Facetiously, I noted on Joe's Chat Board that I hate Bill Sonnett. Well, I was of course kidding, as Bill is a great guy who has certainly forgotten more about fishing history than I'll ever know. But I am still a bit peeved that he asked a question that I spent the better part of my day researching because it was so damn interesting. That'll teach me to read Bill's posts.
What was this question? Well, Bill wondered where the origins of the word "plug" came from. I sadly admit I had never thought of it before. Lures had always been plugs in my mind, but as I began to dig through the files I soon discovered some very interesting things and developed some new ideas on the origins of this word.
What I discovered is that, when it comes to angling, there are three different meanings of the word "plug." I have a theory, which I'll get to eventually, on how the word plug came to be associated with the fishing lure. But before I get into that, we need to understand the term "plug fishing."
To be brief, "plug fishing" was a term for live bait fishing popularized in the 1890s. The first use of the term that I could find came in an article published in October 1896 by the famed Cornelia "Fly Rod" Crosby. Crosby wrote in her famous column "Fly Rod's Note Book" in The Phillips (Maine) Phonograph that "Great will be the rejoicing among the fly-fishermen to hear that the grand old pools at Upper Dam are not for plug fisherman after this. The Fish Commissioners held a hearing Sept. 9, when it ased that 'From the gate-house to open water in the Mollchunkamunk Lake should be for artificial fly only,' and there is no doubt but what this will become a law."
Later, on 05 December 1896, William P. Frye echoed these sentiments when he wrote a letter to the editor of Forest & Stream. He opined: "From time to time my attention has been called to the fact that in the heat of the summer, when the trout had sought the spring holes for cool water, they were captured by deep fishing with worms and minnows, in enormous quanities, all of them killed, many wasted...This very fact impels me...to seriously and emphatically assert that if summer 'plug fishing' in Mooselucmeguntic Lake is not prohibited by law, in time serious results will follow."
The issue did not go away. On June 16, 1900, Forest & Stream published an article entitled "The Maine Waters," in which the authors declared "Gentlemen Smith and Bly are doing all they can to sustain Round Mountain Lake and adjacent ponds and streams as the best fishing resorts. They do not encourage 'plug fishing,' and have only one or two guests who desire to do such fishing."
We get a full definition In an anonymous article dated 05 January 1901 entitled "From the Connecticut Lakes to Lake Kennebago," the author declared: "Monday, June 4, was spent fishing on Second Lake, and the only luck that can be had is by 'plug fishing,'--that is, fishing from an anchored boat with live bait."
So clearly "Plug Fishing" was a term used to describe casting with a bait casting rod and reel, and in the references listed, casting live bait.
But this is only the first definition of the word plug. Additionally, tournament casters used the word "plug" to describe their tournament casting weights. While I suspect a careful reading of Cliff Netherton will uncover earlier usage, the earliest use of the term in this connotation I can find is 1907, when Lou S. Darling wrote in "Tournament Casting" that "The regulation tournament casting weights, called 'plugs,' are half and quarter ounce in weight." The term was used commonly after this date by casters (and probably before it).
The third use of the term "plug," this time as a fishing lure, I suspect is a by-product of a combination of the earlier two definitions. By around 1905 or so, I believe the word "plug" came to mean anything (lure or weight) casted with rod and reel.
The earliest use of the word "plug" I could uncover in my admittedly limited research was when in June 1909, Edwin L. Hedderly, writing about fishing off Catalina Island in California, declared "A number of Eastern plug baits have been tried for bass, but have proven impracticable." This was penned in a letter to Forest & Stream.
Soon after, the word "plug" as fishing lure became common parlance. For example, in 1912, Edward Farnham Todd referred to plugs in his article "Some Casting Lures" where he wrote: "The best results can be got with the lure sold in the tackle shops under many different names, but commonly called a 'white plug.'" He was referring to a Yellow Kid/Decker style bait.
By 1915 the term was in common usage, and articles proliferated like "Is the Single Hook More Deadly than the Gang or Plug Bait?" published in Field & Stream and the legendary "Whence the Plug?" by Sam Stinson, published in The American Angler. The plug was here to stay.
Well, that's the results of a day's research. I'm sure others will come up with earlier references, or competing theories, but at least we now having a starting point. You can thank Bill Sonnett for that.
-- Dr. Todd