Australian lure makers have produced some timeless classics. Lures like the StumpJumper, Boomerang and Kadaitcha all set and then raised the bar when they arrived on the scene thanks to their individual design, performance and fish-taking abilities.
However, there is another little lure that I feel belongs in the same illustrious company and that’s the original Bennett McGrath Minnow. This brilliant balsa minnow from the Albury Wodonga region certainly established a new benchmark when it burst onto the market around 1984, and it has left us with a lure making legacy that survives to this day.
As you might have guessed by the name, there were two men behind this little balsa beauty and their names are John Bennett and Steve McGrath. While their partnership only lasted for a relatively short period, their influence on the local lure making scene can’t be overstated.
You see, prior to the appearance of the Bennett McGrath, most Aussie lure makers tended to concentrate on building relatively large and solidly constructed lures, which I guess you could more or less classify as cod or yellowbelly lures. John and Steve, on the other hand, took a different path and came up with a sleek and sexy little minnow that could mix it with the best of the smaller imported lures such as the Rapalas.
However, what really set the Bennett McGrath apart was its unique method of construction, which involved putting a one-piece metal skeleton inside the body of the lure. I know there are a couple of other lure makers currently employing a similar process (Tilsan and Deception Lures for example) but I believe that John and Steve were the first local lure makers to go down that particular path. The Bennett McGrath’s internal skeleton gave the lure incredible tensile strength and while they were small enough to be fished on light tackle, they had the guts to handle big fish with ease. In fact, I once took some advertising photos of a 15hp outboard motor being hoisted clear off the ground by a McGrath minnow and it handled the task without any problem.
You might also be surprised to learn that McGraths, as they are now known, are actually turned up on a lathe. Yes, as unlikely as it seems, the McGraths all start out as a rectangular block of balsa that gets turned into shape using a copy lathe. After the body is shaped it then has slots cut into it to take the frame and bib, and these are glued in. To protect the delicate balsa wood body, a special plastic coating (which took years of hard work to perfect) is then applied to the lure, before it gets painted and the hooks and rings are fitted.
Back in the heady days of 1986 this automated style of production represented a real departure from the standard lure making method at the time, which traditionally involved carving out the lure body by hand and simply gluing the eyelets and bib directly into the wooden body. In fact, the process was so radically different that at the time Rod Harrison described the Bennett McGrath production process as “a quantum jump in domestic lure technology” and “arguably the most sophisticated manufacturing technique amongst Australian lure makers” (Fishing World, November 1986, ‘Balsa from the Borderlands’).
I have been fortunate enough to have met both Steve and John over the years. While I’ll be the first to admit that I never really got to know Steve very well, I’ve had the pleasure of spending many an hour discussing the merits of various lure designs with John Bennett and let me tell you, it is a subject he knows volumes about.
I first met the boys in the mid-1990s and John and Steve were no longer in business together at that stage. In fact, Steve was about to put McGrath up for sale and John had just opened his own tackle store in the Philips Marine complex, in the New South Wales border city of Albury Wodonga. Whenever I had a spare moment I would pop into John’s small tackle shop for a coffee and a chat. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have called into John’s old backyard lure making factory a few times as well and watched the master at work while he assembled and painted his creations.
To me, John’s most outstanding attribute as a lure maker was that he was a talented artist and a painter long before he took to spray-painting lures. When he applied that natural talent to the airbrush he produced the most perfectly painted and finished lures I think I have ever seen. Certainly Rod Harrison must have agreed with me because in the same article from 1986 he went on to describe Bennett McGrath lures “as works of art” even stating that “there’s no better paint job in the country, and that’s saying a mouthful”.
As I said, to me John was a true artist at heart but he was also fanatical about the quality control of every step of the production process and near enough was never good enough when he was making lures. They simply had to be perfect or they didn’t go out the door. That’s a very hard standard to maintain and it puts you under a fair deal of pressure and I’m sure John must have felt it from time to time, but then I’m also sure he never saw himself as just making lures, he was creating them.
While John is best known for his part in the Bennett McGrath partnership, he was also involved in the production and painting of several other lures for short periods at different times. As good as the Bennett McGraths were, for my money the lures he produced under his Merlin banner were amongst his greatest designs. The original Deep Diving Merlin remains one of my all time favourite lures. I’m incredibly fortunate that John painted several one-off originals for me and even knocked up a couple of batches of experimental colour schemes for me to test.
The other standout lure John will always be remembered for is the Baby Merlin. I remember when we first got our hands on these, they absolutely blitzed the trout in the nearby Mitta Mitta River and they were one of the few things that could actually out-fish those deadly little Rapala CD3 lures. They were and still remain a great bream lure too, even by today’s standards.
Later, John added to the range by bringing out an even deeper diving version of the original Deep Diving Merlin. The Ultra Diver had an arrowhead shaped bib and it took the 6cm long minnow down to the 5m mark, as least in freshwater. John also dabbled in some wooden lures again for a while, producing what he called the Wide Bodied Merlin in very limited numbers. These, like all of John and Steve’s lures, are already highly collectable and I feel their value is likely to skyrocket in years to come.
There has been a lot of water under the bridge since I first met Steve and John and that has seen more than a few changes in terms of ownership. McGrath Lures, for example, have had two or three different owners since Steve departed and they are currently in the hands of Mark Larsson. It’s probably fair to say that the quality of McGraths has varied over the years, depending largely on who was in charge at the time, but having looked at the latest models I believe they are now getting back to the standard we used to see in the early days, which is a credit to Mark. Merlin lures are still in production too, but these days they are called Craftmaster Merlins.
These days, John Bennett is finally back in the lure business again under the Bluey’s Lures banner. Purists will be glad to know he is once again building beautiful wooden lures and while his output is strictly limited, the quality of his work is still as high as it always was. In fact, the last couple I purchased were probably as well painted as any of the old Bennett McGraths I own and I can’t bring myself to fish with them! The only place you can get John’s lures these days is through the one retail outlet in Wodonga (Bluey’s Bait and Tackle). These gems are bound to become collectors’ items so I recommend getting in while you can.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that two mates getting together to make a few lures could have had such an impact on the Australian fishing scene. However, I maintain that with the creation of the Bennett McGrath they really did raise the bar for locally-produced lures. Such was their impact that I liken it to that of the original Finnish Rapalas (although on a slightly smaller scale of course).
I’m also fairly certain that the boys influenced a whole generation of Aussie lure makers, too, and helped establish the booming industry of locally-produced lures of impeccable quality that we enjoy today. The Bennett McGrath partnership may be over but the legacy definitely lives on.Reads: 1988