Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Elmer "Doll" Thompson Passes Away

Elmer "Doll" Thompson dies

Wayne Mullins passes along news that Elmer "Doll" Thompson, one of the more colorful tackle makers of the twentieth century, passed away last Wednesday, July 16 after a long illness. He was the founder of Thompson Fishing Tackle Company of Knoxville, Tennessee.

Tennessee native Thompson was the inventor of some enduring lures, especially the Doll Fly, a jig that local outdoor writer Bob Hodge notes became the cornerstone of a company that was "at one time, believed to make more artificial baits a day than any other bait manufacturer. Unless you fished by yourself with only hooks and a worm, you knew what a Doll Fly was." Apparently at its height the firm made 75,000 lures per day--a staggering 27.5 million per year.

The ever-popular Doll Fly on a point-of-purchase display card.

Thompson T-Series Zing Fly from 1969 Victoria Advocate advertisement.

Thompson Fishing Tackle was founded in 1952 and became an immediate success. He would eventually add numerous other lures to the line, including the ever-popular Doll Top Secret in 1968, a Heddon Punkinseed knockoff that was popular enough that it was kept in production for almost fifteen years. Hodge noted it was "modeled after a balsa wood plug that had been popular in East Tennessee for more than a decade."

Original Thompson Top Secret ca. 1968

Later Zebco post-1972 Top Secret

A Zebco modified Super Secret with deep dive lip

Other lures would follow. The Doll Fish was a popular lure first introduced in 1972. Outdoor writer Don Carpenter declared of it in The Annapolis Evening Capital: "Something new in plugs for fishing is the 'Doll Fish' made by Thompson Fishing Tackle Co., Knoxville, Tenn. It is a sinking, fast-vibrating brilliant colored minnow with real-to-life scales that make it look like the McCoy. It emits a 'clickity chek' sound while moving, is made in three sizes, 1/4-ounce, 3/8-ounce, and 5/8-ounce--colors ranging from light to dark."

A Thompson Doll Fish in the box

In 1972, after two decades at the helm, Doll Thompson sold his company to Brunswick Corporation, venerable pool table makers who had acquired Zebco corporation in 1961. Having made a name for themselves in the fishing reel market, the Brunswick-owned Zebco found a nice match in Doll Thompson, who served on the Board of Directors of the firm until 1975. Zebco continued making most of Thompson's line into the 1980s.

A later Doll Ditch Digger deep diving crank bait

Thompson's lasting legacy will no doubt be the Doll Fly, which was so popular that before long any lead and hair jigs were called Doll Flies, whether they were made by Thompson or not. Interestingly, Thompson Doll Flies were made with Polar Bear hair, and apparently Elmer had pretty nearly cornered the market on their skins.

Today, by far the most popular of the Thompson baits are the Top Secret, both the original and later Zebco models (some painted by Heddon). But it is his Doll Fly that is Elmer Thompson's lasting legacy. So the next time you cast a jig, remember the man who was partly responsible for popularizing it and who manufactured as many (or more) than any other company for two decades.

Bob Hodge penned a nice memorial to Elmer "Doll" Thompson and his accomplishments that is well worth reading.

-- Dr. Todd


Wayne Miller said...

Someone just passed along a Doll Ditch Digger to me today.. Well used but was able to retrieve part of the name from the lip where I quickly located this site. Sorry to hear of his passing.. But now I'm wondering if it would be worth more in its current condition. I had planned to repaint it and use it.

Wayne Miller said...
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