Harry 'N' Charlie redux

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Cliff Shelby

I feel sorry for the high school anglers of today. Sure, they get to skip class to practice for the next Bassmaster high school tournament and wear cool jerseys with their school logos and all. But they never knew Harry or Charlie.

The somewhat fictional characters were the stars of the longest-running feature in Bassmaster Magazine — “The Adventures of Harry ’n’ Charlie” — lasting from their debut in the July 1971 issue through most of 2006. The feature lived on in digital form on Bassmaster.com into 2010, but somehow the dateline of Swampgas Corners didn’t quite fit its new online environment.

Younger readers will get a taste of the iconic bass fishing humor series in the 1970s throwback feature on page 60. 

When I opened a color proof of that article, a small chill swept over me. Artist Arturo Gonzales Murga nailed the style of the original cartoonist, Cliff Shelby. Sadly, Cliff passed away in January 2017, but writer Don Wirth is still a mainstay contributor to this magazine.

For 35 years, Shelby and Wirth enlivened the pages of Bassmaster with hilarious tales of Harry and Charlie and their bass club buddies. They appeared in every issue of my nearly two decades as editor.

I loved reading Harry ’n’ Charlie — once it was in print. Editing it was not my favorite chore. Wirth wrote the copy as if he were a Midwesterner poking fun at Southern accents — which was precisely the case. 

Our proofreader threatened to quit if she had to mark up another installment, and when we finally got computers to publish the magazine, I made the mistake of running spellcheck on it, nearly crashing the entire system.

As an illustrator, Shelby was amazingly quick, but he was never prompt. We learned to call him several days ahead of the deadline and tell him his artwork was overdue. He was always running out of flesh-colored markers.

One of the highlights of my career was getting to know the creators of the humor column. Both were excellent fishermen, and they were as funny in person as in their art and writing.

Harry ’n’ Charlie was born out of the friendship between Wirth and Shelby, who worked together at an advertising agency in Pine Bluff, Ark. Wirth had moved from Chicago to escape the cold and be nearer to year-round bass fishing, and the two young men bonded over their shared passion for bass.

As Shelby wrote once, “Don was the only person in the whole agency who knew that a line could be thrown at something besides a secretary.”

Wirth got a kick out of Southern culture and bass fishing. He wrote some “funny little blurbs” about his and Shelby’s fishing trips. Shelby illustrated them with some cartoons, and they sent them in to Bassmaster. 

Editor Bob Cobb loved the concept so much he asked for another installment the next month. The odd-couple Bassers lived on through 305 more episodes, entertaining generations of B.A.S.S. members.

“Recently I ran into a fellow who told me his favorite childhood memory was having his grandfather read ‘Harry ’n’ Charlie’ to him,” Wirth wrote recently. “Cliff and I never made much money off our creation, but I know he would agree that bringing a little joy to good people like that has had its own rich rewards.”