Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Tackle Makers of Corpus Christi, Texas, Part II

The Tackle Makers of Corpus Christi, Texas, Part II

by Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

© 2008

Yesterday we profiled a bit of Pico and Sportsman's Lure Co. history. Today we get an English lesson, Texas style.

English Fishing Lures
The majority of space in Roy Swann’s 1954 article was dedicated to the Doug English Lure Company, makers of the popular Bingo lures—the lure famous for a reflector in its eye.

The history of this firm has been covered more than most other Texas tackle companies, particularly by Dr. David McKee, who penned an article entitled “Speaking English” in the September/October 1996 issue of TIDE Magazine, a publication of the Coastal Conservation Association. Additionally, dozens of articles were published in local Texas newspapers containing interviews with English, who along with his brother C.C. became noted fishing authorities.

A later photo of Doug English.

According to an article in the 1968 Corpus Christi Caller-Times, English first caught the fishing bug in 1931 and around 1934 began to carve his first fishing lures out of toothbrush handles, lures that became so successful that when he retired from the cotton futures market in 1951 he went straight into tackle manufacturing. A former home builder and radio station owner in San Antonio, unlike his two Corpus Christi rivals he started up by investing in a plastic molding machine. Under the name “Old English Lures,” he launched a line of plugs that are still being manufactured today. The most famous of these include the Bingo line of lures, but in 1953 he also began manufacturing under license the famed “Pluggin’ Shorty” lure designed by local legend and fishing pal Anton Stettner. According to The Corpus Christi Times, in 1954 he also owned a subsidiary named C.C. Lure Company at 620 South Port Street; this was undoubtedly named for his brother C.C. English. It is possible this may have been where the Pluggin’ Shorty line was manufactured.

Early 1950s Doug English lure catalog.

According to the 1954 article, English was the only firm in the city to make its own lure bodies, and the article was accompanied by a photo showing employee George Melendez working the plastic pour mold machine.

Swann described the process of manufacturing a reflector style Bingo lure:

Take a look at what happens to a typical lure with a reflector inside it: The lure is molded in two pieces, or sides, so a mirror-like reflector can be inserted. One girl will insert a lead weight and the reflector and cement the sides together. It goes to another table where the edges are smoothed. Then it gets its first “dipping” in a lacquer base clear paint. If there are different colors to be painted on the lure, usually a different girl does each step. Other girls add spots, eyes, etc. which are decals. When this is done the lure is dipped again. From there the lure moves to more workers who drill holes for the screw eyes, put on the hooks, then package the finished lure. While work on the lure itself is being done, others must mold lead for the weights, bend the wire hangers for hooks and attend to various other details.

Notice that only women are mentioned as factory workers and assemblers; this of course continues the tradition of the majority of fishing tackle being assembled and painted by women.

Swann further noted that: “The actual work is done on a moderate assembly line process. According to different lures and techniques, there can be as many as 34 different steps in making a lure. All steps are small, but highly important, and sometimes skillful jobs.”

Most of the second half of the 1954 article was dedicated to an interview with Leon Cunningham, the manager of the Doug English Company, and his opinions on lure colors. “A color plug that catches fish in the Galveston bays may not be worth a dime in our own bays,” Cunningham declared. “For instance, we put out a green colored lure that is a real fish-getter around Rockport, but our fishermen find it doesn’t work very good over here.” This helps explain why many Texas lures (and saltwater plugs in general) are found in such a bewildering array of colors, more so than their freshwater counterparts. Cunningham argued that this was because if a lure catches a bass in a certain freshwater stream or lake, it will also catch them in another one, so the number of colors necessary is much smaller overall.

As Swann commented, “Cunningham had a theory about why lures would sometimes get fish when bait wouldn’t and why sometimes bait worked and lures wouldn’t.” He quoted Cunningham at length:

“When our game fish strike a lure, they aren’t always hungry or feeding. They are called game fish for the meanness, and they strike the brightly colored lure strictly for the purpose of killing it, not because they are hungry. And sometimes when they won’t strike lures, they are busy feeding and that is when bait is needed.”

It was a simple thing for a bait manufacturer to know what colors are hot and what aren’t: check their shipping manifests.

Interestingly, Cunningham also helped solve a minor Doug English Lure Co. mystery—the story behind the lures marked “Merry Christmas,” “Season’s Greetings,” and “Happy New Year.” Every holiday season, English made up a special batch of lures for his best customers and placed Christmas tape in place of the reflector. Apparently he rotated these sayings, and they became quite popular. After his first batch went out an angling customer in Louisiana sent him the following note:

“One day I used this Merry Christmas plug and it really got the fish. But the next day I had to put on Seasons Greetings to do any good.”

This Doug English promotional "Happy New Year" bait recently sold for $271 on ebay, even in rough condition.

In 1968, Doug English claimed to have given away more lures than any manufacturer in America, but with one proviso: he always gave them to real fisherman, who would use them, find they caught fish, and tell their friends. Because of this he rarely had to advertise.

Cunningham concluded his interview with a trade secret as true then as it is today: most colors, particularly the gaudy ones, are designed to catch fisherman. “They want them like that so we give ‘em to them,” he said.

Doug English had a number of his own ideas on the subject, which I will leave for another day as his angling career is worth exploring in greater depth. The Doug English Lure Company eventually became the Bingo Bait Company and continues down to this day, albeit in a truncated form.

The 1950s and 1960s were certainly the heyday of Corpus Christi fishing tackle manufacturing, and the three firms combined to ship approximately a million lures annually all across the country. In 1954 Texas was still their prime territory, but interestingly enough, they sold more lures away from the coast than along it—Dallas, Waco, and San Antonio being the hotbeds. As for out-of-state buyers, of course the Gulf Coast was a big market, but so was Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri. The East Coast and Midwest were the weakest markets—some slight interest in New York and Chicago—but they were just starting to crack the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Corpus Christi tackle makers is they managed to sell so many lures without truly penetrating the hotbed angling market of Wisconsin-Minnesota-Iowa-Michigan-Ohio.

There were other Corpus Christi tackle companies, but it was these three companies (in various incarnations) that formed the backbone of the mid-twentieth century Corpus Christi tackle manufacturing field. While their histories can be a bit confusing, it is worth trying to puzzle it out as Corpus Christi was an important hotbed of angling innovation that has been for too long overlooked. Hopefully, others will take the time to more fully flesh out their histories.

NOTE: If any Texans living within hailing distance would be willing to try and track down an original copy of the 1954 newspaper article and make better quality images, I would appreciate hearing from you.

Further Reading:
Bingo Baits are still being made, and a neat history can be found by clicking here.

A brief history of the Hump Lure Company can be found by clicking here.

An additional Corpus Cristi tackle company was founded in 1959 by Richard Svertz as The American Tackle Company (Am-Tac), and a brief history of this firm can be found by clicking here.

Noted Texas collector and historian Colby Sorrels has written me the following note that helps clarify some points in the two-part article. I thank him for sending the following information!

I believe the quote that Sportsman's was bought by Humps may be suspect. Sportsman's has remained a mystery company. Very little information on the early company and their lures were not made very long. Although to some their products may look similar to other Texas coastal lures like Bingos, they are really different. Bingo made far more lures than Sportsmans.

We need to keep in mind most of Nichols/PICO history was actually after World War II and not before! The Nichols company was very small before the war. The use of plastics after the war is what got PICO going. Nichols used crude amber plastic they bought at a local hardware store to produce the ealry plastic shrimp and other lures. Many of these lures today are slowly being destroyed due to the fragile nature of the early plastic.

True plastic production was after WWII and for Nichols/early PICO it was limited to only three lures - the Perch, the painted production shrimp and the Nichols Flirt-PICO Peppy. There are very few of these lures out there. I collected Nichols/early PICO for almost 20 years and found less than 2 dozen of each of these lures during that time. They simply did not make many which is very unusual because if you think about plastic production you think about numbers. I would guess that of these three early plastic production lures there are less than 300-400 in collectors hands today. That is the reason they are bringing crazy prices on eBay today. A few lures being chased by several collectors.

-- ©2008 Dr. Todd Larson

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