March 11, 2020
By Ned Kehde
Since 2006, Josh Upton of Hement, California, has been preserving two grand piscatorial traditions.
One of them is a California tradition, which stretches back into the 1980s. The other is a Midwest one that began in the early 1960s.
The California one is what is called a “garage shop,” which some folks call a cottage industry, and some of them started around a kitchen table. Upton’s endeavors as the proprietor of Upton’s Customs revolve around the manufacturing of hand-poured soft-plastic lures for black bass anglers. He accomplishes this feat in his garage, and he is so adroit at creating these lures that he is often heralded as being a magician.
The Midwest one revolves around Upton’s manufacturing of the Reaper, which was one of the first Midwest finesse baits. It was designed by Harold Ensley of Kansas City in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was manufactured by Ted Green’s Mar Lynn Lure Company of Blue Springs, Missouri. It was designed to be affixed to a jig. Ensley’s original intention was to use it with his five-foot, six-inch spinning rod and light monofilament line for pursuing lake trout in Canada. However, in the hands of Ensley and some of the other forefathers of Midwest finesse anglers, it also became an important tool for catching largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and spotted bass in the waterways of the nation’s heartland. And in the 1980s, black bass anglers in California became infatuated with it. What’s more, Chuck Woods of Kansas City used the tail of the Reaper to create his Puddle Jumper, which Mar Lynn Lure Company began manufacturing in the early 1970s. It is interesting to note that Ensley was pleased that the Reaper spawned the Puddle Jumper, and when he affixed a Puddle Jumper to a small jig and wielded it on a spinning rod, it quickly became one of Ensley’s favorite and most fruitful lures for inveigling a variety of species.
Cory Schmidt of Merrifield, Minnesota, and a fellow In-Fisherman field editor alerted us to Upton and his Reaper, which Schmidt has used to catch an array of largemouth bass and smallmouth bass in Minnesota’s waterways.
Ultimately, we exchanged several telephone conversations and emails with Upton about his Reaper, which he described as one of the world’s quintessential black-bass baits. He told us that he began manufacturing the 3.5-incher in 2010. But he has been making larger ones since the birth of Upton’s Customs in 2006.
We thought that his 3.5-inch Reaper would catch the fancy of Midwest finesse anglers, and he sent us a sample to work with, thoroughly examine, and eventually write a gear guide about it.
Here is what we discovered about Upton’s 3.5-inch Reaper.
It is 3 11/16 inches long.
Its anterior section is 1 3/16 inches long. It is seven-sixteenths of an inch wide at its widest spot with a circumference of about 1 5/16 inches. The head or tip of this section is domed shaped. Its dorsal is convex, and it has a minor slot that equally divides both sides of the torso. Except for this slot, the dorsal’s epidermis is smooth. Its ventral is slightly concaved, and its epidermis is so smooth that it looks glassy.
The posterior section is 2 7/16 inches long and possesses an oblong shape. In the vernacular of most anglers, this section is referred to as the tail.
In the center of the posterior’s dorsal section, there is a ridge that is 2 1/8 inches long, and it is convex. It has a minor slot that equally divides this ridge, and except for the slot, the epidermis is smooth. It is about seven-sixteenths of an inch wide at its widest spot, which is situated at the junction of the anterior and posterior sections. At the end of this ridge, the width diminishes to about one-eighth of an inch.
Except for the convex ridge, the posterior’s dorsal is flat and thin with a width of 1 ¾ inches at its widest spot. The width diminishes as it approaches the tip of the posterior section. The epidermis of this portion of the posterior’s dorsal area is embroidered with about four dozen very subtle lines that radiate from each side of the ridge to the outside edge of this dorsal. The ventral area is totally flat, and its epidermis is almost glassy.
It is manufactured in the following hues: Ayu, Black Grape, Candylicious, Dark Watermelon Purple Vein, Ghost, Goby, Green Pumpkin Black Flake, Lightning Shad, and Smoke Black Flake.
It is extremely buoyant, and it is much softer than the old-fashioned Reaper that Harold Ensley and the Mar Lynn Lure Company created and began manufacturing in the 1960s. And Upton’s Reaper undulates and gyrates more than the Ensley’s Reaper. The ventral portion of the anterior section of Ensley’s Reaper was convex or rounded rather than concaved. The concaved feature of Upton’s Reaper will allow it to glide more alluringly and subtly than Ensley’s Reaper did when a Midwest finesse angler affixes it to a small mushroom-style jig with an exposed hook and executes the swim-glide-and-shake presentation.
A package of a dozen 3.5-inch Reapers costs $4.49.
- Here is a link to Mike Pehanich’s article entitled “Wicked Baits From the California Garage Shops.” It features Josh Upton. https://www.thebasscollege.com/-%20New%20Folder/bonus_mag_featured_Feb11.pdf.
- Here is a link to Upton’s Customs’ Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/uptonscustoms/.
- Here is a link to Upton’s Customs’ website: http://www.uptonscustoms.com/.
- Upton’s Customs’ telephone number is 951-663-2821.
- Michael Jones of Canyon Lake, California, noted in his book. which is entitled “The Complete Guide to Finesse Bass Fishing” and published in 1991, that the most effective way to employ a Reaper is on a split-shot rig. And to this day, a significant number of California anglers and anglers in other western states find it to be the most effective way to rig it.
- Back in the 1960s, a few of the forefathers of Midwest finesse fishing, such as the late Guido Hibdon of Gravois Mills, Missouri, were masters at using split-shot rigs affixed to either a plastic worm or a live crayfish. But when Harold Ensley introduced Hibdon to the Reaper in the 1960s, they found that affixing the Reaper to a jig was more fruitful than rigging it on a split-shot rig. Nowadays, some western anglers rig Upton’s Reaper on a drop-shot rig. But most Midwest finesse anglers will affix Upton’s Reaper to a small mushroom-style jig, which will allow them to employ all six of the standard Midwest finesse retrieves with a no-feel presentation. Here is a link to the Midwest finesse column that explains how to execute those six retrieves: http://www.uptonscustoms.com/.