Plugging the Past, Pondering the Future

Plugging the Past, Pondering the Future
A small part of Dr. McKee’s vast lure collection.

Artificial Lures! Of all the fishing tackle we collect, I would wager that lures can create as much frenzy as the fish do. I also suspect that most readers here, have at least at some point, enjoyed using them in saltwater. For some of us it’s the whole point, and many of us have built proverbial shrines dedicated to hundreds of brightly colored, hopeful offerings. A recent visit with Dr. David McKee got me thinking about where we pluggers of today came from, and perhaps where we’re going.

McKee is a renowned 30-year professor of Marine Biology at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, now retired. Aside from many other accomplishments and contributions to the sport, he is an absolute walking Wikepedia concerning the history of Texas saltwater lures, rods, reels, old fishing line, all of it. His personal collection of highly-sought-after antiques is perhaps unrivaled, and it made me curious about reviewing some of the older stories from some of the pioneers who blazed our current trail of coastal lure fishing. I say ‘review’ because most everything here is simply cut and paste of things I found interesting from McKee’s previous and highly comprehensives articles. Two very widely read were titled “Plugging Shorty” and “Speaking English” (published  in TIDE Magazine, Sept. 1992 and 1996 respectively).

Artificial lures have been around forever, but similar to the theme of last month’s piece about how the construction of ice plants radically changed the fishery of the Mexican Laguna Madre, singular events can radically change what always was. While not exactly a singular event, there was indeed a singular timeframe that brought us to where we as pluggers are today, which was the appearance of new materials after the WWII effort. I am equally interested in looking back at a few of the more colorful characters who helped revolutionize our fishery. To avoid diving into a bottomless rabbit hole, for now, let’s just peek at two of the most prominent innovators of the time, these being Anton “Plugging Shorty” Stettner and Doug English. They have been the subject of many pens over the years, but their stories and credited quotes remain quite entertaining, at least to me.

Before World War ll, most lures were mostly hand-carved of wood, and mostly all unique. I remember one inspiring old timer’s story where back in the day they would whittle a plug out of cedar, then wrap it with a lacquered-up bullfrog skin they harvested for that purpose. That was their topwaters. Intriguing to me, and made me start experimenting.

Fast forward; when the War ushered in great material advances, early forms of plastic and other options became available. It enabled these men to more easily create what they envisioned. It seems they were after more than just fish however, as they appeared to want to slay a bigger dragon, solve mysteries of the deep, and figure out the best way to make things happen in their insatiable love of the outdoors. They were, indeed, consummate outdoorsmen.

Plugging Shorty began carving wooden lures at night in the 1930s during times of bait shortages. When he happily found that his crude plugs were catching more fish than bait, well of course he continued. His early models were simply cedar, with very few embellishments except for perhaps some glitter and red fingernail polish, but they did well for his rod and reel commercial fishing. Back then there was quite the competitive fish market, supplied by rod and reel fishermen. His first creation was a “perch-type” lure, which is understandable. It’s said that only the fish and his best friends got to see his lures, and if another wade fisherman got too close, he would cup the bait and just walk off. He was quoted as saying, “If others got my lures, they’d catch more fish, flood the market and ruin the price.” They went for three cents per pound back then.

Shorty only threw his own designs and was constantly experimenting and making innovative changes. A classic example would be when he began incorporating “wings” after plastics came out to slow the sink rate of heavier plugs. He also went with three line tie positions to better control the depth. Amazing to me that he put his new lures through four seasons of testing before going into production. I’m thinking we don’t see such extreme vetting today. Also interesting is that Stettner believed all his lures should be slow-pulled rather than jerked or hopped in any way, that a slow and steady retrieve would produce five times more strikes. Quoted as saying he knew surface plugs worked, but that more fish wanted a slow presentation over a fast one, and that most were near the bottom. 

English is said to have “caught the bug” in 1931. His early wooden creations transformed after plastics became available, and began carving his prototypes out of toothbrush handles. His most recognized creation was of course his Bingo series, but there were more. I read where the first one he shaped was clear with silver scales and a purple back. The story is that he caught quite a few “large” trout in a cold Conn Brown Harbor, and hollered “Bingo” every time he hooked up. It didn’t take long to hear “Bingo” echoing across the Harbor and soon thereafter the entire Corpus Christi Bay. In my earlier years when men lined up by the scores, all wearing a Styrofoam helmet adorned with all sorts of colors, you still heard that ‘Bingo!’ exclamation coming from all up and down the line.

English claimed he probably gave away more lures than he sold, but with some specific provisions. He only gave them to men who could fish, and said he could tell by the way they talked. (Thinking we can still sniff some of those out.) They were to use them, tell their friends, and because of that marketing plan he rarely had to advertise. Didn’t have to. He and Anton Stettner tagged up for a few years and created the Old English and Plugging Shorty Lure Companies. Later Stettner agreed to produce them and they became quite the success.

Leon Cunningham, business manager of the Doug English Company, also had a few worthy quotes and interesting theories. One was why he thought lures could often out-fish bait. His idea was that fish only ate bait when they were hungry, but you could still get reaction strikes with lures when they weren’t. I tend to agree with the reaction strike thing, and also want to believe we can make them eat when they don’t want too. Concerning colors, he was quoted somewhere (and please excuse the lack of credits) saying that a productive color in one saltwater bay or stretch of beachfront might not be worth a dime in others. He didn’t believe that held as true in freshwater, which might help explain the plethora of saltwater color schemes. Cunningham also commented on a “trade secret.” Most colors, he quipped in an interview, especially the gaudy ones, are deigned just to catch fishermen. “They want them like that so we give it to ‘em.” I think we can all agree that’s still a prevalent business model.

We have come a long way from secret spots, Styrofoam hats, gutting and gilling at the boat, khakis, polaroid pics, spoons and loons, but when we reflect back we can see where some things have changed and others have not. Unlike much of today’s market, most of the earlier designers were actual users, just not sellers of lures. They were true fishermen who experimented to make productive lures for themselves, finally sharing them after extensive testing. Many of their early color schemes are still used today. (Y’all think Texas Chicken is new?) Today we are more likely to see Japanese designers using CAD programs and Chinese manufacturing. Quite possible none of them have ever flung a rod and reel.  

We might wonder where the world of plugging is going. The designs and materials have become crazy futuristic. I mean really, we now have hyper-realistic, articulated designs with sound-producing chips. We might ask ourselves though, do we really need all that stuff we see in those heavily stocked tackle aisles?  A quote from friend Rick Kersey says, “Fishermen change, fish really don’t.” I tend to agree, for the most part. Quite cliché, but is it the arrow or the Indian, or perhaps a little bit of both? I suspect for men like Stettner and English it was both. Those early pioneers almost singlehandedly popularized lure fishing and introduced it to the masses. At their heyday during the 50s and 60s, the production from three of the six Corpus Christi lure companies alone, pushed out more than one million baits per year, and they were sold across many states. We can only imagine the exploding level of participation and subsequent long-term effects. Several things have made all of us more effective, but I’m thinking those guy’s contributions were truly historic. Who knows the future…

One thing for certain, there will probably be other “singular events” that will change things as we know them. There have been several over the past few decades; fish-killing freezes, red tides, hurricanes, GPS with satellite overlays, tower drive burn boats, etc. Heck, there might even be some foreign engineer who makes it so easy the fish won’t have a chance, so let’s enjoy whatever precious time we have left on the water as we know it now. Let’s keep those old stories alive though, remembering the past to appreciate the future, where hundred fish days was considered weak.  

You might enjoy viewing an impressive Corpus Christi-Texas Class collection, and Dr. David McKee is heavily involved in a new museum scheduled to open late-2023 in Port Aransas.

For fishing tackle and other unique maritime donations, which would be greatly appreciated, contact Ashley Harris at the Preserve at the Farley Boat Works in Port Aransas at [email protected].

See y’all out there; but I might cup my plug if you get too close!