Old school saltwater favorites

This photo could be from decades ago, but it was taken on a recent trip using old gear and lures. Karl Rockvoan shows off a nice flounder caught on an original H&H Lure Company Cocahoe minnow.

Virtually everything’s changed in the fishing game, except the fish!

Coastal saltwater fishing gear is leaps and bounds over what it was 50-60 years ago.

Rods and reels weigh in the ounces, boats run 70 miles per hour or more, GPS has eliminated fishing maps, Fish Finders actually show the fish striking your lure, Power Pole anchors, braided super lines, technical clothing, computer generated lures that perfectly duplicate baitfish — except for a heartbeat. . . and on and on.

Virtually everything fishing related has been modernized and improved. Except, well, the fish.

When it comes to inshore fishing, the one constant over the last many decades is that speckled trout and redfish are the most popular quarry — in that order.

Once virtually unregulated, both of these species have seen major changes regarding size and creel limit restrictions, particularly in the mid 80’s to mid 90’s.

In the early 80’s alarm swept through the coastal recreational community. The blackened redfish craze swept the nation and spawned sparsely regulated commercial purse seining of breeding stock redfish wherein untold millions of pounds of the offshore brood stock were being decimated annually. Combined with the inshore recreational take of juvenile reds, redfish stocks were severely depleted.

Block ice and metal coolers were standard equipment in days gone by. This nice pile of specks and flounder shows that the old gear can still produce fish.

Fishermen band together

In Louisiana for example, sport fishers banded together and major changes were brought about through hard-fought legislative battles that resulted in the 1986 banning of purse seines for catching breeding-size bull redfish. Over the course of the next 10 years, additional agency actions and legislation produced a commercial and recreational ban on fishing redfish in Federal waters of the Gulf, declaring redfish as game fish in Louisiana, establishment of a required additional saltwater fishing license and a ban on gill net fishing for trout and redfish. Strict laws against recreational fishermen selling or bartering fish were enacted. Concurrent reductions in trout and redfish creel limits and lengths have remained constant for several decades, through the present, except for portions of Calcasieu and Cameron Parishes in Louisiana, which have a lower creel limit and strict maximum length on speckled trout.

Growing up in the early 70’s, we measured success of our trips not by the number of fish or catching a legal limit. Our unit of measure was the number of ice chests and coolers. Most popular at that time were coolers of 48-quart capacity. With no minimum size limit, the terms “cigar trout” referred to tiny specks generally under 10 inches and “rat red” was used for small redfish under about 15 inches. Both were abundant and regularly stacked into the boxes as part of the day’s haul. There was also no prohibition against recreational anglers selling their catch, so after cleaning all we wanted, giving some to family and friends, the rest were regularly sold to restaurants or seafood markets.

Saltwater lures 50-60 years ago were limited, basic and they worked. Dead shrimp and live minnows were also used and savvy anglers that wanted to use live shrimp usually had to cast net their own. Although some are still used today, many of those favorite artificial lures have gone away in favor of the latest and greatest for fishermen always looking for that magic lure to give them an edge. Today, the styles and types of saltwater lures are literally countless. Yes, they catch fish, but also seem to catch fishermen at a higher rate.

This wooden tackle box belonged to the author’s late grandfather and contains some of the basic, most popular tackle used in the 60’s and 70’s for fishing trout and redfish. Some are no longer made, but all still catch fish.

We had to try it

On a couple recent trips, we decided to head “back from the future” to see if the old gear and lures of yesteryear still had what it takes. Sporting a vintage Garcia Mitchell 300 spinning reel paired with a two-piece fiberglass rod, we managed to get fish landed (with the aid of an old green monofilament landing net) to safely stow in the aluminum cooler. Yes, everything worked like a charm. Technology has dramatically changed, but fish still eat the same bait and lures.

“Big” Kenny Campo grew up in the inshore fishing mecca of Shell Beach, La. He has the bonafides, having learned from two of the best, his late grandfather Celestino and legendary father Frank “Blackie” Campo. Kenny has lived through all the changes. Some great, some not so much. His biggest lament is the lack of courtesy.

“There are so many people fishing today and there really is no more respect. It used to be a given to move on or give others their space, but I’ve seen places today were boats were too close to even cast,” he said. Campo still fishes many of the places he did as a young child with his grandfather. “I was very fortunate, I learned not only where to fish, but how to actually find fish. If you tell fishermen today that you can smell fish, they look at you like you are crazy. They have no idea about slicks or how tide lines work or other signs to look for,” he said.

Not all technology is bad he said.

“Despite catching all the fish we wanted, we were fishing with heavy, stiff fiberglass rods and Penn Peer reels with nearly unbreakable nylon line. It was just a routine of hooking them and winching them into the boat. Today I fish with a long, flexible rod that bends almost in half. I enjoy it more. Back then, the fish were fighting you, now you are fighting the fish,” Campo said.

A vintage red and white Bingo, Mitchell 300 reel, and fiberglass rod worked magic on this speckled trout recently, the same as they did back in the 1960’s. Bingos are no longer in production, and are now considered collector’s items.

Grandpa’s wooden tackle box

On a nostalgia whim, I dug out my grandpa’s (Papa) old wooden tackle box that I hadn’t looked in for several decades. He was an avid fisherman in the 50’s and 60’s, but passed away in 1971 before I was a teenager. The heavy box is adorned with brass hardware and built more like a piece of fine furniture than a fishing box. The box has large compartments combined with removable trays that have dividers to arrange different size lures. Upon opening, that unmistakable old tackle smell hits you like a blast from the past — they all smell that way. The smell is clearly a combination of lead weights, rusty hooks, jighead paint, hard and soft plastic lures and immeasurable fishing adventures.

The lure assortment is typical of the best of those times. Not a huge variety, but different actions for each, and all could be considered confidence baits for given situations.

Taking up the majority of tray space is H&H Lure Company’s soft plastic Sparkle Beetle and Cocahoe minnows. It is a good bet that these two iconic baits have landed more speckled trout and reds than any other. The Sparkle Beetle was introduced about 1962 and the Cocahoe minnow about 1970. Both are still available and catching fish today.

H&H was started 63 years ago by Bill Humphries and his wife Tommy. H&H is a legend in the freshwater fishing community especially for their original H&H Spinnerbait. Mr. Billy was an avid speckled trout fisherman, but there were only a handful of regularly used artificial lures.

“Bass fishermen fished every weekend with their buddies and were always trying to outdo each other. Therefore, they were constantly looking for the latest and greatest new lure. It was easy to sell freshwater baits,” Humphries said. “However, speckled trout were so plentiful and easy to catch that there wasn’t a demand for many lures. The Sparkle Beetle is the one that broke it wide open,” he added. Humphries followed up with the Cocahoe minnow and these two soft plastics led the way for the mind-boggling choices available today.

The venerable Shad Rig was a staple of most coastal anglers decades ago. They came as pre-rigged tandems on either monofilament or steel leaders. Painted lead heads with nylon bristle tails, the simple design was highly effective and were often tipped with a small piece of market bait (dead shrimp) for a little scent and flavor.

Shad rigs

Next up is the Boone Shad Rig. They came double-rigged either on monofilament or light steel leader. The most popular colors were white and yellow or a combination of both. Bright orange was a close third. Large red or white eyes with black pupils were painted on the heads. The slim, bullet shaped head had a stout hook and nylon bristled tail. Tipped with a piece of shrimp and cast under a popping cork, they were hard to beat. Although they are still in business, Boone no longer sells Shad Rigs. H&H also has their own version called the Speck Rig and Redfish Rig with the differences being hook size and weight. H&H says these are the No. 1 tandem rig of all times with over a billion sold. Mr. Billy fondly recounts catching six trout at one time.

“I bet a friend I could do it and then tied three Speck Rigs in a row. I cast and slowly worked it feeling each hit until all six hooks were filled,” he said.

For hard lures, Papa seemed to prefer Bingos and MirrOLures. Bingos were made in coastal Texas beginning in the early 1950’s by the Doug English Lure Company and are one of the most recognizable saltwater baits of all times. They are shaped like funny little baitfish and came in various sizes, colors, and quirky patterns. Some even had a mirror like flash material embedded in the center of translucent models. They are made of tough poured hard plastic with wire-through design for two treble hooks and two attachment points for different swimming actions. Bingo’s are mostly collected today as relatively inexpensive pieces of coastal fishing history.

Unlike the slim, flat-sided Bingo’s that don’t look anything like a real baitfish, L&S Bait Company began producing their namesake, MirrOLure, in south Florida in the early 1950’s. The lures were designed with a mirror-like film embedded inside the bait which creates an irresistible flash that looked just like a baitfish. With three treble hooks, it is hard to miss a fish on a MirrOlure. They are still produced today with the company owned by the third-generation grandson of the original founder.

Next up is an assortment of silver spoons. These simple, shiny chunks of metal were designed to flash and look like a bait fish. All saltwater baitfish have silver on their sides. Various sizes and shapes were made with a single treble hook at the rear — some dressed with yellow or white bucktail. The brand names on these spoons are legendary in saltwater fishing history — Mr. Champ, Side-Winder, Little Cleo and Johnson’s Sprite. The majority are silver, but a couple were painted with an omnipresent red and white striped pattern on one side. Red and white was offered in almost all saltwater lures sold during those times.

Made in coastal Texas beginning in the early 1950’s, Bingo was a simple, hard plastic lure that came in a multitude of colors and several sizes. It was highly effective from the boat, surf, or pier. No longer in production, they are collector’s items, but those who choose to fish them still find success.

Wooden plugs and more

The rest of the box was filled with a couple wooden plugs, the usual assortment of hooks, jigheads, corks, sinkers, swivels and line. Miscellaneous small items were contained in metal Kodak film containers. Insect Repellant was a must. Fishing was primarily an anchor and sit operation. No moving about with a trolling motor. Mosquitoes, gnats and sand flies wreaked havoc then as they do today. A can of Off or Pic slow burning coils was an essential.

There were a few items that are not readily found in most modern anglers’ boxes, including an ice pick. Back then there were no Twice the Ice machines dispensing cubes. Local ice houses sold block ice. Many fishermen made their own in milk cartons. A pick was surely needed to manage the ice into smaller chunks for proper icing of fish and of course, beer. Whetstones were a must. Today’s chemical and lazer sharpening produces needle-sharp hooks. Not so much, many years ago. The old timers were both smart and frugal. New hooks were sharpened out of the package and hooks dulled from use weren’t replaced, they were sharpened, often right in the boat. They were also needed to keep manual filet knives sharp. There was also a bottle opener (fishing is thirsty work) and miscellaneous items like a compass, a box of matches, clip on sunglass lenses, reel oil, spare spool and/or line, and a signaling mirror because there were no cell phones.

And last, but not least, a hand-held scale — because, you know, fishermen lied back then too.

Old outboard motors like these small Evinrude models and even large ones were cheap in days gone by. Not true today.

Those were the days

Largest available outboard motor:

1960: 75 hp, V4 OMC Johnson Sea Horse/Evinrude Starflite, 235 pounds MSRP $608.60

2022: 600 hp V12 Verado, Mercury Marine, 1260 pounds, MSRP $77,000.00

1 Gallon of gasoline (average)

1960:  $.31 cents per gallon

2022:  $4.59 per gallon

Louisiana Saltwater Resident Fishing License

1960: Basic $1.00 per year (No saltwater license needed)

2022: Basic $17.00 plus required saltwater $15.00 ($32.00)

Mitchell 300 Spinning Reel

1962:  $32.95 (Sale price $15.95)

2022:  $69.99*

*Brand name only and no comparison to the quality of the original French-made Garcia Mitchell reels that are collectible and many still in use today.

This page from a 1965 Cabella’s catalog shows a popular Mitchell 300 spinning reel for less than $20.

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About Chris Holmes 231 Articles
Chris Holmes has kayak fished in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and many places in between.

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