Legends of the Heartland
June 10, 2012
The history of angling in America is laced with many groundbreakers. There are a lot of lively and entertaining debates about who did what and who did it first, and occasionally some of the discussions get contentious and a touch salty. Unfortunately much of the archives that would establish some of the facts have disappeared, and many living memories have become foggy.
Nevertheless history has shown that four of the most important men who graced the piscatorial landscape of the Heartland during the last half of the 20th century were Bob Carnes, Harold Ensley, Virgil Ward and Chuck Woods.
We are heirs of their many accomplishments. By examining and pondering their toils and contributions, it might make us better and more knowledgeable anglers.
Carnes hails from Springdale, Arkansas, which lies near the west end of the three White River reservoirs along the Missouri and Arkansas border.
He is the proprietor of Arkie Lures, Inc.
At the age of 69, Carnes is the only one of the four who is still alive. And like the other three pioneers, the way jigs were designed, dressed and fished lay at the heart of his many endeavors.
In the 1960s Carnes made crappie jigs and sold them to local tackle and bait shops. Ultimately Lloyd Kiper, who had a bait shop in Rogers, Arkansas, cajoled him into creating a bass jig that was more snag free than the banana-head one that anglers such as the great Sam Welch and other bass anglers were wielding at Bull Shoals, Table Rock and Beaver lakes.
One of the problems with the banana head jig was that it was narrow and rolled over on its side, causing it to become readily snagged.
To correct this fault, Carnes started to design what he called a balanced bass jig. It wasn't a simple and quick undertaking. Carnes didn't live in our highly computerized and digitalized world with CAD/CAM programs that would allow him to use a CNC machine to quickly cut a mold. Instead he worked for several years with a tool-and-die shop in Kansas City
After each mold was created, he tinkered incessantly with the jig to get it properly balanced by cutting, widening, flattening, shortening, rearranging the position of the hook, and changing hook sizes. Many of the changes were incremental, but each change necessitated the creation of a new mold.
The final stage revolved around creating a wire weed guard to protect the hook. But as he worked on the weed guard phase, he happened to see a TV fishing show from St. Louis that featured one of Virgil Ward's jigs with a fiberguard. That fiberguard revelation necessitated some additional work.
In fact, Carnes initial work with a fiberguard was a tedious and labor-intensive ordeal. One problem was that the fiberguard material was four feet long. Therefore Carnes had to cut them to the proper length, and then he had to painstakingly fit all of the strands into the mold.
Eventually all of his time and toil began to bear fruit, and in the early 1970s Carnes started manufacturing the Original Arkie Jig that was dressed with a bucktail skirt.
He initially sold them to the same tackle shops across northern Arkansas and southern Missouri that bought his crappie jigs. Then as recreational and tournament anglers quickly discovered the effectiveness of the Arkie jig, sales to other stores increased dramatically. Eventually Walmart, which started inBentonville,Arkansas, and lies a few miles north of Springdale up U.S. 71, began to merchandize them in Sam Walton's 12 original stores; then it was 100 stores, and as Walmart expanded, Carnes' sales grew as well. Moreover, when Carnes attended the annual Okie Bug Show in Tulsa in the 1970s and early '80s, the Arkie Jig was such a coveted item that anglers bought them at a hand-over-fist pace, and after Bo Dowden won the 1980 Bassmaster Classic with the Arkie Jig, Carnes sold 36,000 of them at the 1981 Okie Bug Show. In due course, jig makers elsewhere copied Carnes' handiwork, and Carnes added living rubber and then silicone skirts to his jigs.
Nowadays, Carnes' Arkie Lure Inc. sells a potpourri of baits, including Harold Ensley's Original Reaper and a beetle similar to the one Chuck Woods created and Virgil Ward manufactured in the 1960s.
What's more, Carnes remains on the cutting edge. For example, Arkie's hinged U-Head Jig was manufactured two years before Tommy Biffle used one to win the Bassmaster Elite event at Ft. Gibson Lake, Oklahoma in 2010.
When Harold Ensley moved to Kansas City in 1949 at the age of 37, he began his mission to get Missourians and Kansans interested in fishing.
He had grown up on a western Kansas cattle ranch near Healy in Lane County. Even though he was bewitched with fishing fever, which provoked him to skip school, he was an excellent student, graduated valedictorian of his tiny class, and honored as Kansas' top history student.
After an injury foiled his attempts to become a professional baseball player, he moved to Joplin, Missouri, where he was a preacher at the Church of Christ, worked as an adman at a radio station and had a religious radio show. One day while he was traipsing around town selling radio ads, a fishing friend stopped him and said that he would buy ads if Ensley would conduct a fishing show on the radio. That idea enticed Ensley, and he persuaded the station to air a fishing show with him as its host. He was so enthralled with it that he did it without being paid.
During his first years in Kansas City, he wrote a newspaper column and worked as an adman for a radio station. In 1951, he convinced the station manager to air a program entitled "The Fisherman's Friend" with him as the host, and he performed enthusiastically without pay. It became so popular that Sears became a sponsor, paying him initially five dollars a show, and Ensley did it until 1966.
By 1953 Ensley's radio show had charmed so many listeners that television station KCMO asked him to play host to a live television show, which was called "Sportsman Friend" with a catchy theme song called "Gone Fishin."
From 1953 to 1968 the show was aired live from 9:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. every Monday of the year, and for an hour after the show, Ensley and his son Dusty answered phone calls from viewers, telling them where and how they could catch fish that week.
After 1968 until his last show in 2001, the show was taped and aired by KCMO and at other television stations in the region. In 1975, it also became a syndicated show that was aired by 54 stations in 48 states.
Across the 48 years of TV shows, Ensley and his son shot more than two million feet of film. Initially many of those feet of film showed members of the Hibdon family plying the waters of the Lake of the Ozarks and the great Sam Welch catching bass at Bull Shoals. As time went by Ensley broadened his horizons from showing and telling his thousands of viewers and listeners where and how to fish in the Heartland to where and how to fish for lake trout in Canada's hinterland and tarpon and snook in the Caribbean.
Some observers note that for many years Ensley was the most well-known man in Missouri and Kansas. In fact the Kansas Legislature even honored him as one of the state's favorite sons.
He possessed a charismatic and down-home nature, and the TV camera seemed to caress him and accentuate his magnetism. His charming demeanor that was vividly exhibited on live TV allured a lot of prime-time viewers in the 1950s and '60s who weren't interested in fishing. And the combination of Ensley charm with films of him fishing with one of the Hibdons, Sam Welch or scores of other talented anglers and entertaining guests spawned a lot of interest in fishing across the Heartland. It's speculated by some knowledgeable analysts that Ensley recruited more new anglers into the sport than any individual has ever been able to accomplish. He became the godfather to the recreational angler.
Besides his radio and TV shows, he designed rods, which Phantom, St. Croix and Garcia manufactured. His five-foot and six-foot spinning rods were his favorite, and thousands of recreational anglers used them, too.
His most notable creation was the Reaper that he affixed to a jig. He originally designed it to use with his five-foot, six-inch spinning rod for pursuing lake trout in Canada. Ted Green of Mar Lynn Lure Company manufactured it in five, three- and two-inch sizes, and eventually, the five-incher became a favorite with bass anglers at many venues across the nation. Anglers who floated rivers and streams for smallmouth relished the smaller Reapers, as did the crappie and white bass anglers. In addition, Chuck Woods of Kansas City, who Ensley once hailed as the finest angler that he ever knew, used the tail section of a Reaper to create the template for the Puddle Jumper that Mar Lynn Lure Company manufactured, and Ensley said a Puddle Jumper on a jig was one of his favorite and most fruitful lures.
Early in his career Ensley was a successful competitive fisherman, and he used Ted Green's jigworm called the Skworm-N-Jig to win the first World Series of Sport Fishing, which was created in 1960 by Hy Peskin of Sports Illustrated magazine fame and Ted Williams of baseball fame. This tournament was staged at Union Lake, Michigan, on Oct. 15-24, 1960.
After that brief competitive fling, he redoubled his mission to introduce the Heartland's rapidly expanding middle class to the manifold virtues of fishing.
He also became an early proponent of catch-and-release angling, and so as not to excessively harm his quarry, he refused to fish with lures that brandished treble hooks or with anyone using them, which fit perfectly with his affection for finesse fishing, such as employing a jig dressed with a Reaper or Puddle Jumper.
Towards the end of his career, several halls of fame honored him, and upon his death on August 24, 2005, obituaries, adulations and memories were aired on radio and TV stations and published in newspapers across the nation.
When Virgil Ward was 16 years old in 1927, he and his parents moved from Easton, Missouri to Amsterdam, Missouri, which sits about 50 miles south of Kansas City. From then on, the world of Virgil Ward was centered in Amsterdam.
Before he and his son, Bill, began the Bass Buster Lure Company, Virgil serviced Delco-Light farm electric plants and rural propane systems.
The genesis of his lure business began in 1948. This first endeavor center around manufacturing wooden lures. The initial impetus arose after Ward won a big bass tournament at Norfork Lake, Arkansas, by catching a five-pound, 10-ounce smallmouth bass on a wooden lure. In short order, he began handcrafting a variety of wooden lures, which he readily sold. The problem was that he couldn't produce enough of them, and diminishing returns set in by 1950. At that point, Ward decided to get out of the rural service trade and wooden lure business, and he opened a plumbing and electrical appliance shop, where his family lived in the back of the store.
Ultimately this shop became the home of Bass Buster Lure Company in 1955.
Their first creation was a bass jig dressed with saddle hackles. The head of this jig was a combination of a banana and Upperman jig; it was a similar head to the one that Sam Welch and many of the bass anglers were wielding at Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes.
The fabrication of their second lure occurred in 1957. When, at the behest of Virgil, his son, Bill, created the world's first marabou jig. His father was going trout fishing on the White River below Bull Shoals with Harold Ensley who was going to shoot a TV show. Virgil wanted a jig that was similar to the marabou streamer that Missouri fly fishermen used. So, Bill tied several 1/16-ounce white marabou jigs for his father. Bill said it was essentially a Doll Fly with white marabou instead of white bear hair. On that outing with Ensley, Virgil caught an impressive array of trout, including a six-pounder, on Bill's marabou jig. From that point on, the Wards made marabou jigs by the thousands, ranging in size from 1/64-ounce to 1/2-ounce in black, white, purple, yellow, red/white, blue-gray, pink and orange, and bass anglers dressed the jig with an eel.
Bill Ward recalls that a group of anglers from Tulsa, Oklahoma, got wind of Virgil's catch with Ensley on the White River, and these Tulsans also began manufacturing marabou jigs, and before long, the marabou jig became one of the preeminent lures across the Heartland.
In the mid-1960s, the Wards began manufacturing Chuck Woods' Beetle and Beetle Spin, and they also manufactured a replica of Woods' jig, which created an alluring wobble to the Beetle during the retrieve. It was an immediate and continuous success; for example, anglers bought 10,200,000 Beetles and Beetle Spins in 1983. (It needs to be noted that Woods' unique jig isn't part of the Beetle Spin that Pure Fishing manufactures nowadays.)
During the last half of the 1960s, the Wards developed the fiberguard, and it adorned many of their jigs, as well as their Spider Spin, Scorpion and Tarantula spinnerbaits. Straightaway it revolutionized the way anglers presented their baits to their quarries.
The Wards sold Bass Buster to Sam Johnson in 1970. Bill worked for Johnson for another 26 years, while Virgil focused his entire attention on his nationally syndicated television show titled "The Virgil Ward Championship Fishing Show," and the name of the show was derived by his winning of the championship trophy at the 1962 World Series of Sport Fishing.
The 1962 World Series was held in Oklahoma on Oct. 15 through Oct. 19, and the anglers competed on Grand Lake, Eucha Lake, Illinois River, Tenkiller Lake and Fort Gibson Lake. Ward also won the Regional Bass Competition tournament in 1958, National Championship of Freshwater Fishing in 1964, and Outdoor Writers and Broadcasters Fishing tournament in 1964.
Besides his TV show, he taught a fishing class at Missouri State University, wrote a newspaper column, and aired a radio show. Like Ensley, he spawned a lot of new anglers, and he even motivated Al and Ron Lindner of In-Fisherman and Lindner's Angling Edge fame to create a TV show. Numerous honors were bestowed upon Ward by various halls of fame and other angling organizations. In addition, Missouri's Governor Christopher S. Bond proclaimed October 19, 1975, as Virgil Ward Day, noting that "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."His first TV show aired in 1963 in Springfield, Missouri, and once his nationally syndicated show began, the Nielsen and ARB rating services proclaimed it to be the nation's number-one rated fishing show for 21 of the 25 years that Ward produced it.
Chuck Woods: "the greatest angler that no one has ever heard of"
Unlike Carnes, Ensley and Ward, Chuck Woods' many contributions have been overlooked.
Consequently Dwight Keefer and Drew Reese lament that one of the angling world's greatest oversights is that Chuck Woods has not been recognized by the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame or any other angling hall of fame for his "significant and lasting contributions to the sport and heritage of fresh water fishing."
One measure of Woods' peculiar state of limbo is reflected that none of his old friends could locate a photograph of him until Burton Bosley of Sutton, West Virginia, finally uncovered one. (The Woods' photograph that Bosley uncovered can be seen at https://www.in-fisherman.com/2012/02/26/finally-a-photograph-of-the-great-and-late-chuck-woods-has-been-uncovered/) If a historical society eventually procures and processes the archival records of Virgil Ward, there is some hope that some film footage of Woods might be found in the archives of Ward's TV shows.
Keefer and Reese note that they are eternally grateful for having the privilege of knowing Woods and cultivating a lasting and profound friendship with him.
In fact, even though Woods has been dead for 36 years, Reese says that he thinks about him almost every day. Likewise, Keefer says that Woods registered an everlasting mark on him. Not only was Woods a delightful man for Reese and Keefer to grow up around, but studying his wizardry at creating lures and catching bass was a sight for these youngsters to behold and remember forever.
Keefer of Phoenix and Reese of Rantoul, Kansas, grew up in Overland Park, Kansas. As high school students at Shawnee Mission North High School, they were members of the school's fishing club. Reese was also a neighbor of the late Ray Fincke, and Fincke was the proprietor of a tackle shop on Southwest Boulevard in the Rosedale section of Kansas City.
In the early 1960s and before the advent of bass clubs, Fincke's shop became a regular gathering spot for bass anglers, including Woods.
As a high school student, Reese worked at Fincke's, and Keefer occasionally worked there, too. This was where they initially crossed paths with Woods, and they often found him in the back workroom, where he fiddled with and customized lures and created his Beetle, Beetle Spin, Puddle Jumper, hellgrammite, Mini-Twister, Tex-style jigworm, and an array of others.
Reese and Keefer quickly became disciples of Woods' style of fishing, which he began creating in the 1950s. Nowadays, we call Woods' style of fishing Midwest finesse, and it is different than the finesse tactics that are used by anglers in California and Japan.
Keefer declares that Woods was finesse fishing before anglers anywhere in the nation were doing it. Thus, he is indeed the father of finesse.
Reese said it was an incredible scene witnessing Woods wield his five-foot, eight-inch Fenwick spinning rod and Shakespeare 2062 spinning reel and catching bass that weighed as much as 10 pounds. To this day Reese proclaims that Woods was so talented that he could catch nearly every bass that abided in a small body of water in a few outings.
Reese graduated from high school in 1965, and Keefer graduated in 1966. While they were college students at the University of Kansas, they continued to work at Fincke's and fish with Woods.
Under Woods' tutelage, Keefer and Reese became extremely talented Midwest finesse anglers.
In fact, when Keefer was a sophomore at K.U. in October of 1967, he used a spinning rod and Woods' jigworm at Long Lake, Wisconsin, to win the World Series of Sport Fishing; this is the same one that Ensley and Ward won in 1960 and 1962.
After Reese graduated from college, he worked for Virgil and Bill Ward at Bass Buster Lure Company for a few years, and from 1970 through 1972, he fished several Bassmaster tournaments, including the 1971 Classic at Lake Mead, where he finished in seventh place by employing Woods' Midwest finesse tactics with the Beetle, Beetle Spin and jigworm on spinning rods.
During the early 1970s, Keefer participated in some Bassmaster events, and competed in the 1972 Classic. At most of these events, he utilized the finesse tactics that he learned from Woods.
From 1970 to 1985, Keefer represented a number of manufactures such as Shakespeare, Hydra-Sport Boats, Cotton Cordell, Zorro Bait Company and Strike King. During this time he crossed paths with scores of talented anglers, tackle creators, tackle manufacturers and angling innovators, but he never met one that was as gifted as Woods. For example, Woods was the first and only practitioner of the deadstick presentation with a jig that Keefer witnessed in all of his traipsing across the angling world; now the deadstick presentation is frequently employed by untold numbers of anglers.
Shortly before Ray Fincke died on Mar. 15, 2011, he said that he agreed with Reese and Keefer's assessment of Woods. In Fincke's eyes, Woods was the finest angler and lure creator in the Midwest. Fincke said one example of Woods' many talents was that he was a magician at creating baits with a jig spinner and waylaying bass with them, such as the Mini-Twister that he created for Bass Buster Lure Company, and according to Fincke, Woods' most bizarre jig-spinner combo was a Bayou Boogie attached to a jig spinner, which bewitched an incredible number of largemouth bass. Moreover, Fincke suspected that Woods' Beetle has helped more anglers catch fish than any lure during the past four decades, and his Texas-styled jigworm rig was decades ahead of its time.
When Bosley was in his late twenties, he worked at Fincke's and fished many days with Woods. Eventually he and his family moved to Florida, where he worked as a freshwater and saltwater fishing guide from 1987 to 2010. Bosley prowess as angler and guide garnered many accolades across those 23 years. According to Bosley, all of his angling and guiding prowess was a byproduct of being around Woods at Fincke's shop and spending hours fishing with him.
Nowadays, Bosley is 71 years old, retired and resides in the hinterlands of West Virginia, and he is still fishing. He is also pondering ways to petition some of the angling world's halls of fames to recognize Woods and his contributions to the sport.
In a recent e-mail, Bosley wrote that Woods was his "bass fishing mentor supreme." What's more, Woods was a dear friend of Bosley's family. Bosely also noted that Woods "loved catching fish, but he would have appreciated (and craved a bit) some recognition from an industry that he enriched with his inventiveness and his ability to think outside accepted methods of his day."
Even though his Beetle Spin was one best selling baits in the history of angling, Woods died in a VA hospital as a virtual pauper. And to this day, very few souls know that Woods was the creator of the Beetle and many other piscatorial gems.