There have been quite a few firsts that have come out of California with respect to bass techniques. No one can dispute that Flipping didn’t come from the Golden State and arguments can be made that a specific form of split-shotting and doodling were developed on the “left” coast. Although the drop-shot rig was brought over from Japan (via Connecticut some might say), it was the California anglers that made the technique famous when they began winning tour-level events with it.
Another technique that has its roots centered in California is the swimbait. Over the years I’ve written numerous articles on the subject, the first of which was a piece I penned for In-Fisherman around the 2002 timeframe. The piece reported on the history of swimbaits and how they came about – namely striper anglers trolling large wooden lures such as Rapalas and incidentally catching trophy largemouths along with a group of bass anglers using large, 12-inch ocean boot tails (Worm King Dinosaurs) to target the double-digit bass in the southern California lakes. The time I listed as the beginning was around 1986 or ’87.
What I’d forgotten was a group of anglers in the San Diego region of California, who had been trolling big Rapalas and Rebels with leadcore line since the mid-70s. It wasn’t until a few days ago when I was reading a 1979 issue of Western Bass Magazine and a 1980 issue of BASS Master that my memory was jogged.
In the issue of Western Bass, there’s an article titled, “Deep Trolling,” by Harlon Bartlett. In this piece Bartlett interviewed “Lunker” Bill Murphy, Ray and Allan Nordlund and George Puras – the last three credited with first trolling big lures specifically for bass.
The Nordlunds and Puras say they started trolling the ocean-sized baits for brown trout (a technique proven on Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir for trophy browns) that had been stocked in San Vicente Reservoir in the mid-70s. Although they didn’t catch many trout, they reported catching a lot of bass and big ones at that. It wasn’t long before Murphy got wind of this and went out with Red DeZeeuw to try it out. They had success right off the bat.
The second article I ran into was in the January 1980 issue of BASS Master Magazine and titled, “Lake San Vicente: Where the Lunkers Lurk,” by Rolla Williams. In this piece Williams talked mostly about the quest for the million-dollar bass and the San Diego lake thought most likely to produce it – San V.
In the article “Lunker” Bill was again interviewed but what was most intriguing about this piece was the picture of the “modified” Rapala being used at the time. It was a Frankenstein-type bait, half Rapala half soft ocean swimbait with an ocean-going double IP hook normally used with tuna feathers. The bait resembles many others manufactured today.
The article also talked about some recent records that were taken out of San V just prior to printing. There was the 87 1/2-pound 10-fish limit taken by Doug Crandall and Sam Herring, a five-fish limit weighing 60-09 caught by Ken Locke (trolling the Frankenstein bait) and a five-fish limit by Murphy that weighed 49-07 – all caught while trolling the big bait.
Another interesting – albeit off the topic – part of the article was the report of the San Diego Lakes gaining so much international exposure that even a Japanese couple booked a guided trip for their honeymoon. Are they possibly the first Japanese to come to America to fish bass?
Anyway, back to the subject of swimbaits. Although trolling a Rapala or other large plug may not be considered by today’s standards “swimbait” fishing – what Murphy and others were doing definitely paved the way with respect to bait modifications. It wouldn’t be until the mid- to late-80s that anglers would start experimenting with castable swimbaits and those were limited. Baits that could be effectively fished at depth were generally soft plastic boot-tail bodies with leadheads, while the wooden baits were predominantly floaters that would dive upon retrieve.
The whole swimbait industry is another topic for another time but it’s fun to go back and see its humble beginnings when the term swimbait hadn’t even been thought of yet.