But craftsmen huddled in garages and basements can produce plugs. And they've been doing just that for hundreds of years. In that time you could say we've made a few improvements. But, when you look really close at the dynamics of triggering fish, you could just as easily conclude that most things new are just window dressing. And everything old comes back into style, at some point. This is a list of lures effective not just for one species of fish, but for all or at least many of the predators found in the aquatic world. This is a list of history's greatest fishing lure types, not because I say so, but because history proves it so. Longevity, in itself, is proof enough for me. After several decades, if a lure is still being sought by anglers and still effectively triggering multiple species of fish, it belongs on this list. Let me know if I missed one. Or two, of the best fishing lures in history.
The Diving Crankbait
On a small lake with no homes or cabins on it, in the backwoods of Michigan, in a fog so thick I couldn't see shore from 40 feet away, I pitched a bone-colored Big O toward what I hoped was the deep edge of the weeds. It was 1970. I'll never forget the bass that came out of the water with that lure dangling from its snout. The brute began snapping its head side-to-side and the lure (of course) flew free. Fred Young developed a diving balsa crank in 1967 that became the model for the Cotton Cordell Big O. Before long, Rapala came out with the balsa Fat Rap. I remember because my dad, while attending a Flying Tigers reunion in Maine, bought me two of them at the original LL Bean store (surprise-surprise, one was gold, the other silver). Lee Sisson claims to have created the first deep-diving crankbait in 1973 with his creation of the Bagley DB3. But that depends on what you call a diving crankbait. The Helin Flat Fish (now owned by Yakima), first manufactured in Detroit, has been around for at least 80 years. The larger models dive to 25 feet with 20-pound mono and no lead on the line. I've used them in recent years to catch lake trout pushing 40 pounds, but they're just as effective on steelhead in the fall, salmon in late summer, pike anytime the water's open, and just about anything that swims if you match sizes correctly. Though pike, walleyes, and lakers fall for some of today's classic "crankbaits," this category would suffer diversity issues without including what we (at In-Fisherman) often call "banana baits," wherein the beveled body of the bait serves as a "bill."
The Floating Minnowbait
The first version of this lure type is slightly easier to track down. The first one was carved by a Finnish fisherman named Lauri Rapala before World War II. It became the world's best-selling lure of all time — the Rapala Original Floating Minnow. I remember seeing my first one back in the 1960s, when my dad slipped one in gold and another in silver into his tackle box. Over the following years I used two those lures more than he did. I believe I stil have them, in fact. Trolling in my grandmother's old, leaky, wooden, row boat, it was easy to keep a floating Rapala above the weeds, where it attracted pike, bass, dogfish, and the occasional slab crappie on a suicide mission. The minnowbait, as we call them today, has a realistic profileBut the rolling wobble of an Original Floater doesn't need any testimony from me at all. To this day, it holds more world records than any other lure, and that's all the convincing anybody should need to admit the floating minnowbait should still top any angler's list of required tackle-box fare. The first copy-cat version was probably the Pal-O-Mine Minnow that I see advertised in the May, 1940 issue of Sports Afield that my good friend Wayne Zitzow graciously offered as a loan. Other minnowbaits of note in my various tackle boxes include the original Rebel.
Poppers have been around forever. Fly fishermen probably carved the first ones out of wood long ago. Who knows where the first one carved on a lathe was sent spiraling out over the water on linen line, but the Heddon Baby Lucky 13 has been around since our "doughboys" came home from the Big One back in 1920. The Hula Popper was invented by Fred Arbogast in 1941, and may have been the world's first skirted lure. It was still one of the most popular lures around in the late 1960s when I pitched my first one into a small, forgotten lake behind one those new-fangled strip malls. We could go to that little lake every day all summer and catch bass on Hula Poppers. I assume it's still an effective lure, one of the many that friends my age often wonder out loud about. "Why don't we ever throw those any more? They killed fish." We don't throw them anymore because our eyes are dazzled by some new, streamlined, realistic version Kevin VanDam just used to win another Classic. Today, I've always got a Rapala Skitter Pop or XCalibur Zell's Pop along when bass are the targets. You never know when a popper might just work better than anything in the box. Small fly-rod and ultralight versions are killers for bluegills and crappies, while bigger versions are used to trigger peacocks and stripers. Not the most universally effective lure type, but certainly effective enough, and universal enough, to be considered a classic.
The Ball-Head Jig
A hook isn't a lure and a ball-head jig is just a hook with lead molded onto it below the eye. So is it a lure? Well, yes and no. Perhaps the first jig was the ancient "gorge" — a rock fashioned into a barbell shape fish could swallow but could not regurgitate, first used tens of thousands of years ago. Jigs first became lures for me when we attached something artificial and durable like an Uncle Josh Pork Strip, especially when using an original Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub back in the early 1970s to trigger smallmouth and largemouth bass. The Fuzz-E-Grub body seemed so cool back then. It looked like candy but bulked the jig up, gave it a more realistic minnow or leech-like profile, and slowed the descent. The pork added salt, scent, and action. Now that's a lure, mate. We added the first Mister Twister Twister Tails and Mann's Jelly Worms to plain ball heads shortly thereafter to entice bass on rock reefs and weedlines. If you do any swim-jigging for bass today, what do you think? Lure or hook? Skirts and trailers add action and movement, certainly making it a lure in my mind. I like the Lincoln-Log concept — that feeling of building a lure from the ground up with parts in your tackle box to fit any situation. Lead heads have been around for over 100 years, now, so they certainly fulfill the longevity requirement. I wouldn't be caught fishing for almost anything without a pile of jigs, whether the day was being spent on salt or fresh water. I even use them for brown trout and steelhead (mostly under floats). If I had to pin down a few favorite ball heads today the list would have to include the Gamakatsu Round 26, the Owner Ultrahead Ball Head, and the standard TC Tackle versions.
When crappies slurp mayflies off the surface, I've "bulged" straight-shafted, size #0 Mepps Spinners to catch them. My earliest experiences with brown and rainbow trout involved small Mepps and Panther Martin spinners. In 1974 I discovered that a size #1 or #2 Mepps Aglia was (and probably still is) one of the best largemouth baits you could throw right at ice-out, when the water hovered right around 40°F. I've filmed TV shows pitching Blue Fox Vibrax spinners for pike, salmon, steelhead, and coaster brookies. Smallmouth bass love a size #4 Mepps Black Fury, and everybody knows muskies go bananas for bucktails — which are just glorified, straight-shafted spinners with hair. A Frenchman named Andre Muelnart invented the lure in 1938. He started manufacturing them and called his new company Manufacturier D'Engins De Precision Pour Sportive (M.E.P.P.S.). A spinning blade becomes a kind of hologram with intervals of flash and constant thump that can mesmerize any predatory fish. Arguably, spinners are the most classic of classics in the wide realm of fishing lures.
The first spinnerbait I owned was manufactured by Mepps back in 1972. It had "adjustable blades" that were actually two blades in one, that could be spread out to form Colorado-style, highly-resistant blades, or slid together to form slim, willowleaf-style blades. The first time I threw it my cousin Phillip Seath and my friend Jerry Staley finally just sat down, threw their hands up and quit fishing. I must have hooked 120 largemouths that day, picking up one on every cast for about an hour at one point. Like suspending minnowbaits, everybody makes spinnerbaits today, and they remain staples for largemouths, smallmouths, pike, and muskies. Not exactly universal, but pros trolled big 1-ounce Booyah spinnerbaits through the trees to win major walleye tournaments last year. Spinnerbaits won't be going the way of I adore the Grim Reaper for muskies and pike, and I throw a lot of Stanley, Terminator, and Booyah baits for bass.
Archeological evidence suggests Native Americans polished mollusk shells and attached bone hooks to them to troll for trout from canoes. The idea is older than we know, but how did we come to call it a spoon? A story almost 200 years old has it that JT Buel of East Poultney, Vermont, was eating lunch while fishing on Lake Bomosheen when his boat bumped a rock, causing him to drop a spoon in the water. As he watched it flutter to bottom, the idea for the Buel Spoon was born. This was around 1820. According to the tale, he raced home, fashioned a lure from another piece of silverware, went back to the lake, and caught a large trout that he paraded down main street in nearby Castleton. The rest is history. Today manufacturers fashion thin spoons for trolling on downriggers, thick ones for casting, and spoons of moderate thickness that can do both. I don't know about you, but I never: Go to Canada without a Dardevle Husky Jr.; Fish the surf around tributaries of the Great Lakes without an Acme Little Cleo; Or go trolling for lakers without a few Williams Whitefish on board. The flutter, flash, and thump of a spoon operating at the optimum speed for its design has triggered enough fish over the millenia for us to safely say it will always catch fish and belongs on anybody's list of critical survival gear.
The Suspending Bait
Doug Stange was making his own semi-suspending baits decades ago by drilling holes in Original Floating Rapalas, filling the holes with lead, and covering them with epoxy. The first suspending baits I encountered were made by Rebel back in the late 1970s. They were extremely effective for walleyes and bass, but they were diving crankbaits, not minnowbaits. The first suspending minnowbaits on the market were Rapala Husky Jerks, introduced in the 1990s. The company has since come out with several versions, like the X-Rap and Maxx Rap, while other companies have created versions of their own. Lucky Craft Pointers, Smithwick Rogues, XCalibur Xts, Lucky Strike Wild Shiners, Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows — everybody that makes crankbaits is making one or more versions today and they're all awesome in their time and place. I've used them to catch big steelhead and brown trout, salmon, pike, muskies, walleyes, largemouths, smallmouths — and the mini versions are great for crappies, brookies, and bull bluegills. This style of bait is certainly the youngest of the classics, but it's universally effective and I believe there will never come a day when a well-presented "jerkbait," "slashbait," or whatever you want to call it, won't score big wherever predatory fish are present.
The Plastic Worm
Nick Creme invented the first softbait in worm form back in 1940, using vinyl, oil, and pigments. The Creme Wiggle Worm remains a fish catcher today. The first action-tail "plastic" worm? "You want woe? I'll give you mountains of woe," declared Ron Lindner as he began pulling out old files with blueprints for a new-fangled lure he invented over half a century ago. He called it the Flip Tail, and it was to be the world's "first action-tail plastic worm," he told me. Back in the late 1960s he was working with the copious David Welle for a battery company that wanted to expand into the outdoor market. During that time Ron visited France and came back with what might have been an early version of a cigar worm, used to fish for zander or ocean fish — I forget. He made the mistake of showing his idea to Welle, who quit the battery business and went on to become the founder of Mister Twister. Ron Lindner, inventor of the Lindy Rig (he sold it before it ever made a dime), had, once again, found himself under a mountain of woe, failing to, as he put it, "come out fastest with the mostest." The original Berkley Power Worm still brings a lot of fish into my boat, and I use it (and Persuader Curly Tails, Robo Worms, YUM Ringworms, and many others) to target largemouths, walleyes, smallmouths, and pike. Small finesse worms are dynamite for steelhead and rainbows, and even smaller versions (like the Northland Bro Worms) score dozens of crappies, bluegills, brookies, and browns for me every year. Ocean fish dig plastic worms, too.