In today’s feature, Bagley’s Small Fry 1979, we investigate the history of the realistic crankbait scene that started in 1978. But before we head into that, let me explain how this article came to be.
A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Lee Sisson and talk about his career in the industry. Sisson has been instrumental in the design of crankbaits for nearly 50 years. His career started in 1975 when Jim Bagley hunted him down in the swamps of Louisiana looking for the kid with the magic airbrush and a new deep diving bait. Within two weeks, Sisson became a new resident of Winter Haven, Florida.
The first thing Sisson did for Bagley was develop several new paint schemes. He then developed the first contemporary deep diving crankbaits, the Bagley’s DB series based off the BB series. Then, a man by the name of Tom Seward sent a lure to Bagley’s office asking if Bagley’s could produce it. Jim Bagley and Sisson looked at the bait, which was painfully realistic, and said they had no idea how to paint the bait.
Shortly after he got the note from Bagley’s, Seward joined forces with Lazy Ike. By the 1978 American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association (AFTMA) show, Lazy Ike debuted their Natural Ike crankbait. Nothing like it had ever been made. It won best of show.
The Natural Ike possessed a lifelike body and lifelike paint. Seward’s goal was to create a lure that resembled the forage the fish ate, down to the scales. He succeeded and all the other tackle companies took note, Bagley’s included.
The hang-up that kept Bagley and Sisson from jumping on the opportunity was the paint job. They didn’t know about pad flex printing at the time. But by the end of the 1978 show, they did. Sisson was left to clean up from the show, while Jim Bagley made a hard beat home to Winter Haven.
By the time Sisson returned a few days later, Bagley had already purchased the equipment needed to do pad printing. It was now up to Sisson to design the baits and figure out how to use the new printing equipment.
Bagley wanted to use the pad flex printer to paint realistic pattern on standard crankbaits. Sisson didn’t want anything to do with that. If he was going to design and make a realistic bait, he wanted the body to mimic the real thing too. So, Sisson got a piece of balsa wood, carved out a bass and had Wayne Davis, who was the general manager and artist for the company, paint the lure down to the scales. Sisson took the prototype into Bagley’s office and he agreed with Sisson. The new Small Fry series would look just like the real thing.
With three baits in the new series, the Small Fry Bass, Crappie and Bluegill, Bagley’s hit the ad campaign hard at the start of the 1979 publishing year, featuring their new lures in all the big bass-centric magazines. Which takes us to today’s article.
Featured here are three of the first ads for the Bagley Small Fry Series. The first ad I found was placed in the January/February issue of National Bassman as well as the February/March issue of American Angler and featured the new Bagley’s Small Fry Bass in a beaker. The ad states that “Bagley Clones the Bass!” The ad is designed to be like a news bulletin, complete with dateline.
Bagley then states that after months of research they have figured out how to turn balsa wood into baby bass and crappie. It’s an eye-catching ad for sure and one that would bring stiff competition between Lazy Ike and Bagley’s.
The next ad I found was in the March/April issue of Bassmaster Magazine. This ad featured their three new baits the bass, crappie and the bluegill. In this ad, the promotions folks used a rendering of a cartoon cat sniffing and eyeing an anglers tackle box, looking at the realistic baits as if they were the real thing. The ad stated, “Your tackle box should never be left unattended. Especially if it’s laden with Bagley’s new ‘Small Fry’ lures. These miniatures of nature suddenly become easy prey for fishermen’s wives, children, family pets and other predatory creatures.”
The final ad I found in all my 1979 Magazines came from the March/April issue of National Bassman. This ad featured the three 1979 models floating in an aquarium. The only thing it says is, “sculptured balsa wood, Bagley’s new small fry series duplicates nature in both action and appearance.”
The three ads really show off Sisson’s attention to detail as well as the marketing department’s imagination. The Small Fry series would go on to be the favorite of Sisson’s career with Bagley.
I know when I first saw these lures in the magazines of the day I was hooked before I’d even laid eyes on them. I’d already had a lot of success throwing the DB-II, DB-III and the Diving Honey B. These were sure to become just as productive as the old standbys.
Later that year, Sisson and crew went to work on the shad and crawfish, which would be introduced in 1980. Then in 1981 they’d bring to market the walleye. The series ended up being one of their most successful in the life of the company, which is saying a lot.
I hope you enjoyed this look back at the first years of the lifelike lure craze. If anyone out there knows of any different Small Fry ads from 1979, please drop us a note in the comments below. We’d like to get all these ads documented for everyone to enjoy.