The A.C. Plug and the swimbait revolution
By JIM MATTHEWS
You know you have been writing about fishing a long time when you see something common today and can remember when it was unknown. Let me tell you the story of imitative swimbaits.
It took a Facebook post from a long-time friend, Eric Cole, to send me back in time before swimbaits. You might know the Cole name. Eric is one of Allan Cole’s two sons. Allan Cole is the inventor of the A.C. Plug, the artificial bait that really kicked off the big, imitative bait craze.
Eric’s post simply read, “Is there anyone else on the planet that has a 26-pound brown trout, 63-pound striped bass, and a 17-pound largemouth bass on their wall -- oh, not to mention the 22-pound rainbow trout in the other room.” There was a photo of the three mounts in Allan Cole’s house. What wasn’t in the photo was an A.C. Plug hanging from any of the fishes’ mouths. That was the given knowledge about the catches.
I doubt there is anyone who has taken as many big brown trout over 10 pounds, striped bass over 20 pounds, and largemouth bass over 10 pounds as Allan Cole – individually, maybe, but not all three. The tally is in the hundreds. The vast majority of those fish have been caught with the lure Cole designed to look like a hatchery rainbow trout, a favorite food of big browns, big largemouth bass, and big stripers.
Cole began targeting big fish with big baits long before it was fashionable. His first A.C. Plugs were made in the early 1980s, but the desire to make a better lure for big fish began well before that when he was a young man fishing the Eastern Sierra Nevada trying to catch the big browns that lived there.
That was the era when the Rapala and Rebel lures ruled the roost for big fish. The trophy trout anglers slow-trolled the big eight-inch saltwater versions of these plugs for the brown trout in Upper and Lower Twin Lake near Bridgeport. Cole started repainting them so they were better imitations of the small rainbow trout planted in the lakes. They worked, but Cole knew they could be better.
Fast forward a few years (and a pile of big brown trout later), and the striped bass population in Pyramid and Silverwood lakes near Cole’s home in Lancaster was exploding in the 1980s. Forty-pound stripers were creating washtub-sized boils at Silverwood and Pyramid lakes every time a Department of Fish and Game hatchery truck backed down the ramp and dumped in trout dinner for the stripers. The same thing was happening on the Colorado River at Willow Beach and Lake Mohave. At the same time, largemouth bass anglers were in a frenzy over the idea that a new world record largemouth bass could soon to be caught from a Southern California reservoir. Casitas and Castaic lakes were the most likely candidates, both producing 15 to 18 pound bass on a weekly basis from early February through early April, just before the fish spawned. The biggest from that era was 22 pounds, just four ounces shy of the world record.
Marching through this era was Allan Cole and his new A.C. Plug. The existing lures available didn’t look or swim like the trout, so Cole took a salmon trolling plug design and modified it, making it fatter, bigger, with a joint (or two) in the wooden body to give it more action. Add in a more exacting trout-like paint job, and it was a near-perfect imitation of a rainbow trout. It was Eric Cole, then a young teenager, who suggested the rubber tail after he and his dad had been making the big jointed A.C. Plugs for a season or two. The rubber tail gave the lure an extra sense of realism. Seeing it swim on the end of a line, you might swear it was a real fish.
Cole has dedication, patience, and persistence that made him a great angler. He is also a natural-born promoter and his exuberance was infectious. The fact that he was catching big fish on his home-made A.C. Plugs made them sell like hotcakes to the Southern California market. He was making them in lots of 100 or more and selling them at unheard of prices for lures of that era. At $20 to $25 each, they were more than four to six times the price of the best premium lures on the market at the time and 10 times more than the bulk of the products.
Rarely did a week pass in the 1980s and 90s when Allan Cole didn’t have his picture in a newspaper or magazine with his latest catch. There were stories on his baits and the Southern California fishing scene in national magazines. I know because I wrote a lot of those stories. But I wasn’t the only one. It was pretty hard to find a fishing writer anywhere in the country who didn’t know Allan Cole’s name and his exploits, and big fish were falling for the imitative quality of the lure.
At least two largemouths at 18-plus pound were caught on Cole’s home-made A.C. Plugs, four over 17 pounds, and literally thousands over 10 pounds. Cole has documented over 90 stripers topping 40 pounds on his plugs, including three over 60 pounds (Cole’s 63-pounder is a Nevada state record). There have been hundreds of brown trout over 10 pounds caught on ACs, including the Oregon State record of just over 28 pounds.
With that track record, most of us thought that the A.C. Plug would end up being made by a major lure company and be marketed nationally for bass, striper, pike, and musky fishing. I spoke regularly with writers from Florida to Minnesota to California who saw the benefits of the A.C. Plug and believed it would happen.
But sometimes, ideas are ahead of their time. The Fred Arbogast Company contracted with Allan to make the lure, but the first, second, and third versions -- all released to the public before Cole approved them -- were horrible renditions. The lures swam poorly, the paint jobs were bad, and a lot of anglers who bought those lure thought all the hype lacked substance. The big company’s marketing and promotion of the lure was worse than their products. Arbogast, stuck in the 1950s, didn’t see the broad market for the bait and didn’t understand the lure’s design enough to faithfully reproduce it.
Cole was distraught. By the time the Arbogast fiasco was over, Cole had to rebuild the brand all over again with his home-made versions. Then it happened all over again -- another company, another failed product and marketing campaign.
In the meantime, other anglers started making A.C. Plug-type swimbaits, some out of soft plastic, some hard baits, and some a combination of the two. All had learned from Cole, either directly or indirectly, what it took to catch the big fish -- a big, life-like bait that swam and looked natural. By the turn of the century, there were several very good imitative swimbait products on the market in Southern California, and within the last few years there has been an explosion of innovative lures designed and fished by the next generation of Allan Coles. The biggest lure companies even jumped on imitative swimbait bandwagon.
Some of the most imitative lures are common names today -- Savage Gear, Spro, Huddleston, Deps. There are now specialized rods and reels designed to cast and retrieve the six to 14-inch baits. They are taken for granted, but the latest developments are simply variations on a theme first imagined and brought to market by a guy by the name of Allan Cole in the 1980s.
Cole became a friend over the years and I fished with him many times. Eric lived with my family for a couple of months when he was playing AA baseball in a fall league. Allan and Eric are still avid anglers. I have always been amazed that Allan fished and still fishes with the same enthusiasm a 10-year-old brings to the sport -- even now at 75 years old. While there is a flood of great lures on the market today, the original A.C. Plug still looks good next to them in the water. And Allan Cole still makes those A.C. Plug lures in his garage and sells them on his website (acplugs.com).
Seeing Eric Cole’s Facebook post made me think about good and dedicated anglers like Allan Cole. There are a lot of them. But there are darn few who can figure out what will make fish strike and innovate tackle and tactics that move the sport forward. I know a few who have come out of that same mold as Allan Cole, and I’m waiting for the next great fishing trend to come from one of those anglers.
Until then, the next time your hurl an imitative swimbait, think about the A.C. Plug and the guy who started that fish-catching trend.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]