TBT – Dee Thomas – The Father of Flippin’ a True Legend

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Dee Thomas with his Lures – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

My days at Bass West USA brought me the opportunity to do something I loved; celebrate the anglers that built the sport.  One of my favorite articles involved a man who created a new technique that has completely revolutionized the way that people fish.  Without this man, many true superstars would not have had the careers they built, and scores of bass; too many to be counted, from anglers everywhere would never have been caught.

Dee Thomas invented the Flippin’ technique, and I was given the opportunity in September of 2009 to hear his stories and learn of his legendary career, that is still ongoing well into his 70’s.

As  a Throwback Thursday feature, please join me in enjoying a look back at Dee Thomas.

Dan O’Sullivan

According to online dictionaries, the term ‘Legend’ has several meanings, it can mean; ‘an unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical.’ It might mean; ‘An explanatory table or list of the symbols appearing on a map or chart.’ Or in the case of the bass fishing world, a ‘Legend’ is; ‘one that inspires legends or achieves legendary fame.’

A Legend of the sport is someone who has made significant contributions or achieved uncommon accomplishments en route to leaving an indelible mark on the history of the sport. These are individuals who have set new standards, created new trends and driven the bar to new heights as they have blazed the trails of their careers.

Without these individuals, the sport of bass fishing would have nothing to measure itself against. The industry, minus their involvement, would likely be in a much less advanced state than it is. The drive of dominating competition, on and off the water has left a trail of history that many are witness to, yet few are a component of.

One of those anglers is Dee Thomas of Brentwood, Calif.

Dee Thomas Trophy Ceremony

Dee Thomas at an early Trophy Ceremony

Thomas by the Numbers
World class bass anglers are typically measured by statistics that include career earnings, tournament victories, championships and angler of the year titles. Those statistics, when taken in context of the modern age of bass fishing can be quite impressive for some of the sport’s best and brightest.

However far the opportunities in the sport of bass fishing have progressed in the current day, the early days of bass fishing was not quite so glamorous. For Thomas’ and his colleagues, there were events that were barely more than glorified derbies, as they were not allowed to compete for more than $200, until the laws were changed.

In 14 entries in Bassmaster competition dating back to 1975, Thomas posted four top 10 finishes, two top fives, including a win on Bull Shoals Reservoir in Bull Shoals, Ark. He qualified for the 1975 Bassmaster Classic on Currituck Sound in Nags Head, N.C.; where he finished 9th. In his 14 entries, he collected seven paychecks, earning $30,131.20, an average of $2,152.23. His largest BASS payday, $15,300 came in 2004 at a BASS Western Open on the California Delta.

His FLW Outdoors history began in 1995 when he competed in what was then called the Red Man Tournament Trail’s Western Division (now called the Wal Mart Bass Fishing League). He fished all seven tournaments that season, finishing out of the top 10 only once, a 12th place finish in the season’s final event. His steadiness earned him the division’s Angler of the Year title, and qualified him for the regional tournament that year, eventually qualifying for the 1996 All American in Pine Bluff, Ark.

His total career earnings in FLW competition rests at $36,298 in 26 entries, of which he has finished in the top 10 12 times. His largest FLW payday, $17,162, was a result of his 7th place finish at the 2008 FLW Series National Guard Western Division on the California Delta.

His career includes more than 30 professional wins, he won a record 13 tournaments in the old Western Bass circuit and won their Angler of the Year title three times and qualified for the first 10 Tournament of Champions, another record.

He is a two time winner of the West Coast Bass Classic, and earned a West Coast Bass Angler of the Year award. He is a member of the WON Bass Pro Honor Roll, reserved for anglers who have won at least one event in the popular western circuit. He has won more than 25 boats in competition, and has won pro level tournaments in every decade since the 70’s. All together, Thomas has won more than $500,000 in his career.

While these statistics may seem slim in comparison to some of today’s more popular anglers, there are other numbers that paint a picture of a fishing career that has made more of an impact on the sport than most anglers could even dream of making.

Three: the number of Fishing Halls of Fame that Thomas has been inducted into. He was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 2000, the California Sportsmen Hall of Fame in 2006, and finally the Professional Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2007.

Dee Thomas Early Flip Fish 2

Dee Thomas with an early Flip Fish – photo courtesy Dee and Terri Thomas

44: The number of years since Dee Thomas first fished a major National tournament, when he entered the Louisiana Invitational on Toledo Bend Reservoir, and the same year he won his first major National tournament on Bull Shoals.

Millions: The number of fishing rods that have been sold as a result of his ability to adapt to conditions, both on and off the water. It is also the amount of money that has been won in tournaments, by untold numbers of anglers across the country as a result of his contributions to the sport.

While career statistics are a good way to measure an angler’s effectiveness as a competitor, with Thomas, they are only the beginning, the tip of the Hall of Fame iceberg. His career has resulted in billions of targeted presentations into shallow, cover laden waters in search of the next strike, and without him, the Father of Flippin’, our sport would not be the same.

Foundation of a Hall of Fame Career
Thomas grew up fishing mainly for striper on the Delta after moving to California when he was 13-years-old with his parents. He also learned how to do something called ‘tule dippin,’ which was using a long, 10 to 12 foot pole with eight feet of heavy line, usually braided Dacron tied to the end with a jig on it.

He would reach out with the dippin’ pole and drop his jig vertically into holes in the tules and jerk black bass out of the cover. Tule dippin’ would later become the basis from which Flippin’ would be adapted from. “I had really strong forearms in those days,” the old pro revealed. “I could sling that big dippin’ stick around and really jerk those fish out of the water into the boat,”

However, it was a long while later before it would become Flippin’

One day around 1974, he heard about the second team event that Wayne Cummings and Jerry Abney of Western Bass were running on Lake Camanche, so he asked a friend of his to go with him.

Dee Thomas Big Fish in Jersey

Dee Thomas

“I was curious about how it would all work, so I wanted to go watch the weigh-in,” Thomas said. “I watched saw that the fish the guys caught weren’t very big, so I told the lady at the store that I was going to go out and catch a fish bigger than anybody had on the first day. I went to a bush, dipped my jig into the center of it, and ripped out a seven pound largemouth and took it back up to the store. She said she wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes.”

He went out the next day to see if he could catch enough weight to win the tournament in one day. “I wasn’t fishing in the tournament, but I kept my catch to see if I could beat them,” he remembered. “One of the guys in the tournament asked me if he could borrow my fish to mess with a friend of his, and that he wanted to weigh them in, but that he wouldn’t claim them, it was only a joke. I told him sure, and they weighed enough to have won the tournament in only one day of fishing.”

After that, it took a while for Thomas to enter a tournament, mainly because he felt like there wasn’t enough competition for him. However a phone call from Cummings convinced him to try, so he and his friend Chet Anderson entered an event at Lake Berryessa in Napa, Calif. “We caught six or seven fish and had 17 or 18 pounds on day one, but the bite was slow,” Thomas said. “There wasn’t anything on the line except bragging rights in those days, and we didn’t know what the standings were until after the tournament was over. So we left and went fishing at Clear Lake and Lake Mendocino instead of fishing the second day of the tournament.”

He had told the tournament director that they were leaving, but the bite was bad at the other two lakes, so they were at home by 1:30 in the afternoon. Then, a truck pulled up in front of his house. “A guy named Jimmy Roberts got out of the truck holding three trophies telling us we’d won everything only fishing the one day,” Thomas said. “Then I knew there wasn’t any competition and quit tournaments again.”

A while later, a call from a man named Frank Houk asked if this was the Dee Thomas who catches all of the fish I see in Western Bass. “I told him I was Dee Thomas and I catch a lot of fish, but I didn’t know if I was the guy he’s looking for,” Thomas said chuckling. “He wanted to know if he could come over and talk about fishing tournaments.”

Houk, a Bay Area policeman who owned a chain of Fish and Chips restraurants wanted to fish with Thomas, and cover all of the expenses. “He left my house at 1:30 in the morning, and we decided to fish together,” Thomas said. “If he was going to pay, then I was okay to play.”

The pair entered their first Western Bass team tournament on Don Pedro, but it wasn’t long before the arrival of the tule dippers brought some controversy. “Bob Pinto, who was the attorney who got the state to lift the gambling restriction on tournaments that allowed us to fish for big money, approached Abney and Cummings about them letting us fish,” he remembered. “Cummings introduced us, and while Bob said he didn’t like it, wasn’t going to cause any problems.”

DeeThomas Flippin Flyer

The Whole Flippin’ Story – courtesy Dee and Terri Thomas

Houk and Thomas ended the first day in 5th place, then thinking that their three fish on day two weren’t worth weighing in, released their catch, and didn’t go to the scales. Had they finished the day, they would have ended up in 2nd place instead of down the field. “They were okay with us fishing when we finished low at that tournament,” Thomas said. “But when they started busting our chops and making comments about us, I got a little interested in fishing the next one at San Antonio; so we did.”

They ended the first day at San Antonio in 5th place, which was frustrating to Thomas. “I told Frank that I’d done the best I could, and it wasn’t good enough, but he convinced me everything would be alright,” he said they decided to go to the same areas the next day. “We caught six fish, and I lost a four pounder, but we ran away with the tournament anyway; then they started complaining.”

The Birth of Flippin’
It wasn’t much later that Thomas received a call from Cummings asking how long his rod had to be for Thomas to keep fishing. “He said he was getting a lot of pressure to cut my rod down, so I picked up a 7’6” Fenwick Striper rod and tested it, and told him 7’6” would be fine; so he set it there,” Thomas revealed. “It was long enough for me to reach some stuff, and with my strong forearms, I could still lift them out of the water.”

The next tournament was a draw tournament at Lake Oroville, so he wouldn’t be fishing with Houk, and seeing as how the pair was sponsored by Lew Childre as a team, he let Houk keep the sponsorship and went on his own. “My fish didn’t go on day one, so my partner for the day, Eldon Davis, told me he had some areas up the middle fork and I caught enough to lead the tournament,” he said. “I asked Eldon to show me how far upriver I could go without crowding him the next day, he told me, and so I stayed below it. I caught a three pounder, which was enough to win the first draw tournament in California.”

The next Western Bass draw saw them back at Don Pedro which was won by future Thomas protégée Dave Gliebe, with Thomas finishing 2nd. By then Thomas had met Dave Myers, a marketing and public relations rep from Fenwick, who saw the potential of Thomas’ fishing style and brought new rods to the event for Thomas to try. “He handed me a bunch of rods and told me to pick the one I liked best. I tried them, and found the one I liked, which later became the first brown, fiberglass Fenwick Flippin’ Stick,” he revealed. “We went out on the water and started dippin’ around, but when I’d come to a bush, I’d grab a little line to get some leverage to put the bait underneath, and before long I was grabbing line and making longer casts with it, and was getting really smooth too.”

Dave Myers on the Road

Dave Myers – photo courtesy Dee and Terri Thomas

Myer watched him and they while they were talking about what he was doing, asked the angler what they should call this new technique he had come up with. Thomas responded that he was just flippin’ that jig out there, Myers said, then we’ll call it Flippin.’ “I said that was good, I’ll be flippin’ my lures out there, and my boat was made in Flippin, Ark., I was happy with it, so that’s what it became.”

The Natural
Myers pointed out that Thomas’ ability to read water, along with his ability to adapt is the main reason that Flippin’ became so successful. “Dee had the uncanny ability to read water like nobody I had ever seen,” said the former Fenwick executive who now owns and operates The Jig Stop, a tackle shop and travel agency in Dana Point, Calif. “He could look at the water and tell you where the fish were and whether they would bite or not.”

He also said that while Thomas was an angler who had been very good with the big pole, he became even better as the Flippin’ technique began to evolve. “He had always fished into the pockets vertically,” Myers said. “Flippin’ allowed him to fish the bank more, it just made him more efficient, and his natural ability took over.”

The more he watched, and the more Myers began to pick his brain, Myers figured out that Thomas had a very distinct philosophy that drove the basics of Flippin.’ “Dee believes in three basic things, that there are always some fish shallow, that a shallow fish is a feeding fish, and that the key to catching shallow fish was in the presentation,” said Myers. “He basically dominated everything in those early days with a Flippin’ Stick and those principles.”

Taking Flippin’ to the Big Time
With the backing of Fenwick, Thomas and Myers set out to tackle the big boys of B.A.S.S., and it was in the April event of 1975 at Bull Shoals that the fishing community was exposed to Flippn’. “I caught seven of a 10 fish limit on day one, but had lost four big fish because I used small green bucktail jig with a light wire Aberdeen hook, and bent them out,” Thomas said. “I was still excited though because I got to walk across the B.A.S.S. stage, and figured I’d have enough to be in the top 50.”

Little did he know that he was a lot higher than that in the standings. “Lanny Verner, whom I’d been paired with in my first tournament at Toledo Bend, complained to tournament director Harold Sharp about having to fish with me again,” Thomas said. “Sharp told him to calm down and look at the standings, when he realized I was in 2nd place, he changed his mind and said he really wanted to fish with me again.”

“I borrowed Dave’s (Myers) boat so that I could have negotiating position with him the next day, and ended up taking it,” but was informed that Verner was going to teach him a lesson about catching fish. “We went to my water from day one, and it didn’t go well, so I decided to go where I had pre-practiced.” He didn’t know it, but he was about to make a more than 40 mile run to Theodosia, Missouri.

“I was really getting nervous because my gas gauge was getting low, but we made it to the marina, and I filled up the 18 gallon tank with 18.6 gallons,” said Thomas laughing. “We started fishing, and the first bite I got was a seven pounder that straightened the hook on my little green jig. I sat down and tied on a thinned out black jig with a white Doo Lolly worm as a trailer.” He returned to the bush and caught bass up to five pounds on four consecutive flips.

Dee Thomas on FLW Stage in 2007 - photo by FLW Outdoors - Jeff Schroeder

Dee Thomas on FLW Stage in 2007 – photo by FLW Outdoors – Jeff Schroeder

Verner was getting mad by then, and quit talking to Thomas except to say he was going to protest him for backseating his partner, to which Thomas responded by moving to the back of the boat, flipping to the other side of the bush and catching another keeper. “I told him I was only going to show him once that I wasn’t hogging all the fish, and then I went back to the front of the boat,” Thomas said. “We got back to the marina and he told me he wasn’t going across stage with me, meaning he was going to protest. I told that 6’2” rock hard man to pick the battle ground, and that he might chew me up, but he was gonna get bruised in the process.”

Verner laughed and told Thomas he was wondering how long it would take to make him mad; he walked across stage.

Thomas would catch one more three pound largemouth in Theodosia Marina the next day, which was enough to close out the victory, his first on the National level; now, Flippin’ was on its way to prominence, and Thomas was on the way to becoming known as the Father of Flippin’.

Myers remains proud of his old partner, and proud of what they accomplished. “I think Dee deserves all of the recognition that he has gotten, and anything else that could come his way,” said Myers. “The best way to describe his impact on bass fishing is to say that there is a piece of him in just about every bass boat in the world; not too many people can say that.”

What Lies Ahead?
For Thomas, who retired from his job at Safeway with a full pension, life couldn’t be any better. Though he’s beginning to show his age at 72, he continues to fish competitively despite needing a constant supply of oxygen, a result of 36 years of smoking. While it may seem dark, the vision of Thomas on the water with his oxygen tank does nothing more than to add to his career reputation of his hardnosed, competitive nature, and heart.

“I’ve got no regrets, I’ve done everything in the sport I’ve wanted to, and I’ve got five kids, 13 grandkids and four great grandsons that I love; I’ve had a good life,” Thomas said. “I’ll keep fishing tournaments until I can’t get in the boat any longer and fish, and why shouldn’t I? I’m still cashing checks. My only goal is to live long enough to take care of Terry (his wife of 40 years come 2010), she’s done that for me all these years, I owe her that much.”

His competitive career is sufficient to have written his ticket to anywhere the sport could have taken him, and it would have been enough. What he leaves behind when all is said and done is so much more; it is a legacy of impact.

That’s why he is Dee Thomas, professional angler, innovator, inventor and educator – Legend of the Sport.

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Dee Thomas with Three Generations of Flippin’ Sticks – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

Dee Thomas’ Flippin’ Family Tree
Flippin’ has become the go to technique for winning anglers the world over, and some of its practitioners have built careers worth millions of dollars in earnings both on and off the water as a result of its effectiveness. Without Dee Thomas and Dave Myers, there is a likelihood that some of them would not be who they are today. This is but a twig on the Flippin’ Family Tree.

Gary Klein – “I met Dee when I was 15-years-old in California, and we became friends. He always challenged me to be as good as I could be as an angler. This technique gave me a career, it truly is the reason I am what I am today, but even more importantly, it gave me a friend; He and Terry have always been very special to me, he created the competitive nature of the region and became our icon.”

Dave Gliebe – Dee became a friend all those years ago while we were fishing with and against each other. I took what he taught me and put it to good use. I’ve won 47 boats and three vehicles in my career, and at least 50% of it is attributable to Flippin’. Dee showed me a lot; I learned a lot by being around him.

Denny Brauer – “I learned about the technique when Dee won Bull Shoals in 1975, and the Flippin’ Stick has accounted for the majority of my income; I wouldn’t want to know what my career would have been like without it, that’s for sure. I had the opportunity to meet Dee at the U.S. Open years ago, and through Ranger Boats have gotten to know each other, I’m proud to know him.

Tommy Biffle – “My first experience with Flippin’ came right after Dee won in the 70’s. My motor blew at a tournament on my home lake and I had drawn a local guide who went to his water and didn’t do well. I told him to go to my water, which he didn’t want to do because it was windy and rough. When I told him I would protest him, he went. I made two passes down the bank, caught 31 pounds and won the tournament; I’ve been using it ever since. Flippin’ has accounted for at least 80% of my career earnings; I always look to use it.”

Greg Hackney – “I got my start Flippin’, I can remember a time when every big bag I caught was on a Flippin’ Stick, and my first big win back home came on a Flippin’ Stick. It’s been my go to technique, something I’ve paid my light bill with for many years with. It’s still my favorite way to catch a fish, if I could only carry one rod with me; it would be an 8’ Flippin’ Stick.”

James Niggemeyer – “A Flippin’ pattern is the first thing I look for when I practice, and when I fun fish. It’s my favorite technique, and it has certainly made me a better angler, I’d say that it has accounted for as much as 40% of my earnings, and I know fishing wouldn’t be as fun without it.”