The names Wheeler, Christie, and Palaniuk are recognized by all serious bass anglers today, no matter the age. Clunn, Klein, and Martin are three more names that nearly all bass anglers over the age 35 know. But when we mention names such as Honeycutt, Powell, and Blanchard, I’d bet only 10-percent of the bass fishing public recognize their names even though these three played a big part in the history of competitive bass fishing.
To take that little game to an extreme, I would be willing to wager quite a bit if anyone out there under the age of 50 knew the names William Jamison and Anson B. Decker. Why are these names important and why should you know them? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First off, Jamison developed what is known as the first contemporary spinnerbait, circa 1914. And Decker can arguably claim design of one of the first Whopper Plopper style topwaters.
If that isn’t enough to get your curiosity up, then how about this little-known fact. Jamison and Decker fished against each other in what is called the first-ever bass tournament, circa 1910. Yes, 112 years ago the first bass tournament was held on a small private lake in Canton, Ohio called Congress Lake.
So how did this event come about? We all know that competitive bass fishing didn’t start until Ray Scott founded bass fishing in the 1960s. Yes, that’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek right there.
As some of you may have guessed, both Jamison and Decker were lure makers at the turn of the 19th century. Much to many a contemporary’s chagrin, that’s when bass fishing really took off for the first time. At the time you had companies like Heddon, Creek Chub, Shakespeare, and Pflueger pumping out thousands of baits daily to meet demand. Then you had smaller manufacturers such as Jamison and Decker growing their newly minted companies.
William Jamison had developed a bait called the Coaxer in 1902. The concept of the bait was to have something that would be completely weedless, be humane by not having a dozen hooks dangling from its sides and be easy to cast with the baitcasting gear of the day.
Jamison’s result was a bait made from cork and trimmed with felt legs coming away from the sides and turkey feathers or bucktail covering its single hook. The bait looks more like a huge flyrod popper than any contemporary topwater made today – yet it worked.
Upon Jamison having success with the bait, he set out to patent the lure in 1904. In January of 1905 he received his patent, and the bait went public. Soon Jamison was placing ads in the sporting magazines and papers of the day touting how successful the bait truly was.
On the other hand, you had Anson B. Decker, of Hopatcong, NJ. It is written that Decker started his lure business sometime between 1882 and 1905. The Decker Bait was a wooden topwater that resembled a thick cigar. The forward part of the bait was cut from the back end and a hole was drilled down the centerline. Then a propeller was affixed to the flat end.
A thick wire was placed into the center of the rear portion of the bait and then the front assembly was slide down the wire and the wire was then twisted into a line tie. The Decker Bait was then fitted with three single hooks, two dangling off the side and one at the rear. It was essentially a Whopper Plopper in reverse.
So, what got these two early bait makers into a competition? The answer to that was advertising and a bit of ego.
In July 1909, a letter that Jamison wrote to Field and Stream magazine was published as an article titled, “Surface Fishing for Bass,” by William Jamison. In the letter Jamison talks about how he came to develop the Coaxer, wanting to move away from pork. His creation ended up being a cork-bodied topwater bait with a single hook that came through grass with ease.
In the letter, Jamison said that he was so confident that his lure was the best lure of all time, that he would take on all comers in a contest pitting his Coaxer against any bait out there.
The rules of the contest were as follows:
- Any lake within 300 miles of Chicago unknown to all parties and picked by Field and Stream.
- Baitcasting only
- It will be a 3-day event to rule out any luck.
- Anglers fish an 8-hour day.
- The anglers would be observed by officials to ensure all rules were followed.
- Largest total number of bass over the three days would be the winner.
The challenge went unanswered until Ans. B. Decker took the offer in 1910.
There are conflicting reports as to whether the anglers fished the same boat or were given their own boats. In the first daily report from the Canton Morning News, June 17, 1910, the reporter stated they were fishing the same boat. Also, in one of Decker’s later ads after the event, he said he could only get one cast for three of Jamison’s due to his bait getting hung up all the time in the weeds. I’m not sure Decker could have made that claim if they weren’t in the same boat.
In any case, the event was scheduled for June 16-18, 1910, on Congress Lake, a private lake owned by the Congress Lake Club. The contest would be officiated by the Congress Lake Club and Field and Stream.
The first two days of the event were stymied by dead calm and intense heat. I was able to uncover meager daily reports of the first two days of competition. The only report I’ve been able to dig up for the last day says that the weather turned for the third day and Jamison boated 14 fish to bring his total to 28. Decker ended the third day with 16 bass total. By the rules, Jamison and his Coaxer had won.
But this is where the fun begins.
Jamison clearly won based on the rules set in advance. But Decker wouldn’t have any of it. Yes he lost by the numbers game but his 16 bass were all bigger than the 28 that Jamison had caught. It’s at this point the mudslinging started.
Ad campaigns started with Jamison claiming the title and Decker refuting the title because his fish were bigger. In fact, in one advertisement Decker (see lead-in image) made mention that his five biggest bass weighed in at 15-04 compared to Jamison’s biggest five which went 9-04. Does this sound familiar? MLF vs B.A.S.S.?
Decker also made the excuse that because the weedy lake that was picked favored Jamison, he never had a chance to test his lure effectively and on an even playing field.
In this same ad, Decker challenged all comers to an all-topwater contest with a side bet of $1,000 on any lake. When you dig a little deeper, that side bet was intended for Jamison where Decker would put $1,000 on the table and Jamison only had to bet $500 – the winner taking the other’s money.
The caveats to Decker’s challenge were each man had his own boat, each man could fish any part of the lake he wanted, all fish had to meet a 14-inch length requirement, and the winner would be decided on total weight, not number of fish.
The first caveat brings up that each angler would fish from his own boat. I believe this statement lends credibility to my thoughts that Jamison and Decker fished out of the same boat in the initial contest.
There are conflicting reports whether this challenge was ever accepted by anyone in the industry. In an article published by Gary Smith titled: Baiting Men, Coaxing Fish (unknown magazine and date) Smith eludes that the contest was held and that Decker lost again. But, in another article written by Kenneth L. Keiser in the March 1994 issue of Bassmaster, he states that Jamison never took him up on the challenge.
What Jamison did do was come out with a bait in 1910 that looked eerily similar to Decker’s Bass Bait. Jamison’s version, dubbed the NEMO, included a rotating head and was produced in two known sizes. Imitation is the biggest form of flattery they say, but I am sure Decker wasn’t flattered at all by this stunt.
William J. Jamison passed away on November 9, 1926, while it is reported that Anson B. Decker passed in 1925.
I would like to give credit where credit is due here. If not for the research conducted by fishing historians such as William T. Sonnett, Richard Streater, Carl F. Luckey, and the many others, a lot of this history would be lost. Every time I look to work on a piece like this, out come the references penned by these first-generation collectors and authors. I may not be able to find everything related to the subject I am researching but I always have a starting point and a large amount of data to start with.
If you’re new to studying the history of our blessed sport or a longtime fan of the history, I hope you take the chance to buy some of their references while they’re still available. Most of the can be found at the Whitefish Press, on Amazon or, if out of print, on eBay.
Resources used for this article include:
- Richard Streater – personal communications
- Dr. Todd’s Fishing History Blog – Voices from the Past: William Jamison (1927)
- Anniversary of the First Fishing Tournament by Colby Sorrells – unknown publisher
- Field and Stream – Surface Fishing for Bass by William Jamison, July 1909
- Deconstructing Old Ads Volume Two, William T. Sonnett
- Deconstructing Old Ads Volume Three, William T. Sonnett
- Old Fishing Lures and Tackle No. 3 – Carl F. Luckey
- Bassmaster Magazine March 1994 – The First Bass Tournament by Kenneth L. Keiser
- Baiting Men, Coaxing Fish by Gary Smith – unknown publisher