Introduced in 1975 by Mr. Twister, the natural motion of soft plastic curly tails is irresistible to both freshwater and saltwater species.
Curly-tailed lures, with their scintillating action, are often taken for granted by anglers these days. Not that they don’t see a lot of use—quite the contrary. It’s just that the pattern is so familiar now as to be accepted as a norm, with little thought given to the innovative design that causes the tails of so many soft-plastic lures to dance enticingly at retrieval speeds ranging from a painfully slow roll over submerged stumps to a brisk buzz across the surface.
Only 45 years ago, there were relatively few soft plastics on the market and no curly tails available at all. Skip ahead to 2016, and just about every manufacturer of soft-plastic lures has a curly-tailed version—many have several, and some even have dozens. You’ll find these magical tails on plastic worms, grubs, minnow imitations, and even combined with hard baits on occasion. Amazingly, they all seem to work, albeit some better than others.
“Curly tails add natural motion to most lures,” says Ric Welle of Wahoo Fishing Products, of the slender, curved tail’s appeal to fish. He should know, for it was Welle who introduced what was then a revolutionary design to American anglers back in 1975 under the company name Mr. Twister. It was an introduction that changed the shape of the soft-plastic lure market overnight, while greatly improving the scores of piscators in both fresh water and salt.
Prior to the Mr. Twister Curly Tail, most rubber and soft-plastic lures were stiff-looking worms or grubs with little or no lifelike action. Since its introduction, the tails have been added to every style of soft-plastic lure available and variations of the theme have taken on many different shapes. Today, any angler worth his weight in jigheads has a selection of curly-tail entries and new models are scooped up each year as soon as they are released.
“It has been an amazing ride,” chuckles the 75-year-old Welle. “It wasn’t always easy, but I have to admit to catching a lot of breaks along the way that really helped propel our lures to the top of the charts.”
All told, Welle figures he’s sold over half a billion soft plastics of varying configurations. He’s not sure if he’s actually sold the most lures in history—although at some point in the 1980s, he almost certainly held that designation—but to this very day, he’s still going strong. Had he not sold the Mr. Twister company back in 1985 to Sheldons’, Inc., makers of the world famous Mepps Spinner, he might have sold nearly 2 billion lures by now, considering he sold the operation a few years before more modern manufacturing methods would eliminate the need to hand-inject each lure.
Welle originally got the idea for the original Mr. Twister at a fishing show in 1972, where he noticed a French-made lure that looked like an eel with a curled tail. It was a huge lure for the time, about 8 inches long, made of stiff rubber and not very flexible or realistic compared to today’s lures. Welle reduced the concept to a 4-inch size, kept the curled tail and poured the lure out of soft, pliable plastic instead of rubber. The rest, as they say, is history.
By 1973, Welle and his business partner, Glen Carver, had launched Mr. Twister. Carver handled the manufacturing end and Welle concentrated on the marketing aspects, while they both contributed designs for the entire product line. Together, they made a formidable team, which Welle attributes to being one of the primary reasons for the company’s success. Mr. Twister’s first bait was a 4-inch curly-tail grub and it was an instant sensation. This was quickly followed by a 3-inch version, a 2-inch version, and a plastic worm known as the Phenom (which is still available today), and then a double-tailed worm.
Every new Mr. Twister product launch back then incorporated the curly tail, and soon the company was synonymous with the innovative design. Today, the curly tail continues to thrive under the Mr. Twister brand and in the product lineups of almost every soft-plastic lure manufacturer on the planet. Mr. Twister, under its new owners, went on to sell billions more of Welle’s original designs long after he sold the company. Sheldons’ would also introduce the Sassy Shad, one of the original paddle-tail soft-plastic lures in the mid-1980s, catapulting the Mr. Twister brand to even greater heights. Mr. Twister’s latest new product, the Swimsation, is a soft-plastic grub with a paddle tail and curly pectoral fin appendages for yet another take on Welle’s original theme.
The early years of Mr. Twister were “absolutely crazy,” according to Welle, but the company was fortunate to benefit from some great timing. Largemouth bass fishing was exploding across the country as the Bassmasters circuit ramped up, and the bucketmouths seemed especially fond of the curly tail. People also seemed to be doing better economically than just a few years earlier, so there was a little extra disposable income to be spent on lures. Saltwater fishing, too, was building steam at this point with stripers, redfish and snook gaining in popularity. Plus, the fishing media, both television and print, responded to the rapidly growing recreational fishing industry with a hunger for anything new. Within three months, Welle and Carver knew Mr. Twister would be a huge success. During the first several months of production, they shipped only a third of what was actually ordered because the demand was so great.
At the time, it must have been a high-pressure situation, trying to catch up on all the orders, but Welle recalls it now with a good laugh. “I had to go on the floor and tell my crews not to ship more than 30 percent of any order,” he remembers, “because I wanted to be fair. I told my workers I wanted everyone to be mad at me for not getting their entire orders filled, not just a few of our customers who didn’t get anything.”
Looking back, Welle notes that much of his success came from having a great product at the right time. “Our lures not only worked, they made sense to fishermen,” he says. “All we had to do was get potential customers to see the curly tails in motion and they couldn’t help but get hooked.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the “Mr. Twister” name rolled so easily off the tongue. A nice-sounding rhyme, it was easy to remember and succinctly explained exactly what would happen with the lure’s tail. Within a few years, in fact, the name was so closely linked to curly-tailed soft plastics as to be nearly generic.
“Picking up the Mr. Twister name was one of the best moves I ever made,” recalls Welle, looking back with fondness on the early days of the operation and the “great crew” with which he was surrounded. “I came up with the idea myself and Glen added his design expertise, but when I went to register it, there was already someone using it. I gave the guy a call and offered to buy the name. It cost me $5,000, but I think it turned out to be a pretty good deal in the long run.”
Of course, getting the word out and growing a business takes a little more than just sending out a few press releases and showing up at fishing venues. People loved the new lures, but seeing was believing and was also the best way to generate sales, so the Mr. Twister company had to figure out how best to show their wares. They ended up with a device they could use at fishing shows, or that tackle shops could even keep on the counter. Essentially, it was a small jar filled with water and a suspended Mr. Twister soft-plastic curly-tail grub. Viewers could press a button to generate current and the curly tail inside would wiggle as the water pushed past. That may sound trite by today’s advertising standards, but it got the point across at the time and helped drive sales through the roof.
“It really was something when we got busy,” recalled Welle. “Back then, of course, everything was hand-injected, so you could only create so much product at a time. It’s hard to imagine, but at our peak we were putting out 50,000 lures a day and couldn’t keep up. Considering the technology at the time, I think that’s pretty impressive.”
Interestingly, competition even back then was exceptionally fierce in the fishing industry. Welle started seeing curly-tail knock-offs within the first six months and, later on, sometimes within weeks of any new release.
“We quickly learned that it wasn’t worth our time or energy to defend our patents,” he continued. “All you have to do is change a product by ten percent to get around the protective statutes, so everyone had a curly tail out within a relatively short time. All we could do was push ahead.”
To stay on top, Mr. Twister launched rounds of new lures every year. “That,” says Welle, “is the surest way to keep making money at this game. You must always have something new to sell both to keep interest up and stay in front of your competitors. So, that’s what we did, at one point offering over 200 new soft-plastic products in a five-year span. It’s something to think about for those of you who have entertained thoughts of entering the lure-making business. It’s wonderful if you have a great product, but what will you offer customers once the knock-offs begin to take a big bite out of your market? That’s a question you are going to have to answer.”
These days, Welle makes lures primarily for other people through Wahoo Fishing Products. Although once clearly the king of the soft plastics, these days he designs and builds lures of various types and is a lot more versatile than you might imagine. He’s one of the most prolific manufacturers of jigheads, and now designs everything from spinnerbaits to spoons and even ice-fishing lures, so don’t type-cast him as a soft-plastics-only kind of guy. In fact, one of his major customers is Panther Martin of Port Jefferson, Long Island, one of the world’s premier in-line spinners.
“I consider Ric to be vastly experienced and to have a great knowledge of many different kinds of lures and fishing,” says Cecil Hoge, president of Panther Martin Lures. “We specialize in metal spinners but sell other lure types as well, so we lean on him for assistance with a lot of our product launches and designs. Right now, in fact, he’s helping us develop a new spinning lure especially for redfish. We’re hoping it might work for striped bass as well.”
So, with all that fishing and lure manufacturing experience, how does Welle suggest you work a curly-tail lure?
“That depends,” he says, “I fish them differently for different species of fish, in different kinds of water, under different conditions, even with different lures. These days, I’m using them a lot for redfish and snook, which I love to catch in the beautiful waters around Punta Gorda, Florida. We have great back-bay action, tidal creeks and open Gulf waters, and the curly tails seem to work just as well for the reds as they do for largemouth and smallmouth bass. One of my favorite setups for the reds is to work around grassy beds with a weedless jighead and 4-inch curly-tail grub. I’ll cast out, let it fall to the bottom, then jig it up and let it fall again. This approach also works great on sandy bottom, where you don’t need the weedless-style head. Another trick is to use a light jighead and position your grub below a popping cork so you can control the depth at which you present the lure. That works great for summer flounder, sea trout redfish, snook and even mangrove snappers.”
For largemouth, and especially smallmouth bass, Welle prefers impaling a curly-tail grub or lizard on a 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jighead. He’ll usually go with a 3-inch Mr. Twister curly-tail grub for the bronzebacks and select a 4- to 6-inch curly-tail lizard for the bigmouths, noting that you should vary the jig weight based on water depth and drift speed if the wind is a concern. In deep water or very windy conditions, he advises, you may need a jig weighing up to ¼ of an ounce.
“Panfish are also suckers for Twister Tails,” adds Welle. “After all, Mr. Twister L’il Bits (1.5 inches) and Teeny (2 inches), two of our first lures, were originally designed to catch crappie and bluegill. Put these on a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jighead and they’ll work great. They also work for trout, but don’t move these lures too quickly when panfishing,” he advises, “just bounce them slowly off the bottom or simply glide them above the weeds. Watch the line as you drop in, too, because that wiggly curly tail triggers a ton of strikes on the way down.”
As has always been the case no matter what soft-plastic lure you use, summarized the curly-tail king, “any twitch in the line is reason to set the hook.”