Bass plugs of a bygone era

It seems like ages ago that I started fishing seriously for bass with artificial lures called plugs. During that era, the most respected bass fishermen in the world were outdoor writers Jason Lucas of Sports Afield, Ted Trueblood of Field and Stream, and Al McClaine of Outdoor Life. Their major contributions concerned how to present a plug to a bass in a manner that was irresistible, and I rarely missed an issue of their magazines when these gurus wrote about this aspect of fishing.

In those days, any artificial lure that weighed less than 5/8ths of an ounce was considered to be a lightweight bait. In fact, many of the popular lures of that day, made by such familiar manufacturers as Heddon, South Bend, Arbogast, and Helin, weighed 2 to 3 ounces or more.

Over the years, we have witnessed the evolution of lighter and lighter lures as spinning and spin casting rods and reels gradually replaced the stiff rods of four or five feet in length, and the free-spool, level-winding reels. I think bait casters of yesteryear adapted their tackle and fishing techniques to the large plugs because they were the only ones available.

All of this may go back to an afternoon in the 1890s when a man by the name of James Heddon was reposing on the banks of Dowagiac Creek in Michigan and was idly passing the time by whittling on a piece of wood. According to legend, Heddon tired of whittling and nonchalantly tossed the bit of wood into the slowly moving current.

Supposedly, a huge bass exploded out of the depths and knocked the scrap of wood a foot or so into the air. Heddon was stunned, and it took a moment for him to recover his composure. He then rushed home to his workshop where he proceeded to shape another piece of wood into the shape of a cigar. He sharpened one end and affixed a pop bottle cap to it. He then attached a treble hook to the other end, affixed a length of line, and rushed back to the banks of the Dowagiac. He cut a willow pole, attached the line, and offered his invention to the eagerly awaiting fish. As the story goes, a lunker bass smashed into the whittler’s creation, and the first Heddon lure was born. Appropriately, that first Heddon plug was a surface lure and probably weighed more than 2 ounces.

In the early years of my infatuation with bass fishing, I collected almost every lure that came on the market, and my constantly depleted bank account gave testimony to the fact that there were a lot of them. In retrospect, I think many of the lures of that time were designed to catch the fisherman rather than the fish. I remember a bare-chested mermaid with hooks attached that I bought on a foolish impulse and was too embarrassed to ever use.

Whenever it has been feasible, I have tried to catch bass on surface lures because of the old axiom, “If they strike on the surface, they fight on the surface.” The thrill of witnessing the sudden explosion of the water’s surface as the bass hits the plug is infinitely more stimulating than taking a fish on an underwater lure, where the fish frequently does not break the surface until the end of the battle is near.

Like other anglers, I gradually adapted to spinning and spin casting and the use of the very light lures these new innovations made possible, and I retired my older rods, reels, and lures. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised last summer to find an old tackle box hidden away under the junk in my basement and was delighted to find it contained many of the old lures I had used in the past.

Soon after this discovery, I was in a nostalgic frame of mind when visited Franklin Creek Natural Area in Ogle County. I decided to take along a couple of the “old soldiers” to offer to the bass in a section of Franklin Creek, appropriately named Black Bass Pond. Using a spin cast rod of 7 feet, I was able to cast an Arbogast Jitterbug close to the bank on the opposite side of the pond. As I slowly reeled the plug in, stopping frequently to let the riffles of the wigwagging action subside, a 1-pound small mouth bass ferociously struck the Jitterbug and fought valiantly until I finally landed and released it.

It was a rewarding experience to hook and land a bass on a lure that was at least 50 years old and was supposedly outdated by younger and more productive baits.

So, the moral of the story is, don’t count the old boys out just yet. They can still get the job done.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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