A Vintage Tackle Concerto in Three Parts
by Dr. Todd E.A. Larson
Two of the questions I'm most often asked is how to get children interested in collecting fishing tackle, and how to get children interested in fishing.
I have a one word answer for that: Jitterbug.
A legendary topwater bait invented by tournament caster-turned-tackle maker Fred Arbogast, the Jitterbug has been one of the favored lures of topwater anglers for over six decades. In fact, it very well may be the best bass catching lure ever made.
This is a Jitterbug story, told in three parts. The first part of our concerto takes place in late July 2011. The place is Louisville, Kentucky, and the setting is the NFLCC Nationals.
Part the First: The NFLCC Nationals
I apologize for not having an NFLCC Nationals recap this year, as the ORCA Nationals was only two weeks after and I was home but two days before hitting the road again. A sad family tragedy kept me from a number of things I have meant to do. Perhaps we'll do something in the coming months when things cool down.
But this is a happy story about Jitterbugs and little girls. While delivering new books at the NFLCC Nationals (five--count 'em--five new books!) was stressful, my lovely ladies decided to come down and visit on Friday and take over the booth for a short time.
It was nice to get a few minutes on the floor, an unusual thing for me, but before long I felt a tugging on my shirt.
"Daddy," my eleven year old daughter said, "I like frog lures and all. But I think I really like THAT lure."
She was pointing at a Jitterbug.
For the next 45 minutes we went around buying Jitterbugs from the bargain tables until she had a nice bag full. Many nice people, from Dick Braun to Laurie Bingham, simply gave her lures.
"What do I do now?" she asked. "Do you know anyone who can talk to me about Jitterbugs?"
I laughed. "Oh boy," I said, "do I ever know the guy you have to talk to."
I was speaking, of course, of none other than our esteemed NFLCC president Byron Parker.
Now Byron has been working with kids and collecting for years, and he was kind enough to come over and talk to the little one for a while about Jitterbugs. Then he brought her back to his table and had her spread out her new finds, and proceeded to tell her which ones were old, which ones were newer, and other tidbits.
He even got her to admit that she loved the "Old Coach Dog" color best, and so she's now color collecting them.
There was one 1950s Jitterbug that Byron told her was not in good enough condition to be collected, but that she should take it fishing. It was a 3/8 ounce black Jitterbug.
Now I have my own black Jitterbug story I will relate one day (with photographic evidence!) but suffice to say if you had to pick one color 'Bug to fish, it would be black.
We arrived home from the Nationals and my daughter immediately co-opted a display case, proudly displaying her treasures.
Little Miss Frog Lure, as Dick Braun calls her, was now officially Little Miss Jitterbug.
Part the Second: Otter Tail County, Minnesota
After 48 hours at home, the Larson clan hit the road to visit my wife's parents. My father-in-law had a massive heart attack about six months ago, which of course has been a very stressful thing for everyone and we wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. The old boy is doing OK and we were quite happy to see him.
He lives off of a great fishing lake: Otter Tail, home to some huge bass. We arrived about dinner time and I was rushing around putting things where they were supposed to go when I felt a familiar tug on my shirt.
"Daddy," Little Miss Jitterbug said. "You told me we could go fishing."
A chip off the old block.
I quickly rigged up a spinning rod and tied on the old black Jitterbug. She ran down to the dock and began to cast onto the glass calm. The lure's distinctive wobble left a trail of bubbles on the surface.
The action of a Jitterbug is so enticing that whenever I'm fishing one I always think, "how can I NOT be catching fish?"
After 20 minutes of casting it was time for dinner. I came down to get her from the dock and asked what she caught.
"Just one," she said with a bit of disdain. "It was a sunfish."
Yes, even sunfish hit Jitterbugs!
The next morning we hit the water in earnest, and the daughter was casting diligently with her 'Bug with no results. An hour later she was still undaunted, when WHAM! That magic moment happens. A bass came out of the lilly pads and blasted her Jitterbug. She got a solid hook set and a few minutes later, bass in the boat! A bit shy of three pounds, a heck of a first bass!
We continued fishing for several hours. The water is very, very high in that part of the country, and thus there is a lot of deadfall in the water. On two occasions she snagged the Jitterbug into trees, and despite the fact we were fishing from a pontoon boat, I managed to get it out both times.
She was very, very happy about that.
So with a half dozen bass behind us, we headed back to the dock. We'd repeat this scene several times over the next week, with at least a dozen nice bass on the Jitterbug.
A short intermission. Just like her old man, the daughter never tires of casting off the dock, but because I thought she had a better chance of catching a big crappie in the day I switched her out to a small 1960s helldiver spinner bait. It weighed about a half ounce and she could cast it a mile.
No one ever expects people to catch fish off the dock, but lo and behold! Little Miss Jitterbug proved the folks wrong. Five pounds of fighting pike and a very proud dad later, she was one happy kid.
Part the Third: Early to Bed, Early to Rise
It was the end of a great week of fishing, but I had to be in Waupaca, Wisconsin -- nearly 800 miles away -- late that evening for the ORCA Nationals. We planned on hitting the road about 8:00 a.m. so we could drive the whole way in the light.
That gave me one more chance to hit the water. I made my preparations the night before, and early the next day, with a gentle nudge, I tapped Little Miss Jitterbug on the shoulder. Dawn was breaking.
"Want to go fishing?" I asked softly.
She blinked herself awake. "Sure," she said drowsily.
Ten minutes later we were on the lake, casting a shore line I was sure contained some huge bass. I was sure because a six pounder had broken me off right near there two days previously.
She was casting that vintage Jitterbug like a pro. She was so good, in fact, that she would have made Bill Sonnett proud -- although I'm quite sure he would have wished she was using a vintage Nobby or Marhoff and a True Temper Professional or Heddon Pal rod. Maybe next year, Bill. And I know a 1980s Ryobi spinning reel doesn't count as vintage. Yet.
We were casting just past an inlet where she'd gotten a pair of nice bass a few days before. The wind had picked up slightly and was blowing the unwieldy barge in towards shore. In fact, we were less than thirty feet from the treeline. My daughter flipped out a fifteen foot cast in front of the boat, and when she got the reel handle turned two or three times it happened.
I once asked Bill Sonnett why he liked fishing with old lures. "I want to see a bass hit an old fashioned plug," he said, "and I want it to be on top of the water, and I want it to look like the cover of one of those old sporting magazines."
That was what this was. The bass hit it so hard that it came three feet out of the water. And I swear before my maker, it looked just like this:
It was a hawg, and it immediately went deep into the weeds. The daughter was using a spinning rod with eight pound test line and in the back of my mind I kept thinking there is no way that this fish is going to stay on the line.
But the daughter would not give up the fight, and took it to that bass like a champ, rod tip high, using steady pressure to pull the bass the best she could out of the weeds.
Then it got worse. The bass ran directly under the boat, and being in a pontoon boat with lots of sharp edges everywhere, I feared the worst. She kept fighting and fighting but the bass would not budge.
Then it ran for the surface and jumped a second time, no more than two feet from the boat! It looked like someone dropped a cinder block overboard.
The daughter's face was filled with awe. "Daddy. IT'S HUGE!"
I knew I had just one shot to get this fish in the boat. I had a long handled net and slid it out as far as could off the port side. Little Miss Jitterbug turned the rod to try and get the fish's head to go right. It worked like a charm, as I slid the net under its bulk and pulled it into the boat.
So there you have it. A 20" largemouth bass, on a 1950s jitterbug, in a massive weed bed, caught and landed by an eleven year old girl. A journey begun by one man's kindness in Louisville and another man's inspiration in Michigan ended with a memory that will not be forgotten in Otter Tail, Minnesota.
And you wonder why this stuff is in my blood. Now it's in my daughter's blood, too.
Little Miss Jitterbug, indeed.
-- Dr. Todd