Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Tackle Makers of Corpus Christi, Texas, Part I

The Tackle Makers of Corpus Christi, Texas, Part I

by Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

© 2008

The great state of Texas has produced many important innovations in fishing tackle history—from the earliest known Texas tackle patent from 1853 (a spring hook invented by an African-American named Henry Sigler) to the multitude of baits offered by the Whopper Stopper and Bomber Bait Companies. But one part of the Lone Star State has been somewhat overlooked, at least by the rest of the country. This two-part article will profile three tackle manufacturers from the port city of Corpus Christi, Texas: Sportsman’s Lure Company, Padre Island Bait Company, and the Doug English Lure Company. While this piece in no way pretends to be comprehensive, it should give a bit of insight into these firms during the heyday of 20th century American fishing—the 1950s—and help bring a bit of their history to a broader audience.

A detailed article written by Roy Swann in February 1954 and published in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is a great starting place for information on these three firms. Entitled “City’s Lure Manufacturers May Produce Most in the Nation,” this lengthy article profiled all three of the local bait manufacturers and even included four rare factory photographs (although I will apologize ahead of time for the quality of the images—they were taken from poor quality microfilm copies). It was one of many articles on local bait manufacturers published in the Corpus Christi papers.

The title of the article is, of course, a bit of prevarication spawned by local pride. The article noted that combined, the three firms had the capacity to produce approximately 3600 baits per day. If that number is spread across 365 days, the total amounts to 1.3 million lures. If it is reduced to the more reasonable five-day work week, the number decreases to 936,000 annually, a far more realistic figure considering factories never work to full capacity for long periods of time. Heddon was selling 100,000 or more of a number of lures at this time—and upwards of three million per year total—a total that dwarfs the output of the Corpus Christi trio. Consider also that Charlie Helin was selling over one million Flatfish per year alone and you get the picture. That the city was not the leading bait manufacturing center in the United States should not obscure the fact that no matter how one crunches the numbers, they were selling a very impressive number of baits annually. Together, the three employed 38 workers in 1954, a considerable work force.

PICO Perches and Sportsman’s Humps
Two of the three Corpus Christi firms profiled in the 1954 article have confusing histories. The first is the Padre Island Bait Company that was the oldest of the trio, having been founded back in 1933 as the Nichols Bait Company by legendary lure maker Fred Nichols. As early as 1926 Nichols carved red cedar shrimp and other lures that are extraordinarily coveted and valuable today; at some point (likely around 1936) the name was changed to the Padre Island Bait Company, or PICO for short. Pico became a local, and soon after a nationally known name, and eventually the company relocated to San Antonio. Their great claim to fame was the Pico Perch and Pico Swimmin’ Minnow, lures that helped to revolutionize saltwater fishing.

A classic Corpus Christi Pico Perch

At the time the article was written in 1954, Roy Swann noted that Pico did not manufacture their own lure bodies. Instead, it bought “the plastic lure [bodies] from other manufacturers.” It then assembled the rough parts, painted, and packaged the lures for distribution. If the collector world is any indication, it was the largest of the three local lure makers, as more Pico lures come to market than any of its competitors. The late Carl Luckey had puzzled over the relationship between Pico and the later Hawk Lure Company; this connection can be explained by the fact that from 1955 until at least 1959, Pico was managed by lure maker, guide, and pioneering professional bass fisherman Dave Hawk. Having moved from Arkansas to head up Pico, Hawk got his initial fishing tackle company experience in Corpus Christi before making a wider name for himself elsewhere.

Working as Pico’s big local rival was the Sportsman’s Lure Company, founded in the wake of World War II and which later specialized in the famed Hump Lures designed by Earl F. Humphreys (a Texas entrepreneur who purchased the Sportsman’s Lure Company in 1956 and renamed it the Hump Lure Company). Founded in 1945, according to Dr. David McKee’s article “Can’t Get Over the Hump” (TIDE, Jan/Feb 2006) the Sportsman’s Lure Company soon spun off a subsidiary known as the Coastal Lure Company in 1949. Little else is known about this venture.

Many of the early Sportsman’s Lure Company offerings like the Talking Perch and the Wiggling Minnow were modified copies of Pico and Doug English lures, which must have frustrated and angered their city rivals to no end.

Advertisement from the 1950 Corpus Christi Times showing a variation on the popular Texas swimming minnow lures

Advertisement from the 1952 Corpus Christi Times showing a knock-off of the Doug English Bingo

Like Pico, the Sportsman’s Lure Company farmed out the manufacturing of lure bodies, concentrating on the painting, assembling, and packaging of their lures. Sportsman’s, like the other two firms, had a number of nationally known field testers, and Swann noted that “Large tackle manufacturers also keep close check on the [Corpus Christi] products and cooperate in promoting certain lures.” The article showed two photographs from the Sportsman’s plant, the first of employee Gloria Reta painting a black dot on a Talking Perch and the second of Janie Jasso putting final assembly hooks on lures.

Far fewer Sportsman’s Lure Company products come to market than their Pico rivals, likely reflecting smaller sales and the fact that the majority of their baits were sold locally and thus not easily identifiable by packaging.

Tomorrow in Part II we profile the Doug English Bait Company and its Old English and Pluggin’ Shorty bait lines.

-- Dr. Todd


jbonorden said...

I found your articles to be very informative and helpful in identifying a nichols shrimp that I have.
There was another lure company in Corpus about the same time producing lures called "Bo Bo". They were shaped like a perch and like a queen bingo. I cannot find any information about Mr. Bowman or his lure company. Have you found anything in your research?

Unknown said...

My dad, AB.Dickens.sold the company to Earl Humphries of El Campo Tx. The designs were.the brainchild of my dad, most notably the wriggling shrimp
Uncle "humph" was my sister Sandy's godfather.Doug English stole many of my dad's designs