in the Beaver Lake tournament and won three of the next six, began to get job offers from lure makers.
"In a period of a week, I had three tackle companies call and offer me full-time jobs," he recalls. "They wanted me to entertain buyers and travel the country teaching people how to fish the plastic worm."
One of those was Creme Lure Company, often credited with creating the first plastic worm as we know it today.
While collectors and historians have done a good job of documenting the early beginnings of hard baits, the history of soft plastics is more ambiguous.
However, most old-timers say Creme Lure Company was the first, beginning in the 1940s in an Akron, Ohio, basement. There are some reports of forerunner "rubber" worms, but it is Nick and Cosma Creme who are consistently credited with molding the first "plastic" worm and launching the market as we know it today.
At that time, Akron was the hub of the rubber and chemical industry. Although Nick Creme was a machinist by trade, he had access to people and formulas that led him to the development of the plastic worm.
Early worms had three-hook harnesses threaded through their bellies to emulate what live bait anglers were already using. And, as a footnote, they are said to be the first hand-poured worms ever made.
"In those days, you fished live nightcrawlers on worm harnesses," says Wayne Kent, who now owns Creme Lures. "Nick was trying to provide anglers with an artificial nightcrawler in the pre-rigged fashion that everyone was already using."
Creme made its biggest splash at a 1950 Cleveland, Ohio, boat show where curious anglers gobbled up some 10,000 "Wiggle Worms" sold at $1 per pack of five worms.
And while word of the rig spread rapidly throughout the Midwest, it wasn't until the mid-'50s that the newly created Creme Scoundrel made its way to the South, where newly developed reservoirs were beginning to provide outstanding bass fishing.
"Anglers had discovered that those flooded trees and brushpiles harbored a lot of bass and the worm was the ideal bait for them," Kent explains.
BIRTH OF THE TEXAS RIG
In the late 1950s, Creme noticed his company was shipping numerous baits to the Tyler, Texas, area and that requests for replacement worms without three-hook harnesses were skyrocketing.
He soon discovered that Texas anglers were using his replacement worms on Lake Tyler, which opened a few years earlier. Lake Tyler anglers threaded a single hook through the Scoundrel's head, rotated the hook, then buried the barb into the body to guard against snagging in the wood.
"We are convinced that Lake Tyler is where the first Texas rig was fished, although we still don't know who was responsible for creating it," says Kent.
Creme also discovered that anglers throughout Texas were falling in love with the plastic worm and the "Texas rig" they were using on other brush-filled lakes.
That prompted him to move his business to Tyler in 1960 and capitalize on the growing plastic worm market.
Interestingly, the move occurred around the same time Skeeter was building the first fiberglass bass boat 24 miles up the road and one of the first sonar units was being manufactured about 300 miles away in Tulsa, Okla.
And while they all played a role in the bass fishing revolution, the Texas rigged worm made it possible for anglers to catch more fish.
Tommy Martin, who began guiding on Texas' Rayburn and Toledo Bend lakes in the mid-'60s, said the Texas rig was the most consistent way to catch bass from the tangled brush that covered the bottom of the new lakes.
"The problem was that we really didn't know how to fish it, and the old guys who did were real hush-mouthed about it," he recalls. "Back then, companies were still telling customers to let the bass run with the worm and swallow it before you set the hook. There was a lot of misinformation about it."
SOFT BAITS EVOLVE
Other companies popped up in the Southwest shortly after Creme, including Fliptail Lures, which is noted for having the first baits made by injecting plastic into molds. Fliptail also is said to have created the first soft plastic lizard.
Creme followed with the first scented lure (cheese) and began adding colored tails to its lineup in the early '60s. Tom Mann's Jelly Worm, impregnated with fruity scents in a much softer plastic, came on strong later that decade.
Mister Twister is credited with the first curly tail plastic (1973), which led to a plethora of shapes, sizes and brands developed thereafter.
The plastic worm phenomenon swept the country as more anglers discovered a Texas rigged worm could be fished safely in grass and wood, and that bass devoured them.
"There was talk going around that some states considered banning worms because they were such high percentage baits," remarks Dance.
That popularity helped spawn new techniques that employed soft plastics. However, the technique for fishing the basic Texas rigged plastic worm hasn't changed that much.
"What has changed is the water clarity and the type of structure we fish today. We're adapting to conditions but still use the worm," offers Allen.
Those changes have guided manufacturers to some improvements in plastic worms, such as color offerings, lure texture and added attractants.
"In the '60s, we had blue, black, grape and red," recalls Martin. "Today, we've got a color to match any water clarity or fishing situation we might encounter."
Texture is another matter. Forerunner worms were often too hard, which made it difficult to set the hook, or too soft, which allowed the hook point to penetrate too easily and therefore snag in the brush.
Softer baits are said to produce more action, or at least a different action, that appeals to bass under specific circumstances.
Gene Larew is credited with being the first to add salt — to its Salt Craw in 1980 — while Berkley's Power Worm (1988) is believed to be the first soft bait with credible fish stimulant attractant added.
"Salt and scent were definitely milestones because salt helps make the bait fall faster and bass will certainly hang on to a Power Worm longer," says Nixon.
Gary Yamamoto's 1997 Senko creation, a hybrid worm of sorts, has added another dimension to worm fishing. The advent of the stickworm, says Nixon, was a turning point in the soft plastic industry.
"It brought weightless worm fishing to the forefront because of the way it sinks slowly and seductively," he describes. "It gave us a heavy enough worm to fish weightless in 5 to 8 feet of water, not to mention a deadly technique under a variety of conditions."
To hear pros tell it, there's not much more that can be done to improve plastic worms as we know them.
"What will change before the worm changes is someone will figure out a different presentation, but I'll bet that presentation will still be most effective with the 4- to 6-inch plastic worm," insists Allen. "What's remarkable is that the basic plastic worm that started all of this is the same worm we rely upon today. Maybe that's because it was made so realistic from the very beginning."
Soft Plastics Timeline
1949: Nick Creme poured the first plastic worm in his Akron, Ohio, basement, using a mold created from a live nightcrawler.
Late 1950s: Unknown anglers fishing brush-filled Lake Tyler fashioned the first Texas rigged plastic worm by burying the hook point into the body to make it weedless.
1967: Bass fisherman Tom Mann, concerned about the toughness and smell of plastic worms, created the Jelly Worm by adding fruit flavors to the plastic. Purple worms smelled like grape, black like blackberry and red like strawberry.
1968: Ray Scott founds BASS and puts out the first issue of Bassmaster Magazine, which would feature new products and developments in plastic worms over the years.
1973: With growing demand for a worm that "swims," Glynn Carver of Mister Twister created curly tail grubs that led to the ribbontail worm design shortly thereafter.
1980: Gene Larew experimented with a variety of additives that would make bass respond better to soft baits. After failures with sugar, chocolate and even Coca-Cola, he patented a salt impregnation process in 1980. It is used by most major soft bait companies today.
1981: Zoom introduced the Trick Worm, the first straight-tail, high floating, supersoft plastic worm for fishing shallow water.
1984: The Zoom Brush Hog triggered the creature bait craze. Oddly enough, the company created the lure several years prior to that but elected not to market it. However, a Mississippi angler got his hands on prototypes and loved them so much he ordered 300 to 400 bags, and Zoom decided to offer it nationally.
1987: Lunker City Specialists developed the first soft plastic jerkbait in a Connecticut garage. The Slug-Go led to the creation of soft jerkbaits that are now offered by nearly every soft bait maker.
1997: While trying to sketch a unique worm design with a ballpoint pen, Gary Yamamoto chose to use the ink pen he had in his hand as a prototype. It had a blunt end and a tapered end, which proved to be the forerunner for the Senko, or stickworm, that has enraptured bass and anglers nationwide.
2005: Mann's created and patented HardNose Worms that combine a solid nose section with a soft body. They were designed to keep Texas rigged hooks in place without impacting the rest of the supple worm that provides a natural feel to the fish.