The man's hooked on plugs

Whether they pop, dive, float or wobble, the old artificials have made a sucker of Seth Rosenbaum
July 13, 1975

The contemplative character on the right is indeed a character. His name is Seth Rosenbaum, and he lives in an apartment in Queens, N.Y. with 5,000 fishing lures. Some 3,000 of these lures are plugs, and there is little doubt that his plug collection ranks among the world's largest.

Originally carved from wood, plugs have been made of metal, cork and rubber, and in recent years, plastic. Designed to float, dive, sink, bob, pop or wobble and shaped to resemble baitfish, frogs, crayfish, mice or absolutely nothing at all found in nature, plugs have accounted for more than their share of world-record fish. Among them are a 69-pound 15-ounce muskie that glommed on to a Creek Chub Jointed Pikie, a 22-pound four-ounce largemouth bass that fell for a Creek Chub Jointed Wag-Tail and an 11-pound 15-ounce smallmouth bass that tried to eat a Pearl White Bomber.

By profession Rosenbaum is a computer consultant, absolutely on top of digital science. Therefore, in an effort to keep up with his acquisitions, he is in the midst of a project to computerize his holdings on three different master lists: by name of lure, date made and manufacturer. For all this technological organization, complete with printouts, the truth is, Rosenbaum spends his idle hours mentally dwelling in the years 1910 and 1911, which he fondly refers to as "the golden age of plugs, when everybody was getting into the act."

On occasion, Rosenbaum lives out those golden days. He has been known to show up at seaside to pursue bluefish with a greenheart rod and Cuttyhunk line. And a few weeks ago he arrived at a friend's house to fish for largemouth bass—"the plug fish"—toting an ancient leather tackle box containing everything but a sled named Rosebud. There were bait-casting reels with braided silk lines, quill minnows from Victorian England, a selection of snelled-catgut hooks and, of course, plugs, among them an aluminum Shakespeare Revolution.

Once out on the friend's pond in a canoe, Rosenbaum tied on a 50-year-old Rush Tango plug five inches long. "One of the greats," he enthused. "The Tango floats when at rest, but almost half the plug is lip, and on a normal retrieve it dives to 25 feet, which is very deep indeed. That means my line takes a really sharp angle in the water, and even as this floating plug goes down it has very nice action. If I stop reeling, buoyancy brings it up again, so that I have a kind of three-dimensional action working for me." On his third cast, a 12-inch bass struck. Rosenbaum landed it with glee. "Camera! Camera!" he cried. "One doesn't see this every day!" He released the bass and confided, "What I've always wanted to have happen is to be fishing and have some stranger ask me, 'Hey, bud, what works on this lake?' And I'll casually answer, 'Oh, a 1902 Shakespeare Revolution and the 1921 Rush Tango are favorites here.' "

Now in his 40s, Rosenbaum has been fishing since he was seven. "I just bought lures for fishing back then," he recalls. "But by the 1950s I began buying some for esthetic reasons and I have simply kept on buying, plugs mainly. Because of my business, I always traveled a great deal, and whenever I hit a town I'd head for the local tackle stores. Tackle hadn't become as commercial as it is now. If a store didn't sell a plug in 1938, it was there in '39, and if it didn't sell in '39, it was there in '40. And it might still be there in '52 or '53. Dealers didn't clean out their shelves then—the stuff just stayed on forever. I found I could buy very old material that might have been around 15, 20 or 30 years. After the '50s, with new merchandising methods and everything in little plastic envelopes or blister packs, and with the price getting knocked down in 30, 60, 90 days, it became harder and harder to find old tackle. I began to swap and advertise.

"Generally I'll run an ad in a publication with a circulation of 40,000 or under. I don't want to get inundated. I've had trouble keeping up with the moderate amount of mail I receive. In Glens Falls, N.Y., I advertised in the daily paper once or twice. I did O.K., maybe four or five responses. I got a Feather Gettum, which doesn't mean much to most people, but it's a rare lure. I also got a couple of old reels that I immediately passed on to Richard Miller in Hudson, Mass., who collects reels, along with rods and some plugs. I'm waiting to see what I get back from him. I'll take anything, but I can always pass the garbage on to another collector who thinks it's exotic stuff. I'm one of the few I know of who collect saltwater plugs; another is Dick Streater in Mercer Island, Wash. He and I trade Pacific Northwest salmon plugs. But I also have a nice collection of Atoms, particularly Reverse Atoms, and striped bass fishermen will pay $30 or $40 for a Reverse Atom because that type is not made anymore. Nowadays Bob Pond makes the Atom plugs, but they were originally made by Captain Bill on Cape Cod, out of wood. Then Pond came along with a plastic Atom. Actually, the rarest saltwater plug was made by Fuller Brothers, a popper that has beautifully tapered lines to it."

Like the bait-casting reel and the split-bamboo fly rod, the plug is an American invention. Despite the success of the balsa Rapala from Finland, plugs made in the U.S. have dominated the world angling market. As an authoritative English book, The Penguin Guide lo Fishing, concedes: " British manufacturer has anything to offer as good as the plug baits imported from the United States."

According to a hallowed story about the invention of the plug, one day in 1888 James Heddon, a Michigan bass fisherman, was whittling a piece of wood on Dowagiac Creek while waiting for a pal to come by. Idly, Heddon tossed the piece of wood into the creek and was astounded to see a largemouth belt it into the air. Idea! Whittling while he worked, Heddon started turning out "Dowjack" plugs for friends, and by 1902 business had grown to such proportions that he built the first factory to turn out plugs in volume.

The early Heddon plugs were of cedar and invariably featured a propeller, as shown here on the Artistic Minnow and the Double Dummy. Later plugs, such as the Deep O Diver, which is supposed to look like a crayfish, used a lip plate for diving. "Heddon specialized in hook gimmicks," Rosenbaum says. "His was the first company to come out with a hook hanger screwed into a plug. In 1911 Heddon introduced the Double Dummy, so called because of its unusual hooks. Let me read from an old ad. 'Jim Heddon's last invention, the Double Dummy design of hook, shows how triumphantly he satisfied his final ambition to produce a hook more certain of impaling the fish than any treble gang, yet free from its inhumanity and inconveniences.... The black bass, of all varieties and in all climates, always attacks the minnow at the side.... The single hook is placed to engage the upper jaw and the dummy portion comes into contact with the lower jaw, forcing the hook point into the upper jaw, without danger of disengagement.' "

To Rosenbaum, Heddon's finest achievement was the Luny Frog, which was manufactured in 1926. "Fishing with a Luny Frog is like playing with a deck of marked cards," he says of the plug he considers the greatest bass lure ever made. Unlike most frog imitations, which float on the retrieve, the Luny Frog's enticing action is displayed four or five feet underwater. It was made of Pyralin, similar to Bakelite, which was both its strength and weakness. "If you cast a Luny Frog and hit a rock," Rosenbaum says, "you have an 18-piece Luny Frog." On exceptional occasions Rosenbaum will fish a Luny Frog in carefully scouted rockless areas using 40-pound-test line to make certain that a bass can't break off with it. "I couldn't bear to lose a Luny Frog," he says. "They are very rare. They are very precious to me." Not long ago when a friend suggested, with much throat clearing, that he would, ahem, like to borrow a Luny Frog, Rosenbaum raised a hand and cautioned, "My dear fellow, you can move into my apartment for a week, eat all the food in my well-stocked larder, wear my clothes, run up a huge phone bill, give wild parties and carry on in general, but I shall be in a motel, along with every Luny Frog I own."

Well before the Luny Frog or the Double Dummy, other companies had sprung up to compete with Heddon: Creek Club, South Bend, Pflueger and Shakespeare (started by a man named William Shakespeare Jr.). "The finishes on Shakespeare plugs were probably better than anyone else's," Rosenbaum says. "Note the detail, right down to the painted fins." By 1910 a small company, K & K, had made the first jointed minnow. Rosenbaum is intrigued by its incorporation of metal fins, almost as much as its articulated movement.

Around World War I, an Art Nouveau artist named Louis Rhead began marketing imitations of frogs, crayfish and minnows under the name of "Nature Lures." Perhaps in an effort to knock down competition, Rhead decried "the faults of commercial baits made by machinery" in a book, Fisherman's Lures and Game-fish Food, published by Scribner's in 1920. Rhead is a controversial figure in American angling. Earlier, he had published a book on flies with most imaginative ties, but inasmuch as he gave his imitations of aquatic insects fanciful names, which beclouded entomological identification by anyone else, Rhead has been relegated to angling purgatory by fly-fishermen. In truth, Rhead belongs in angling heaven. He was far ahead of his time, and fly-tiers and plug makers have been taking ideas and inspiration from him for years. Rosenbaum has the finest collection of Rhead plugs in existence, as evidenced by the Shiner and very rare Crayfish, which he scooped up with joy and in numbers from the cellar of William Mills when that venerable Manhattan firm closed shop four years ago.

One of the truly exquisite plugs in the Rosenbaum collection is Schoenfeld's Sea Gull, made in 1923. "It's a relatively rare item," he says. "It's pretty, simply pretty. I've never fished with it." With its bulbous shape it might be considered a forerunner of the now popular Big O.

The Arbogast Sunfish Tin Liz (the hook hidden on the far side of its movable tail in the photograph at left) was the first lure manufactured by Fred Arbogast. "He was a world champion plug caster, both for distance and accuracy," Rosenbaum says, "and he later made the Hawaiian Wiggler and the Jitterbug. His biggie was the Jitterbug, still as good as any surface plug made."

For all the plugs among his treasures, Rosenbaum lusts after a variant of the Rush Tango, called the Tigertango. "It has a blockier head than the regular Tango," he says. What would he swap for that, Rosenbaum was asked the other day by phone. "Anything except my life," he replied. A Heddon Luny Frog? "I wouldn't mention that," he said, abruptly hanging up. After the line went dead, one imagined Rosenbaum packing immediately to move to a motel.

PHOTOHENRY GROSKINSKYRosenbaum's brightly colored "Wall of Death" chronicles nearly 90 years of fishing artifice. PHOTOHENRY GROSKINSKYK & K ANIMATED MINNOW

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)