The must-have bass baits of the late '80s - Major League Fishing
The must-have bass baits of the late ’80s
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The must-have bass baits of the late ’80s

MLF reporter Rob Newell takes a look back at the most tubular fish catchers of the era
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August 26, 2023 • Rob Newell • Major League Lessons

This season marked my 25th year covering bass fishing tournaments as a writer, photographer and obsessed investigator of why fish do what they do. Each year as the season unfolds, I have the same question on my mind as I did 25 years ago: What’s it going to be this year? What’s going to be the next red-hot, must-have, purchase-at-any-cost, get-it-in-every-color, catch-every-fish-in-the-lake lure? 

If you’ve fished tournaments for any length of time, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Every few years a bait comes along, and for whatever reason, bass in lakes all over the country attack it like they’ve never seen a lure before. No matter how awkward, nonreal, unreal or surreal the lure looks, bass will eat it for reasons beyond our comprehension. 

Whether it’s a new action, vibration, speed, sound or a new way to present a lure into age-old cover, bass respond so strongly to it that it’s truly unexplainable. If you’re the first on the bandwagon with the new mousetrap, you can pad your bank account with prize money faster than a Brinks truck could fill it. However, if you’re late to the party, you can get left behind even faster. 

I’ve reached deep into the fog of my memory bank to recount some of these special must-have lures that have come along over the last 30 years. If you were part of any of these lure rages that swept through the competitive fishing world back then, you can certainly relate. This list is in no particular order, other than somewhat chronological.

I love the ‘80s (and early ‘90s)

In this first edition I’ll start with a few industry shakers from the late ’80s into the early ’90s. 

Before I start this trip down Must-Have Avenue, though, here’s an interesting consideration: We likely would have never known these lures existed if it were not for tournament trails, tournament anglers and the intensive sport of competitive angling. Each year, there are hundreds of tournaments fished by thousands of anglers who make millions of casts. Without so many data points creating tournament results, we would never know exactly how potent one lure can be in comparison to the others. And over the last 30 years, I could have never guessed some of these lures would have been top producers. 

So let’s take a ride…

Lunker City Slug-Go

I’ll start with the Lunker City Slug-Go because they were the first lures I ever hoarded – as in, lurked in the tackle store, stalked the delivery man and bought almost every bag he had on the truck. If you wonder what drives someone to do such despicable things as to buy up all the lures of a particular brand from a tackle store, this is how it begins. 

I’m not sure of the year, but it had to be the late ’80s because I was still in high school and couldn’t drive yet. I had a friend who loved to fish as much as I did, and he could drive us to nearby lakes and ponds. We would walk pond banks or scull around in our co-owned Tupperware pond-hopper pontoon boat that someone gave us because it leaked so bad. We both had tackleboxes full of standard-issue Florida lures. 

And we never caught jack. Nothing to speak of anyway. 

We called one of the ponds we frequented “Lake Barren” because we never caught bass there.

One day, a kid at school whose dad was in the local bass club told us we needed to buy some Slug-Gos. We didn’t even know what Slug-Gos were, so we went to the local tackle shop to find out. They were sold out (imagine that) except for two bags in an ugly red shad color. The shop owner also offered us some kind of special “offset” hooks to make them work. To be honest, once I got my first Slug-Go rigged up, it looked terrible: a red plastic stick on a hook – no freaking way this was going to work.

You know how this story ends, so I won’t bore you with the fish-by-fish details. But after just one hour, the bottom of the Tupperware boat was littered with 20 broken, shredded, red shad plastic sticks. We had just caught the most bass we had ever caught in our life from Lake Barren. And when all the life was chewed out of the ugly red shad sticks, the pond went dead again. We went back to our standard lures and never got another bite.

We called one of the ponds we frequented “Lake Barren” because we never caught bass there.

The Slug-Go taught me early on the sobering fact that bass were put on the Earth for the sole purpose of monkey-wrenching humans’ brains. How could we make three previous trips to a pond full of bass, throw every lure we had in at them, never get a bite, then cast featureless plastic sticks and every bass in the lake would fight over it? 

For the next two weeks we stalked the tackle shop every day and finally caught the delivery man in the act of restocking Slug-Gos. We bought most of his entire delivery in every color he had. Once the Slug-Gos were hoarded, we skipped a lot of school and caught a lot of bass in places we thought fish never even lived. 

Lizard dragging

When I finally jumped on the tournament fishing bandwagon in my early 20s, the Carolina-rigged Lizard was the jam. You guys who have been around a while know the one I’m talking about: the Zoom 6-inch pumpkin lizard with a chartreuse tail, trailed behind a 2-foot leader, a swivel, a glass bead and a 1-ounce lead weight – pure bass-catching magic. 

By this time, I was in college and fished as a non-boater in the Auburn Bass Club, long before there was College Fishing. No matter what lake we went to, what time of year, what depth we fished or what the weather was, all I had to do was wing that lizard-drowning rig out of the back of the boat, drag it along the bottom and wait for something to peck it. Points, pockets, sand, gravel, mud, vegetation – it didn’t matter; it caught all species of bass in any lake in the Southeast. 

I owned two Carolina rig rods, a small box of terminal tackle, a duffel bag full of Zoom bags, and I was on top of the fishing world. And I wasn’t alone. In every lake we fished, every point had a bass boat on it with two guys whipping Carolina lassos far out into the air. They were usually the same guys who hung around the weigh-ins the longest waiting for their checks to get printed. 

To this day, when I open a package of Zoom baits, I stick my snout in the bag, take a whiff of that salty goodness and it floods my brain with great memories of dragging lizards. 

Neon madness

From there, my lizard-dragging dreams came crashing down with the advent of floating worms. These bright, neon-colored worms were yet another stark introduction to a fundamental bass fishing law: Never question how dumb a lure looks. The floating worm was purposely made in the gaudiest of colors: white, bubble gum (pink), school bus (bright yellow), sherbet (pink and yellow swirl) and a real winner, Merthiolate (orange). A package of these things looked like a bag of Skittles. 

The first time I fished with a guy who pulled “pinky” from the rod locker and began casting it around – during a tournament – it was so surreal I thought it was a joke. When he culled to 17 pounds by 10 a.m. and I had not had a bite dragging my lizard, my head became wobblier than a wheel on a Walmart shopping cart. 

That afternoon I would come to find out that, unbeknownst to me, the entire Top 10 guys in the club event were all throwing the colors of the rainbow for impressive catches. Floating worms were hot, and I’m not going to lie; that whole freaky color deal kept me awake for hours at night in the following weeks. I should have been studying something important like calculus, but instead I so was obsessed as to why a bass would clobber a worm dressed like a clown with such reckless abandon? There is nothing in their natural environment that even looks like that! 

Honestly, it was at this point that I should have quit bass fishing altogether. If a bass eating a Skittle-colored worm with no rational explanation bothered me so much, I should have just stuck with something that made a little more sense – like calculus.

Next time we’ll work into the mid-90s with some more throwbacks that took the fishing lure market by surprise.