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Red Gills, The Lure That Got Away
A real-life fishing tale about the lure that got away. Or did it?
by C. J. Chivers

W hat if one of the best striped bass lures ever made was still being manufactured overseas, but you couldn’t buy them in America? Would you feel a bit left out? So it is with the Red Gill, an odd-ball fish-magnet that began grabbing stripers in the 1970s but has since fallen victim to imitation and the vagaries of the global marketplace. Hang your head, surfcasters. Unless a new importer succeeds in flying them back to the states, Red Gills might be the best lure you’ll never see again.

The New England chapter of the Red Gill story begins 25 years ago, when David Dowcra, a British casting champion visiting Cape Cod, left his host with nine toy-like pieces of plastic that resembled sea serpents. He said they were popular back yon. Serious fishing tackle? C’mon . Red Gills are goofy-looking artificials, plastic snakes that resemble nothing else in common use. They come without hooks and are nearly weightless. And they tend toward surreal colors – orange and green, for instance. Dowcra’s host would have been justified rolling the lures in catnip and tossing them to his tabby.

Fortunately, Dowcra’s host was surfcaster Frank Daignault, the author and seminar speaker whose addiction to striped bass always had him searching for a new fix. Daignault thought the lures might imitate sand eels, the slender forage fish that frequent New England waters. Snakes look a bit like eels, right? One night in the mid-1970s, after making sure nobody was watching, Daignault threaded a hook through the hollow body of a Red Gill and rigged it as a teaser. And when he started lobbing this strange rig into the Cape Cod surf – wham – he found he could barely hold onto his rod.

In the small world of New England surfcasting, Diagnault had discovered a pioneering way to fool striped bass. So he did what you or I might do. He kept mum. “When you’re casting the best plug you own, and you catch 15 fish, and 14 of them are on the Red Gill, you start to think you have a secret weapon.” Daignault told me, his voice dropping conspiratorially. “ I mean, these things are really that good.”

In time, Daignault tracked down the Red Gill inventor and manufacturer, Alexander J. Ingram, and obtained a lifetime supply to augment what was left of his original nine. Red Gills quietly became a part of his arsenal, right there with the Rebel plug, the Smiling Bill jig, and the ever-productive live eel. Then something happened that helped the rest of us out. Daignault lost a few of his lures on the beach. Another surfcaster found them tumbling in the suds. The Red Gill secret was out.

In a few quick seasons, Red Gills became one of the great weapons hurled over the New England froth. Bass clubs began talking about them at winter meetings. Blue Fox Tackle Co., of Minnesota began importing them. Tackle shops started stocking them. Back then, Daignault recalls, Red Gills seemed bound to take their place among his rarefied company of ground-breaking lures. What’s more, anglers were finding other uses for the miniature British sea serpents; the tiny 2-1/2-inch Red Gill worked wonders during worm hatches, the full-sized 6-1/2 and 8-inch sizes were solid performers offshore with diamond jigs for cod and pollock, and any of the larger sizes could be trolled as singles or on umbrella rigs for bass, blues, small tuna, you name it. Just about everybody found a way to work them into the fishing. Their place in the tackle bag seemed secure.

But a funny thing happened on the way to big beach immortality. Striped bass stocks crashed. And with fewer people prowling the night sand, Red Gills sales slumped. Simultaneously, Daignault’s discovery became threatened by less expensive imitations – like RagLou and Eddy Stone Sand Eels. Blue Fox stopped importing the originals, and the imitations replaced them on tackle store shelves. In retrospect, Blue Fox’s rationale was simple; the demand for Red Gills might seem large to people inside the surfcasting cult, but in the big picture of national lure sales, it was insignificant.

All of this leads to today’s strange circumstances. Bass are back. Red Gills aren’t. And the few that remain have become something akin to contraband. “I wish we still had them,” a Blue Fox rep told me. “Everywhere I go, people ask about them.” So how do you get them? Three ways. First, scout the local tackle shops. A few remainders turn up on rare occasions, around New England, mostly in shops where the owner bought bulk bags when the importing ended. For instance, one of the last inventories is at River’s End Tackle in Old Saybrook, Ct., where owner Pate Abate hoarded them a few years back. “When we knew they were going out of circulation, we bought up the stock of any wholesaler who had them,” Abate said. “We figured people would be begging for them after a while.”

If you can’t find them in a tackle shop, you can try an order direct from Blue Fox. I was able to get the company to sell me a few bags of 6-1/2 inch Red Gills last winter, but the favored 4-1/2 inch size was sold out and color selection was limited. The third way to get them would be to order them from British tackle stores, which can be located on the Internet. This will give you the best shot at getting a choice range of size and colors. (Brit tackle stores sell four sizes –70/115/178/210 mm – and in colors that have yet to be seen on this side of the Atlantic, including such enticing prospects as Blue Pearl, Ice Fizz, Green Reaper and Mackerel)

Now for a bit of news on the manufacturing and importing front. To this day, the original Red Gills are still made in the cool, misty fishing village of Mevagissey, U.K., and sold – wholesale only – out of a company headquarters the owners describe as a “garden shed.” Brits, it seems, faithfully use them for wreck fishing, dunked into the depths from boats anchored over cod grounds. They also cast them to pollock and a few British bass. Intrepid British anglers even travel the globe with them, duping such gamefish as Pacific jacks and Caribbean grouper.

It turns out that 1998 was the 30-year anniversary of the Red Gill line, prompting the part-time Red Gill company to begin a marketing push, with new packaging and labels. Marilyn Ingram, daughter-in-law of the late Alexander Ingram (d 1983), told me she was cheered to hear that Yanks still cast Red Gills for stripers.


Copyright 1998 - 2011 C.J. Chivers, All Rights Reserved
Articles by C.J. Chivers

Seasoned Salt - Frank Daignault Interview
The Legendary Return of Big Bass
Red Gills, The Lure That Got Away

C.J. Chivers, copyright © 2010 - 2011, C.J. ChiversCHRIS CHIVERS, a native of Rhode Island, is a much traveled senior international correspondent for the New York Times. He is currently embedded with US combat troops in Afghanistan. His New York Times, At War blog and his book, THE GUN make incredible reading (www.cjchivers.com). Follow Chris in Afghanistan or wherever he may be on assignment on Twitter @cjchivers.

Chris has also been a contributor to Wildlife Conservation, Tide, and Fly Fishing in Salt Waters. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for USA Today. His work has also been published in Field & Stream, The Globe and Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, On The Water, Surfer, Longboard Magazine, E: The Environmental Magazine, Yankee and Cornell Magazine. His essays on military and environmental affairs have also been printed in The Daily News, The Nation and The Navy Times.

In 1995 he was awarded a Pulitzer International Traveling Fellowship and in 1996 he received the Livingston Award for International Reporting for “Empty Nets: Atlantic Banks in Peril,” a series on the collapse of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic.

Chris is a graduate of Cornell University and has an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He is a former Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps. During his six years in the Marines he was a specialist in helicopter assault forces and is a combat veteran of the Persian Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm.


Autographed copies of all six of Frank Daignault's books are available directly from Frank, please go HERE.

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