History of Soft Plastic Baits, Jim Hutchinson, Editor of The Fisherman Magazine
Radio show from 06/18/18, Ben Ball Host, WTKF 107.1 FM, 1240 AM.
“I’ve got one word for you, Benjamin: plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”
(From The Graduate, Staring Dustin Hoffman, 1967)
Dr. Bogus: I have a guest, Jim Hutchinson, who is the managing editor of The Fisherman Magazine. I subscribe to TFM when I lived on Long Island back in the 1970s. I have actually written bunch of articles for it. I like the magazine and subscribe to it still even though a lot of the info is north of us, but there is enough articles in there…we’ve interviewed a lot of your writers Jim!
Jim Hutchinson: I’m sure you have, we used to have the mid-Atlantic edition, Eric Burnley and Chris Dollar great guys ran that magazine and we all miss it, I get e-mails and phone calls all the time people asking to have that old mid-Atlantic edition again that covers the Delmarva Peninsula to North Carolina.
Dr. Bogus: I finally got to you because you wrote an article recently and it caught my attention on the history of soft plastic baits. I’m sure s lot of people out there don’t remember the first time they used a soft plastic bait…boy I sure do! Do you Jim?
Jim Hutchinson: I do, but it’s funny, because you started that “Graduate” intro and throughout writing this article and the research I kept laughing about that line too. I do and I alluded to that in the article the whole concept of the crossover. I grew up at the Jersey Shore but found my way into this freshwater lake at a country club. Some friends and I figured a way to sneak in to the back and that was when I saw a largemouth bass for the first time and we were catching pickerel and sunnies and stuff, but when we saw the largemouth bass it was like looking at the eddies in the distance. It prompted us to go out and try to find something to throw at this fish to catch it. And it was a plastic frog that worked for the first time, and for the life of me I cannot remember what that frog was called. But that was not only my first foray as a kid into mail-order catalogue shipments for mail-order items it was also my first opportunity to catch a largemouth and it led to that crossover with using these plastics that we found on that lake then figuring out that gee these work on saltwater as well.
Dr. Bogus: Well I remember specifically for me it’s when I lived on Long Island I was a hungry post-doc and so I was trying to gather all the protein I can on a post-doc’s salary. And I remember fishing the Shinnecock Canal. It’s a tidally operated lock canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean with Peconic Bay, and every spring, right around Mother’s Day the weakfish/ gray trout would come through that canal and locks to Peconic Bay to spawn. And being a tidally operated lock system, when the tide was going the wrong way it would close up. And so we would fish that area just on the ocean side and the first bait I used was one of Jim Bagley’s Salty Dogs, which was a plastic tail of a shrimp that you put on a lead jig head. I remember one day, one Mother’s Day by the way, that I brought home 40-pounds of weakfish.
Ben Ball: I was very late to this game, mine was on a Thanksgiving Day actually fishing for a gray trout in the Haystacks using a lead-head with a plastic worm on it.
Dr. Bogus: One of the things you mentioned Jim was the idea of the crossover bait, you know there are so many baits that were designed…you know like Rat-L-Traps, spinner baits etc. that were really freshwater, not only freshwater but really bass baits that have really taken hold as far as saltwater fishing as well.
Jim Hutchinson: It’s funny you mention trout whether gray trout or weakfish, whatever, The jelly worm the Mann’s Jelly Worm which was developed on a stove-top for largemouth bass. But talking about what you put on a jig head. I think that that was the second time I was introduced to plastics in saltwater fishing, was a neighbor of ours when I was a kid had introduced me to a Mann’s Jelly Worm on a bucktail on the jetty rocks for weakfish. I every once and awhile I see a saltwater crossover, a lure or tactic into freshwater, but for the most part it seems that things cross from freshwater over to saltwater.
Dr. Bogus: Yes including the flies as well, that’s absolutely true. And it’s funny that we both discovered that sort of thing targeting weakfish! Let’s go back to some of the…I remember mine from the 1970s, you from about the same era, but really the first ones were a bit before that. Can you give us a bit of the early history of the first soft plastics Jim?
Jim Hutchinson: That was what was fun about doing this article, and I kind of couch it by saying there is a lot…if you go back to some of the manufacturers, they tell you a little about their history and I got a lot from Capt. Jim White, a book of his (How to fish Soft plastics in Saltwater). But really what I had done was to go through, and we started putting together some of the earliest remembrances, the Creme Lure Company for example. Creme has created a couple of lures, the Creme Scoundrels and a lot of these and a lot of these I hadn’t really heard of. So we’re going back into the 1930s and 1940s, and it’s funny to think that if you use The Graduate as a frame of reference from the 1960s, to think that there are already plastic lures and soft plastics in place before that, that’s kind of funny. One of the shocking ones, and Dr. Bogus and I had shared some e-mails about it, was a popular Storm bait that had come out early 2000s, it was a Storm plastic paddle tail swimmer and a lot of the guys had picked up on that for striped bass and it was for the most part very, very unique, nobody has ever seen anything like that and it was produced by the folks at Storm. But before that there was a bait by Panther Martin and Panther Martin, lot of folks know them from their little spinners, the little spinners with the blades for fresh water. But they had developed a molded plastic swim bait much earlier than that, they went back 30 years or something like that. That was pretty interesting.
Dr. Bogus: We think that the flavored baits we have are really the top of the line, but they had flavored baits well before us, right Jim? Even jelly flavored worms!
Jim Hutchinson: My understanding, I talked with Scott Wall from the Mann’s Bait Company to figure where that “Jelly Worm” name came from. It was from the jelly. It was Tom Mann back in the 1960s tinkering around with the bait he started putting in flavors and colors he put in some jelly preserves to see what would happen and lo and behold a lightbulb went off in his head…”I’m going to go with this.” And here it is all these years later… I called a couple of folks about the Mann’s Jelly Worm earlier this winter, when I was doing this story and lo and behold people still carry them in saltwater shops because they are still the “go to” when fishing for gray trout on a bucktail.
Ben Ball: I’ve caught cat fish on an old peanut butter and jelly sandwich before.
Dr. Bogus: There have been other flavors that people have used, I remember people, they may still do it, I’ve seen people sprinkle garlic powder on their baits, or use licorice. You’re laughing but it’s true!
Ben Ball: You’ve threatened using gummy bears.
Dr. Bogus: I sold them in my store!
Jim Hutchinson: I’ve seen photos, the magazine gets photos from families…dad uses some Gulp! the kid says wow that stuff looks like this and they will put out a Gummy Worm. I’ve had photos where the fluke was caught on a Gummy Bear.
Dr. Bogus: One of the things that some of those early baits, either soft plastics or even the rubber ones, the tubes, they didn’t have a lot of action. So back in the 1970s finally we has some baits with personality, little curly-tail action. How did that come about?
Jim Hutchinson: Necessity is the mother of invention! You started taking these plastics and these worms just never had much action, YOU imparted the action and so the work looked like a worm, so you jigged it up and down or just gave it a little wiggle but eventually they started getting into the whole curly-tail. And again, it’s one of those things that’s kind of neat to look at because those curly-tail shad, those paddle tail shads, when they first came out in the 1970s, they were great for fresh water and the manufacturers would gear it to the freshwater market. But when you start bringing it across to saltwater, people find they start working. It was sometime in the 1990s when a friend of mine had given me my first molded shad and that was something that had been used over in the freshwater market. Then the guys started dragging these big umbrella rigs for striped bass up in north Jersey and the New York Bight and you would attach these rubber shads to the umbrella rigs. Well we just started free-weighting them around jetties and they had such a realistic swim. But you know it was around that time in the 1970s to come up with something to make the bait to look like it’s swimming that really launched everything. Dr. Bogus as you know if anyone is talking about flounder fishing, what’s the one thing…make sure you have that paddle tail Gulp!, that swimming mullet. Think about how the technology has caught up with scents not just the scents but the whole chemical research into the way a fish strikes.
Ben Ball: Metal plastic, sometimes wood is Doc’s mantra.
Dr. Bogus: Jim, we were talking about some of the materials, I’m a chemist so I was always interested in the development going from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), to polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH-Gulp! baits), to silicones. That development has been interesting to watch especially from the environmental aspects as well.
Jim Hutchinson: Freshwater anglers and lakes seem to be under assault from the earliest as far as trying to keep those lakes free of anything that is not biodegradable. And you look back at those big baits that have that curly-tail action they thought of using some of those chemicals like PVC and materials that don’t biodegrade. So it has been something that been, really in the last decade that started with the folks at Berkley with Gulp!, and to the best of my knowledge it’s not fully biodegradable, it biodegrades after a long time.
Ben Ball: And you want to keep your plastic baits separate you’ll end up with a gooey mess!
Jim Hutchinson: You learn that lesson ONE time where you try to keep your plastics all separated, and when you don’t that’s a fun way to start your spring after a long winter.
Dr. Bogus: Yah, you have to scrape things out with a spatula!
Jim Hutchinson: That’s something I see that we will continue to go through in the next few years in terms of development, is folks trying to develop these lures that are fully biodegradable and still have that incredible action.
Dr. Bogus: One of the baits you mentioned earlier Jim were the Storm baits and that was an interesting development as well by not just having something you put on a jig head but the embedded weights and embedded rattles too.
Jim Hutchinson: Absolutely and that’s the thing, when Storm came out in the early 2000s, they really took the striper world by storm. But I mentioned that there would be the Vivif by Panther Martin that predated that. It doesn’t really matter who came first, but when people found that molded plastic it was like “Oh my God this is great.” The first problem we had was when bluefish and other toothy critters…hahahah!
Dr. Bogus: You know how that goes!