Remembering Sam Griffin

MOORE HAVEN, Fla. — As he taught people how to catch bass, Sam Griffin also instructed them about life. Some of that was intentional. But, I suspect, much of it was not. Sam was a natural mentor.

“Patience and fishing slowly will catch a lot more fish than fishing fast. I tell people they have to learn to catch more fish rather than make more casts,” Sam once told me. “Be superhumanly patient, and not just when fishing.”

Another time, he said, “If you know everything, you’d quit fishing because there’s no challenge in it. Every time you go fishing, you think ‘I’m going to figure this out.’

“But if you did, you wouldn’t like that, although you keep trying. That’s human nature. Sometimes, you do figure it out, for a given day.”

I don’t remember much about what was said during our final fishing trip together, this past April. But I do remember the last bass I caught with 84-year-old Sam Griffin. He said it was a “heavy 6.”

Then we, along with mutual friend Dave Burkhardt, visited the scenic lookout tower that was officially named in his honor in June.

“You know, not many people who get something named for them are around to see it,” Sam told us, as I snapped photos of the facility on Lake Okeechobee’s Harney Pond Canal.

Sadly, less than four months later, on Aug. 12, my friend Sam Griffin died. He passed away from heart failure, brought upon by complications from a blood condition.

On Jan. 8, he will be united eternally with the fishery he loved. His ashes will be scattered on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, his home, workplace and playground for more than eight decades. In 1937, he was born there on a houseboat, the son of a commercial fisherman who later owned Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp. He started guiding at age 12.

“Back then, the compression on those motors was too much for me to crank ’em so the customer had to come back there and pull the rope,” Sam said.

Over the years, Sam became known by many as “the man, the myth, the legend” for his expertise as a fishing guide, topwater expert and maker of wooden lures. Others labeled him “Mr. Lake Okeechobee.” He was deserving of those recognitions and more.

As his obituary stated, “Sam was an outspoken advocate for Lake Okeechobee and Glades County, serving as County Commissioner and on the Lake Okeechobee Advisory Council, where he was instrumental in the establishment of a fisheries office in Okeechobee with Freshwater Fish and Game Commission. He truly shaped the way Lake Okeechobee looks today, cutting boat trails in the lake with the Corp of Engineers and marking channels.”           

Fortunately, during his final year, he received more honors, as recounted by daughter, Crissy Fabian.      

“He reconnected with friends he hadn’t seen in many years,” she said. “He was able to read and enjoy Robert Montgomery’s wonderful tribute (Big Sam and the Big O: Recollections and Revelations from a Lifetime of Bass Fishing and Luremaking on Lake Okeechobee). He was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. That beautiful observation tower in Lakeport was dedicated in his name. We had several wonderful family gatherings …

“The last year or so, even though very troubling healthwise, was actually very wonderful.”

Legendary luremaker

I first met Sam Griffin at a Bassmaster Classic Outdoor Expo show more than 30 years ago. Since then, I’ve used him as a source in dozens of articles for Bassmaster Magazine, B.A.S.S. Times and He was my go-to expert for articles about topwater fishing, as well the ecological health of the Big O and how to fish it. In 2019, Sam and his “old man pole” provided the inspiration for a B.A.S.s. Times article that I wrote about how aging anglers are modifying their boats and trailers to cope with the reduced mobility and flexibility that comes with aging.

When we became friends, he was a lure designer for Luhr Jensen & Sons, after they purchased the luremaking business he’d started about a decade before. Some of his more notable creations for the Hood River, Ore., company included Jerk’n Sam, Nippin’ Sam, Lil’ Chris, Bass Baffler and Wobble Pop. He also redesigned other Jensen lures, making them better balanced.

But he didn’t like being away from his wife, Carol, and Lake Okeechobee so he moved back and started making his own wooden topwater lures again, this time under the label Custom Lures by Sam Griffin. Probably his most notable was the Lil’ Richard, named for his brother who died of cancer. In 2002, Chuck Ecnomou credited that bait with helping him take fifth place in a Bassmaster Tour event on Florida’s Lake Tohopekaliga. 

That twitchbait is my favorite for numbers, and I’ve used it all over the country to catch smallmouth and spotted bass, as well as largemouth. With his Offset Sam, meanwhile, I’ve drawn monstrous explosions and caught many big bass, including some double digits.

Sam believed that many tournament anglers used topwaters more than they reveal, preferring to keep them as their secret weapons. He also thought that topwaters are far more versatile baits than most people realize. For example, he believed that “early and late” is a myth.

“Those are not the only times to throw a topwater,” he said. “People used to fish two or three hours before work and then come home and fish two or three hours. That’s the way that got started. It wasn’t that the fish quit biting. It was that they quit fishing. After work, they’d go out and fish some more and maybe catch some more fish.

“I catch a lot of fish in the middle of the day, and I’ve found that 10 to 2 is the most productive time for big fish (on Lake Okeechobee).”

Here’s more of Sam Griffin’s bass fishing wisdom:

  • Tough fishing separates the men from the boys. That’s when you have to entice them.
  • If you’re going to get lost, you want to have a full tank of gas. As long as you have gas, you’re never lost.
  • When going into a backwater, look behind you so you can see what it looks like when you want to go out.
  • Back when we used to keep fish, I never found wild shiners in a fish unless it was caught on one. More bass eat small to medium baitfish than large baitfish.
  • If you want to get a bite, just look away for a second.
  • For the last 10 feet to the boat, look at your bait! Watch what’s going on in the water when you lift it out. That will help tell you what the fish want.