BY MIKE JONES
Over the years, I’ve written a lot of columns about legendary figures in the fishing industry, but none will be more personal than this one. With the passing of Al Kalin, I lost someone who was a friend, a collaborator and, briefly, an employer.
But, unlike some other angling luminaries whose faces shout out from the advertisements, you may not have any real fix on the man behind Kalin Lures. It wasn’t because Al lacked social graces or wasn’t fun to be around. He was. It wasn’t because he wasn’t whip-smart and a true visionary. He was. And, it wasn’t because he didn’t care about the fishing industry or the fish we pursue. He did. Rather, it was for the very best of reasons – he let his accomplishments do the talking.
Unassuming and sometimes shy to a fault, Al Kalin was not going to wow you with glitz. A work shirt and jeans was standard issue for this Imperial Valley farmer and cattleman. Many of you may have stood next to him at a Fred Hall Show and never known the guy who invented the Kalin grub, revolutionized injection molding, popularized finesse bass fishing and championed efforts to save everything from calico bass to the Salton Sea was standing right there.
This was Al. Get him talking and you were entranced. With a rapier dry wit, he was someone who could weave a story that could hold you spellbound. He knew a whole lot about a whole lot of things, particularly of those related to the outdoors. The problem is that Al liked to think more than he liked to talk, which – in this day and age – is a rare gift.
From agriculture to conservation to fishing or hunting, Al knew his stuff. Enter into a conversation with him and you better know what you’re talking about because Al really knew what he was talking about. It wasn’t just wanting to be smarter than the next guy, it was simply wanting to know.
From the 1980s well into the 1990s, I spent a fair amount of time with Al. Whether it was at the Kalin feed yards near Brawley or some far-flung sport show, we talked. While the subject matter varied widely, it invariably came around to fishing, lure design, techniques, etc.
Of these, my favorite moments were rumbling down dusty levees near the Salton Sea, the headlights of his truck illuminating insects in the sultry night air as Al’s handheld strobe scanned the passing fields for wayward coyotes. There wasn’t any real agenda to these conversations other than spitballing ideas and seeing what stuck. When something did, you could see the wheels turning in Mr. Kalin’s neighborhood. Although most anglers connect Kalin with his legendary grubs, his impressive engineering talents extended to wide array of lures, accessories and other projects just waiting for an inventive spark.
But don’t call Al an “inventor.” He preferred the title of “professional tinkerer,” where dead-ends and cul-de-sacs only made the final product better by what they taught you. Some of the results were triple-injected grubs and production weenie worms with colors to rival the hand-pours. Mostly self-taught and always testing his injection molding skills against the best in the fishing business, Al’s work was respected by competitors both large and small. In fact, Kalin’s output was so stellar and cutting edge, other companies who knew him only by reputation I’m sure thought Al led a team of lure makers in white lab coats. In reality, it was just one guy in a workshop next to a feedlot surrounded by farm fields near a landlocked saltwater sea.
With a stellar tournament resume, Al wasn’t going on theory alone. The guy knew how to catch a fish, any fish. He also knew that, in competition, even sponsored pros – sponsored by other lure companies – were going to need whatever worked. If it didn’t match up with the embroidered patch on their tournament shirt, so be it. Therefore, if you wanted some Kalin baits, you generally got them with no strings attached. None. Al knew the deal, but he also knew human nature. Secrets in fishing are rarely secrets for long and he was willing to bank on the trickle down effect. It worked.
He was equally open to ideas that expanded the basic scope of his lure making business. I know, I was there for a few of them. For anglers of more recent generations, it may be difficult to imagine a time when drop-shotting, finesse tactics, deep water and spinning rigs were about as popular as someone these days coughing in a supermarket checkout line. If I wanted to write a book about finesse to show the rest of the bass fishing world what some western bass fishermen already knew, I needed someone to publish it and I needed them to do it anonymously. If the book was directly linked to any manufacturer, if it was a puff piece for their products, it wouldn’t resonate. Al didn’t flinch. He liked reading and he liked learning and didn’t want propaganda. As a result, “The Complete Guide to Finesse Fishing” (otherwise known as ‘the little yellow book’) was printed with nary a hint of any Kalin connection.
The same was true for professional bass fishing trading cards. Same deal, different decade. A goofy idea needed funding but without any direct promotional benefit. It could be good for the sport, it could generate a few bucks in revenue, but who could be sure? Again, Al didn’t hesitate.
Still, one could argue that with a book or the cards, there was at least the possibility of recouping one’s initial investment. But what if you paid for something with no chance of financial gain? What if your only reward was encouraging others to do the right thing? In what has become cult-like nostalgia, the “Slow to grow … so let ‘em go” decals that enigmatically emerged in the late 1980s were a direct result of Al Kalin fearing that his new Mogambo grub and other manufacturers’ baits – in the hands of capable bass anglers – could wreak havoc on a previously overlooked inshore saltwater fishery.
Look over the decal, if you can find one. There is no mention of the Kalin Company. Moreover, there were no member fees for the Calico Conservation Club because it didn’t really exist. It only lived in the hearts of those anglers who understood the threat and stuck the decals to the windows of their trucks to inform others and alert them of the dangers. It was the very best of social media influencing long before those words were ever linked together.
In a life with as many layers as that of an Al Kalin, a farmer/cattleman/outdoorsman/conservationist/lure designer/professional tinkerer, there are many more stories to tell than time to tell them. Rest assured, he lived well because he was always looking forward to the next thing. Whether it was a big thing or a small one, it didn’t matter. He looked forward to the challenge. Quite often, those challenges were self-inflicted.
Of all the days when you wanted an invitation to the Kalin rancho, September 1 would usually be first on the list. The dove opener. There was very little risk of not getting a limit and every expectation of a steak and eggs breakfast. Prior to one opener, probably during our evening drive along the levees, Al told me the dove numbers were going to be up, way up. So much so, he thought we needed to handicap ourselves by getting our limits with muzzle loading shotguns.
Now, you must remember that Al was a phenomenal wing shot and as much as I considered myself worthy, I always felt a certain pressure in his presence. This really old-school dove hunting experience could end badly.
While the other invited hunters took up outposts hither and yon, Al and I stayed next to the truck where, on the tailgate, sat saucers filled with shot, wads and primers.
For me, the morning began in spectacular fashion with my first four dove falling in quick succession despite a trigger delay slower than a DMV line on a Monday morning.
“I think I’ve got this,” I bragged, tempting the wrath of the wing shooting gods.
Then, I started thinking.
It wasn’t good thinking, but the other kind. Instead of getting better, I got worse and Al, having started slow, began correcting his mistakes.
While it took longer for both of us to bag our limits with the muzzleloader learning curve, the real strain was having to look down between shots, ignore doves whistling just overhead and go through the laborious reloading process as expeditiously as possible. For me, at least, the process often followed this sequence: Load, bang, expletive, repeat. We couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculous situation we had created for ourselves. But that was exactly the beautiful thing about Al Kalin. Whether the effort was pure fun or pure work, his attitude remained the same: Start with an idea and see where it led. Not a bad way to live a life.