By Jonathan Manteuffel
Special to BassFan
(Editor's note: This is part 1 of a 2-part story).
Renowned lure-maker Jim Bagley will be inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame (FFHOF) in 2014. I know this because my friend Marty Dinges of Illinois sent me a copy of the letter saying so.
“Last spring I went through the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame on Mother’s Day," Marty told me in an email. "Several of us took our ladies on a fishing trip and we had a rainy day and went to Hayward (Wis.) to the museum. I went through every aisle, hall, room, and building and could not find Jim’s name anywhere. I asked the curator about it and he gave me a form, and I filled it out for Jim to be inducted.”
Apparently the recommendation and subsequent research indicated that Bagley, who died in 2004, was indeed worthy of a place of honor among those who have devoted their lives to the love of fishing.
I know Marty because around the year 2000, I decided that I wanted to start collecting fishing lures as a hobby. The mainstay brands (Heddon, Pflueger, Creek Chub, etc.) had all gotten somewhat expensive, and I didn’t want to dive in too deep. I somehow came across some 1970s-era Bagley lures being touted on eBay as “collectible."
I contacted the seller, who turned out to be Johnny Garland. He's the man who later authored the definitive book on Bagley’s lures, “The Collector’s Guide for the Bagley Fanatic,” and a follow-on expanded volume called "The Bagley Collector’s Guide." The lures were beautiful and extremely well-crafted – seductively so. The Bagley bug bit me.
Track Record of Success
Since then I’ve handled thousands of Bagley lures and learned that, in addition to being works of art, they’re good at catching fish. A few years ago some touring pros were paying $30-$50 each for the “right” square-lip Bagley Balsa B lures – those from the 1970s with the brass wire internal harness.
Takahiro Omori, who is not sponsored by Bagley, is outspoken about how much he values these lures. He won the 2004 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Wylie using a Bagley Balsa B2 square-bill crankbait. It’s not the only Classic that a Bagley lure won; in 1976 Rick Clunn took Classic VI on Lake Guntersville using a square-lip Bagley Honey B. Classic wins in 1974 (Tommy Martin) and 2000 (Woo Daves) were also aided by Bagley lures.
In a discussion with Guy Eaker, long-time Bagley Bait Company pro-staffer, I heard about how hard Jim Bagley tried to create the lures that would give anglers an advantage, and he showed me several prototype lures he still uses and treasures. Eaker shared that the Diving Bang-O-Lure 2 (a deep-diving minnow plug) was his favorite limit-finder. He also mentioned that he was the one who convinced Bagley to use the Dazzl’r glitter finish on several models – he said the glitter looked like the scales falling from baitfish when attacked by bass and stimulated a feeding frenzy.
Bagley collector Marty Dinges was brought the renowned lure-maker's accomplishments to the attention of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.
Eaker also designed the Eaker Eater spinnerbait produced by Bagley. Company pro-staffers over the years included Bill Dance, Daves, Jim Bitter, Shaw Grigsby and others.
A Bit of Background
A nice summary of the history of the Bagley Bait Company is available on the website of the current incarnation of the company owned by Bill Cullerton and Jarmo Rapala (click here to see it). Highlights from that history, along with other sources such as The Collector’s Guide for the Bagley Fanatic, are listed below:
> James Ladon Bagley was born on July 24, 1923.
> As a kid, Bagley worked for Bill Eger of the Eger Bait Company in Bartow, Fla. He developed a keen work ethic and a desire to make quality fishing lures from Mr. Eger.
> Bagley fought in WWII, surviving duties as a bomber turret gunner. He later became a master electrician.
> In 1951 or 1954 (accounts differ), Bagley purchased the dormant Dean Pork Rind Co., which took off a couple years later when Field & Stream magazine ran an article called "That New Black Magic," describing the Black Magic pork rind eel Bagley was making.
> In 1960, Bagley became intrigued by the emerging use of balsa wood for baits, creating heavier and more castable baits for the bass market. Bagley's first balsa bait, the Bang O Lure, was a huge success.
> Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, Bagley followed with many famous balsa baits such as the Diving B deep-diving crankbait and the Balsa B made with a square bill. The Kill’r B was another popular model, as was the Small Fry series.
> In 1983, Bagley hired Hiro Naito, who had come from Japan to the U.S. to study engineering, to do promotional work. Naito was instrumental in connecting Bagley to the Japanese market, putting him in contact with a manufacturer to make Bagley’s Silver Thread AN40 copolymer line, and establishing a distribution network for Bagley lures in Japan. OFT became the primary distributor.
Guy Eaker (left), shown examining some Bagley baits along with the author, was a longtime member of the company's pro staff.
> In 1988, Bagley sold his company, and over the last 2 dozen years there have been a handful of different owners of the Bagley Bait Company. While the company was still operating in Winter Haven, Fla., the owners following Bagley were Bill Stuart and Chuck Stankiewitz.
> In 1995, the Bagley Bait Company filed for bankruptcy, unable to compete with mass-produced plastic baits.
> In 1998, Mike Rogan bought the company and moved operations to the Dominican Republic.
> Jim Bagley died on Feb. 14, 2004.
> In 2010, Bill Cullerton and Jarmo Rapala bought the company to reproduce the original 1970s-era balsa wood Bagley baits (to read a two-part BassFan Q&A with Cullerton from July 2011, click here and here).
A Student and a Showman
Jim Bagley was known to be tireless and ready to try anything new. He was full of ideas and a very observant student of the fishing landscape.
Well-known lure designer and former Bassmaster Elite Series pro Lee Sisson worked for Bagley during the company’s heyday.
"He amazed me every day with his ability," Sisson told the Orlando Sentinel. "For every lure we put out there, there were probably six to 10 that we didn't. He knew how to market and really had his finger on the pulse."
A Bagley's Honey B was instrumental in the first of Rick Clunn's four Bassmaster Classic victories.
One of Bagley’s more original marketing stunts combined his flair for trying new things and his love of flying. At times he would pilot his own helicopter over a field of tournament boats and throw lures out to the fishermen. His bright orange and white aircraft with BAGLEY on the side was unmistakable. He thoroughly understood that his lures needed to catch the fisherman before they caught the fish.
The success of Bagley lures, of course, depended not only on marketing, promotion, and sales reps, but on the quality and fish-catching properties of the lures. One of the primary reasons the lures are considered collectible today is that they are as much "eye candy" as fish candy. They were handmade and painted, layer upon layer, producing possibly the best production finish ever on a wooden lure.
The balance and action of Bagley baits was almost never wrong, despite all the variations that are inherent in natural wood.
Bagley took good care of his pro staff too, making sure they had everything they needed for every event. He listened closely to what they wanted and made dozens of prototypes himself, trying to find that perfect action for a lure.
Bagley helped many anglers to pursue their passion, both by producing quality lures and by taking personal interest in their careers. He gave Bill Dance his start as a full-time fishing industry professional. In 1978, he became a major sponsor of the Bass’n Gals women’s tournament trail, and continued as long as he owned the Bagley Bait Company. He helped Roland Martin start his television show in 1974 as a major advertiser.
People who met Bagley were amazed at how much energy and enthusiasm he had, and he always encouraged others to pursue what excited them. His induction into the FFHOF is a testament to his influence on, and contributions to, the fishing industry for half a century.
> The Bagley Bait Company in Winter Haven, Fla. produced 44 different lure models from 1960 until 1995.
> Sisson worked for Bagley from 1973 to 1985, when the company produced about 15,000 lures a day and employed about 250 people.