By Jonathan Manteuffel
Special to BassFan
It’s been said that there are no new ideas under the sun. It may be true regarding under the water, too.
In recent years the “new” spybait (or spinbait) craze has caught fire, as this “revolutionary” (okay, pun intended) finesse approach to bassin’ came to the USA from Japan. Pros like Mike Iaconelli have called it “game-changing” and every year more companies are bringing their versions to market.
Fishermen who try it are often finding success and believe they are showing the fish something they’ve never seen before. That’s likely true, but not because no one ever made such a lure previously.
So what was the first spybait (or spinbait) made? Probably it was a handmade lure pieced together by a hardcore fisherman over a century ago. But when did they become production lures?
There was a company founded around 1947 in Shreveport, La. called Jack K. Smithwick & Son – you may have heard of them. They made hand-carved wooden lures at first, and the business grew through the 1950s and ‘60s into an outfit making 5,000 lures per day. They eventually made 25 to 30 different lures under the Smithwick name, while producing another 10 to 12 lures for other companies. In 1992, Pradco bought the company from the Smithwick family.
Several lures they made had propellers, or spinners, on one or both ends. The most famous might be the Devil’s Horse. Most people think of this as a floating lure, and many are, but the company also made a slow-sinking model (S-100 series) that they marketed for both casting and trolling, starting around 1959.
The blades turned underwater as the lure was pulled along, just like the new spybaits. Sinking models had larger blades than the floaters and sank very slowly. The 100 series Devil’s Horse (older ones were called the Devels Horse, as many superstitious people in the 1950s wouldn’t buy a lure with Devil in its name) was about four inches long.
Around the same time (1958-59) Smithwick introduced the sinking model (S-300) of the Jack Sprat (second lure with that name). It was small like today’s spybaits, just 1-3/4 inches long, and was the next-to-smallest lure produced by the company. Again, the sinking model had larger props to help the cylindrical wooden body to submerge.
Another sinking two-prop lure was the Devil’s Horse Dancer, or just Dancer S-700 series, which was 3-1/4 inches long and weighed one-third of an ounce. These also were introduced around 1958, or before (all company records were lost when the Smithwick factory burned to the ground in 1975, so only approximate production dates for each model are known).
The Smithwick lure that seems most like modern spybaits was called the Devil’s Horse Race Horse. It was just two inches long and weighed a quarter-ounce. It was made only in the sinking S-300 series, had “bow tie” props fore and aft, two treble hooks, and metal ball weights to sink the bait. Like the other spinbait types, it had a cylindrical wooden body.
Smithwick is most remembered for floating and diving lures and the famous Rogue jerkbaits. The sinking models were never much talked about and likely not produced in the same quantities as the other models. Still, these sinking twin-prop lures functioned like today’s spybaits, albeit a low-tech version, over 60 years ago.
Smithwick was not the only maker of such baits, but provides a good example of how great lure ideas grow and fade in the collective consciousness of the fishing public, only to resurface (or in this case re-subsurface) years later, exciting new generations of anglers to pile into the latest tricks and techniques. As author Stephen King wrote, “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.”
> Reference: “A Collector’s Guide to Louisiana’s Lure Companies,” by Adrien Delbasty, 2003.
> Other “underwater minnows” with props were known to have been made in the early 1900’s by hand, and later by manufacturers such as Heddon, Shakespeare and South Bend.
> For Iaconelli’s recommendations on how to fish a spybait, click here.