The Fred Arbogast Company's Jitterbug is the finest top water fishing lure ever produced -- bar none. I know this for a fact and so I was not surprised when Field and Stream featured it as a milestone in its 90-year anniversary issue. The Jitterbug is three inches long and in the shape of a stretched-out egg. It has a large paddling lip in the front and two large treble hooks hanging underneath. That's all there is to it, and nothing you can fish with on the surface can beat it for catching largemouth bass. Yes, I said nothing, and if someone has a different opinion, I'm not even going to argue. I know too much.
I learned about the Jitterbug rather early in life. The family was about to embark upon one of many summer stays at Lake Itasca in Minnesota. My father had a teaching job at the biology station for the University of Minnesota and before we left on that first trip I asked him if I might get a decent fishing pole since I had never had one and he said, "Yes, Tommy, I think you deserve a good fishing pole."
The result was that my brothers and I soon were equipped with the absolutely cheapest rigs in the store. There wasn't much money when I was a kid -- but those rigs turned out to be the best possible choice; we got fiberglass rods with Zebco 202 reels, and second only to my praise of the Jitterbug is my praise for Zebco closed-faced spinning reels. You can ask my friend Jan if you don't believe me. He said just the other day, "You know, I went ahead like a fool and bought a Johnson reel and I'll never be so dumb as to stray from Zebco again."
That pretty much proves my point. But I digress. I was going to say that my lure lore learnin' all started on our first summer in Minnesota. We'd fished before, of course -- shoot, from Maine to Alaska -- babies we were really -- nearly freezing to death every night on 80-day camping trips in the early 1950s. But as for fishing, we were lucky to be outfitted with anything much better than a stick, ten feet of kite string and a bent nail. Now, however, we had two-dollar Zebco 202's and Field and Stream Magazines and a tackle box full of dreams.
At this early stage, I didn't know a thing about lures and I didn't really see how they could work. I figured you'd need some kind of bait on the lure just to make the fish interested. I held up one of the few lures we owned, a red and white Bassareeno and thought, "Well, I could hang a chunk of Swiss cheese on that hook and some hot-dog meat on the other and it should just about do it." I had a long long way to go.
On that first summer trip to Minnesota we spent the long days on the highway looking at the ads in Field and Stream -- and how those magazines set us to dreaming about the fish we would catch! There was no end to the fascination that the fishing lure ads held for us and we would read and then stare misty-eyed out the car windows, read and stare again. There were Hellbender lures, and Super Sonics, and River Runts, and Pikies, and Sputterbugs, and Silver Minnows, and Dardevils, and Cisco Kid Divers. The brands seemed endless.
Soon however, it came to our attention that the tackle box did not contain all the proper lures in it. In fact, it had very few at all. We sought to remedy this with a few purchases in the tackle stores along the road to Itasca.
The first fish I caught on a lure was on this trip. I caught it in Fort Pierre, South Dakota. I still have the lure and I still have the jaws of the fish I caught with it. The lure was a Canadian Jig Fly. A guy at the cafe in Ft. Pierre gave it to us. He heard us talking about fishing and came over with the jig fly and said, "Oh, use this! This is a great lure." And he just up and gave us the rather expensive jig fly for nothing. I wish I could thank him someday and let him know how his act of kindness paid off exactly as he dreamed it might. The fish was a walleyed pike, a kind of large, toothy perch. Here's the lure and the upper jaw:
I caught the walleye at night in the tailrace waters below Oahe Dam. Steve caught two mooneyes there, which are large, eerie-looking minnows with tremendous owl-like yellow eyes. Oh, they were cool. I put the walleye up in the woods when we got to Minnesota and by the time summer was over, the deer flies had left nothing but bones and I brought back his jaws.
I keep those jaws along with the Canadian Jig Fly in my "Prized Possession Box." This is a box named by my friend Jan when we were kids. We found two identical jewelry boxes while we were raiding trash cans in Tempe and we vowed to put items like this in the boxes. This vow actually took and we each have a picture of the other in the boxes as well as a lot of other fabulous treasures and pieces of our lives. It was sort of a blood brother thing.
I have a chunk of Jan's original pigeon coop. It's the only piece that exists and he wants it, but it's mine. I have the first wood shaving I made in wood shop and my milk teeth and a chunk of something Jan and I found in a canal and couldn't identify and so I kept it. He has the other half of it in his box and we still don't know what the hell it is. In seventh grade, the pencil sharpener broke and carved spirals in my pencil and I kept that too. I've got a Lucky Lager bottle cap with a bullet hole shot through it and the tip of the garden hose we brought from Louisville to Tempe in 1959 and a firecracker I saved from a long trip through Mexico in 1963 and a 20-centavo piece that Jan and I put on the railroad tracks to get flattened. When I looked inside the old family piano a couple of years ago, I found an old guitar pick that I recognized from 1966 or so and I put it in the box too. I also have more recent items like the beer bottle opener I used when I lived in Mexico City and a piece of the shirt I wore when I first soloed an airplane and a slip of paper that reads "John Lennon Died Today." I was sure to write that note so I could put it into the box with the following one:
Jan's got basically the same stuff in his prized possession box. We don't obsess with these things at all, but if we deem an object worthy, it goes into the box.
Another kind of box that Jan and Steve and I keep are our old tackle boxes. They are full of lures that evoke a million memories and none of us would ever fish with these lures again and risk losing them on some snag or in the jaws of an especially strong fish. These lures are retired.
But back to the trip. The first thing we did when we arrived at our assigned cabin on Lake Itasca was to go down to the lake and try out Steve's new Poppin' Frog that he'd bought along the road. It was a weedless rubber lure with which we were all most intimately acquainted because it was featured in the most spectacular ads in Field and Stream. The ads showed the green, frog-like popper dancing between lily pads just over the jaws of a tremendous largemouth bass that would in seconds inhale it. He still has the Poppin' Frog.
It was night and raining off the little docks on the water and Steve started tossing that lure out and popping it with quick jerks of the pole and rock bass were coming up and hitting it every time he threw it out. He couldn't hook any of them because it was a weedless lure and as such was also fishless.
The double hooks were underneath the frog's body and they pointed upwards resting flat against the rubber. The idea was that when the fish bit down, it would squeeze the rubber out of the way and expose the hooks. Only it never happened that way. The "Poppin' Frog," aptly named, would just "pop" out of the fish's mouth. Steve flipped the hooks around so they faced down with the points in harm's way and started catching rock bass with every other cast. He was astonished to see me do the same with my simple cork popper that was not half as fancy or well advertised. (Oh, how I wish I had time to describe the rock bass and to tell how it had blazing ruby red eyes and hamburger grill flanks and spines that would draw your blood and how it would hit any lure and how it was a fisherman's cosmic last resort, and how we loved and hated it for the finny wonder and the trash fish that it was!)
And so it was that we began to learn about lures.
As I said, the Jitterbug is the finest top water lure ever invented, but we used others such as my cork popper, Steve's Poppin' Frog, my Ding Bat and Steve's Whopper Stopper Popper. Let me tell you about these top water lures.
If the Ding Bat was something of an antique back then, it's surely a collector's item today -- and yes, I still have it. It is the size and shape of a prickly pear fruit with the front gouged out. It is also one of those lures with tasteful and elegant cosmetic appointments. It has glass eyes with black inlaid pupils, the traditional violin finish of a good guitar, and two tufts of bristly hair sticking out the back. The Ding Bat, like most large surface plugs came equipped with two large treble hooks. I used to drag that Ding Bat through the reeds on the far side of the lake and the bass would just come up and swallow it.
Steve's Whopper Stopper Popper was similar but more utilitarian and had black chevrons along its yellow side. He did well with it but he also had a yellow Jitterbug that would simply massacre the bass -- just massacre them. Once he hooked a bass so big that the Jitterbug looked like a peanut in its mouth. The bass broke the line but shook the lure that floated to the surface of the lake where Steve later found it.
One summer, Bill Underhill's dad took me and some older guy out night fishing in a rowboat on Long Lake. I started using a Hula Popper by the Fred Arbogast Company, makers of the Jitterbug. The Hula Popper has a little rubber skirt attached to it and I guess one day when Fred Arbogast looked at the skirt some bell rang in his head and he thought it looked like a hula skirt and he went crazy and put a Hawaiian theme in his products. Thus, you could buy a Hawaiian Wiggler, a Hawaiian Spoon, a Hula Popper, a Hula Dancer ("Small but Mighty!" the ad went.) and so on. The Hawaiian theme really seems silly to me.
Anyway, the Hula Popper was (and is) in my opinion pretty worthless. I caught some rock bass on it, but then I switched to Steve's yellow Jitterbug, which I had borrowed, and soon had hooked a huge largemouth bass. I fought him until he was at the side of the boat, but then I foolishly tried to lift him aboard and the hooks were torn out of his mouth by his out-of-water weight. The bass crashed back into the lake and the Jitterbug whipped into the air at the end of the line.
"What did you do that for?" Asked Jim Underhill. "I was going to grab him by the lower jaw."
When I got home I was still crushed by the incident and the next day Bill Underhill came up and said, "Hey, my dad says you're a lousy fisherman."
"Oh, yeah? Nice of you to pass that on."
"Yeah," Bill laughed. "He says you horse 'em in, and that that bass must have weighed six pounds!"
There are a lot of other great lures and among the best is the Lazy Ike. It's a sinking plug shaped kind of like a humpbacked worm or something. It comes with two really high-quality treble hooks that are sticky sharp. Steve got the perch finish model because he thought it would look like a yellow perch so common in Lake Itasca. It was dark green with orangish-yellow triangles along its length. And man was it a killer. We used to troll with it around a certain point on the lake and he would catch more walleyes than anyone could believe on that thing.
Walleyes, by the way, are one of the most interesting fish I know and people go mad for them the way people go mad for bass. Walleyes, unlike northern pike, can see quite well at night and when the sun goes down, they move up from deeper water and go out on sandy flats to feed. We used to take a canoe or rowboat down to the swimming beach at night and land on the floating dock out there. Then we'd stand on the dock and cast bright spinners, which walleyes love, to the sandy shore and reel them back toward us. If the walleyes were there, they'd start hitting like mad.
In Arizona there are walleyes in Canyon Lake and if you take a boat and go way in there and camp in any of the few places you can find to do so, you'll likely be awakened at night by eerie lights and a dark shape on the water and a swish swish sound. It's just the walleye fishermen who use their electric motors and lights as they cast spinners out for Arizona walleyes.
Let me tell you something about spinners. A spinner is basically a wire threaded through some narrow body with a feathered treble hook at the end and a shiny blade in front. When you draw it through the water, the blade spins making a lot of flash and vibration. There are expensive brand name spinners like the Rooster Tail, the Mepps Fury and so on, but it was always my custom and necessity to buy the cheap imitations. They worked about as well, but the materials were shoddier is all. Once in Mexico, I hooked a spinner on a rock and gave it a tug and the spinner flew off like a bullet and hit me in the hand. The cheap hooks broke off in my hand and I just pulled them out because they hadn't gone in deeper than the barb. The name brand lures had better hooks all right. I remember when my friend Bobby Valdés hooked a South Bend Super Duper on the living room carpet and gave it a tug that set it flying into his knee. The doctor had a heck of a time trying to come up with a pair of wire cutters that would break the hooks. Before the doctor even tried, Bobby told him, "You'll never break those Super Duper hooks." But eventually the doctor prevailed.
I only really got hooked once good. I was alone in Mexico for a couple of weeks and was walking back to the beach house with my tackle box. Unbeknownst to me was the wisp of line that stuck out of the closed tackle box lid. It had a hook on the end of it and as I swung the tackle box rhythmically at my side that hook caught me in the back of the calf and just buried itself there. I took a pair of pliers and pushed it all the way through so I could cut the barb off with wire cutters. Strangely, it still wouldn't come out. Then I realized that the shank also had little barbs on it but they pointed in the opposite direction of the now absent main barb, so I had to cut the eye off the hook and pull it out backwards. Worked good -- and it didn't hurt too much either. But I wanted to finish talking about spinners and then move on to jigs.
Walleyes and trout like spinners and so do crappies. And most everything loves a jig like the Canadian Jig Fly. A jig is basically a hook with feathers or hair on the end and a heavy round weight in the front. The eye of the hook, though, is bent up at a right angle to the shank, so you can make the lure hop as you lift the rod tip. Fish are said to perceive the jig as a minnow and this is what makes it so effective against minnow-eating fish like crappies and walleyes. A jig with a rubber body and a split tail is called a beetle because it resembles a beetle grub. I still have Bill Underhill's Super Beetle at home.
There are also deep diving plugs and they are more popular in rocky Arizona reservoirs than in natural Minnesota lakes. Diving plugs are floating lures that are pulled underwater by the huge lip in front. The faster you reel or troll, the deeper they go and the more they wiggle. I've never really been that fond of them because they get hung up down there and tend not to go straight if the lip is only slightly bent and they start veering to the right or left and I hate that. I'd rather troll deep by letting out more line with a flashy spoon on the end. I like spoons.
The Arbogast Company manufactured a deep diver called the Arbogaster and I bought one, but gosh it was a clunky thing with clunky action and if I were a fish and saw something that looked like that coming at me I'd get the hell out of the way fast. I feel the same way about Bomber Lures' "Bomber." The thing looks like a cartoon bomb. It's intentionally made to look like that with the big fins. The fins are the diving lip and pull the lure underwater when it is retrieved. When the Bomber hits the bottom, it scuttles along and is said to be perceived as a crawdad by the bass. I don't like them. I just think they're cheap and dumb and have bad Karma and so I never use them. They're so popular, however, that I thought they had to be mentioned. And I have quite a few of them at home.
Another way to get your line deep down is to use a downrigger system. This involves specialized equipment that is installed on the back of the boat. There's a huge, very heavy streamlined fish-shaped chunk of lead that is hung from a cable that comes out of a little wheel off the stern. This lead fish weighs a ton and you let your fishing line out about fifty feet so it's trailing behind the boat and then hook your line to the lead fish. It's so heavy that the cable attached to it doesn't pay out when you lower it down sixty feet or so. The cable hangs straight down and the heavy lead fish is hanging directly beneath the stern with your line clipped to it and your line is still trailing out fifty feet astern with a lure or bait on it. The lead fish keeps your lure super deep. When a big lake trout or other dweller of the depths takes your hook, your line pops off the heavy lead downrigger and you play him just as you normally would -- only he's way down there and your job is to play him to the surface and net him.
I must confess now that I've never used a downrigger, but I've seen the results. In 1987 Steve and I took another trip to Fort Pierre and fished the tailrace waters trying to relive the experience of so many years past. We got skunked, but when we went to the tackle shop some guys walked in with these absolutely gigantic salmon that they had caught using downriggers. It seemed a little strange to see this kind of fish where we were -- in the middle of the continent on the Great Plains -- but we were told that the waters above the dam ran deep and the salmon fishing on Lake Oahe was some of the best in the world.
I said that the Arbogaster lure had clunky action -- so does the Heddon Flatfish (Gad what a lure. Don't get me started.). But it is not really how you feel about the lure's movement so much as it is the fish's opinion that really counts. The Mirrorlure is an excellent example. It is a medium-depth sinking plug that is jointed in the middle. That is, it runs rather shallow when you retrieve it and there are two halves to the lure that are joined by a couple of connected eye rings in the middle. This jointed feature makes the lure wiggle just like a minnow. I'm telling you it looks EXACTLY like a minnow to the human eye. The fish, however, won't touch it with a freaking barge pole. I've never even gotten a strike on one.
What I have done well with are spoons. A few years ago the spoon bug bit me and I sent away for every kind I could buy. It cost quite a bit of money, but I've got a great collection.
The standard and most famous of spoons is the Dardevil and the classic red and white color is the only kind to buy. To get a feeling for the geist of this lure, here's one way to look upon it, and if you know anything about anything you'll get the idea: the red and white Dardevil is to spoons what the sunburst Fender Stratocaster is to electric guitars. That just about says it all.
The red and white Dardevil is used in the wholesale butchery of northern pike. For some reason, northern pike are just suckers for these lures. No one knows why, but they just never learn to stay away from the things.
Now, northerns, as we call them, are almost totally blind at night so you've got to use your spoon in the day. You will also need a swivel clip to attach to the lure or else the wobbling spoon will twist your line and make a tangled mess of it. You'd also best use a steel leader attached to the spoon or the pike will bite through the line and get away. (Actually the sierra mackerel is the undisputed king of line biters. Oh, I could tell you stories!) A northern pike will also bite you so you should keep your hands out of his mouth -- although one look at a pike and only an imbecile would need the warning; the fish has more teeth than a dental supply house. (Walleyes will also bite you and come to think of it, so will English sparrows. Have you ever caught one? Ouch!")
In the same vein as lures are the little rigs and conventions you use to catch fish. There are two such that are absolutely essential for fishing and they are the improved clinch knot and the egg sinker rig. Anyone who can't tie an improved clinch knot in his or her sleep simply can't fish. Here's how to tie one:
The egg sinker rig sure is useful. Here's what you do: take a heavy egg sinker which looks just like one of those small chocolate Easter eggs and thread your line through the hole that goes through it from end to end. Next, tie a hook on the line and put about a foot and a half of line between the hook and the egg sinker. Then squeeze on a split shot between the hook and the egg sinker. The split shot will keep the egg sinker from sliding down to the hook.
Now, when a fish bites, he will only feel the weight of the little split shot and not the egg sinker. As the fish moves off with the bait, the line will pay through the hole in the egg sinker. You'll be wise to the fish because you've been waiting to see the line move. When you think the time is right you spike him good and hard.
Mounting your pole in the ground and putting a little fishing bell on the tip is a lot of fun with this rig. When the fish pulls, the bell rings and you can put down your beer and haul him in. You can also reach over and give a little shake to the fishing pole next to yours and watch your buddy explode into action. It's hilarious. If your friend doesn't have a bell, you can always holler, "You've got one!" How they scramble at this and how we laugh ourselves silly afterwards!
Anyway the egg sinker rig is the rig my friend Jan and I always use when we go to Mexico. There's a group that fishes out on the beach and it got to the point that when they saw us coming, they'd say "Oh, here come those guys that always put us to shame."
It was their own fault. You have to use at least common sense when you fish and these people never had any. They'd fish with their bait two feet from shore with the waves knocking it around. Jan I and would just sling those egg sinker rigs out there -- I mean out there. Then we'd take in all the slack and watch for any movement. When we saw any we'd say, "Steady.... steady... hold. .... Goose him!" And then set the hook. We'd always catch some yellow finned croakers or other nice fish.
Once we caught a couple of sand sharks and picked them up by the tail and tossed them back in. Then we saw one of these knuckleheads with a sting ray and he was following our example picking it up. We shouted, "Hey, don't pick that thing up! It'll sting you." to which the guy replied, "A stingray's got a pointed tail." The sting ray twisted itself up and stabbed its stinger in the guy's wrist. The stinger hit an artery and the guy held up his arm, watched the rhythmic pulse of squirting blood for a second or two and then his eyes rolled back in his skull and he collapsed on the sand.
I remember Jan's eyes also rolling in an "Oooooh shit," kind of way because we both thought the poison had gone to the guy's heart or brain and had killed him or something. Fact was; the guy couldn't stand the sight of his own blood and just keeled over when he saw it. (Ain't nothing wrong with that!) But he had still been stung by a sting ray and no matter what we did, his friends and he would not take any of our advice about treating the wound. Sting ray venom is heat labile and hot water is the preferred treatment because when the poison gets hot, it breaks down and the pain stops in a few hours.
They took him back to their house, put ice on the wound and said, "Just go to sleep, Johnny." Yeah, we thought, so you can't see if the poison is having any awful effect on Johnny Boy. It was a moot point, though, because you can't sleep with a sting ray sting. Finally, they had to take him to the hospital, but they waited against our advice and let him suffer all night. The dumb dumbs.
There is another thing I'd like to point out about fishing lures. It's a new kind of hobby that I invented myself. It is lure hunting.
Whenever the fishing is bad, it is often possible to make up for it by going on a lure hunt. It's fascinating, fun, and profitable. In fact, there was a point where I just stopped buying lures. I didn't have to because I could always find them for nothing.
Anglers usually lose their lures in brush or trees along the shore or by snagging some obstruction underwater. Why a fisherman who snags the shore with a six-dollar plug doesn't get out of the boat and retrieve it is beyond me. But I've found some high-priced plugs hanging in plain sight.
Surprisingly, lures hooked on the bottom are the best for the lure hunter.There are two scientific laws that account for this: iron rusts and lures float. Most deep diving and medium-running plugs are floaters. When their hooks corrode away, they are freed from their underwater snags and are washed up on shore. A productive strand of beach, then, doesn't have to be right next to a fishy cove or point where anglers can be seen daily. I've found lots of plugs on lonely, rather fishless beaches on lakes in Minnesota and Arizona.
Diving for lures with a mask and snorkel is also a lot of fun and it can give you a better perspective of the area to be fished. Around half submerged brush along with snagged lures, I used to find hidden sunfish nests. I usually reached down and scratched the gravel there with a finger until the sunnie came and batted my hand. If I wanted to catch a sunfish, I knew where to go, though it seems dirty pool to catch them on their nests. They'll pick up anything that lands on the nest and carry it away.
In Saguaro Lake, I was once snorkeling ten feet deep exploring a very rocky, slanting bottom for lures. I followed a line to a large and handsome red and white brass spoon. After I freed it, I swam a little farther out and found that the rocks disappeared giving way to a flat underwater bar of sand and gravel. No one on shore had even thought of bottom fishing. It seemed that with all those rocks, the bait would simply fall between the cracks out of sight.
When I got out of the water, I made a rig with a split shot, egg sinker, and treble hook and baited it with Catfish Charlie stink bait. Then, I tossed it out over the rocks to my underwater sand bar. In only a couple of minutes a nice channel cat tapped at my line. I hooked him and brought him in. Whenever I go back to this area, I find that this unfished bar is always good for a cat.
What to do with the lures? I just keep them in boxes now, but I used to be more active. Many of the plugs I used to find needed new hooks. A good number of them, after all, had rusted themselves free from underwater snags. There was no problem changing the hooks on spoons, spinners, and plugs. Spinner baits, however, were a different story. I once was following my friend Jan, who was hunting lures with me at Roosevelt Lake when the water had fallen several feet. I came to a once submerged dead tree from which hung a beautiful three-bladed spinner bait. I called him back and asked him how he had missed it. Jan explained that he hadn't. "The barb is rusted off." I looked at the spinner bait and hung it back up in the tree to rust away. The hook on a spinner bait is molded to the lure, so there was no way to fix it.
Plastic lures often have a very durable finish, so I never found myself doing much more than rehooking and cleaning them if my lazy nature induced me to do anything to them at all. For really beat-up lures, however, I invented a special restoration process. About 15 years ago, I took up and almost immediately gave up the hobby of embedding objects in clear plastic. (You've probably seen the key chains and paperweights with embedded scorpions and whatnot.) The stuff is called "casting resin" and is mixed with a drop or two of hardener before it is poured into a mold. I would give a lure a single coat of enamel paint, let it dry, and then mix up a small batch of casting resin and its hardener. I would brush the resin right over the dry enamel and let it cure overnight. The next day, the plug would have the glassy, hard finish of a professionally-manufactured one -- with a lot of unprofessional brush marks. I only did this a couple of times because I am not a very good or meticulous craftsman, but others might be interested in trying it.
***Well, that's hardly a touch of what I wanted to say about fishing lures. I wish I had time to tell all about them and the millions of memories they evoke. I never told about the amazing Ford Fender trolling rig, or the Castmaster spoon or the Spinrite spinner or how I found the perfect pool for fishing in Minnesota near the Mississippi River headwaters and how the entire Mississippi River used to go through a pipe and how I used to take a canoe through that pipe and come bursting out onto the pool and how the deer flies could run you right out of there. I never got the chance to tell how the water of the pristine Lake Itasca glowed blue but that the blue was only in your mind and all the photos you took came out gray. Oh, there's a lot left to say about fishing lures all right.
I don't fish as much as I used to. I'm just too busy and I also have begun to feel sorry for the fish. The more I look at the critters we share the world with, the more convinced I am that there is next to nothing between us and them except for maybe algebra or western swing guitar or something. But I still have the lures and the memories and my only problem is trying to get them all down on paper so someone besides Steve, Jan, and me can know about them.