The evolution of bass tackle

Just after dawn on the morning of June 5, 1967, when Bill Dance cast a blue Fliptail plastic worm across a sunken roadbed in Beaver Lake and caught what is generally considered to be the first-ever largemouth taken in BASS competition, he unknowingly turned a century-old industry into an overnight success.

Just after dawn on the morning of June 5, 1967, when Bill Dance cast a blue Fliptail plastic worm across a sunken roadbed in Beaver Lake and caught what is generally considered to be the first-ever largemouth taken in BASS competition, he unknowingly turned a century-old industry into an overnight success.The industry, of course, was the manufacture of fishing tackle, which in various and scattered forms, had existed since the 1840s. Many lure making companies, like Heddon, Shakespeare, Pflueger and others, had become successful long before Dance caught that fish, but what the Tennessee angler and his fellow tournament competitors unknowingly accomplished, was to give the industry a new direction it still follows. "Keep in mind that fishing tackle basically originated in Europe, but the overall development of new items there was slow because only royalty and clergy actually had fishing rights on the rivers," explains nationally known fishing historian Karl White of Luther, Okla.

 "Once fishing reached America, and following the Colonial period, tackle development was very rapid, because anyone could go fishing. After about 1850, the U.S. Patent Office was flooded with applications concerning tackle. No one tried to patent an entire lure — only some device on it; and if it proved successful, other lure makers immediately copied it. That's how the industry grew in the beginning." After 1967, with the increasing interest in bass fishing being generated by Dance & Co. in tournament competition, tackle makers shifted into high gear. The week after Dance won his first tournament, the 1968 Rebel Invitational at Ross Barnett Reservoir, he received telephone calls from three plastic worm manufacturers offering varying amounts of sponsorship (he signed with Creme Lures). Since then, it has been a wild ride for everyone involved, much of it filled with stories that defy the imagination. Indeed, the history of the past 35 years of tackle building is probably best told as stories about those involved.A Tennessee wood carver, for instance, whittled a plug that, in 1972, forever changed the crankbait industry. A soft plastics design that revolutionized the plastic worm was once sold after being demonstrated in a toilet bowl, and another that has sold millions was modeled after a Bic ballpoint pen.

 By the late 1960s, when the Bassmaster Tournament Trail competition began, there were, of course, many different lures available to bass fishermen. The plastic worm had been around for more than 15 years, and plugs — particularly topwaters — had been available since the turn of the century.Spinnerbaits, likewise, had been developed many years before, but not until 1964 had a patent been issued for an honest-to-goodness safety-pin-type spinnerbait (to John W. Thomas), so this design was still a fairly new concept when Dance went zipping across Beaver Lake that morning.

 Crankbaits were offered from companies like Heddon, Creek Chub, and the Finnish company Rapala, which hit a huge publicity home run Aug. 17, 1962, when Life Magazine, featuring Marilyn Monroe on the cover, published a story on the lures.Because fishermen everywhere are among the world's greatest tinkerers, changes and improvements to all the different lure types came quickly after those first tournaments. Often too, improvements emerged simultaneously but independently by anglers trying to solve a common problem, and once it was solved, others copied the idea.

 North Alabama fisherman Bill Huntley, for example, began tinkering with spinnerbaits on his kitchen table each night after working all day in the medical supply business. Each night, that is, when he wasn't testing his new creations on Tennessee River smallmouth. Huntley is credited by many as being the first to use a ball bearing swivel; the first to use satin stainless wire instead of the commonly used steel piano wire; and certainly one of the first to experiment with what later became known as the willowleaf blade. At the same time, Nashville, Tenn., angler Stan Sloan, winner of that first Beaver Lake event (Dance was second), was also experimenting with spinnerbaits, although he actually won the tournament on a topwater lure. A former police officer, Sloan used the tournament win, combined with his success in later events, to move into the lure business full time, using his Zorro Spinnerbait as the foundation. Another pioneer BASS angler, Don Butler, initially in the lumber business, used his early tournament success to launch the Okiebug Spinnerbait.

 In the years since, spinnerbaits have been and continue to be made and marketed by dozens of companies, large and small. Heads, hooks, wires, skirts and blades have all been altered, but probably the single most influential change has been the willowleaf blade, which is now the most widely used design in the industry.The Hildebrandt company had been making willowleaf blades for some time, but it wasn't until 1984 that the blade officially found its way into BASS competition. That's when anglers like Roland Martin, Kim Carver, Hank Parker and others started using huge Size 8 willowleaf blades to fish heavy vegetation, particularly on the St. Johns River and in Lake Okeechobee. The big blades not only cut through the greenery, they also provided plenty of flash.

 Carver's 1984 win in the St. Johns Bassmaster Invitational, along with Martin's victories in both the Georgia and Hudson River Invitationals that same year, proved how effective the blade could be. But more importantly, their successes showed that the overall willowleaf design — big or small — offered multiple advantages in other situations, such as brushtops, tree limbs, logs, lily pads and even in open water.Soon, every spinnerbait maker was offering lures with the narrow, pointed blades as a standard option, and today the willowleaf design is the overwhelming favorite among America's anglers.A decade before the willowleaf began dominating the spinnerbait market, the plastic worm underwent its own radical change: In effect, the worm grew a new tail. Instead of staying straight, as they had for the previous two decades, the new lures featured curled, swimming, spiral tails.The earliest version was French-made, patented under the name Sosy Eel and introduced at the 1973 American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association (AFTMA) trade show in Chicago by R.J. Benson, president of a firm named Generic Systems. The Sosy Eel was a fairly large-bodied lure featuring a thin, curving, sicklelike tail; it wasn't a worm at all. As the Eel was retrieved, the tail vibrated like a swimming eel or snake.By January 1974, Rick Welle and Glynn Carver of the Carver Plastisols Co. in Minden, La., had introduced their own version, the Mister Twister worm, in both 4- and 6-inch lengths, and the rest is history. They'd shipped 3 million swimming tail Twisters by April 1 that same year, and were retooling to be able to produce half a million worms a day.Others quick to copy the concept included Cordell, Mann's, Burke, Stembridge, Lindy, Bagley and others, all of whom sold the new worms as fast as they could manufacture them. A Cordell rep reportedly sold $9,000 worth of their worms by demonstrating one in a toilet bowl. The French Sosy Eel soon disappeared under this onslaught, but the swimming-tail design is now a standard in the soft plastics industry, and has since been incorporated in lizards, grubs, frogs, jig and spinnerbait trailers and creature baits. Relatively speaking, far more swimming-tail lures are sold and used today than straight tails.

 In just the past three years, another version of the plastic worm, the soft plastic stickbait, has also firmly established itself in both fishing lore as well as in the marketplace. If you think the blunt-nosed Yamamoto Senko looks surprisingly like a Bic ballpoint pen, you're exactly right, because that's what Yamamoto showed his lure designers as they were struggling to produce a soft jerkbait. Yamamoto had been fishing in Florida about the time Herb Reed's soft jerkbait, the Slug-Go, skyrocketed into popularity, and he decided to make some type of soft jerkbait himself. As design after design failed to produce the results he wanted, Yamamoto simply handed his staff a Bic, from which a mold was made.

 The lure's action — a horizontal fall while both ends of the bait vibrate — came as a surprise to all of them, but the Senko's success in tournaments has spawned nearly a dozen copies.

 The soft plastics industry probably has more milestone developments than any other phase of lure manufacturing because these types of baits are not only popular, they're also among the least expensive to produce. And, as Dance so clearly illustrated in 1967, tournament fishing has frequently been the catalyst that sparked their success.

 Bobby and Garry Garland's original tube lure, the Gitzit, for instance, was introduced in 1982, but for years most considered it a light tackle, clear water lure. That concept changed immediately after Doug Garrett's 1997 MegaBucks victory, when he revealed how he and several other Arkansas pros regularly fished the lures on heavy line and in thick cover.Denny Brauer's 1998 Bassmaster Classic win with a tube further established the lure's credibility, and for a time, Strike King, Brauer's sponsor, simply could not keep up with public demand for this "new" lure. Today, Garry Garland's original hollow lure concept has not only been widely copied, but also incorporated into several very successful new designs.An even more dramatic illustration of how tournament success has affected the evolution of soft plastic fishing tackle is Jack Chancellor's 1985 Bassmaster Classic win with a 4-inch, 2-hook worm and a sinker/leader combination known as the Carolina rig.Chancellor didn't invent the little worm or develop the technique; that had been done by Gastonia, N.C., angler Lloyd Deaver as early as the mid-1950s. Deaver's original worm was named the Fish Finder, and it sold very well, comparatively speaking, for its time. In fact, Deaver fired his two sales reps because they sold more worms than he could make.

 Until Chancellor's dramatic win, however, Carolina rigging was not an accepted technique among tournament anglers. After his win, it became one of the most popular of all bass fishing tactics, and companies began marketing not only short plastic worms, but also new slip sinkers, glass beads and special Carolina rig rods. The pros quickly recognized that almost any soft plastic lure could be used with the rig, and while the 4-inch, 2-hook worm is seldom used by serious bass hunters today, the Carolina rig technique is quite common.Without question, one of the most remarkable stories of how a single lure impacted the evolution of fishing tackle involves the Big O, a hand-carved crankbait whittled by Fred Young of Maynardville, Tenn. Like the willowleaf spinnerbait blade, it took a professional bass tournament angler to kick-start it. That angler was Young's friend, Billy Westmorland.

 The Big O was short and fat, and with its small lip, the lure not only dived but also vibrated or wobbled as it moved through the water. When the retrieve was stopped, the lure quickly floated to the surface. Not only were these features unique, the entire lure actually looked like a baitfish.

 Young could whittle about one Big O per day, and area fishermen stood in line to purchase them for $5 each. One of those fishermen was Westmorland, who, at the June 1972 Tennessee National tournament on Watts Bar Lake, accidentally let other competitors see the lure. The reaction was instantaneous, as everyone scrambled to get a Big O. Because there weren't enough to go around, the crankbaits were rented for $5 per day, but cost $25 if an angler lost it.

 Westmorland never won a national BASS tournament with the Big O, but others did. When Larry Hill won the 1973 Florida Invitational by boating some 60 pounds of fish in an hour with the lure (he won with 108 pounds, 2 ounces), the future of crankbaiting changed forever. Cotton Cordell secured the rights to the Big O from Young, and sold more than a million of them the first year. Heddon, Storm, Norman, Bagley, Rebel, Mann's and others quickly introduced their own versions.

 Virtually all of today's diving crankbaits can trace their basic design heritage to Young's Big O. Crankbaits, of course, were being manufactured long before Young started carving his Big O, and some have said he may have simply copied a plug whittled years before by another fisherman. Whatever the case, there is no doubt his particular creation was the forerunner of today's diving plugs, if for no other reason than for the publicity generated by tournament anglers like Hill and Westmorland.It is difficult, if not impossible, to detail all the other developments in fishing tackle that have been generated by bass tournament pros during the past 35 years of competition on waters around the nation. Bill Dance certainly did not know what catching that first fish at Beaver Lake would mean in the evolution of tackle, but the overall result has been nothing short of phenomenal.

 The history of rods

 In the late 1960s, most bass fishermen used a 5 ½-foot fiberglass rod with either a short, straight handle or a pistol grip — but on the West Coast, a small group of anglers was already setting in motion the wheels of change.

 That change — the use of a 7 ½-foot rod and the technique of flipping — was introduced to the rest of the bass world when Dee Thomas used it to win the 1975 Arkansas Invitational at Bull Shoals Lake. Thomas is known as the "Father of Flippin'," but it was one of his disciples, Dave Gliebe, who truly proved the effectiveness of the long rod/short line technique.Gliebe won the 1977 Louisiana Invitational on Toledo Bend by flipping up a total of 83 pounds, 2 ounces of bass. He followed that with a victory in a tough event on Florida's Lake Kissimmee in 1978. In the years since, no other technique has so impacted the rod industry as has flipping and its offshoot, pitching. Both have led to wide acceptance of generally longer rods for virtually every type of fishing.The use of graphite in rods has also had a huge impact in the industry, so much so that fiberglass rods are hard to find today. Cotton Cordell of Hot Springs, Ark., was building and marketing graphite rods as early as 1971.Cordell, in fact, was not allowed to fish Ray Scott's initial bass tournament on Beaver Lake because Scott considered him a "pro," since even in 1967 he had already been in the rod and lure business for 20 years.Among other accomplishments, Cordell had whittled a pistol grip rod handle he and Alabama rod maker Lew Childre had taken to Japan, and the Japanese promptly manufactured one for them overnight. The pistol grip rod handle immediately became the standard on Childre's famous Speed Sticks, and then the rage on rods all across America.

 During the mid-1970s, another rod maker, Gary Loomis, was also beginning to make his name known. But after Loomis sold his company, Lamiglas, he left the fishing business and began working nights in a machine shop. One day, Cordell, who wanted to concentrate on lures, called his friend Loomis and gave him his entire rod making inventory. From there, initially working out of a rented house, Loomis started the G. Loomis company, which continues to produce some of America's most popular graphite rods.Another company, California-based Fenwick, also introduced graphite rods in the 1970s, and while they may not have actually had the first graphite technology, they marketed it more successfully than anyone else. Their rods put graphite on the fishing map, and today, fishing rods are one of the major applications for this material.

 Fishing line developments

 The improvement of fishing lines since 1967 really has only one landmark development that can be directly attributed to bass tournament competition: Randy Dearman's March 1993 win in the Texas Bassmaster Invitational at Sam Rayburn Reservoir, where he used a braided line instead of monofilament.

 Monofilament had been in use since 1959, and while manufacturers like Berkley and DuPont Stren introduced new lines almost annually, the most popular types were pretty much derivatives of the same technology. Chemists could boast about changing polymers and molecular structures, but bass fishermen simply talked in terms of castability, stretch, and abrasion resistance.Then came Dearman's win, and suddenly the playing field changed. Here was a line that was practically unbreakable and without very much stretch. It was extremely sensitive, and if you wanted to, you could use 90-pound test — easily strong enough to handle any largemouth that swims.Companies throughout the industry quickly began marketing their own versions of these lines.Today, these "superlines" are still popular among many anglers, but through tournament experimentation, the pros have helped define specific qualities of braided lines, so everyone can use them more effectively.

 The use of fluorocarbon lines in bass fishing is one of the most recent steps in the evolution of lines, but acceptance has been slow, primarily because of castability and also cost. Both of these problems have been addressed by a growing list of producers, however, and future use of these nearly invisible and incredibly strong lines is almost sure to increase.

 The reel story

 The evolution of fishing reels has been much less dramatic than that of baits and rods. In the 1960s, the Swedish firm of Abu practically controlled the baitcasting market, and today's reels, while much improved, still rely on many of the same principles that governed those early models.The greatest improvements have come in spool braking systems, which no longer require the full use of an "educated thumb." Magnets and other devices have proved extremely successful in slowing spools and preventing backlashes.Have these innovations come as a direct result of tournament competition? Probably not directly, but certainly indirectly. These are improvements aimed at satisfying the masses of casual anglers, but again, the overall interest in bass fishing has been strongly influenced by tournament fishermen and the publicity they generate.Other developments in reel technology have followed this same path. More streamlined "tear drop" shapes have made casting more comfortable, while additional ball bearings have improved overall smoothness and performance. Special on/off switches engage or disengage the spool for flipping or casting.