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
CHRIS 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.