When I was a little kid, I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ farm. My grandpa was a passionate fisherman. I remember staying at their farmhouse every summer and when grandpa wasn’t in the barn, field, or workshop he was probably on the water. And on those rare weekends when he didn’t have a fishing outing planned, I remember grandpa sitting in the living room and all of us kids lying on the wood floor watching Virgil Ward’s Championship Fishing show on the old television set. After church, Sundays were “fishing on TV.” Of course, Ward didn’t have the only fishing show on TV, but he was one of the early pioneers of that medium. Nowadays, with YouTube fishing channels as common as kids and bluegills, most anglers under 50 probably have no clue that Virgil Ward was one of bass fishing’s first media superstars.
Virgil Ward’s rise to the top of the fishing world was quite a journey for a poor kid from Missouri who grew up during the Great Depression. In fact, when Virgil married his high school sweetheart, Cleda, they were so poor that they couldn’t afford either a wedding photograph or a washing machine. This short essay, however, isn’t a biography of the man; suffice to say that Virgil rose to become a national celebrity and media superstar from very humble beginnings.
Virgil’s biography can be found in several online sources and following are a few of the places where you can learn more about this incredible man. One good online source is Dan Galusha’s website. Galusha knew Virgil personally and was instrumental in putting together the excellent PBS documentary “The World of Virgil Ward” (click the link to watch this video, it’s well worth it). There’s also an interesting Facebook page titled Virgil Ward and Championship Fishing, which is maintained by Virgil’s youngest grandson Eric Curnutte. The site has a lot of great old photographs of Virgil.
Finally, our friend Chris over at his Retro Bassin’ YouTube channel has at least one episode dedicated to Virgil Ward. It’s titled “Fishing it OLD SCHOOL with Virgil Ward and the Bass Buster BEETLE SPIN.”
To say that Virgil Ward had an influence on bass fishing and fishing culture in general would be to grossly understate his impact. His newspaper columns, radio show and ultimately his television show brought fishing to the masses. And his media empire didn’t attract only fishermen. Virgil’s courteous and soft-spoken manner attracted all kinds of people, and his programs often featured more than just fishing. Virgil educated viewers on the wonders of nature and shared the beautiful scenery of the places he visited. He also had famous entertainment and sports celebrities as his guests and fishing partners. In short, Virgil Ward’s Championship Fishing was entertaining and educational, whether you fished or not, and the viewing public genuinely liked this gentleman from Missouri.
Of course, fishing was the primary subject of Virgil’s programs. At a time when there weren’t a lot of fishing shows on television, Championship Fishing filled a niche. It also spawned a good number of similar fishing-centric programs. For example, after appearing on Championship Fishing, Ron and Al Lindner directly credited Virgil as the inspiration they needed to start their own highly successful fishing show.
But Virgil wasn’t only a pro angler with a TV show, he was also a lure inventor who saw success with several of his bait patents via his equally successful Bass Buster Lure Company, which he started in 1950. Lures that Virgil created or patented are still in production today. One of those is the marabou jig, a highly effective lure, especially for smallmouth bass. Back in the 1970s marabou jigs were hugely popular as smallmouth baits. While today other lures have ascended in popularity, marabou jigs are still being produced and marketed, and are still highly effective bass catchers.
The bait innovation that Virgil Ward should, in my opinion, be most heralded for – because it is ubiquitous today – is the fiber weed guard on jigs. Virgil is largely credited with its invention, but I have been unable to find the patent or any substantiating information on this claim, although Galusha maintains that Ward did indeed patent the fiber weedguard. But I have also yet to find any source that declares anyone other than Virgil Ward came up with the idea. Fiber weed guards are a standard part of many jigs today, and there’s little doubt that every jig angler has a good assortment of weedguard-adorned jigs on hand when he or she hits the water.
But while most anglers are probably ignorant of who came up with the fiber weed guard, I’m betting more of them are at least somewhat aware of the origins of the long-lasting Beetle Spin. Inexpensive and modest in design, the Beetle Spin might be the most enduring legacy, as far as fishing baits are concerned, of the Bass Buster Lure Company.
Most sources credit Virgil with the invention of the Beetle Spin around 1958. Others credit Chuck Wood with its invention in the early 1960s, saying that Virgil saw and liked the design and developed it for mass production. Curnutte sent me a thoughtful reply to my inquiry about the origins of the Beetle Spin:
I believe the consensus was always that my grandfather developed the beetle spin. I do not want to take away from the legacy of Chuck Wood, but it seems there is very little known about him. I do think the Beetle body itself may have been influenced by him. The suggestion that the Beetle Spin and marabou jig were not solely from Virgil seemed to come about some time after his passing in 2004. This is reflected by some of Ned Kehde’s articles with In-Fisherman. I think Mr. Kehde is a great writer and historian but a writer can be at the mercy of their sources. If you look at the older packaging of the Bass Buster Beetle Spin and marabou jig, they say “Designed and Recommended by Virgil Ward.”
In any event, Virgil Ward and Bass Buster brought the Beetle Spin to the fishing public. Bass Buster was later sold to the Johnson Wax company and the Beetle Spin is still in production with Johnson Fishing, a testament to its effectiveness as a fish-catching bait.
Virgil Ward also helped to popularize the Catch-and-Release ethic that is so widespread today. His efforts to publicize the conservation of fishing resources on his Championship Fishing program were quite effective in spreading the ethos to the broader angling world. While he certainly didn’t originate the idea of taking care of our waterways or catch-and-release, Virgil’s Championship Fishing show was seen by millions of people every week, and his voice was a powerful and influential one.
He is also, of course, a member of the International Fishing Hall of Fame, the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, a Dolphin Award recipient, and in 1975, Missouri Governor Christopher S. Bond officially designated October 19 as “Virgil Ward Day.” In formalizing the event Bond declared, “Virgil Ward, through his many efforts, has made an invaluable contribution to Missouri Tourism, and has made millions of Americans aware of the world of fishing.”
Not bad for a poor boy from Missouri.
I wonder how many anglers will remember the melody that goes with the following lyrics to the Championship Fishing theme song:
“From the lakes of northern Canada
To the Gulf of Mexico.
Wherever fish are biting
That’s where we’re going to go.
There’s a lot of exciting country
Just waiting to be explored.
So join us now in the great outdoors,
The World of Virgil Ward.”