The #3 “nail polish” sunrise colored, translucent Okie Drifter is possibly the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) steelhead lure of all time.
By Bill Herzog
I spend entirely too much time in this room, an area we serious anglers call the fishing cave. In this crowded back garret of my garage lies everything I’m all about. My escape pod. Gear from door to back wall, ceiling to floor, shelves and boxes and tables of, well, my life and history. Framed photos here and there, all of a much younger me and my fishing pals, holding ghosts from places or opportunities long gone. A few special shelves for the irreplaceable. Often when things get too heavy, I’ll spend long periods just staring at it all, each piece tells a story.
On one shelf lies the unobtaneum, the precious of the precious. Several “new” (circa 1984) shiny Shimano 201s with rosewood handles. Sixty-year-old real polar bear coho trolling flies tied by my teacher, uncle Bob. A picture of my first summer steelhead from a blessed place and the actual hook/yarn that caught it. On the back of the shelf, in a gallon zip lock baggie, are the cherished ones — the fifty-year-old, #3, translucent, two piece pinkish/orange “nail polish” Sunrise (catalog actual color), generations out of production, Maxwell Manufacturing’s peerless Okie Drifter drift bobbers…the crown jewels of my collection.
I am quite privileged to own some of the best from yesteryear…real #3 Eddie Pope Hot Shots, beautiful honey colored S-Glass rods, naked lady Little Cleos, coffee cans full of real cork bodied Corkies. But if forced to keep just one, it would be my stash of #3 old school nail polish Okies, in this anglers’—and for sure many other old school river anglers—humble opinion, the greatest steelhead lure ever made.
That is one bold statement. The following is how I arrived at this pinnacle of performance, a revelation if you will, that this lure had slayed for so long it has to mean something. To make such a claim, first you must determine the most effective lures ever produced for steelhead and go from there. Ask twenty anglers, you will likely get twenty different answers. How do you qualify a lure as all time best? With so many techniques, brands, opinions, skill levels, variations of each lure, this could be a daunting, exhaustive procedure. To make this history quiz simpler, let’s break it down a bit. A lure must fall into the following categories to be considered…
The GOAT (greatest of all time) must be an artificial lure. Bait does not make the list. We know the real thing (egg cluster, sand shrimp, coon shrimp) will always top an artificial. It has to work in the widest range of water conditions and types of holding water. It must be effective year-round in the broadest geographic spread. Basically, it must catch steelhead wherever they are found. It has to be a trophy lure, as well as tempt all sizes of fish. Finally, it has to stand the test of time; the lure must be a killer for over twenty years. I could name a half dozen fabulous lures that came out recently (looking at you, Mag Lips…) that are too new to qualify.
It has to be a manufactured lure, for consistency sake. This is why no fly patterns are listed, too much variance and artistic license in the tying process. So, sorry Skykomish Sunrise, Green Butt Skunk, General Practitioner and Intruders. Same with home made lures like the Rag. All great. Don’t count. So, which ones make the legends list?
Begin with the Hot Shot, the all-time back-trolling plug, originally (and best made) by Eddie Pope out of California. There’s the Corkie, originally made from real cork and plastic coated before being changed to injected expanded polystyrene. Steelhead drift fishing was changed forever when drift bobbers exploded on the scene in the late 1950s. The other killer from Worden’s in the late ‘50s (it seems most of the all-timers manifested about this time) is possibly the finest trophy steelhead lure ever, the Spin-N-Glo. Speaking of trophies, try to top Heddon’s Tadpolly, the gold standard for years for back-trollers searching for Ike. The half-ounce teardrop style Stee-Lee spoon from Acme tackle, just like Black Sabbath made its metal debut in the ’60s. The Stee-Lee, along with the Wob-L-Rite were the first west coast steelhead spoons. We landed hundreds of Puget Sound steelhead in the early ’80s using nothing more than a red/white ½-ounce Stee-Lee. We would buy them (and lose them) a full card at a time. The Stee-Lee was flat murderous on every river from the Nisqually to the Dungeness.
Speaking of spoons, and I do so love to talk about them, how about the effectiveness of Acme’s other masterpiece, the 2/5-ounce Little Cleo. Born in the ’60s, it was standard issue for anglers on the Great Lakes and northern California rivers. The Cleo was the first spoon to be fished on the sublime Babine River on the Skeena, where I first saw it in 1979. Then in 1990, Pen Tac rolled out the biggest metal gun ever—the 2/5-ounce BC Steel. Finely tuned by Boeing flight engineers, the unreal number of trophy steelhead brought to hand courtesy of the BC Steel the last 25 years is flat staggering. Spinners? How about the Vibrax, birthed by Blue Fox in 1977. The Flash Glo by Yakima Bait. Can you imagine targeting coho or summer runs without one of these spinners? The 6-inch pearlescent pink vinyl worm, first made by Gibbs in BC in the ’70s. Think that one made any difference in winter angler’s habits?
Any others? Sure…Heddon’s FlatFish, standard plunking gear during steelheading’s heyday. The O.G. artificial steelhead drift lure that started it all, Willis Korph’s Cherry Bobber. Paul Beaupre’s timeless contributions, the Cheater drift bobber (a nod to the Ray Bobber, a standard for trophy steelhead in Forks rivers in the late ’60s and early ’70s.) and the gold standard for all steelhead jigs, the dual-beaded Beau Mac marabou tail that changed the game in 1992. That, kids, is one heavy duty list of hall of famers.
But just like Superman is to the Justice League, when you add the Okie Drifter to this list, it’s a game changer.
How did this unusual, irresistible drift bobber come to be? When doing research for Steelhead Drift Fishing in 1988 for the history of drift bobbers, the Okie was the one that escaped me. I researched like a madman for any history on its origins. Zip. Nada. There was no Google back then, it was purely anecdotal, magazine articles or books; and trust me, there was nearly nothing except how awesome the lure was. Except for knowing it was produced by Maxwell Manufacturing and distributed by Grizzly tackle out of Vancouver, Wash., starting in the late 1950s, I could find nothing. Until recently, when Sean Gallagher released his two-volume magnum opus on steelheading history, Wild Steelhead, a few years back. Sean’s books, by the way, should be required reading by all steelheaders, young and old. Especially those under 30.
Volume One, page 74, in the meat of the interview with pioneer steelheader George McLeod is the missing piece of the origin puzzle. You may recognize the name, George’s father, Ken, was the originator of one of the most popular fly patterns, the Skykomish Sunrise. George, when asked by Sean about the origins of the Okie Drifter, had this to say. “John Katica was manager of Supply Fish Tackle and Sporting Goods. He came in my office and said he now represented Maxwell Tackle in Vancouver. He said, ‘Maxwell wants to bring out a steelhead lure, or something that is not a plug—something that will catch steelhead.’ So I drew like a cluster of eggs and I said, ‘Make it about the size of a dime and the size of a nickle’. Then I got Maxwell to make a few samples. About a week later John came in with a whole coffee can full of them. He said, ‘Will these work?’ and I said, ‘You are damned right they will.’ And that is how the Okie Drifter originated.”
Thank you, George McLeod and John Katica.
Heavy Is The Head That Wears The Crown
As far as crowning the Okie Drifter as king, there had better be some fairly stout evidence for throwing this sort of thing out there. Let’s look at forty years of evidence — anecdotes, articles, testimony from steelheaders all over the West Coast. At the end of this, there still may be not enough evidence to prove the Okie as your majesty, but I promise any angler will agree that few stand taller.
First off, any Okie placed on the deity pedestal must be an original translucent, two-piece, hand-glued, which means the real ones will be over 40 years old. The Grizzly Tackle ones, before the patent was sold in the late ’70s to Luhr Jensen. Unfortunately, the process to build the Okie led to its change. Gluing each top and bottom section by hand was just too slow and costly, so Luhr Jensen changed the body to a one piece, injected polystyrene. I, along with a football stadium full of anglers in the know, call these and other piss-poor attempts at making an Okie facsimile one thing: fire starter. These copies are no more special than any molded polystyrene more or less round opaque drift bobber. Even old school Okies that are painted and made opaque don’t work the same. There, I believe, is the main reason Okies have been the cosmic funk for fifty-five years. The translucent ones let light through, like a real salmon or steelhead egg. There were approximately thirty colors and three different sizes of Okies, but only one size and color was the baddest of the bad. Wonder why beads work so well? The Okie Drifter was a bead two generations before the fad started. Bead fishermen: you are forty-five years late to the party. What’s old is new again.
For the same reasons that make an egg cluster the most effective way to catch steelhead also applies to the Okie. Egg clusters take fish in every water conditions: high, low, cloudy, clear, warm and cold. The translucent Okie is the closest thing to the real thing ever made.
The original Okie was available in three sizes, the #1 (dime sized), the #3 (nickel sized) and the #5 (quarter sized). ‘Nail polish” (sunrise) was available in all three sizes; the smaller #1 worked well under gin conditions, the #3 was the best for all around while #5s larger profile was best in big rivers running clear or on average sized rivers from 2- to 6-feet of visibility. Rigging them is simple and pure as a drift terminal gets. Fishing the #3, start with a 1/0 hook (perhaps 2/0, depending on your hook brand) large enough to allow the bite area of the hook to protrude out beyond the edge of the Okie. My favorite Okie hook is a 2/0 black Gamakatsu drop shot style. Not as large as you think, closer to a standard 1/0 octopus. Tie that to 28-inches of 12- to 15-pound high quality fluorocarbon with an egg loop. Add 3mm to 4mm red plastic bead, slide the #3 sunrise on top, tapered end down and off you go.
Way back during the Okie’s heyday, many fished the wide end of the drift bobber down toward the hook eye. It fishes more efficiently narrow end down, as this opens up the “bite” area on the hook, Plus, at the end of a drift the Okie can be quartered across, on a controlled slow swing like a spoon or fly. Due to its shape, not round but rather like a child’s spinning top, will wobble under slight tension like a mini plug. From water pressure alone when fished on a natural drift, it will still slowly wobble all during a presentation. Wicked.
Since the birth of the stick lead, this has been the best weighting system for drift fishing the Okie I’ve ever seen, followed by slinkies. These skinny, long leads allow the drift bobber to get down immediately in snaggy structure, allowing you to work the entire run with perfect presentation right along the deck the whole way. Imagine drift fishing a buoyant bead that closely imitates a cluster of roe.
The NPO vs. The Real Thing
Prepare for a fairly bold statement. This is another, perhaps best reason the Okie is king. Those of you with the ultimate, crazy good egg cure please don’t shoot. The translucent, #3 sunrise “nail polish” (I call it nail polish because it features the sheen of nail polish, the same sheen that makes pink worms the best color) Okie may keep up with and in most cases out produce any and all real egg clusters when fished side by side. How could any semi-sane person make that claim? One of them BC Steels hit you really hard in back of the head there, Willy? Well, this has been a consistent story since the Okies’ early days. A handful of my closest steelheading fellows, plus myself, have experienced this phenomenon for decades. And yes, every time it happens, then and now, I still shake the noggin in disbelief.
May I present Exhibit A to the jury, your honor? Let’s get back to genesis, how the legend of the Okie was presented. In 1979, I met the original owners/operators of Norlakes Lodge, Ejnar Madsen and his son Karl on the greatest steelhead river on Earth, the Babine. Ejnar guided on the river since the lodge opened in the early ’60s, spending nearly 20 years on the river by that time. Know that roe was legal on the Babine in the ’60s and early ’70s. For years, Ejnar insisted his clients use the #3 nail polish Okie instead of roe. Daily he watched roe fishermen and Okie tossers fish side by side (over the largest steelhead known) for weeks in the fall. He told me straight up he had never—like, never—watched Okie anglers get out-fished (more bites) than real roe.
So naturally, I had to try them. Karl spotted me around 20 of them. I can say without batting an eye during that first week on the Babine (it was clear conditions) there is no way you could have hooked more steelhead on real roe than the nail polish #3 did. One constant is the rip down grabs on the Okie. That week really opened my eyes, good Lord they were deadly. Karl gave me a handful at week’s end to take and try back home. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “I have a whole lunch box of these, about 500 of them. Hardly anybody uses them anymore; most are spoon (Cleo) tossers or fly fishermen. If you want them, take them with you.”
“No thanks,” I brilliantly replied, “they probably won’t work in my home rivers.” And Russell Wilson is too short to be a successful quarterback. I said this brain damaged statement in front of that open lunch box, spilling over the sides was the real Lost Dutchman treasure. Every single one a #3 cosmic funk, mine to take. You all know what happened when I got home and fished them. And yes, the next year on returning to the Babine and Norlakes, that magical lunch box was long gone.
And on it went, this Okie thing of ours. We found more of them, much easier to obtain twenty-five years ago than now. We accumulated a few hundred and subsequently burned through them like underwear in a diarrhea ward. From the Nisqually to the Duckabush to the Bogachiel to the Skykomish, we found nothing else that worked as well. When I guided the Skagit during the catch and release seasons in the ’90s, I would run Okie drift fishing trips in the big, fast clear water. As my clients will relay, they were just flat fun effective. Our weekly trips down the Humptulips and Wynoochee pitting Okies versus roe, it was pretty much a draw. Every where we went, everywhere we fished, the sunrise #3 just kept on keepin’ on.
What Else Ya Got?
For an artificial lure to be MVP, it has to attract the largest steelhead. Done. The largest female steelhead ever weighed, a 33-pound doe from the Babine River in 1977, ate a #3 sunrise Okie. Ejnar Madsen told a tale of a husband/wife on the Babine who landed 31- and 34-pound monsters in one run, drifting Okies. A buck a shade over 30 ate my Okie on the upper Bogachiel back on March 6, 2008. We’ve seen so many steelhead in the 20-pound realm up in BC rivers (Gold, Kispiox, Bulkley, Squamish tribs) that ate nail polish Okies, the numbers would be so cracked one would demand a recount. My ex-guiding partner Jon Pincelli landed a 28-pound beast on the Sauk River during C&R season in 1995. You know what it ate? It bit the Okie so hard it cracked it in half.
For so many years, I received letters, phone calls, e-mails and so on from anglers who share the love for the ancient orange/pink drift bobber, either older anglers who still do very well with then to the newer generation who has tried them for the first time. It’s certainly not just a few of us who feel this little bumpy sucker is the champ.
For a fun time killing exercise, look back through some decades old issues of outdoor magazines. Search for steelhead fishing articles. Sprinkled liberally throughout those pages, especially ones from the ’70s, are story after story of writers singing the praises for the effectiveness of Okie Drifters. They talk about them as we read about float fishing today.
You know, folks, real drift fishing has been on the short list of endangered steelhead and salmon river techniques, especially by the younger crowd. With the effectiveness of floats, plus the ease and deadly results from side-drifting and bobber doggin’, finding an angler actually practicing old school drift fishing is an unfortunate rarity. It’s certainly not 1980 anymore. I’m proud to report the nail polish Okie has re-generated a drift fishing buzz again. Thank the authors who have been writing about the old girl. Nothing seems to jazz an angler on Facebook and such today than when they find some of these antique plastic hollow drift bobbers on the bottom shelf of the tackle section in the back of a mom and pop grocery, online or at a garage sale. With all the lures available to steelheaders, will anyone be willing to spend five dollars for just one drift bobber of a certain size and color? Only one merits this price tag.
Okay, these are some gotta haves. If they are so bad ass, why hasn’t any lure company noticed this blazing demand and produce them? Well, they have noticed. There have been several attempts to make a facsimile of the #3 sunrise Okie, given like sounding names and shapes. But they were, sadly, all solid, opaque injected polystyrene sporting colors barely close. More fire starter. Not any more effective than a “normal” drift bobber. The largest obstacle to a perfect copy, I’ve been told by the ones who make lures, is cost. Real Okies are two parts, top and bottom molds that must be hand glued together, one at a time.
As of this writing, I have a priceless 36 of them left in that zip lock bag on the shelf. I use ‘em to lose ‘em, man. Why have these dynamic lures and not use them? I figure, losing a half dozen a year ought to last me until I’m scattered in the river. A most irritating thing I (and many others) occasionally deal with is someone who smugly announces they have a pile of Okies stashed, but won’t use or sell them. The conversation usually sounds something like this.
Me: “Hey, my man, sell me some of those!”
Butt Munch: “No way, I’m keeping these killers!!”
Me: “Do you fish them?”
BM: “Hell no, I only fish yarnies or beads. I never use those old things. But I’m hangin’ on to these, they’re awesome!!”
Sigh. It really hurts each time I snag a sunken tree or a fish roars off with one.
And The Winner Is…
In conclusion, this is how this angler would rate the Top Ten all-time best artificial lures for steelhead:
10) Paul Beaupre’s two-beaded marabou tailed jig.
9) Acme Tackle’s ½-ounce teardrop Stee-Lee spoon.
8) Gibb’s original 6-inch pearlescent pink vinyl worm.
7) Pen Tac’s 2/5-ounce oval BC Steel spoon.
6) Blue Fox’s #4 Vibrax spinner.
5) Heddon’s Tadpolly diving plug.
4) Worden’s #10 Corkie drift bobber.
3) Eddie Pope’s #3 Hot Shot diving plug.
2) Worden’s #8 Spin-n-Glo drift/plunking lure.
1) Maxwell Manufacturing’s #3 ‘Sunrise” translucent Okie Drifter drift bobber.
That list, fellow steelheaders, has serious Hall of Fame content. So, what do you think? Acceptable evidence or the ravings of a madman? Likely somewhere in between. Think about your favorite artificial lure of all time. Is it on this list? Here is a challenge for all tackle manufacturers, either solo laboring in their garage or to big companies, to try and produce a lure with more scope and deadly effectiveness of the time tested #3 nail polish Okie.
Today, even though I fish with primarily flies and spoons, and until the day where I lose the last one, when I drift fish I only use an Okie…the greatest steelhead lure ever made.