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Monday, February 23, 2015

History of Bates County: 'Gone Fishing' in a Big Way

By Doug Mager
Virgil Ward

There was a time in the not-too-distant past where main street in Amsterdam was jammed with cars each weekday. So many in fact, some parked in the middle of the street, the cause of a few fender benders for sure. The reason? A world renown fishing lure manufacturing company known as Bass Busters brought in workers from all around the area. 

The great beginnings span back to 1948 as avid fisherman Virgil Ward enjoyed making his own fishing lures. Even while running his appliance store in Amsterdam, Ward followed his passion and made Bass Busters a company in 1955. In 1962, he won the "World Series of Sport Fishing" competition which earned him 4 trophies in 5 days. The win not only served as a launching pad for his 25+ year television career, but his lure business as well.

The familiar packaging of Bass Buster lures
Originally, his lure prototypes were made of wood- while they were highly detailed, they were not very functional (in terms of catching fish), plus they were very time consuming to manufacture. Ward knew there must be a better way. The solution? A hook with a lead head and Maribu feathers attached with tightly wound thread.

While somewhat unconventional looking, the new lure caught fish. The lures also caught the attention of a friend of Wards, who wanted to buy some. The price for 25? A buck a piece, which may have been considered steep, but, they worked. So well in fact, Bass Busters had their second, albeit larger order, just a short time later.

Alas, Bass Busters was off and running. In 1970, the company was sold to Johnson Wax, which afforded Virgil more time to devote to his very popular TV show, Championship Fishing. At one time, the show held the #1 spot in the ratings, which was a very proud time for Ward.

In 1964, Bass Busters introduced a jig with a plastic body under the name BEETLE BUG. After about a month, the name of this lure was shortened to BEETLE. Ward said that the name BEETLE was chosen in an effort to capitalize on the name of the then popular "Beatles" musical group from England.

A pair of needle nosed pliers rest  in a small heated crucible filled with sand- the hot pliers are then used to bend (crimp) some plastic fibers that extend from the fishing lure in a way that will help keep the hook from getting caught in weeds or muck. The job of 'crimping' for a Bass Busters worker meant wearing a good insulated glove in order to get through the day without blisters. The crimp? A patented idea (the fiber weed guard) that is still being manufactured today.

Other employees filled their day by putting the lead ball on the hook which would later be painted with eyes; some tied on brightly colored feathers; some operated a rubber worm mold; spinners were assembled in another area; in the back, there was final packaging with in the familiar blue and green Bass Busters logo. Then, boxes filled with the final product were shipped to resellers all over the world.

 By 1975, Bass Busters had expanded to both sides of main street, plus a new location, known as the J plant (J highway) on the south side of town, which was a highly visible indicator of the success of the Bass Busters enterprise.

As the company was sold again in 1993, in its heyday Bass Busters employed upwards of 300 workers- some of which had served 18 years or more working for the hometown company that had world-wide reach.

Virgil Ward passed away September 13, 2004 and with him, the legacy of his fishing show and Bass Busters in all its glory. He was inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2008.

 More articles about Virgil Ward can be found here:
The World of Virgil Ward
A Tribute to the Late Great Virgil Ward
The Bass Fishing Hall of Fame

See more Bass Busters photos here:
Bass Busters 1975-1977

Behind the south side main street location, a scabber could occasionally find some rejected lures in the trash, as quality control was a big part of the Bass Busters operation. As a child, I pulled a few from the trash myself....after all, does a fish know a lure shouldn't have two different colored eyes?- Doug Mager