BY BLAKE WARREN
For the longest time in the early days, it was often merely just some kind of plastic worm threaded on some kind of a hook, a rudimentary crawdad imitation or a gimmicky, marginally-functional lure to entice the ever-dreaming, non-live-bait bass fisherman. And then, suddenly — or maybe not so suddenly — it wasn’t just that any longer, ever again.
Bass fishing very much epitomizes our evolution as people… as humans. But, there is very much an element to that evolution that sees beyond the pale, beyond the current minutia or the ever-present “Johnny Chatterbox,” or in the parlance of our present times, “Dock Talk.”
There are always the real movers and shakers in life. And those are most often the ones who do what they do for the right reasons rather than the wrong ones. Something to be said for that alone, undoubtedly. And along the way, sometimes those unique people make a heavy impact and leave a firmly-stamped mark that extends for decades to come.
One of these movers and shakers is one Sean Donovan, inventor and founder of Optimum Swimbaits, and among the true original pioneers who sparked the swimbait craze in the ‘90s and who helped set the tone for countless other big bait makers in the many years to follow.
In one of the most heart-wrenching voicemails I’ve yet to receive in my eight years at Western Outdoor News, a couple weeks back Donovan’s mother Sandra grievingly relayed the sad news of Sean’s tragic recent passing after a heart transplant in May. She explained how Sean was an avid weekly reader of WON and how he had been featured in the paper a number of different times over the years, and hoped that we could make note of his passing. So I set out to do my best to do just that.
First reaching out to current Bassmaster Senior Writer and former WON columnist Michael Jones, it didn’t take long for him to immediately pin the right guy to talk to about the details of the early days of Donovan’s innovations: Bill Siemantel. Within the hour, Bill’s number showed up on my cell phone and he was more than gracious with his time in relaying his early history with Donovan and the infancy stage of big bait mania in Southern California, of which Sean was most certainly at the forefront.
“To hear of Sean’s recent passing, it took me down memory lane to that of a true pioneer who had a ton of impact in not only the big bait arena, but at the forefront of the internal swimbaits you see that flood the market today,” said Bill Siemantel of Big Bass Zone fame. “Sean had more talent and more class than so many other bait designers who followed his concepts and ideas, yet many still may never know where it truly all started from. Very few people ever really got to know the quiet, humble, revolutionary lure designer who changed so many of our lives in both fresh and saltwater.”
Indeed. Donovan’s Optimums were certainly revolutionary, both back then and now ‘til this day, and that’s undeniable at this stage in the game. What started as a highly-innovative idea that bucked many of the current bass fishing trends back in the mid-’90s became a benchmark to which countless other big swimbaits were spawned, and something of a road map for big bait makers of the future. Likely the most recognized example being Butch Brown’s Thumper Tail, released to the public about 20 years after the first Optimum prototypes were unveiled and accounting for double-digit bass catches well into triple digits for Brown, along with a profound big bait career that was firmly rooted in Donovan’s early designs.
But it all largely began at a local mini mart and the infamous Castaic Lagoon in the heyday of Nirvana and the surge of grunge music.
“When I first met Sean it was at the Castaic Mini Mart in early 1996,” Siemantel told this columnist. “He said he had an idea about making a new style of swimbait and asked me if I could help him a little. To say we hit it off was an understatement, and he was just an all-around great guy. I told him to meet me in morning at the lower lake and I was going to show him what I was doing with the Fat Body swimbait and some of the issues I was trying to solve with it.
“The next day we met and I tied on a custom Fat Body and told him to chuck it to a spot and count it down—I had a system called the ‘Rate Of Fall’ for fishing off the bank and every lure had its own timing for falling through the water column. Sean was a great stick and it didn’t take long to see it. His first cast and I told him, ‘Hold on, you’re going to catch your biggest bass right now.’ He smiled, made five turns of the handle and we both watched his line jump. Before we knew it I was lipping his new PB, right around 13.4 if I remember right.”
In an ironic twist of fate, a few months later Donovan unknowingly returned the favor. He handed Siemantel a custom prototype 12-inch Optimum “limosine-style” swimbait — one that was created by cutting a pair of 8-inch baits in half and melding them back together into what was then one of the biggest baits anywhere — just a few months after catching his personal best with Siemantel that day down at the Lagoon.
Just days after receiving Donovan’s gift, Siemental employed the monster swimbait at Castaic with monster success. Slow rolling the bait in 16 feet of water over a hump that winter, a behemoth bass committed to the trout imitation and Siemantel too had his new, and still-standing, personal best on the bank at a whopping 19 pounds, 12.8 ounces.
“My only part in the whole deal was that I had him talk to Pete Cormier of Deadly Duo Baits to get the right silicone for the molds, but the genius of Optimum was all Sean,” said Siemantel. “The craziest thing was when I watched him take a piece of plastic and a butter knife over a stove and hot-carve a 12-inch trout by hand right in front of my eyes. The jighead, hot butter knife down the back, place the jig inside and smooth everything to the point where it looked like a custom hand poured bait straight out of a mold. He just had tremendous ideas and talent.
“Within a few weeks, Sean had a handful of molds made and a rigging system to suspend the jighead in the air as he hand poured the plastic in the molds. I was right there when the first ones came out and went right to work fishing his baits during tournaments and chasing monster bass.”
Plenty of other fishermen would follow suit in the ensuing years, and with much incredible success. From teener SoCal largemouth to big calicos and halibut in the salt, Optimum Swimbaits were proven absolutely deadly across the board, accounting for hundreds, if not thousands, of trophy catches through the back end of the ’90s and well beyond into the following century until today.
Whether those in the swimbait-making world who have followed in Donovan’s footsteps may know it or not, he is most certainly deserving of a huge, respecated nod of homage and a tip of the cap from the vast majority as a true pioneer of the whole entire deal from the beginning.
One truly unique individual and soul who legitimately operated at an Optimum Level.