The Baron of Balsa

By Pete Robbins

Former Elite Series Pro Lee Sisson keeps cranking out baits, looking for the next great thing.

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — If you've thrown a crankbait any time in the last 40 years, you owe at least a tip of the hat to Lee Sisson.

Depending on which lure you used, there's a good chance he designed it, manufactured it, consulted on it or inspired it. Even if he didn't have a direct hand in its creation, those who did might have borrowed a few of his ideas, either purposefully or inadvertently. In some cases their borrowing effectively amounts to theft. That doesn't bother Sisson, though, because by the time someone sees fit to appropriate one of his ideas and present it as their own, he's already moved on to the next project.

The next project might involve a new category of lure, or some altogether different item. Lately he's put his effort into a bass boat alarm system and a lure dunk that harnesses the power of ultraviolet rays. Tomorrow it might be something in a totally different category. Nevertheless, he always comes back to balsa wood crankbaits, a dying breed whose advantages he proselytizes tirelessly.

Sisson is a man with an existential conflict — he's constantly searching for the next great thing, but always circles around to the wood that started his career in 1972. He can't escape it. He's tried other substances for luremaking, like Jelutong, a similar wood, and though his designs have won multiple Bassmaster Classic trophies and hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars, he's more concerned about what comes next than about the legend he's already built.

Building a Better Bass-Trap

Sisson, the son of a Louisiana attorney, was a high school football star in Baton Rouge with a wealth of options as to where he'd play at the next level. The big powers came calling, but they promised only a chance to compete for a spot, and only as an upperclassman. The sidelines and bench did not appeal to him, so he accepted an offer to play for nearby Louisiana Tech.

A prime driver in his decision to play for the Bulldogs was a blonde quarterback a year ahead of him, who'd go on to a Hall of Fame career in the NFL. Terry Bradshaw was part of the effort to recruit young offensive lineman, but once Sisson got to school Bradshaw played an even larger role.

"He took me out and got me into a school of bass," Sisson recalled. "I knew right then and there that was what I wanted to do." Then he trotted out his standard line: "We both helped each other with our careers. He got me into fishing and I taught him how to scramble."

As he fished local jackpot tournaments on Louisiana waters like Lake D'Arbonne and the Atchafalaya Basin, during college and shortly thereafter, he recognized that the hard lures of the day were not capable of fishing deeper than about six feet. Sure, if you found a brushpile you could drag a worm or a lead head jig through it, but when bass were keyed in on the action of the diving plug, there were no options.

Sisson, a born tinkerer, set out to fill that gap and created what would later become the Bagley's DB3, the first deep-diving crankbait. While it didn't necessarily enhance his reputation beyond Louisiana, the innovative lure put more than a few dollars in his pocket. Meanwhile, he'd found a calling. When Jim Bagley of Bagley Bait Company came to Baton Rouge for an in-store promotion, the savvy recent college graduate glued himself to the industry stalwart's side and by the end of the day had a job offer to move to Florida, which he accepted without hesitation.

Bringing the Heat

During his salad days in the fishing industry, Sisson fed continuously on Jim Bagley's knowledge.

"I played on a championship football team in high school and a championship team in college, but Jim was the best coach I ever had," he recalled.

Bagley would create challenges for his employees, forcing them to produce a certain number of sales or products by a given date. To this day, Sisson doesn't know whether those goals were based on corporate needs or Bagley's imagination, but as a general rule they contributed to better products.

"Normally we could get about 97 percent of our lures to run right out of the package," he recalled. "But with a smaller bait it's harder to perfect. When we came out with the Diving Honey B, about 80 percent ran right. Jim came back and said he had an order for a hundred thousand of them, so we'd better get it to run right.

"The harder the challenge, the more I liked it."

At that point in time the industry was also different. Bagley, he said, "had the ability to make everybody feel special," once opining to Sisson that "when you're climbing the ladder, you should push the guys ahead of you and they'll drag you along with them." Indeed, while a spirit of competitiveness was imbued throughout the herd of salesmen and designers, there was also a camaraderie. At in-store promotions, Sisson and the representatives from competing companies would bet lunch on who could sell more of each other's lures in a given morning.

"The first time I went to a show I met Bill Norman, Lew Childre, Cotton Cordell and Ray Scott," he recalled. "They were all out of the same mold — carnival barkers." Sisson was a witness to history, as Childre "changed the rod business," taking the sport from "big round reels and rods that weighed 40 pounds," to the forerunners of the tools anglers use today. He brought the pistol grip from Japan along with Fuji guides and revolutionized how the baitcasting technique is executed.

Along the way, there was resistance — Childre showed up to one event to find his booth decorated with a handmade sign that said “Brought to you by the people who brought you World War Two" — but the converts outweighed the naysayers. Sisson was an early Childre supporter, but admitted that he was one of the doubters when Johnny Morris started Bass Pro Shops. "Talk was that Johnny was going to blow his dad's money. We all wondered how you could make any money in mail order."

There were some missed business opportunities, too. Childre brought back the inspiration for the Mr. Twister grub from France, but Bagley and Sisson elected to pass on it. A few years later, John Fox brought them a "big old ugly thing with spinnerbait blades kind of pop-riveted together." Once again, they passed. Shortly thereafter the Lunker Lure buzzbait was introduced, producing numerous tournament wins and millions of sales.

"I also thought a fiberguard on a jig would never work," he laughed. "I've been wrong about a lot of things." Today he jokes about it easily, but the satisfaction derived from the successes far outweighed the disappointment when he was wrong. Crankbait sales zipped along throughout the 70s and 80s, buoyed by multiple Bassmaster Classic wins, riding the coattail of Ray Scott's salesmanship, and much of that was due to Sisson's ingenuity.

Broadening His Horizons

A key component of Sisson's job at Bagley's was the euphemistically-titled "field research" — in other words, time on the water. Oddly enough, despite fishing in Florida for 40 years, as a general rule Sisson does not care for its typically grassy bowl-shaped lakes. Perhaps more surprisingly, the former Elite Series angler "won more money in muskie tournaments than in bass tournaments."

As Bagley sought to expand his reach into largely untapped northern and Midwestern markets, he sent Sisson as his envoy. "I built a 12-inch crankbait to fish for muskies, but it was cold and I broke the lip off." Like several other of his accidental creations, this one was a success. "It would glide like a dying shad," he said, and it drove the toothy critters crazy.

He was so green at that point that on his first trip to Wisconsin he didn't quite know what was at the end of his line. "I knew muskies had stripes and northern had spots, but my first fish didn't have either," he said. He called over local muskie expert Duke Verkuilen who informed him that he'd caught a "silver" muskie. Regardless of how it looked, he knew he was onto something with his new creation. At the end of the weekend, he drove home to Florida, retooled the lures, then drove right back in time for the next weekend's tournament.

Between the lures and his knowledge gleaned from bass fishing, he immediately cleaned up, winning four boats in a row on the Eagle River Chain of Lakes.

"The fishermen up there hadn't been exposed to southern bass techniques, particularly boat control," Sisson recalled. "They thought that the trolling motor was for trolling, but it's really a positioning motor." Always an educator, after a while he gave several impromptu seminars to spread his growing understanding of the habits of the big fish.

"The next year they beat the snot out of me," he said. Of course it was Sisson, and in turn Bagley, who laughed all the way to the bank. While his tournament dominance may have ended, they went from annual regional sales of 30,000 lures to annual sales of 300,000 in just a short while.

Next he convinced Bagley to enter the saltwater markets. Not only was there a need for new products, but this was where the big money lay — a freshwater crankbait might cost six bucks and a local tournament might see a few hundred dollars awarded to the winner, but in the saltwater arena the pots, and even the side-pots, were enormous. "You'd see a thousand dollars change hands on the dock at the marlin tournaments," he recalled. "The IRS guy would be there, too." Clearly, if he and Bagley developed a winning lure they too could clean up.

Once again, Sisson set out to do the appropriate field research, and just as he did in Wisconsin he turned heads. It wasn't necessarily because he produced any noteworthy catches, although he caught his share of fish, but rather because of how he got there. He can only wonder today how many captains of big Chris Craft and Hatteras yachts decided to give up drinking when they saw his 18-foot Skeeter Starfire 12 miles offshore battling a sailfish.

Once again, the time on the water paid off in the development of the Bagley's Head Knocker. "At the time what we were trying to do was to build a lure that 'smoked,'" Sisson said. "Something that came up, captured air, then went back down, creating a bubble trail." It was skirted like the typical Kona trolling lures, with a ringed collar, but featured a tube that slid up over the line, which caused it to "shake, rattle and come up and gulp air." One end of the tube was bigger than the other, so the tube could be reversed for maximum effectiveness depending on trolling speed.

He never tired of the expansive saltwater options — expanding his reach to the snook and tarpon in the mangroves of the Everglades, as well as to the Arthur Smith Kingfish Tournaments, but fishing for bass increasingly fell by the wayside. He continued to develop products to catch more bass, even after he left Bagley in the mid-80s, but even off-the-water pursuits started to overwhelm the time devoted to chasing bass firsthand.

"If I had run my business to get rich, it would have been a lot different," he said. "But during my hunting period I left every Wednesday afternoon and I'd be gone through the weekend. You might say I have an addictive personality."

Elite at Sixty Plus

While Sisson may have burned through species and designs and experiences with the fervor of a man who's never satisfied with the status quo, in reality his career has been a long, circular slog back to where he started: chasing bass, trying to do it better than anyone around him, with tools of his own design. Like many of his best creations, his return to the bass game was accidental.

One spring less than a decade ago, when hunting had overwhelmed the portion of his brain previously reserved almost exclusively for fish, he found himself at Mark's Outdoors near Birmingham, when that establishment was about to hold their annual tournament on Lay Lake. The event typically draws in excess of 500 boats, including many of the top bass pros, but it's also an effort aimed at both commerce and conservation — many of the top manufacturers show up to give away thousands of dollars worth of gear. Perhaps more importantly, each boat is tasked with releasing a bag full of bass fry provided by Mark's at their initial stop of the tournament. Out of that effort to resuscitate the resource came Sisson's own bass fishing rebirth.

"I was up there and someone asked me to fish as their co-angler," he recalled. "I didn't even have any rods or tackle with me, but I decided to go, and the bug just jumped up and bit me."

Energy renewed, he joined the Lakeland Bassmasters near his Winter Haven home. The club has a storied history, producing reigning Bassmaster Classic champion Chris Lane, his brother Bobby, current Elite Series rookie Kyle Fox, and the oldest rookie in Elite Series history, Sisson himself. His path to the Elites was, once again, almost accidental. In 2008 he fished five Elite Series tournaments on the amateur side, finishing 7th at Clarks Hill, 5th at Old Hickory and absolutely falling in love with Lake Amistad. Given his busy consulting schedule, though, in 2009 he elected to fish all of the Southern and Central Opens, six tournaments in all, as a boater. While he didn't set the world on fire, he did notch a 20th place finish on Alabama's Lake Wheeler and a 14th place finish on the Atchafalaya Basin, along with a small check at Santee Cooper.

In 2010, he started off fishing the Southern Opens, but bombed at Okeechobee to start the year, finishing 167th. Indeed, he had done the same to start 2009, finishing an even-worse 186th at the Harris Chain. This time, he decided to cut his losses and focus on the Centrals. It was a wise choice, as he never missed the money again, finishing 30th at Amistad, 15th at the Red River and 6th at Texoma. That put him in 4th overall in the points standings, outside the cut for the Classic, but well inside the cut to make the Elite Series roster for 2011.

Sisson couldn't think of a reason NOT to fish the Elites, so he plunked down the not-insubstantial deposits and prepared to fish against a group of anglers who'd grown up on his baits, even if many hadn't been born when he'd first produced them.

The first tournament was on the Harris Chain, and even though he essentially lost all of the second day of competition to mechanical difficulties he finished 13th among nearly 100 of the world's greatest anglers. "I told my wife it was pretty easy," he said. "I spoke too soon." The rest of the year proved more difficult, with a money finish at Lake Murray surrounded by a few tough lessons elsewhere.

"This is not a sport for 63 year old rookies," he opined, looking back at a few missed opportunities from his Elite season. Still, he had the option to come back in 2012, but with his curiosity sated, he elected to let that opportunity pass and return to his most enduring passion: solving on-the-water puzzles from off the water. "I feed off of the consumers," he stated. "The excitement and the energy in their eyes. Most of the ideas I have are either accidents or just listening. You find a need and fill it. Then your buddy sees it and he wants one. That's cool. Then after that, when somebody will give you some money for it, you know you've accomplished something."

Back to Balsa

Just as spawning fish return to the same areas year after year after year, it is in Sisson's genetic code to tinker and solve problems. His offspring exhibit that same tendency. One son spent his youth pulling apart computers and video games, getting them to work better. Now he's in the computer security industry. Another is a jeweler, building six-figure pieces of art. "I wish I had his talent," Sisson said, modestly.

Photo of lure blanks and finished lures(Left) It's the wood that makes them good — balsa wood bodies ready to be turned into finished lures. (Right) A display box shows off some of Sisson's history-making creations.

Now he's come full circle, even with the products he uses: "Forty years ago I was fishing out of a Skeeter, using Lew's rods and reels and Bagley's lures. Now I'm fishing out of a Skeeter, using Lews's rods and reels and Bagley's lures." He's not just using the lures, though — after several ownership changes, he's working directly with Bagley's to get the products back to their previous industry status. One of the new owners is another big name in the world of balsa lures — Jarmo Rapala, grandson of Rapala namesake and originator Lauri Rapala.

In addition to staying busy consulting for Bagley's, Sisson spends his "retirement" trying to solve other problems. He's built and marketed a "two way boat alarm" in response to tiring of taking his gear out of the boat every night at hotels. Customers calling the customer service line, whether it be late on a weekday, or even a Saturday, are often surprised to find Sisson himself answering the phone and guiding them to a solution. He wouldn't have it any other way.

He's also developed a "secret sauce" that adds a UV-sensitive hue to any soft plastic lure, allowing them to become more visible in deep or dirty water, and expects to do the same thing with crankbait paint in the near future. "We've been using UV all this time on crankbaits with chartreuse or fluorescent orange and we never knew why it was so effective," he said.

What's odd about Sisson';s quest for the perfect situational lure or the solution to a given problem is that he's chosen a sport where there can never be certainty. "It's not like golf, where the hole is right there and you just have to get to it," he said. "Here you can't see the hole."

When he returned from his self-imposed bass fishing exile a few years back, he was surprised to hear anglers talking about special crankbaits that "hunted" — veering off sharply at random intervals before returning to center. He'd never known a good crankbait that didn't hunt. Each particular model has its own particular "acoustic signature," he said, and unlike plastic plugs where consistency can be attained relatively easily, in balsa it all comes down to the particular piece of wood.

"One of the things I like about balsa is that it has a quicker action than plastic or a heavier wood," he said. "But the true mystique of balsa wood crankbaits is that no two are the same." Indeed, a Bagley's ad from decades ago touted this fact, comparing them to snowflakes. So in that sense, Sisson knows that his search for a better bait, even, dare he say it, a perfect bait, is illusory. Even though they're carved from the same machine, each one captures a particular moment in time. That's the design signature of a man whose passion always tilts toward the next big thing, but who also knows that history and experiences matter. End of story hook

— Published: Summer 2012

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