Classic Gear Part 1: Winning Lures

The tricky part — the part that makes analysis incomplete and sketchy — is the fact that the Classic has been held in all four seasons of the year. From its inception in 1971 until 1982, it was a fall event fished in late September through early November. From 1983 through 2005, it was held in the summer — July and August. And since 2006, it’s been a winter derby — mid-February to early March — except for one year (2018) when it was technically in the early spring. When you spread the timing out like that, you also impact the types of lures that will be successful.

Add to the mix the fact that the Classic moves around geographically — from Lake Mead in the west to the St. Lawrence River in the north to Chesapeake Bay in the east and the Kissimmee Chain in the south — and that it’s been held on man-made reservoirs, natural lakes, tidal waters, and rivers … well, you have a hodgepodge of factors that defy much analysis.

Sure, spinnerbaits and crankbaits generally did well in the fall championships. Soft plastics won their share of summertime events, and spoons, jerkbaits and jigs have strutted their stuff in the winter, but there’s no clear trend here.

Here are the top baits and the number of Classics they helped to win:

  • 24 diving crankbaits
  • 18 plastic worms
  • 18 spinnerbaits
  • 15 jigs with trailers
  • 6 soft plastic creature baits

If you’ve done some quick addition and noted that the total is more than the number of Classics (52 and counting), it’s because most winners employ more than one bait type on their path to victory. In fact, only Bobby Murray — the first Classic champ — used only one lure type in his win (a spinnerbait).

So, if we can’t draw a meaningful bead on bait types, let’s take a look at the companies that have made the Classic winning lures. Which manufacturers have found themselves in bass fishing’s brightest spotlight most often?

Here’s the lowdown you won’t — make that can’t find anywhere else:

Wins by Manufacturer

  • 9 Strike King
  • 6 Berkley
  • 5 Bagley
  • 5 Cotton Cordell
  • 5 Mann’s
  • 5 Zoom
  • 4 Bomber
  • 4 Luck “E” Strike

There are certainly some legendary bait makers on that list, and all are still in business … though some more so than others. What’s more, all but Bomber have added to their tally since 2004.

Now let’s take a look at the staying power of Classic winning lures. You might think that adding a Classic win to your lure’s résumé is a guarantee of commercial success, but you’d be wrong. Getting credit for winning bass fishing’s biggest title is far less assurance of profitability than a solid marketing plan.

A quick review of the lures referenced in the most recent Classic wins reveals that not all are still in production, and several have changed names to incorporate the winner’s name or the word “Classic.” Thus, the homemade underspin that Casey Ashley rode to victory in 2015 is TTI-Blakemore’s “Casey’s Classic Runner” and the crankbait Randy Howell culled with in 2014 is the Livingston Lures “Howeller Dream Master” in “Guntersville Craw.” In fact, the latter bait didn’t even have a name until the Classic press conference on the final day after Randy Howell had hoisted the trophy.

Some Classic winning lures made multiple trips to the winner’s circle. In 1974, 1975 and 1976, all three winners credited a Fleck Weed Wader spinnerbait for at least part of their catch. Just as impressive, tiny Ditto Manufacturing got credit for three wins (1983, 1984 and 1987) with the Gator Tail worm.

Ultimately, the Classic has only kicked off a couple of genuine bait or technique movements, and both happened in the 1980s. Paul Elias brought attention to kneeling and reeling with deep-diving crankbaits in 1982, and Jack Chancellor started the Carolina rigging explosion in 1985 (though Carolina rigging actually started in the 1960s).

In the late ’90s, I once had a tournament partner get into my boat with 10 rods, nine of which were set up with Carolina rigs with full ounce sinkers. And this was for a springtime tournament! As you might have guessed, Jack Chancellor was his hero.

The Carolina rig movement may also say something about the importance of winning, since only the winner gets any real attention. Chancellor’s ’85 win started a craze, but Bill Dance — the sport’s first breakout star, and still its biggest name — used the Carolina rig to finish second in 1973. Dance introduced the bass fishing world to the then-mostly unknown South Carolina rig, but it took a Classic victory for anglers to actually start using it in big numbers.

We are a fickle crowd. First place is good enough for us. We want no part of second.

You could make the argument that Davy Hite drew the first major attention for creature baits in 1999 or that Denny Brauer changed tube fishing (and turned it into a Flippin’ and pitching tactic) in 1998, but both those trends paled in comparison to what Chancellor did for the Carolina rig.

Other bass fishing movements — like the square bill crankbait, Flippin’, the buzzbait, the soft plastic jerkbait, big swimbaits, the stick worm, the Alabama rig … and on and on — came into the spotlight through other tournaments, via other circuits and increasingly from outlets that have nothing to do with competitive fishing.

I’d like to believe that we are too sophisticated now to believe in a “magic lure” or to think that only one bait will work under certain conditions. As a result, the Bassmaster Classic’s ability to propel a lure or technique to the heights of old is gone. B.A.S.S. and other publishers and the stars they helped to create have educated us and let us look behind the curtain.

We finally believe what we should have known all along. That lures are tools which should be selected based upon the job to be done. There is no magic.

And the company which manufactures the lure that will be credited with winning the 2023 Classic would do well to remember that and to market accordingly. Instead of asking the winner to say, “I couldn’t have done it without the new XYZ,” try explaining that the XYZ was the right tool for the job and that you have a full lineup of tools for almost any condition an angler is likely to face.

That means selling the “solution(s)” rather than just some magic beans. It’s the “long game,” and the audience just might respect you for playing it. What’s more, it could be a boost to your entire product line.

If this year’s Classic is won on a bait manufactured by a small company with limited production capability, a small staff, few retail outlets and a meagre marketing budget, I hope the owner(s) will consider selling the company or licensing the winning lure to a larger operation.

Why? Competing with the big boys is tough. They can ramp up production and get a new bait in stores — more stores, bigger stores — much faster than a little guy. Quite often the small company is more agile and maybe even more creative, but it can’t match the firepower of the big company with a huge marketing budget, giant production facilities and immense distribution channels. The big guys play for keeps with weapons that all but ensure victory.

While the little guy is scrambling to take orders and hire production staff, the big guys are putting shipping labels on cases of the new bait.

And even if the little guy has a patent, it often doesn’t take a lot of modification to get around intellectual property rights, and some of those modifications might be improvements on the original design. After all, the first is not always the best.

The road to lure manufacturing riches is paved with the hopes and dreams of little guys who thought they could scale fast enough but fell short and got crushed in the effort. If you’re that “little guy,” I wish you luck, but I also wish you smart.

From a fan perspective, we root for the angler, not the lure. We should also keep in mind that the manufacturer with the best chance of producing a Classic winning lure may not be the company making the best baits. It’s almost certainly the company with the best pro staff or the most anglers in the field.

The winning angler is vitally important to lure sales, too. If he’s the “right” person with a big following and engaging personality, he can move a lot of product. In that way, not all Classic competitors are created equal.

And if you want to sell a lot of Classic-winning baits it helps if they’re already available at retail when the trophy is hoisted. The bass fishing public tends to have a short memory.