Editor’s Note: This series is dedicated to those people who penned the many articles we read in order to learn more about our sport and become better anglers. Sure it was the anglers who developed the techniques, lures and equipment we use today but it was the writers’ job to make sure these bits of information got to the masses. Without the writers to communicate this, the world of bass fishing would be very different today.
For those of you outside the West, the name George Kramer may not ring a bell. For those in the West, though, the name resonates – longtime writer, longtime supporter, longtime critic. He’s the guy that came up with the California Top 40 – a ranking system that gave credit to the West’s best bass anglers annually over a period of 20 years, beginning in the early 1990’s.
Kramer has been involved with the scene since the mid-70s, writing for a number of paper and glossy publications. He’s also taken an active role in the western tournament scene, mainly from the journalistic side of things and in 2012 was the first California writer to be inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Communicator.
Having grown up in Southern California I subscribed to Western Bass Magazine and Western Outdoor News (WON), the two major news outlets of the time. Kramer’s name was all over those magazines back in the day and his writing had an impact on the angler I became. His succinct, no-nonsense, easy-to-understand articles brought somewhat difficult subjects and concepts down to earth, which is why I’m sure he was inducted into the FWFHOF and why I’ve chosen to feature him here on The Writers.
Here’s George’s story.
Long Beach State and the Santa Ana Register
Kramer grew up in Southern California with stays in Manhattan Beach, Santa Ana and then to the town of Tustin where he attended high school. Early on he had gravitated to the written word.
After high school he attended Long Beach State College (now Califonia State University at Long Beach) and majored in English and creative writing.
“The education helped a lot in my career,” he said. “In retrospect, I can see my style evolved from multi-level sentence writing from my HS English teacher, Hugh Hyde, at Tustin, and a desire to find the right word, taught by Dr. Richard Lee, a poetry professor at Long Beach State. Dr. Lee was a pragmatic writer and taught us to write tightly and not to use clichés. When I read my old stuff, I can see his touch.”
His first break as a professional writer came when he was at the Orange County Register (then the Santa Ana Register) in 1975.
“I was running the press at the Register and told the night editor about an idea I had for an article on long-time Southern California tackle maker, Earl Matthews. The night editor let me do it. The article was titled, ‘73-Year-Old Santa Anan Happy With ‘Lure’ Of New Career.’ It took several weeks to appear (and I’m sure it needed plenty of editing) but that was the first.
“Earl and I were in the same club, the Saddleback Bassmasters, and he’d recently retired after his seventh heart attack to put more time towards his tackle company. Matthews made and sold a number of baits including the BassTrap, a repackaged H&H spinnerbait, plastic worms and a crankbait that looked like an old Bomber.”
Matthews was also the man who founded the Saddleback Bassmasters, a club that featured anglers such as Larry Hopper, Bill Rice and former Fenwick president Dave Myers.
With that single piece, Kramer got the attention of the late Harvey Naslund.
“After the Register story came out, the late Harvey Naslund called and asked if I could do a story for Western Bass Magazine. I became a regular contributor then for several years, around 1975 through 1976 or so. It was then, Dave Coolidge of the California Lunker Club, who was also on the WON staff, was going to leave the position and asked if I wanted the job. I wasn’t sure about it.
“Then in April of 1977, everyone on staff was tied up when WON got an invitation to visit the Cotton Cordell factory and fish a little media event. They asked if I could take the assignment (I’d never been on a plane before then) and when I got back from the junket – with a bag of Cordell baits, jacket and cap – they asked if I wanted a full-time job. This time I took it.”
Early Western Bassin’
Kramer got his start bass fishing after spending his youth years fishing general fresh and saltwater. Then in late 1971 he took the dive and joined the fledgling Saddleback Bassmasters.
“My first meeting at Saddleback was in December of 1971,” he said. “We may have all fished but there were a number of us who didn’t know the first thing about bass fishing. We only knew what we knew.
“Guys like Larry Hopper, who had a vast experience fishing jigs on the breakwater for calico bass and sand bass had a distinct advantage on all of us. He knew how to fish a jig well and had the tackle for it.
“Then when we heard about and saw the Texas rig, we thought, ‘how does the fish get hooked?’ We knew a little about spinnerbaits but the only plastics we were familiar with had exposed hooks or the Delongs used in San Diego and we’d stitch them with a split shot in front of the bait, later using a slip sinker.
“I remember Dave Myers coming to one club meeting, he was also in the Saddleback club, and he brought some crawdad-colored Rebel Deep Wee Rs. He was talking about crawdad-colored crankbaits and someone in the club said, ‘That thing doesn’t look like a crawdad,’ and he was right. We didn’t think about the illusion or the water clarity at the time.
“Also, back then anglers were more interested in throwing the hot lure than learning a new concept or developing one. There was so much mystery back then with respect to the art of bass fishing. We didn’t know much and we weren’t willing to stray from what we knew worked – even if it wasn’t working. There aren’t many anglers today that don’t know how to tie five different knots, when to use fluorocarbon line or are afraid to try something different. It all has to do with the amount of information that’s available today.”
In the early days, Kramer was starved for information on bass fishing and that’s what led him to become a writer who was more interested in divulging the methods of the pro angler than just someone who wrote about fishing.
“Back in those early days it was extremely tough to get information on bass fishing because people were so protective of what they did. You could get tidbits here and there but you never got the whole story. That’s why I’m so happy that Fliptail worms are being made again. It brings back all those memories of when I didn’t know anything. We all started with nothing and had to continually add things in order to get the whole picture. It’s not that way anymore. Everyone knows everything in such a short amount of time.
“It never bothered me that people wouldn’t give information out, what bothered me was when they misled people about it. That’s what really motivated me to write the truth about bass fishing, in a language that everyone could understand. I could get back at the anglers who’d frankly lied to me and let the readers know what was really going on.
“I think the first 10 years I wrote I never wrote anything in first person,” he said. “It was all about what someone else was doing. Then, after that period of time, I started comparing what I’d learned over the years with what the ‘pros’ were saying or doing and realized that their ideas sometimes weren’t only different, but wrong.
“My first experience fishing with a true big-name pro came in 1981 when I went to my first [Bassmaster] Classic. It was nice to be able to combine what I’d learned in the West and be able to bounce ideas off of them (the pros). It was a great period [in my life] and I was exposed to a more modern view of bass fishing.
“The other thing that came from that experience was I was able to hear the excuses why things didn’t work or why things did. A lot of the time you learn more from people’s mistakes than when they win.
“[The truth be told], those early years fishing and [also] covering the pro circuits made me realize that if I wanted my name in print with any frequency, I better stick to writing.”
Changes Over Time
Over the course of nearly 40 years, Kramer has seen a number of changes in the industry. From 5 1/2-foot pistol grip casting rods to Power Poles, he’s seen it all.
“In one way I could say that absolutely nothing has changed, only that the stage has been moved forward,” he said. “The fishing is the same. High water booms produce great fishing; prolonged droughts lead to fewer fish in smaller bodies of water. We have ‘new’ lakes such as Perris and Diamond Valley, we have lost lakes (now closed to the public) such as Vail and Railroad Canyon Reservoir (Canyon Lake) and we have troubled lakes such as Henshaw and Wohlford with insecure dams that don’t allow that they be filled to continue the fishery boom cycles. In that sense, not much has changed.
“The tackle today is better, but in my mind, really only significantly better in the last eight to 10 years. We’ve had a steady attempt at improvement, but only a few companies have worked on the real keys of improvement and durability when it came to reels. Rods got better as components got better and lighter but there is a point of diminishing returns for the money spent. Still, the tackle we have today is incredible.”
With Kramer being one of the people I’ve always looked up to as a writer, I asked him what he felt about the media today compared to back in the day.
“Technology has diluted the quality of writing – and the expectations of the readers,” he said. “There are still some fine writers out there, but their work is not in demand as it once was. They go un- or under-appreciated by the readers/viewers. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just that anyone can contribute now via the send button.
“It’s one of those things – like they don’t need people to set type by hand anymore. That skill isn’t required and therefore not mastered. I came from a writing side so the story telling is important to me. At least make it interesting. It’s just gone now, there’s no place for it and it’s unfortunate. Sometimes I look at my own stuff and wonder why I’m writing it other than for myself.
“The future of bass fishing journalism is and will only go as far as the reporters asking the right questions and then making sure the responses are actually the answers they need. I never cared that a guy fished certain bait or rig to catch his fish; I wanted to know what conditions or circumstances led him to making the choice and the approach. That’s information that would most help the audience.
“Also, more prevalent now is knowing the technology – especially as pertains to video, computers and related image software. All my ‘replacements’ seem to know it and it allows them to convey information more perfectly.”
In assessing the difference between the anglers of the past and those of today he asks:
“Can the anglers do anything today that the best of earlier generations couldn’t have done had they also been exposed to same things? Stan Fagerstrom was a better caster than most pros are today – when he was 60-plus years old – and had been so for more than 30 years with tackle that was absolutely primitive.
“[However] today’s young guns get techniques and info sooner and put it to use immediately and they make catches that were once limited to a very few in any of the past decades. Sometimes, however, I think they enter into the game in the middle of the second or third chapter – I don’t see the new guys reading the water as well as older generations. What I’m talking about are things like assessing the lay of the land, noting stick/stem diameter or angle, foam/wind direction, channel courses, oil slicks and such. That was fundamental when the earlier generations were still barely learning how to use a Texas-rig.
“A good fisherman is a good fisherman, though. It doesn’t matter what they’re fishing for. If they have the motivation to be a bass fisherman, then they can darn well do it and do it well.”
Mentors and Memories
Over the course of time Kramer has had a number of people who influenced his life and career. He’s camped and fished with Rick Clunn and Gary Klein, fished with the late “Lunker” Bill Murphy and covered bass fishing from the Western Championships to the Bassmaster Classics.
“When I got my start at WON in May of 1977, I was placed under the direction of Bill Rice. He taught me the value of being fast. Then there was the late Chuck Garrison who was known more as a saltwater writer, but he taught me the value of taking magazine-quality photos. He had a sound approach and I learned a lot from him about that. He’d always say, ‘You have to have a clear interpretation of what was going on.”
“Then, although I didn’t read a lot, I did appreciate the work of the late Stan Fagerstrom.”
He also had some interesting memories of tournaments and the anglers – the first being the 1981 Bassmaster Classic when he was paired with a young Gary Klein.
“I was paired with Gary Klein on the first day of the tournament,” he said. “I learned that very day that accompanying press should not be casting with so much on the line for the pro anglers. I ended up getting banned for saying so.
“I didn’t have a lot of skills but one thing I could do was pitch a 1/8-ounce Texas-rigged plastic worm really well. Klein and I were going down this bank and I’m pitching my worm and caught a fish behind him. At the end of that rare day, I’d caught 16 and he only had three.
“After the evening’s press conference, I made a big point and said, ‘We shouldn’t be fishing in this event.’ All the same arguments came up like; he wouldn’t have used that bait, he wouldn’t have caught that fish, etc. My response was, ‘We have a huge effect on the outcome of the event.’ I wasn’t invited back to the Classic for a few years until Rich Tauber made it a point to tell B.A.S.S. to bring me back since there wasn’t any other writer in the West covering the Classic.
“My second biggest memory was fishing the 1986 Bassmaster event on Sam Rayburn and camping with Klein and Clunn. Here I was with the young kid star and The King. I was as quiet as a church mouse – I was in awe. All I did was listen and watch.
“One of the days I did get to prefish with Klein. It was a nasty day – thunder and lightning. At one point we had to put the boat on shore it was so bad. We just started laughing – the laughter you do when you realize you’re going to die.
“I’ve always admired Gary because of his attention to detail in every aspect of fishing.
“I also got to talk with Clunn a lot that trip. One day we were in the weigh-in line and Larry Nixon was on the stage. Rick leaned in to me and whispered, ‘The people think that we catch fish like that all day long. I bet he [Larry] didn’t catch six fish today.’ Nixon then said he’d caught his 5th fish with 10 minutes remaining in the day.
“Clunn has always impressed me because he brought to light the mental aspect of fishing. In fact, his 1983 US Open win is the best tournament win of all time in my eyes.
“After two days of competition he was out of the top 10 – I think in 12th or 14th place – and he went for broke on the final round. He made a long run to the mouth of the Grand Canyon on a hunch. He’d never seen the area from the water – only from the plane as he flew into Las Vegas. In those days a $50,000 cash prize awarded in a Vegas Casino was a huge deal.”
“Another memory, although it may not be a fond one, was when I said Bryan Kerchal (a Federation club angler) shouldn’t be fishing in the 1994 Classic. I took extreme heat from that comment and received at least 100 ‘I’m going to kill you’ letters for saying it.
“What happened was I had just spent the day fishing with Klein. It was another day filled with lightning and rain. It was so bad the strobe on my camera blew out. My thoughts were, ‘Does anyone not understand how important this tournament is to those who make their living at this sport?
“Later that night after we came in, I was going up to my room in the hotel elevator and said that ‘If that Federation guy wins this event, it’ll be the worst thing that can happen to the Classic.’ What I didn’t know was the five guys in the elevator with me were all Federation presidents.
“Later Mike Jones (from WON) came up to me and said he heard a rumor that some western writer had said something about the Federation. Jones had said it wasn’t him—it must have been Kramer.
“When I got back from the Classic I wrote an overall story on the Classic for WON and then a piece on Jay Yelas. I then wrote an opinion piece on why Federation anglers shouldn’t be involved in the Classic and threw Ray Scott’s words back at him – the ones where he said, ‘A pro is a guy with $300 and a week off.’ To this day I still believe that professional bass fishing will never appear professional to the greater sports public until it can separate from the notion that anyone on the street can win. C’mon, the top quarterbacks in the NFL are Brady, Manning, Brees, Rodgers, Flacco—oh, and ‘Bob’ from Plantersville, Mississippi? When an amateur wins, it says one of two things: either bass fishing is easy and anyone can do it or the pros must not be that good. Either way, the sport takes a huge hit.
“I had nothing against Bryan at all. In fact, he was a great angler and I wish he was still around to follow. How was I to know he’d die in a plane crash after winning it?
“It was never about him, it is about the framework that allows it to happen. I was looking for a fair assessment of the game and it’s the same reason I started giving anglers heck for not performing. If we held fishermen to the same level as professional baseball players or football players – as when they’re having a bad year – the sport would be taken more seriously. It wasn’t Bryan’s fault, it was B.A.S.S.’s fault for including the Federation anglers. But how was Ray to know this was going to happen?”
Important Events, Articles and Impressive Anglers
During the interview, Kramer mentioned a number of people who he felt were instrumental in the advancement of bass fishing. He also talked about a number of anglers who he feels have advanced the sport.
“None of this would have happened if not for Ray Scott starting B.A.S.S. and Bassmaster Magazine,” he said. “Bassmaster Magazine opened the windows to ideas and things that no one in the West had ever been exposed to.
“I also feel that Rich Schultz’ concept for the U.S. Open and U.S. Bass helped advance the sport. His vision was truly great and he didn’t look at the sport as if there were any limitations. The Open was the first high-stakes event ever. I know he had some shortcomings, but he was the first person to propose the bass boat/race competition, double deck trailers and all the hoopla that you see today. The events held in Vegas were shows, not a normal tournament.
“Schultz never said he wanted to outdo B.A.S.S., he just wanted to make the sport better for everyone. Personally, I think it was good for B.A.S.S. to have some competition.”
When it comes to the anglers, Kramer has already mentioned Klein and Clunn as two who have impressed him over the years. But there are others.
“I’ve always held Dee Thomas in high regard for his development of flipping. He was the first angler with something out of the mainstream to contribute to the sport.
“I also have to include ‘Lunker’ Bill Murphy and his belief in his big-fish system. I did a lot of articles with him and he said he always liked the fact I’d conduct my interviews on the phone with him. He hated it when writers would send him a questionnaire that he had to fill out.
“I’d see him on the lake, fishing with anglers he was close to. He was always anchored up stitching a worm. I had heard he was considering writing a book [which he later did with Paul Prorock of Chicago], so when we were both on the water I would always yell over to him, ‘When’s the book coming out?
“Late in his life, after he developed his health problems, I had the chance to share a boat with him on two different occasions. He was stoic and not very talkative. When we fished, he’d sometimes make reference to the book. We’d talk about his health situation and if he saw me doing something he’d not seen before, he’d ask why I was doing it. Mostly, we were just fishing and enjoying time together.”
“Other anglers who I feel deserve accolades would be Don Iovino for his abilities with sonar and holding on a spot with a trolling motor, Brent Ehrler for his fearless use of knowledge at such a young age and Bill Siemantel for not accepting the mainstream approach and establishing his own terminology to reflect his ideas.
“Then there’s Mike Folkestad. For the early part of my fishing career, he was that fish-catcher from San Diego. It wasn’t until I got more into the writing and was able to observe him in the boat that I realized how good he was.
“He’s one of those anglers who has that sixth sense. He also knew the importance of correctly lining up on a spot and making the proper cast or presentation. I don’t know how many times he’d get settled on a spot just right, make a cast and catch a fish. Then we’d drift off a little I’d make a cast and nothing. Then we’d get back on it the right way and he’d catch a fish. He just knows when it’s right and when it’s not. He’s the master at precision and focus.”
Over the course of time, every writer compiles a list of pieces that mean the most to them. Kramer is no different.
“One article that’s always been one of my favorites was about anchoring for Western Bass Magazine in the mid-70s. The second one would be a piece I did for Bassmaster back about 1981 in opposition to most spring-time, ‘Will They Catch the World Record This Year,’ stories. I wrote it when it was assumed the record would come out of Southern California, specifically Lake San Vicente, and that year we had torrential rains that muddied up the water everywhere and in the case of San Vicente, it washed out the access road to the lake so no one could even fish it.
“There was also a column I did for WON about 1988 (reprised on KGF.com in March of 2009) called “For the Record” that was a swipe at the Sandy DeFresco/divers’-belt weight fish at Miramar, and a column I did for Western Bass.com, (also reprised) called “The Devil down by the Launchramp,” an essay on dishonesty in tournaments.”
The Top 40 and the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame
As mentioned in the opening of this piece, Kramer was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 2012. He is the only writer from California to have ever held that distinction, though radio host Sep Hendrickson was later honored as a communicator.
Kramer later in his career was also known in the West for his California Top-40 list – a list that gives credit to California anglers for their accomplishments on the water. Always anticipated, sometimes criticized and questioned, Kramer’s list always brought discussion and attention to the region.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t include being inducted into the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a major event in my life. You know, you can’t nominate yourself and you can’t vote for yourself. It was totally unexpected.
“I first got word from someone out of the Midwest. They couched it like ‘you know you could be under consideration to be inducted.
“The next year’s induction list came out and I wasn’t one of the inductees. I thought, ‘How could I expect that? Be realistic, I’m a regional guy that’s had a chance to do some national stuff but what the heck.
“The next year when I got the list of inductees, my name was on it. I was pretty excited when the letter came. I’m not a fist-pumper, but it was exciting to me personally.
“Something that maybe helped relative to the criteria could have been the Top 40 list I put together every year. I always took a lot of care doing that. The thing that gave me an annual headache might have been seen as something worthwhile in The Hall’s eyes. I had no idea it would become what it has over the years I produced “the List.”
The Future, The West and a Humbling Story
Kramer’s never been accused of being un-opinionated, yet he has certain thoughts on the future of the sport and what’s wrong with the West.
“Resistance to angling by misguided individuals and groups forces the industry to fight political battles, rather than educate and outfit future generations,” he said. “If the fisherman/consumers stay vested, then fishing will endure. If they don’t, it will go the way of the passenger pigeon.
“If we want to ensure that Sportfishing is allowed to continue we have to make sure the parents take their kids fishing. My dad took me fishing, I took my kids fishing.”
The West has always been viewed as the red-headed stepchild when it comes to major circuits. Kramer has an opinion on why that is.
“It’s a cultural/participation issue,” he said. “Bass fishing is not as important or interesting to the same percentage of the population in the West as it is in other parts of the country. It’s reflected in the marketplace, where sales and angling participation determine where the bass fishing/tournament industry will thrive the best. Case in point: When the economy is good, the big organizations thrive and the regional ones enjoy some success. When the economy is bad, the big guys can still operate because they have a bigger pool of anglers to draw from, but the regionals wither on the vine.”
He added, “I will say, there are great circuits now for western guys, and the pool of stay-at-home western competitors is filled with guns. It’s a great generation of bass anglers. But the total number never really expands.”
Kramer has never been one to mince words, even when it comes to himself. One example is a piece he did in 2012 right after he came home from the 2012 U.S. Open – the first time he’d fished the event in 24 years.
More recently he concluded, “The big-time competitive game has passed me by. I know stuff, I have the gear, but unfortunately, it’s taken me the last seven or so Opens to realize it takes a younger, technically smarter, more open-minded angler to go out and take an Open title. I wish them all the best!”
Towards the end of our earlier interview, he gave me another self-deprecating story that happened some years ago after a trip to Vail Lake in Southern California.
“I’ve learned over the years that you need humility. If you don’t have enough of it, someone is sure to make sure you get it. So, there was this trip I took some years ago to Vail Lake with writer-friend Mike Jones. As we pulled into the lake, you could see Bayou Bay with all its flooded mesquite trees and shad dimpling the surface.
“We launched the boat, motored to the bay and started throwing Spooks. There’s this giant mesquite, shad boiling around it, and Jones throws to one side and I throw to the other.
“Jones then hooks his personal best, even to this day, largemouth, a 13-04. He’s pumped, but said we can leave when I filled my limit (we still took home fish back in the day). Around noon I accomplished that task and we headed back to my home in Lake Elsinore.
“As we stopped in front of my house, my 5-year-old daughter Lynsey came running towards us yelling daddy, daddy! She jumped into the boat, lifted the livewell lid and her eyes got as big as pie plates. Then she screamed, ‘Daddy, who caught the baby ones?’ If that doesn’t build humility, I don’t know what will.”
George Kramer has written hundreds of articles for Western Outdoor News, Western Bass Magazine, Bassmaster, Basser (Japan), Bassin’ and Fishing & Hunting News. He’s also authored two books, one a coffee table book entitled “Bass Fishing – An American Tradition” and another co-authored with Don Iovino called “Finesse Bass Fishing and the Sonar Connection.” Today he’s retired but still writes a monthly piece for WON Bass and has found some solace in fishing the team circuits with his sons, especially in San Diego.