On the lunatic fringe of america’s $12 billion bass fishing industry there exists a small but dedicated group of mostly anonymous individuals who have boiled down what they want out of life to a single goal: breaking George Washington Perry’s 72-year-old world record for catching a 22-pound 4-ounce bass. These men and women are engaged in a race against one another and the ghosts of Perry and his fish, and they have forsaken their families, jobs, sleep, sanity, and money in pursuit of this seemingly unattainable achievement.
Although these world-record chasers operate in relative obscurity compared to the pros of the Bassmaster Tour, they all need one perfect tool to complete their quests–the lure, that tantalizing object that bass find appetizing or irritating enough to strike and get themselves hooked. For the best lures, these seekers look to an even more distilled subset of obsessives, the boutique big-bass lure makers, a group of men in search of that divine spark needed to triumph in their own impossible-seeming race to produce the one perfect lure, the one that would replace Perry’s iconic Creek Chub Wiggle Fish No. 2401.
Big companies such as Berkley and Strike King mass-produce plastic worms, crankbaits, buzzbaits, spinners, and poppers by the hundreds of thousands for the average bass fisherman. The aisles of sporting-goods departments in every Wal-Mart in the country are lined with their products: Power Worms, Tube Lizards, Wild Thangs, Zara Spooks, Hula Poppers, and thousands of others. These lures are inexpensive, and for the most part, they do the job.
But big-bass anglers, particularly those who are chasing the record, tend to see the world a bit differently. They are not satisfied with the 2-pound bass the weekend warrior brags to his coworkers about on Monday morning. No, they are looking for something different–special lures that attract only the largest, wiliest bass in the world. And for those, they turn to men like Mickey Ellis.
Mickey says he became a lure maker because, like the disciples Simon and Andrew, God told him to do so. He even named his business the 3:16 Lure Company after the New Testament verse in the Gospel according to John, which you sometimes see on signs held up by spectators at televised sporting events. Mickey can reel off the verse on cue: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The workshop is housed in a garage set among a cluster of low-slung white buildings in an industrial park near Mission Viejo, an hour and change north of San Diego. It’s crammed with the tools of his trade: sanders, carving tools, resins, and paint. A man named Pastor Chuck preaches on the Christian radio station piped through a pair of overhead speakers. Hundreds of clear-plastic bags and boxes of lures litter the floor of the office, where Mickey sits behind a metal desk. He is 35 years old and about 5 feet 11 inches tall with big shoulders and a broad chest. His hands are meaty and dirty and flecked with little red scars, and he’s missing a fingertip on his left one. There’s scruffy brown stubble on his cheeks, and his intense blue eyes are bloodshot.
Mickey is admiring his latest creation, which he just listed for sale on eBay this morning. It’s a swimbait, but it’s different than anything the world has ever seen. This is Mickey’s first foray into hard-shelled lures after a few years of working with soft plastics. It weighs three-quarters of a pound and is almost 11 inches long. There are two metal door hinges in the body of the lure and a hard plastic tail, which also flexes on a hinge. The lure is painstakingly hand-painted down to the tiniest of details, each one slightly different from the next, like snowflakes. A vivid pink stripe marks its sides just like a rainbow trout, and it has little dots on its flanks and a brown back. The glued-on eyes look wet and animate. It even has nostrils. The pectoral, dorsal, and anal fins are all perfectly shaped, and a glass rattle inside draws the attention of the bass as the angler reels it in. The lure looks like a piece of art, like something you might pick up at a flea market. But it’s meant to be fished, and fished hard. The two treble hooks attached to the base of the lure are menacing, hooks usually used for tarpon, which can grow to 200 pounds.
Mickey calls it the Armageddon, after the biblical story. “In Revelations, all earthly kings gather to make war against God, the final war,” he says, holding up the lure. “This is actually a weapon of war. This is a wrecking ball. They hit this thing and they’re done, dude.” His soft-plastic swimbaits sell for between $12 and $35 a pop–very expensive for lures. The Armageddon is priced at $316. “I stirred up a ruckus from day one with this lure,” he says. “But it’s worth it. This thing swims and looks exactly–spot on–like a trout. I caught four fish on it my first time out. This is a phenomenon. It’s handmade, dude. It’s not made in China; it’s made right here in southern California.”
Mickey is the sort of Christian that makes a pastor’s job tough but worthwhile; he’s the member of the flock who strayed far but seems to be slowly, warily circling back. A reclamation project. By every measure, he had a very rough childhood. When he was 3, his father was killed by a drunk driver. His mother never fully recovered and went into a spiral of drug and alcohol abuse. She remarried to an uptight Marine who didn’t like Mickey. “Then it was my mom and the Marine against me, and I rebelled since I was 6,” he says. He did his first stint in juvenile detention at age 11. His stepfather believed in being a man, in providing for one’s self, and he made Mickey get his first job, at a doughnut shop, when he was 16. But he was soon cutting high school, and like so many men, he turned to fishing as a means of solace for a tumultuous soul. But even that couldn’t save him.
“You don’t know angry. I was so angry you could see red fire,” he says, his eyes growing animated. ” And that still pops up. Sometimes I get caught off guard. If there’s one thing I’m really good at, it’s just knocking people out. I’ve never had a fight that’s lasted more than two or three punches. And I don’t like fighting, dude. Don’t like anything about it.”
When he was 18, his anger finally got the best of him, and he was sentenced to four years in jail. He went in for drug charges and assault and battery. He was paroled when he was 21 but says politics, not good behavior, got him out early. His time in jail changed him, but not for the better. “You don’t want to be a white boy in the pen, let me tell you,” he says. “Jail has its own set of rules, apart from regular society. You’re either a bitch or a man.” Mickey decided to be the latter. He went in a skinny 180 pounds: When he left, he was 245 pounds and had 18-inch biceps.
After jail he worked a dozen different jobs, mostly in the construction business, learning new trades. He went to welding school and then got hired as a prototype fabricator in the booming southern California semiconductor business. The job taught him that there was nothing in the world he couldn’t make, but he eventually got bored with that. To stave off the boredom, he started racing motorbikes. He crashed a lot, and with no money, he was forced to fix his own bikes. Eventually he opened a collision repair shop, which led to a job custom-painting Harleys. He kept working out and had “hair down to my butt,” he says. In his late 20s, he hit rock bottom. “I deserved to die. I deserved to be lit up. Without a doubt, I’ve done more bad things than you can imagine.” When asked if he’s ever killed a man, he pauses for a moment: “No, no,” he says. “But picture it like this: Take a very big guy and piss him off as bad as you can and then let him out in society.”
He was living with his girlfriend, Kristy, at the time. She got tired of his motorbikes and dicey friends and kicked him out of the house, but before he left she handed him a Bible with his name monogrammed on the back. Mickey put it on the back of the toilet seat in his apartment and went back to his bikes. He was as lost as ever, in what he calls “a black abyss.”
But one day, in a drunken fury, he picked up the Bible and decided to read it from cover to cover. “Six months later, I shut the thing and said, with fire on my breath, ‘There’s no way that it isn’t true.’ Man can’t think like that, dude. I read it as a very angry person, then gave my life to Christ.”
For a week straight, he went soul-searching, fishing on Lake Mission Viejo, asking God what he should do with his life, knowing that he had the guts to do anything the Lord asked of him. It hit him one evening on the water. “I honestly believe He asked me to make lures,” he says. “I was like, ‘What?’ I had never made a lure in my life.”
Mickey started to attend Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist church in Lake Forest run by Pastor Rick Warren, who is famous for his book The Purpose-Driven Life. He went to premarital counseling with Kristy and eventually married her, and together they had a son. And he started making plastic swimbaits with a vengeance in the kitchen sink of their one-bedroom condo.
A few months later Mickey took 500 Mission Fish swimbaits to the Fred Hall Fishing Tackle and Boat Show and sold them all for $20 a pop. He quit his day job. “I thought I was going to be a millionaire,” he says. But soon he was broke again and had to take another welding job just to get by. Fishermen, it seemed, weren’t comfortable springing that much money for a lure they knew very little about. He hit another stumbling block when Kristy divorced him against his will.
Still, he decided to push on with the 3:16 Lure Company. ” It was a calling. I was supposed to make a difference,” he says. “That’s where God comes in. You take all that nasty, vile stuff and turn that effort in a different direction, and you have just unleashed one dedicated, serious animal.” Everything Mickey created was handmade. He would take a block of wood intended to serve as the mold for a new lure, write 3:16 on it, and let it sit until it drove him so crazy that he would begin to carve it. “I could see it in my head,” he says. “I believe that’s part of what God’s doing through me. God has a piece of it. I’m not a genius.” He rented his current space in the industrial park and worked from dawn until after dark, sometimes only eating one meal a day. During that time he invented new swimbaits: the Rising Son, the K-9, the Sidewinder, the Top-Dawg. There were baby shad, baby bass, baby bluegills; lures that sunk fast, that stayed on top, that wiggled a certain way. “Any problem you’ve got, dude, I have the solution,” he says.
Now, Mickey has built the business to the point that it sustains itself. But he’s not getting rich by any means. The company generates maybe $50,000 a year, which is just enough to get by in pricey Southern California. In many ways, Mickey is like the world-record-bass chasers, operating on the fringe, doing what he does because it’s a calling, an obsession that he can’t live without. He is hoping and working toward the day when one of his creations makes a difference and maybe even catches the world record. “I’m not in this business to make money.”
And he has competition: Jerry Rago, a short, black-haired 45-year-old with a graying goatee from Bishop, California. He and Mickey are engaged in a head-to-head swimbait arms race, but they have a healthy respect for each other, which at times spills over into fierce loyalty. Mickey says Jerry is “the most giving, loving, honest, down-to-earth guy there is. He’s brilliant; he’s just got a gift. And he’s a great fisherman.”
Jerry says Mickey is “crazy and sometimes obnoxious,” but a man who knows how to make a lure. “He has his following and I have mine. If I didn’t make baits, I’d be knocking the crap out of the fish with his.”
The Rago Rat, a surface lure shaped like a rodent that has a rubber worm for a tail, is Jerry’s claim to fame. He developed it in 1996, and it remains so popular that he can’t keep it in stock. Mickey says it’s the most phenomenal topwater lure there is. But lately, Jerry has been concentrating on swimbaits, which rival Mickey’s in their artistry and utility. The soft plastics go for $30; hard baits are $80. Jerry has back orders that would take him years to fill, and the biggest stumbling block to further riches is the same as Mickey’s: His lures take an enormous amount of time to make. “Everyone says if you invent a lure you’ll be a millionaire,” he says. “But not if you make them by hand.”
The process takes place in the workshop in Jerry’s house. He starts by shaping a wood model with knives and a sander, and then he carves the fins individually, gluing them to the body of the lure. He suspends the model in a white shelving box made of plywood and pours in a molding compound to finish the mold. Then he heats up soft plastic to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and pours it into the mold: the clear plastic first, then one with the pink tint of the stripe on a rainbow trout, then a brown one for the back. Glitter is mixed into the brew. Then he glues on the eyes. On a good day he can make 50 soft-plastic lures and maybe 10 hard ones, which take longer to dry.
Mickey and Jerry share an almost tribal loyalty, and they even fish together occasionally. Once, when a vendor in Japan tried to bilk Jerry out of some money, Mickey stopped doing business with the guy as well, despite the hit he took to his bottom line. But there’s no doubt the two men are in competition, constantly trying to one-up each other. “I saw the Armageddon,” Jerry says about Mickey’s new swimbait. “And I said, ‘Aw, man, I have to go back to the drawing board.’ I threw away my mold and started all over again. I’ll have an answer soon.” He’s working on a lipless trout swimbait that he says is “absolutely anatomically correct.”
Both men do their best to get their lures into the hands of fishermen most likely to catch the biggest bass, but they realize, as the world-record chasers do, that this is a game of chance in which the odds are stacked against them. They know that any lure, or any live bait for that matter, could be the one. So Mickey and Jerry keep striving for the unattainable–the one magic bullet, the perfect lure that will catch a fish on every cast.
“This job is never-ending,” says Mickey, with the deep satisfaction of a man who has found his calling. Meanwhile, Jerry is constantly thinking up new schemes. “I have some evil stuff I’m working on, man,” he says. One concept is a lure that is attached by one line and two rods. Two anglers would stand on opposite shores and reel the lure back and forth to each other. “No boat to spook the fish and no loud splash of the lure,” he says, grinning. “Tell Mickey about that one.”
ADAPTED FROM SOWBELLY: THE OBSESSIVE QUEST FOR THE WORLD-RECORD LARGEMOUTH BASS (C)2005 BY MONTE BURKE, OUT THIS MONTH FROM DUTTON, A DIVISION OF PENGUIN USA.