Appreciating Cotton

How the legendary lure maker impacted my life

The image of Cotton Cordell sitting behind an overly cluttered desk, with chips of wood scattered across his pants and his hands whittling away at some crazy lure design will forever be etched in my mind.

It’s a mental picture; I would do anything now to have captured it with a camera: An old man that never really appeared all that old, mostly because he had an indelible smile etched on his face, sitting at his desk and whittling.

Through that smile his lips were always telling a story and I was almost always laughing.

Last week Cotton Cordell passed away and yet another one of the pillars of our sport and a personal mentor is gone. But for so many of us who have warm stories of Cotton those memories will last forever. They should.

I have some of my favorite Cotton stories, from all too few days of sitting around with him and his son Mike Cordell and protégé Bobby Dennis. There are people in this world you run across who forever give you the impression that no matter how much notoriety, how much money, how many accolades come their way they will never change. Cotton Cordell was one of those people.

In the 1990s when I spent most of my time with him, it seemed like he was always more in tune with helping others. His dusty, little shop with the cluttered desk with half-carved creations and pants littered with shavings was about as glamorous as he would ever want to be. Now that I think about it, it was kind of glamorous in its own way.

During those times, I learned a lot about making lures. I learned that Cotton could carve just about anything from a piece of balsa. He could carve or mold anything out of anything if you gave him the chance.

The more important lessons were subtle: a smile instead of a cross word, nice instead of mean, respect is earned, not demanded and the list is lengthy. Understand this was a man who would often lead his employees in prayer before the start of the workday and someone each of them loved dearly. Together they created lures almost every fisherman in the world has used to catch a fish.

His creations are many. The impacts of those creations remain present on virtually every lure out there. He just knew how to make things work.

His first lures were actually what many referred to as buck-tail jigs. The first ones came from World War II Air Force survival kits. He would buy the kits from military surplus for .25 cents, throw away everything but the jig head inside and then wrap it with dog hair cut from his English setter.

“Back then we didn’t have any deer around here,’’ Cotton said. “So I’d just take a wallop of hair from my dog. I had the baldest dog in the country.”

The idea that Cotton Cordell Lures was started on the back of an English setter was humorous to him. But it was a constant reminder that with hard work and some creative thought he could get places in the world as long as you stayed positive. And he was never afraid to make a change to a lure if that’s what the anglers wanted.

The best example of that is the Cordell Spot. It was the first of the lipless crankbaits and shows how creative Cotton actually was. Even in those days, a crankbait was supposed to have a lip to make it dive.

Today, there are countless lipless crankbaits, virtually all of them with rattles in them. The most popular of those, Rat’L Trap, which centers its name on the rattles the bait makes.

But for Cotton, the original Spot was never supposed to rattle. The bearings in the bait were glued there as ballast and weight for the bait to get down in the water column. Cotton would find out how important those weights turned rattles would be by accident.

He had sold a gross of Spots to a tackle store in Mississippi; a big order even today. When the tackle storeowner called and wanted to return them, Cotton gave him a call.

“He wanted to send them back because they didn’t rattle,’’ Cotton said. “I told him, ‘they aren’t supposed to rattle.’ He told me, ‘they are if I’m going to sell them.’”

Fishermen were buying the Spots, but before they would purchase the bait, they would drop it on the floor to knock the ballasts out of the glue. If they didn’t break loose, they’d put them back in the package and try the next one. Others were taking the baits home and hitting them with hammers, if they didn’t rattle they would bring them back.

“We stopped putting glue on those weights after that,’’ Cotton would say.  

It’s just an example of how Cotton didn’t mind relaying that a perfect creation can always use some help.

There were many of those stories Cotton would tell while sitting at his desk, whittling and smiling, and of course creating the next thing that could take the world by storm, with or without rattles.

Cotton Cordell lures are as viable today as they were a half-century ago. His carved and molded creations still catch fish. For those of us who were molded in other ways by him, the impact has been equally lasting.