Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Voices from the Past: Bill Bryan, Bagley's Lure Designer (1989)

This week in Voices from the Past we feature a great article by outdoor writer Fred David and published in The Syracuse Herald-Journal on 20 June 1989. In this article, entitled "Bryan Enjoys the Lure of Fishing," we get a pretty unique glimpse into the nature of the final years of Bagley's history. In particular, we get the insight of Bill Bryan, Bagley's lead lure developer in the later part of the 1980s. He developed some neat lures, including the Grass Rat and the Smoo.

Bryan Enjoys the Lure of Fishing
By Fred David

When Bill Bryan invents a new lure, he shows it to Upstate New York fish for the final stamp of approval.

Our Yankee walleyes and black bass have always smacked their lips with delight, but felt the sting of Bryan's keen sense of what it takes to fool Mother Nature.

The Winter Haven, Fla., lure-maker visited the St. Lawrence River, Oneida Lake and several smaller lakes and ponds over the weekend and caught more than 100 bass, up to 6 pounds, on his latest creation — the Grass Rat.

The top-water lure will be introduced at the annual American Fishing Tackle Manufacturer's trade show in July and be available to retail outlets in early August.

The Grass Rat's size, shape and action is being kept under wraps. Fishermen can be assured it's not another rubber rat-shaped lure, but it skims seductively over the thickest of weeds without a weedless hook.

The retired high school principal and 18-year varsity football coach in Bartow, Fla., has always made the most of lures he fished. The central Florida lakes and swamp canals were his testing sites. Although he always caught plenty of fish with the lures, he never tried to market them.

It wasn't until he retired that Winter Haven lure baron Jim Bagley hired him for promotions and his lure-making savvy. During Bryan's six years at Bagley Bait Co., he has created six new lures. His most famous is the Smoo, a modern version of the Flatfish, one of the first commercial crankbaits. The Smoo got its name because it looks like the animal in the comic strip Lil' Abner.

Bryan is so confident in the Smoo, he'll pit your best lure against the Smoo for the most expensive steak in town. He's already outfished two of Oneida Lake's best walleye and bass anglers with the banana-shaped lure.

Another popular creation was last year's Tall Walker, a cigar-shaped surface plug that caught more than 200 large- and smallmouth bass during the opener of bass season on Oneida Lake.

Lures are invented to meet a specific purpose, Bryan said. The Grass Rat came about because Floridians fish lakes and phosphate pits that become weed-choked by midsummer. Without something that will skim over the thick cover

Everybody wants to be a lure inventor, he said. A week doesn't go by that a phone call or a letter brings a new opportunity for Bagley's to buy a "new" lure or get an offer to manufacture a lure for the inventor.

The conversations or letters go something like this, Bryan said, quick and to the point: "I have invented a fishing lure and I have it patented. I would like you to manufacture it. How much will you pay me?"

"Before the second sentence begins, I already know the guy is lying. Nobody patents a lure, it costs too much money," Bryan said. "If the lure is good enough, nobody will be able to duplicate it and there's no need for a patent."

Bryan continues, "If you think the world is in need of another lure and that you'll get rich, you can forget it. I've invented six lures in the first six years at Bagley and I draw a paycheck every two weeks. Without it, I would starve. You don't make money inventing lures."

Most of the callers pause, and say they just want the lure to bring them an income, not to get rich.

"Explain to me what makes your lure different than any one on the market, other than the fact that you made it?" Bryan queries.

A standard answer, "It leaves a string of bubbles!"

"What does that do?"

"It attracts fish!"

"What facts to you have to make sure that instead it doesn't scare the fish? You need something more than a string of bubbles to make it a good lure. By the way, a hundred lures are already on the market that make bubbles."

Bryan doesn't discourage the inventor but explains the lure market is very difficult. Anyone can invent a lure because fish will bite anything, he said. It might take years, but you can get fish to bite a pencil with a hook on it.

"Lure manufacturers are looking for lures that catch fish consistently. They don't have to look like lures, just catch fish," he said.

When Bryan offers to look at the lure, most inventors never send, them. And the ones that do get forwarded are horrendous, he said.

No lure that Bagley has rejected has turned up elsewhere on the market, Bryan said.

But Bagley doesn't discourage fishermen from trying to discover a new fish-catcher. The Smoo almost got Bryan fired. When Bagley first saw the lure, he looked disgusted, said it would never work and told him to abandon the idea.

Bryan persisted and was warned again.

"I waited until Jim went out of town to work on it because I was close, but couldn't get the lathe to shape the lure," he said.

Bryan succeeded and the Smoo hit $1.2 million in sales the first year. It's the first Bagley lure to hit over a million dollars in sales the first year.

A nifty look at the final years of the Jim Bagley Bait Company, through it's head lure designer's eyes!

-- Dr. Todd

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