The Birth of the Swimbait

“Lunker” Bill Murphy with a 14-04 he caught out of San Vicente Reservoir. Photo Western Bass Magazine Spring 1979 Issue.

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.

“Lunker” Bill displays some off the Rapala CD18s and other baits he uses for deep trolling. Photo Western Bass Magazine Spring Issue 1979.

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.

Photo January 1980 issue of BASS Master Magazine.

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.

  • cc

    Thanks again Terry for these great articles and for calling out the often obscure and/or forgotten names that need calling out – great stuff!!!

    The West is the best….

    • Hey CC, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • Terry, I think the first swimbait was the Mister Twister Sassy Shad. It wasn’t a giant bait like the original AC Plug or some of the baits Murphy and others were trolling in the ’70s, but it definitely came first and was a clear predecessor to the products we would readily identify as swimbaits today (in your words, “soft plastic boot-tail bodies with leadheads”). Not to take anything away from the late, great Bill Murphy, but the swimbait was born in or around Minden, Louisiana, in the late 1960s or early ’70s, well before the California trophy hunters got involved.

    • Hi Ken! Great to see you here. As far as the term “swimbait” goes, there’s a lot of debate and there “was” a lot of debate about what defined swimbait in the late 80s to early 90s. I think we can all agree that the term swimbait was coined in California and specifically southern California.

      At the time, there was the striper group (wood-plug guys) and the Dinosaur guys (12-inch boot-tail guys) all trying to make a name. The first term coined was “Big Bait.” Seems logical (and it’s still used today to an extent) but it didn’t fully define the genre of lures they were developing. Then someone coined the term Swimbait to differentiate big swimming plugs from the “boot-tail” genre of lures.

      The Boot-Tail guys also started using the swimbait moniker but the wood guys didn’t like that because they saw any plastic bait as a “Sassy Shad.” Then everyone came to an agreement, that in order to be able to be defined as a swimbait, it had to be over 8 inches in length. That’s the way I remember it happening when I worked at the tackle shop during those times. We’d have a wood-bait guy and a plastic bait guy in the shop and they’d argue until the cows came home. LOL

      As for the Louisiana connection, I’d love to read about that. Is there something out there I can find? I’d like to use it here on the site to hopefully give credit where credit is due.

      Thanks again for commenting Ken. It’s nice to see you on here.

      Terry

  • How about the Vivif? It had all the attributes of modern swimbaits (poorer construction materials tho) and I believe it was brought over from France well before sassy shads and their ilk were on the market. My brother-in-law had one and actually caught fish in Kansas farm ponds and strip pits with it. It was made of some rubber stuff that got stiff and cracked after a while, the colors were pretty dull – but the tail swam and it caught fish. Also I consider the old creek chubs and pflueger mustangs as early wooden swim baits – mustangs still used here in WVa. for musky and big walleye.

  • Andrew

    Terry, love this article. Honestly, this is what I think of every time some guy from the midwest say us California swimbaiters owe them everything. They may have started throwing big baits before us, but we did our own fair share of developing baits, and mostly from the saltwater side to boot.

    • I’ve been experimenting with modern swimbaits and they are all California inspired, if not made there. The west coast boys with their particular bass fishery along with some really great creative minds are the well spring for my swim bait fishing today. I’m always happy to give credit to creative lure designs and techniques regardless of west coast, midwest, deep south, etc. It’s all bass fishing and it’s all fun – we’re on the same team.

      • Capt Bosley,

        I have to agree with you that the Vivif would today be considered a swimbait. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, it was the first boot-tailed type bait produced. I vividly remember trolling those things off of SoCal for albacore and other tuna – mainly off of boat lines. They were a pretty cool bait.

        The development of the swimbait came from a bunch of old baits that looked like they should work but didn’t. This caused folks like Lunker Bill and the other early swimbait guys to develop baits that would work for the bass they were targeting. The musky and pike guys have always used big baits and some of our roots come from them. As anglers we always tinker to make a better bait – even if that means we chop them up and make one bait out of a number of them. It’s always been that way and always will be.

        Like you said, we’re all on the same team. 🙂