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Southern inventors who changed the way we fishOriginally Published May 5, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated May 3, 2013 at 1:41 p.m.
You probably know that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. But do you know who invented the spincast reel, the plastic worm, the bass boat and the foot-controlled trolling motor?
These products were born in the minds of forward-thinking people with strong ties to the South, including two with connections to Arkansas. They changed forever the way we fish.
While fishing near his Snyder, Texas, home as a kid, R.D. Hull was continually picking out backlashes in the baitcasting reels of the time. To resolve the problem, he had his brother Ott walk around the pond and drop his fishing plug into the water. He then could retrieve the lure without problems … until Ott wised up.
Hull grew up to be a watchmaker and tinkerer, and decided to invent a reel that wouldn’t backlash. He solved the problem while watching a grocery clerk pull string from a spool to wrap a package. A reel with a fixed spool would be impossible to backlash, he thought, so he made one.
In 1947, Hull showed his prototype to officials at Zero Hour Bomb Co. in Tulsa, Okla. The company produced explosive charges for oil drilling, not fishing tackle. But the men, intrigued by Hull’s idea, sent the inventor home to make a working model. Hull returned with a handmade reel for testing. An employee tied his keys to the line and sent a cast flying high over the building. Everyone was impressed.
Hull was hired, and in June 1949, the first 25 “Standard” fishing reels came off the assembly line. They were an immediate hit with fishermen, and the company, which later changed its name to Zebco, sold them by the thousands.
R.D. Hull’s reel evolved into the Zebco 33 spincast reel, which changed forever the way people fished. Before Hull died in 1977, more than 70 million Zebco reels had been sold.
In 1949, Nick Crème was experimenting with vinyl mixtures heated on his kitchen stove. He created one combination that, when added to molds he made from live night crawlers, produced the first plastic worm that looked and felt soft and alive, and stayed that way when exposed to air. That first lure, the “Wiggle Worm,” was sold by mail in 1951 for $1 per five-pack.
After a sports-show distributor sold 9,600 packs in just a few days, demand for the lures soared. Crème moved his fledgling company from its small Ohio quarters to a larger plant in Tyler, Texas. He was among the first manufacturers to sponsor pro anglers, signing Bill Dance and John Powell as spokesmen for his worms. He also was the first to offer slip sinkers in the late 1960s.
In the 1950s, advances in tackle had improved anglers’ chances to catch fish, but “the one that got away” continued to be a popular refrain until Darrell Lowrance and his father, Carl, introduced portable sonar.
Carl Lowrance learned about sonar in the Navy. Using newly developed transistor technology, he reduced the size of once-bulky units so they could be mounted in small boats. The next step was reducing the pulse length so the sonar could detect not just large objects like submarines, but fish as well. Darrell Lowrance, then a freshman math and physics student at the University of Arkansas, did this, reducing the pulse length to one foot, small enough to identify larger fish. In 1956, the Lowrances started selling their Fish Lo-K-Tor.
The family incorporated the business as Lowrance Electronics in 1958. Its “Little Green Box” sonar revolutionized fishing. Darrell became company president in 1961. During his tenure, he received numerous patents, including the first computerized paper graph fish-finder in 1982, the first high-resolution liquid-crystal display in 1985 and the first marine electronics with memory-card utility in 2000. The company he helped found is now part of Navico, the world’s largest marine-electronics manufacturer.
Many fishermen take for granted the everyday use of the foot-controlled trolling motor. But “hands-free” fishing was still a dream until the early 1960s when a Jackson, Miss., building contractor named Garrett H. Harris made it a reality.
In 1961, Harris, tired of sculling his fishing boat, began wondering if he could develop a better electric motor than the SilverTrol he owned, which had been invented 30 years earlier. The SilverTrol was awkward to use because it required turning and steering by hand. Harris wanted a foot-controlled motor that didn’t distract from his fishing.
Harris’ tinkering led to the development of a spring-loaded, foot-operated direction control he could use to steer his boat. When he took his foot off the pedal, the spring returned the motor to its straight-ahead position. Fishermen liked this and began buying the handmade trolling motors.
When Harris became friends with Dick Herschede, owner of a Mississippi grandfather-clock company, Harris’ invention reached the masses. Herschede agreed to build and sell the “Guide-Rite” motors. Improvements came rapidly, including rack-and-pinion steering in the mid-1960s that made the directional control more sensitive and reliable. Thrust was a whopping 10 pounds.
Eventually, the product’s name was changed to the moniker now known by anglers everywhere: MotorGuide.
It began in a garage in Marshall, Texas, in 1948. A fisherman named Holmes Thurmond decided to design a better boat, one that wouldn’t be pushed around by the wind. Using pieces of marine plywood, he built a unique 13-footer with a low profile, wide bottom and inward-sloping sides. This craft, dubbed the “Skeeter” because of its long, needle-shaped bow, was the forerunner of today’s modern bass boats.
Holmes’ sleek, fast boat immediately caught the attention of Texas and Louisiana fishermen. Holmes built the boats one at a time in Marshall and sold them through Reeves Marine in Shreveport. Then in 1961, the Stemco Corp. purchased the design and moved the operation to Longview, Texas. Soon after, the company made the first bass boat from fiberglass. And soon, Skeeter boats were buzzing around lakes and rivers nationwide.
During the years since Thurmond made that first Skeeter, the company he founded has introduced many other “firsts,” including the first V-bottom bass boat and the first bass boat rated for 150 horsepower.
Dave Whitlock was born in Muskogee, Okla., in 1934 and started fly-fishing streams in his home state around age 9. He was tying his own flies at age 12 and remained self-taught until age 18, when he learned by watching other tiers in a Montana fly-fishing shop. In later years, this lifelong fascination with fly-tying led him to create new patterns widely used today, including Whitlock’s Matuka Sculpin, the Red Fox Squirrel Nymph, Whitlock’s Sheep Minnow Series, the Whit Hairbug and Dave’s Diving Frog.
Whitlock’s talents as a writer, artist and teacher also became world-renowned. After resigning from his job as a research chemist in the 1970s, he wrote, co-authored and/or illustrated dozens of books, created numerous fly-fishing instructional videos, directed the L.L. Bean Fly Fishing School and, with his wife, Emily, founded his own fly-fishing school on Arkansas’ White River. He also invented the Whitlock-Vibert Box, an in-stream fish-egg incubator/nursery device used worldwide to help create, improve and preserve trout and salmon populations.
Whitlock’s many accomplishments earned him a place among America’s legendary fishermen and inventors.
None Keith Sutton can be reached at .