Stump of a Story
  |  First Published: January 2010

The StumpJumper story can be traced back to 1986 where it began, appropriately enough, on the Victorian banks of the mighty Murray River. In those days, an angler by the name of John Ellis was spending a lot of his time chasing cod in the river near his home base of Cobram and in the backed up waters of nearby Lake Mulwala.

Now anyone who does a lot of lure fishing will know that if you are serious about catching cod, then snags are a fact of life. In fact, if you aren’t getting snagged occasionally, then you probably aren’t getting down to where the fish are. To make matters worse, Mulwala (and to a lesser extent the Murray River) probably has more drowned timber per hectare than just about any other stretch of freshwater in the country. And while all that timber makes it cod heaven, it sure can be an expensive place to toss lures.

John did a lot of cod fishing so he needed to have a lure that didn’t snag every second cast and even then, he realised he was going to need lots of them. So what does a bloke do if a lure with the specific attributes he wants is not readily available and even if it was, he couldn’t afford to keep buying them anyway? Easy, you make it yourself of course, which is exactly what John decided to do.

As we now know, John’s first wooden StumpJumpers fitted the local cod fishing environment perfectly. They dug down deep, had great buoyancy to help them jump over the stumps (hence the name) and were as tough as nails. In fact, they were so good that by 1987, there was enough demand for John to go into commercial production. All he needed now was some way to speed up the lure-making process.

Being the inventive bloke that he is, John knocked up a machine to automate the shaping of the lure bodies. He describes it as a cross between a copy lathe and a profile cutter and it enabled him to pump out somewhere between 20 and 30 lures a week. He must have done a great job with it because he assures me the original machine is still around somewhere.

Those early wooden Stumpies were built from Western Red Cedar, but John eventually had to change to a different timber (some were made of poplar) because the dust got into his lungs and caused him a few health problems.

John estimates he produced somewhere around 1500 wooden-bodied StumpJumpers all up. They originally came in only 10 colour patterns and had flat aluminum bibs. John did play around with some plastic bibs in his wooden lures but only in very small numbers.

He also started looking at the concept of ‘slide-in’ bibs, which gives you some idea of how far ahead of his time he was.

By 1991, freshwater fishing was a boom industry in Australia and there was an almost insatiable demand for John’s cod lures. The only way for him to go close to satisfying it was to swap from the traditional wooden bodies to plastic. John continued to be an innovator and he believes his were the first Australian-made lures to be moulded out of ABS plastic, which is now the industry standard.

With the change to plastic, John was also able to introduce what is still about the world’s only truly successful interchangeable bib system. I asked him how he came up with the idea for the snap-in, snap-out bibs and believe it or not, he got it from a simple clothes peg! As unlikely as it sounds, it’s an idea that really works.

With the deep diving bib, the No.1 StumpJumper is a great cod lure, but switch to the pointy, shallow running bib and you have a minnow lure capable of taking saltwater speedsters like mackerel and tuna or even barramundi. Not many other lures can do that!

Going plastic also allowed John to increase his size range. These days, there are six different sizes in the Stumpie line-up and it doesn’t matter whether you are stalking fussy feeders like trout or bream or smash and grab merchants like dog-tooth tuna, you can find a StumpJumper in a size and running depth to match.

The Man behind the Lures

John has always been a huge supporter of anglers and the recreational fishing industry. For example, I still have some ‘Catch and Release’ StumpJumpers around, which he had specially printed up and supplied to Victorian Fisheries as giveaways to help them encourage sustainable fishing practices.

John has always been a great supporter of junior anglers. No doubt plenty of young country lads started lure fishing after getting one of his lures in a prize bag at a fishing competition somewhere, or after being given one by the man himself.

On a personal basis, I’ve always found John to be a fairly quiet and reserved sort of bloke who doesn’t waste his words, so what he does say is always worth listening to, particularly when it comes to lure fishing. He clearly has an inquiring mind and I’ve always reckoned the reason he doesn’t say that much is because he is always thinking about some new idea or better way to do things.

One of my biggest regrets is that during all the years I lived fairly close by, I only managed to fit in a couple of fishing trips with John. However, one of my fondest fishing memories is spending a day in the boat with him, as we chased cod in the river near his place.

We fished virtually in the middle of town and while we didn’t catch any huge fish, John was able to find us a cod or two each. His ability to read the river and point out the underwater features that draw the fish to those particular areas is something that has always stayed with me.

Another aspect of John which I admired was his unbending belief in his lures to do the job. While many modern anglers will chop and change between artificials, trying to find that one ‘magic lure’ which will fire the fish up, John would happily keep fishing with his own lures, only occasionally swapping sizes or bibs in order to keep his lure in the strike zone and usually with outstanding success.

John is also one bloke who seems to place a lot of importance in lure colour. While Stumpies have never been painted with the intricate patterns or life-like finishes of some other brands, he clearly has an understanding of how different environmental factors dictate that one colour or pattern that can be more successful than others. He has also never been afraid to use unusual colours and colour combinations on his lures either. And plenty of times he has tipped me off that unnatural finishes, like metallic silver with a blue back and red strips, is the one that is catching all the fish in a certain location.s

Overall however, whenever I think of John, I see him as someone who is well ahead of his time. He has consistently come up with ideas which have taken the rest of us years to catch up to. Take the coloured bibs he provides with his lures for example, John produced both red and green bibs for his plastic Stumpies and he was even painting black bibs on some of his wooden lures way back in the 90s but had to stop because nobody wanted them. These days, lots of anglers are recognising the advantage of painted bibs to make their lures look bigger and are prepared to pay extra for them. As I said, a lot of John’s ideas seemed to be well ahead of their time.

Going Bush

These days, John no longer makes or markets his lures (they are distributed by J.M. Gillies) but he is still keeping his hand in by working on different aspects of lure design. His AussieJumper lures for example, have taken the StumpJumper concept and put it into a body shape that more people would associate with barra or saltwater lures.

His most recent project has been the new ultra deep bib he developed for the No.1 StumpJumper, which takes it down past the 40ft mark for trolling in really deep pool water on the lower Murray.

While his love of fishing hasn’t exactly diminished over the years, lately John seems to get the desire to go ‘bush’ more often and he seems to spend a lot of his time pursuing his other great outdoor love, which is opal mining. Unfortunately there is precious little water out there in the gem fields for him to experiment with but knowing John, I’m sure he still has plenty of lure-making ideas kicking around in the back of his head and I feel sure he will continue to influence the Aussie lure making scene for a good while yet.

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