Don “Red” Norton with a 10.2-pound bass caught on Lake Glenada.

I was out working in the garage when a couple of guys stopped by the other day and we got to talking about fishing, and of course, the subject quickly turned to Lake Istokpoga and “Flippin’ and Pitchin’” jigs and worms.

For all three of us, flippin’ and pitchin’ was the only way to fish Lake Istokpoga, Lake Okeechobee, Kissimmee and Toho. With acres and acres of reeds, bullrushes and pads, it almost seemed like the lakes were built just for that technique.

And it was productive! Catching bass on a jig or a worm, often with only a short length of line between you and the fish was and is an incredible way to fish. Unlike catching a bass on a long cast, using topwater or crankbaits, the bass is at full-strength from the moment you set the hook. And the fight takes place usually within a few feet of the boat. Win, lose or draw, for most of us, it’s by far one of the most exciting ways to fish for bass.

After a brief discussion of different flippin’ baits, one of the guys asked, “when did you start flippin?” I scratched my head and looked at the others, I couldn’t remember when or where I started flippin’ and pitchin’ and it got me wondering, “when did I start?”

Looking back, it seemed like I’d always been using that technique, but I knew that couldn’t be true. Back when I was a kid and growing up in Ohio, we didn’t even use baitcasting reels, and the rods we used were much shorter and lighter. Jitterbugs, Hula Poppers and Johnson Spoons made up our arsenal of baits and it wasn’t until around the late 1960’s that I ever even saw, let alone fished with a plastic worm.

The first baitcasting reels I learned to fish with were Pfleuger Akron’s, and eventually Pfleuger Supremes. Those reels were state-of-the-art back then, and it took some real practice to get to the point that you could make a cast and not get a backlash. But I’m sure we didn’t flip and pitch back then because I remember the casting rods were all much shorter, usually around 5.5 to 6.5 feet and most had pistol grip handles. Along with the baitcasting reels of that time, they would have been difficult to attempt a flip or a pitch.

A few years later, Abu Garcia came out with their Ambassdeur 5000 baitcasting reels and rods suddenly started getting longer, and stiffer.

So somewhere, in the past 50 years, flippin’ and pitchin had become as normal as casting that old jitterbug. I decided to look into when that happened.

I remembered that Dee Thomas was credited with being the first fisherman to use the technique, so that seemed like a good place to start.

Dee Thomas, who caught his first largemouth bass in 1957, at the ripe old age of 19, on a black and orange Bomber crankbait, was hooked. It was the most important bass of his life, because it turned him into a bass fisherman.

He became a bass fishing guide on Clear Lake, located north of San Francisco, and began rowing or “skulling” his clients around the shoreline vegetation.

One afternoon, after he’d fished all day by himself and caught only one bass, he watched two men load their boat in preparation for their trip. The two men, O.C. Magee and Claude Davis, put two 20-foot fiberglass poles in the boat, and Thomas, who had never seen anything like them, waited at the ramp until they returned at dark just to see how the men fared.

Magee and Davis were among the first, if not the first bass fishermen to use the technique of “tule dipping” in California, simply holding the long poles out over the shoreline tule vegetation or even behind them where big bass were hiding. That evening, when Thomas met them, the two brought in 10 bass weighing between 35 and 40 pounds.

The two men showed their young friend — Thomas was only 20 years old at the time — how the poles were rigged with just 12 feet of heavy line and how, when a bass hit, the bass was pulled or flipped into the boat, because the rods had no reels.

Thomas tried to find a 20-foot pole but had to settle for a 14-foot cane pole, which he rigged with heavy line and 3/8-ounce jig, which he added a skirt and a black Pedigo E-6 trailer. This became his total bass fishing outfit for the next seven or eight years.

And he started catching fish, more than he’d ever caught in his life on this rig, and making a name for himself in the process.

Word of his success spread and in late 1972 or 1973, the founders of Western Bass called him and invited him to compete in one of their tournaments. It was a team tournament, and his fishing partner for the last few years Chet Anderson agreed to fish with him.

It was his first tournament, and at 34 he still only had a meager amount of tackle, which by now consisted of a 12-foot tule dipping pole and an aluminum bass boat. There were 30-40 other contestants, all of whom had regular bass boats and the best-casting tackle of the time.

Thomas and Anderson only caught seven bass the first day, the largest weighing just over four pounds, and Thomas wasn’t enjoying the experience. After weighing in their bass, they left and went home to fish on Clear Lake the next day.

As it turned out, the fishing was not up to their standards on Clear Lake either, so they returned home early the next afternoon. About 6 p.m. someone knocked on Thomas’s door and handed him two trophies. He and Anderson, fishing only with their 12-foot poles on the first day of a two-day tournament not only won the event but took big fish honors as well.

After that tournament, Thomas continued to fish the Western Bass tournament trail, but without Anderson. After winning many of the events, some of the contestants objected to his 12-foot pole and demanded that he put a reel on it.

Teaming up with Frank Hauk, who would also become his longtime fishing partner, they contacted Lew Childre who provided them with 12-foot poles called “Hawger Sticks” that were designed to hold a reel.

After winning a couple more tournaments, there were even more objections to the length of his rod with many of the competitors believing it gave him an unfair advantage. He was told they wouldn’t be allowed to compete unless he used a shorter rod.

Thomas searched his workshop and found an old 7.5 feet striper rod and asked the tournament officials if that would be acceptable. It was, and that’s how the standard rod length of 7.5 feet became the standard for one of the most popular fishing techniques over the last 50 years.

  • Editor’s note: Don Norton, often referred to as “Red”, is a semi-retired bass fishing guide, custom rod builder and tournament bass fisherman. He was the owner of two local fishing tackle stores, REDS in Avon Park and REDS II in Sebring, and in addition to previously writing for Highlands Today the NEWS-SUN and the Coastal Angler, he also taught evening classes at the South Florida State College in Avon Park on bass fishing techniques and custom rod building. Don lives in Golf Hammock with his wife Lexie.

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