In March 2001, during a local tournament on Sam Rayburn Reservoir, Kelly Jones Jr. and his partner spotted a 12-pound largemouth on a bed tucked underneath some of Rayburn's famous flooded buckbrush. They already had 19 pounds in the livewell and this one would have easily locked up a win, but try as he might, every presentation Jones made to the bass snagged in the brush and the fish was never caught.
Kicker Fish Weedless Wacky Worm, invented by Kelly Jones Jr.
The 29-year-old petro-chemical inspector returned to his La Porte, Texas, home that evening, and on a sheet of notebook paper designed a lure that would get through limbs and branches, a lure that soon took him out of the chemical business and into lure making full time. Today, that lure, The Original Texas Weedless Wacky Worm, is used by pros and amateurs from Maine to California, and Jones' company, Kicker Fish Bait Co., has national accounts any lure company would envy.
A Cinderella story that only happens once every half-century or so? Not totally. Fishing lures today all begin with an idea, the vast majority of which are generated by company lure designers or professional tournament anglers sponsored by those companies. A few lures are created by individuals like Jones, who thoroughly enjoy bass fishing and go on to create their own lure companies. An even smaller number of lures are created from ideas submitted to companies by free-lancers, individuals who tinker and design lures as a hobby.
No matter where the idea comes from, the path from drawing paper to store shelf is usually a long one, and the longest (and least successful) path is the one by free-lancers. Every major lure manufacturer today receives dozens of ideas and prototypes through the mail every year, but only a tiny percentage are ever accepted.
Nonetheless, there are enough success stories to prove it is possible to design "the best bass-catcher ever made" and have a manufacturer accept it. Consider, for instance, the popular Tail Dragger and Two Fer topwater lures produced by Mann's Bait Co. in Eufaula, Ala. Both came from ideas submitted by Kenny Childree, a timber manager and farmer who simply loves bass fishing.
"If I had to give someone advice on how to get a lure accepted by a company, I would tell them first to get to know that company's personnel and to understand its products," emphasizes Childree, 46, who designs lures as a form of relaxation..
"Next, I would tell them not to build another 'me-too lure' that's a copy of something already out there. My Tail Dragger is a topwater walking bait, but it's much easier to work than a normal walking bait and it's proved to be a great saltwater lure, too."
Childree also emphasizes that would-be lure designers need to create a working prototype rather than just a blueprint drawing. It doesn't have to be a state-of-the-art model, but it does need to exhibit its primary selling features.
"Because this is just a hobby, I don't have all the equipment a full lab would have," continues Childree. "Sometimes I work hours carving a prototype out of wood, take it to the lake and know after the first cast that it won't work. When that happens, I just throw it away and start over.
"The same thing happens with hard plastic. All I can do is find a plastic body and modify it, but sometimes after all the work, it fills with water, or it doesn't run straight, and I just start all over again.
"I'd hate to have to do this full time for a living."
H.P. Firmin of Baton Rouge doesn't design lures for a living, either, and he didn't know anyone at the Creme Lure Co. in Tyler, Texas, when he sent them a small plastic minnow lure several years ago. In fact, after Creme president Wayne Kent looked at the prototype, he set it aside on his office credenza and promptly forgot about it.
"Sometime later I gave the lure to a friend, almost as an afterthought - I receive letters and lure ideas all the time - but the next day he came back raving about the lure because it caught so many fish. That's when I took a serious look at it and we eventually bought the idea."
The lure Kent is describing is Creme's Lit'l Fishie, which has been so successful the company now produces it in 2-, 3-, and 4-inch versions.
When Kent flew to Baton Rouge to meet Firmin and offer a royalty contract, he found the retired engineer testing another of his lure creations in a horse trough.
"I just get an idea, try to make it, and go fishing, and if it works, I send it out," says Firmin, now 79. "The Lit'l Fishie was actually originally designed for saltwater speckled trout, because that's where I tested it, but Creme wanted to market it for freshwater, so instead of 'Cocoho Minnow,' it became the Lit'l Fishie."
Firmin, an active reader of Bassmaster Magazine, has also free-lanced lures to other companies over the years, including the Bump-N-Go spinnerbait, also to Creme, the King Rat to Strike King, and the Slither Worm to Mr. Twister. He sold his design patent on a lure named the Stud Worm to Bass Pro Shops, which doesn't market the worm anymore, but still uses the design in grubs and other baits. He's already working on another lure for Creme.
"I think I've been very fortunate to sell the lures I have," he continues, "especially since it's just a hobby for me. For sure, I have a lot of lures I've never sold. In fact, I've never been able to sell the very first lure I designed, a small fly fishing popping bug I named the 'Cajun Fly,' that has a tiny propeller on the back.
"Over the years, I've caught bass, bream, and crappie on that fly, but I guess everybody thinks it's just too difficult to mass produce."
Another free-lance submission, the Devil's Tongue, also found favor with Kent at Creme. This is perhaps one of the most unusual success stories because along with the bait came an improved lure production technique. It was sent in by Mike Clark, a fireman in Alexandria, La.
Kent had been looking at ways to make Creme worms more buoyant, but everything he did chemically (the normal way to achieve greater flotation) also altered worm texture and color.
"Clark invented a way to inject pure air into liquid plastic," remembers Kent. "He drove up here and showed me how it was done, and I told him that if we could patent the process, I'd take it. We were awarded the patent, and now use his process as the basis for our entire High Floating Series of lures.
"It just goes to show that if you can design something a lure company wants or needs, they'll usually be receptive."
Allen Borden, 43, of Ahwahnee, Calif., did not really think about selling his design creation to another company, but rather, like Jones and his Kicker Fish worm, decided to start his own company. Although his central California construction business kept him busy, Borden had been a bass fisherman for nearly 30 years. Eight years ago, he began competing in amateur tournaments.
"That exposure gave me the desire to do something in lure design, but I wanted to create something different," he remembers. "I spent hours watching the bass in a pond behind my home, and decided to design a lure that more closely imitated how bass really looked when they swim.
"At first, I thought I'd make lures just as a hobby, but after my first ones were successful catching fish, I got so absorbed I decided to go public."
The result was A.B.T. Lure Co., which Borden opened three years ago with one lure, a 4-inch jointed hard plastic swimbait, the Gladiator. Even though the lure has caught a lot of bass, including giants up to 14 pounds, Borden has already introduced a larger 7-inch jointed Gladiator, and he's sure other products will follow.
"It has taken three hard and often frustrating years to get to this point, and there were definitely times I wondered why I was doing this," Borden admits. "I had to go back to the design table a lot of times, but once you see one of your own creations catch a big bass, it's hard to quit."
Jones agrees completely. After he designed his plastic worm - it has a short inch-long "nose" in the middle that extends outward at a 90 degree angle, allowing for weedless Texas rigging or even with a sinker - he literally ordered a lure making kit and made a prototype mold. He heated plastic in a pot on the kitchen stove then poured it into his mold, making one worm at a time.
"The very first fish I caught with my lure was a 9-pounder, and the second weighed 7-14," he remembers. "A week later, a friend who was fishing my Weedless Wacky Worm won $70,000 in a tournament, so I decided I had a product that might be worth selling.
"When I started, though, I certainly did not have any intentions of getting into the lure business. I was just trying to make a lure that came through brush a little easier."
Success stories like these aside, the majority of bass lures today are created by companies or by the tournament pros they have on staff. That's one reason there are so many similar baits on the market; the pros see what's working, and help create something similar for their own sponsors.
Some firms call in all their pros for several days of brainstorming new ideas. These are not always formal meetings and practically any idea a pro throws out is considered, however briefly. To be sure, none of the pros have taken the time to make a prototype, and details may be vague. This was not quite the case at Yum in the spring of 2003, however, when Zell Rowland tossed out the idea for a twin-tail lizard, according to Public Relations manager Chris Gulstad.
"We were finishing our discussions and I asked if anyone had anything else to add," remembers Gulstad, "and in the back of the room Zell Rowland drawled, 'I've got something for you.'
"Zell then took one of our regular Yum Lizards and ripped the tail off, right in front of all of us. Then he took our creature bait, a Yum Wooly Hawgtail, and ripped the twin tail off it.
"Then with his lighter, he heated and joined what was left of both lures, the twin tails of the Hawgtail to the body of the Lizard, and bingo, the Zellmander was born. We introduced it at the 2003 ICAST show and it's been so popular we're making it in 5- and 7-inch sizes."
Another well-known tournament pro, Denny Brauer, gets credit for Strike King's Flip-N-Spin lure, best described as a jig with an attached spinnerbait wire and blade.
"I wanted a lure that offered flash and vibration in the same places I flip a jig," recalls Brauer. "A regular spinnerbait doesn't work because it often rolls over and snags if you try to flip it vertically into thick brush.
"We discussed different configurations at Strike King, but I really wasn't sure how such a lure could be balanced. When I received the first prototypes, it was winter, and my pond was frozen, but I went fishing anyway.
"I'll never forget my first flip up on the ice. I had to drag the lure over the ice into open water where it could free-fall, but as soon as that bait sank, an 8-pounder nailed it. I called Strike King and told them the lure was perfect and not to change a thing.
"It's rare to get the design and balance absolutely perfect on the first try," continues Brauer, who has been involved in numerous lure design projects during his career. "Most of the time we just give the designers a concept and then go back and forth for months testing and tweaking until we get it just the way we want it.
"Designing a lure is never easy, no matter who's doing it."