FISH OR MAKE BAIT: Gene Larew Lures and Bobby Garland Crappie Baits are cranking out millions of lures at its Tulsa manufacturing plant
TULSA — Diane Thornton doesn't know how or why she came up with the name “Monkey Milk” for the color of Bobby Garland's top-selling Baby Shad crappie lure in the country.
Thornton, a 33-year employee for Tulsa-based Gene Larew Lures, a bass brand which also owns the Bobby Garland line of crappie baits, said "Monkey Milk" just popped into her head one day as the name for the new color.
“We were just sitting there one day and it just come to me, and it's been good,” Thornton said. “I should have got me an attorney, though, so I could have got me a royalty on it because it's the best seller.”
That was seven years ago. Since then, Baby Shad lures in Monkey Milk have been flying off the store pegs, along with other popular Bobby Garland colors like Electric Chicken and Blue Ice.
Thornton retired six years ago from the company, but she always returns at this time of year to provide seasonal help. She is needed at the manufacturing plant, located on old Route 66 in east Tulsa, to help do some "picking."
From November to April, the “pickers” at the plant are busy removing each individual lure from the "strings" or sheets produced by the injection mold machines. It's kind of like picking peas, as the ladies rip each one from the string and put them in boxes to get ready for packaging.
Thornton and her partner on Tuesday already had picked more than 34,500 before noon.
On average, more than 1 million soft plastic lures are made at the plant year-round, but during its peak season from November to April, that number increases to more than 2 million per month.
With crappie fishing season just around the corner, the injection mold machines at the manufacturing plant on 11th street is running around the clock.
Gene Larew Lures LLC has been an Oklahoma company since the mid-1980s. The founder, Gene Larew, was an avid fisherman and resort owner on Missouri's Table Rock Lake who died before he got to see his baits rise to fame.
Larew experimented with all kinds of additives, from sugar to chocolate to Coca-Cola, before finally settling on the fact that it was salt that made a discernible difference on how bass reacted to baits. He patented the salt impregnation process in 1980.
Today, the Larew name is recognized throughout fishing circles as being the originator of the salt impregnation process, made famous by the Gene Larew Salt Craw, arguably the most popular of all crawdad imitations.
In late 2006, Tulsa-businessman Chris Lindenberg bought Gene Larew Lures which also was making the crappie baits for Bobby Garland. George Toalson, a Tulsa schoolteacher and one of the previous owners who sold to Lindenberg, remained with the company as plant manager and product designer.
Toalson is a scuba diver who has developed many of the company's baits by studying fish behavior. He has made hundreds of scuba dives in his life, but only one in an ocean. He's done most of his diving in Oklahoma lakes doing research for bait-making.
“You can't learn about stuff unless you are down there with it,” said Toalson, who will be teaching a class next month at Rose State College for Bass and Crappie University.
By spring 2007, Gene Larew Lures had bought the Bobby Garland product line and moved its headquarters from Owasso to Tulsa into its present 22,000-square-foot building. Later, the Crappie Pro brand of jigheads was also added.
Like Gene Larew, the late Bobby Garland was an early day pioneer of soft plastics. In the beginning, while Garland was living out west, he was best known for his bass bait inventions, including the Gitzit.
In his later years and after moving closer to crappie fishing waters in Arkansas and Missouri, his fishing passion and creations turned to crappie. Surveys show it is the favorite crappie brand of anglers.
Tulsa is the home for several of the country's top fishing brands, but Gene Larew Lures and Bobby Garland Baits is the only one that actually manufactures its products there.
Since buying Bobby Garland Crappie Baits, the company has grown tenfold in sales and now employs between 30 and 45 people, the highest number during the current busy period of production.
The company produces new, innovative products and colors each year, because Lindenberger says the consumers demand it.
The sale of Bobby Garland lures has grown as panfishing has become more popular. In Oklahoma, crappie is the most sought-after species, according to surveys by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Lindenberger said it is a national trend.
No one had to tell Thornton. She already knew the trend toward crappie. She could tell by how busy the pickers have been in recent years.
“It just went crazy since they got Bobby Garland (crappie baits),” she said.
BASS AND CRAPPIE UNIVERSITY
•When: Feb. 6, Feb. 8, Feb. 13 and Feb. 20
•Time: 7:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m.
•Where: Rose State College
•Instructors: Pro bass angler Clark Wendlant, Okie Rig founder Bill Wright, Bobby Garland Crappie Baits designer and tournament angler George Toalson, crappie guide and pro angler Kevin Rogers, and fisheries biologist and B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director Gene Gilliland.
•Enrollment fee: $89
•To enroll: Call Rose State College at (405) 733-7392 or visit rose.edu/fish.