While there is some debate about which company actually started the natural finish craze that hit the crankbait market in the very late 70s and early 80s, there is little doubt which company made the most lifelike creations at the time. Thanks to advances in technology, manufacturers were able to take quality photographic images and apply them to the surfaces of their baits. Now, instead of painting on an image of a fish in a spray room, instead you would end up with a picture of a baitfish or a crawdad applied to your lure.
Nearly all the lure manufacturers at the time came out with their versions of such plugs, including the likes of Rebel, Bomber, and Mann’s. However, the award in this category would have to go to Bagley for their ‘Small Fry’ series of baits. Not only did they have the natural photo finish like other companies, they went a step further and crafted their balsa baits in the exact shape of the finish being applied. In this early April-May 1979 ad for their first two lures in the series, the baby bass and the bluegill, they actually joked about cloning these fish due to the ultra-realism. Later they would release models of shad and crayfish, followed by perch and walleye and smallmouth models for big game anglers after pike and musky.
While the natural craze took off from a marketing standpoint with your everyday angler, the tournament pros were actually somewhat divided on the concept. In a group of stories in the 1980 B.A.S.S. Fishing Guide, one focused on the pro’s opinions of the new trend in lures. Here’s a sampling of comments from that article;
- “Only color, size, depth and action have any bearing on whether a fish bites.” – Roland Martin
- “Fish don’t check on designs. They strike lures on impulse.” – Larry Nixon
- “Bass are becoming more educated, and the more natural a lure looks, the better an angler’s chances of outsmarting them.” – Ricky Green
- “In clear water, where bass rely on sight a great deal, these lures have to help. The real benefit, though, is the psychological boost the fisherman gets by using something that looks so real, which translates into confidence.” – Rick Clunn
- “I believe they give a fisherman confidence.” – Bill Dance
- “If they’re any better, it’s because of the new design, which produces a different wobble – that’s the big difference.” – Basil Bacon
The argument is still ongoing to this day some 35 years later, and we continue to see super-realistic baits being made and marketed, the swimbait genre being one great example. Another would be some of the baits put out by Kopper’s in their ‘Live Target’ line. Perhaps we’re not any closer to the answer now than we were back then.