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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 2000

Illustration © Tom Lowes.

The Viggle Years

We had the fishing edge for years, and couldn't tell a soul.

Dave Crehore

Illustrations © Tom Lowes

I clearly remember the first largemouth bass I ever caught. It was in 1950, but I could take you to the same lake tomorrow, find the same little bay and cast to the same lily pad.

It was a Saturday morning in June, and I was eight years old. Dad rowed a creaky rented boat across the flat calm of Hartlaub Lake, a 30-acre pothole about a half-hour southwest of Manitowoc. A rosy light fanned over the horizon from the sunrise that was on its way.

Dad rounded a point and let the boat drift toward a lily pad bed on the east shore. He held a forefinger across his lips and pointed to my rod, meaning that I should pick it up, very quietly.

"Make an easy cast to the outside edge of the pads," Dad whispered. "Wait for the splash rings to disappear. Count to 30. Then give the plug a jerk so it'll "bloop" on the surface. Reel up the slack line. Wait for the rings to disappear. Count to 30. Bloop it again."

We drifted within a reasonable cast of the pads. I was pretty good with my trusty, solid-steel TrueTemper bait-casting rod and precious Pflueger Supreme reel. I swooshed the rod back and launched a ponderous, red-and-white Heddon Chugger plug toward the pads. It landed with a splat, almost on target. The rings disappeared. A puff of pre-dawn breeze riffled the water. 28, 29, 30. Bloop!

Swirl! Hit! Bolts of lightning coursed up the line, down the rod and into my hands. "Nail him!" Dad yelled, and I leaned back to set the hook.

Wow! This was no fussy little bait-stealing bluegill, but a fish with a mind of its own. Nothing Dad said during the sleepy drive from town had got me ready for a fish that actually fought back, that yanked the rod tip down into the water and pulled line off the Pflueger against the pressure of my thumb on the spool. Down, down he bored, and then shot to the surface, jumping clear of the water and shaking the hooks of the Chugger with a terrifying rattle.

Illustration © Tom Lowes

But in a minute or two it was over. Dad scooped up the bass with a flick of the landing net, and I was face to face with 16 inches of mean, green largemouth. My bass was only three times as long as the big cedar plug he had tried to eat. He wasn't Old Beelzebub, the 10-pound, bulge-bellied bass of my dreams, but at that moment he was the most important fish in the world.

Dad popped the Chugger's massive hooks out of the bass's mouth. He handed the fish to me. I held it fearfully by the lower jaw and felt the prickles of its teeth.

"What d'you say we give him a second chance?" Dad asked. I knew what that meant. I slipped the bass into the water and watched it flash out of sight.

My first bass, come and gone in about five minutes. Only a memory. Loss and gain, pride and pain swirled around in my head. I had wanted that bass, and yet I didn't want it dead. I glanced up at Dad. He was smiling at me, a steady smile of approval, man to man. I swallowed hard and felt the aching throat that comes before tears. But I wasn't a kid any more. I was eight years old and had to take the rough with the smooth.

"Let's see if we can catch a bigger one," Dad said. And so we fished through our full battery of lures: the Chugger, a Lucky 13, a Bass-O-Reno, an Al Foss Oriental Wiggler with a pork frog on it, a Shannon Twin-Spin, a Creek Chub Pikie Minnow, a Jitterbug, a Flatfish and a Pearl Wobbler, made of genuine Ohio River clam shell. But by ten o'clock it was obvious that the bite was over. It was time to go home and mow the lawn.

Dad rowed back to the little landing where the farmer rented boats. He tossed the anchor, a coffee can full of concrete, up on the grass. We unloaded our rods and stood looking out over the lake. Dad thumbed some Edgeworth into his pipe, struck a match on the sole of his shoe, and lit it.

"This is a nice little lake," Dad said. "We'll have to come back some time."

But we weren't back - not for two years. The shipyard at Manitowoc suddenly got busy, and Dad was the engineer who had to inspect construction and repairs. He started working six and seven-day weeks. He'd leave before I got up in the morning and get home late, eating a warmed-up supper at the kitchen table, still wearing dirty, sweaty white coveralls. Strange men from noisy fabrication shops would call at 2:00 a.m., demanding that Dad drive down to the yard to approve a weld or witness a hydrostatic test.

For the rest of that summer, and all of the next, there was no time for Saturday mornings at Hartlaub Lake. I began to hate the shipyard, even though it put gas in the Studebaker and meat loaf on the table.

Then the shipyard paid an odd dividend.

During the winter of '51-52, Dad got to know the chief engineer of a small Finnish ship that was laid up at the yard for repairs. The ship's captain and most of its crew headed home for Finland as soon as the boilers were cold, but the old chief, the cook and the second mate were left behind as a skeleton force of shipkeepers. The cook and the second mate spent most of their time ashore at the Westfield Bar, but the chief preferred black coffee, fish stories and his pipe. So did Dad, and before long he was eating most of his lunches and midnight snacks with the chief, who told tales of Finland's giant pike and salmon in his broken, out-of-tune English.

One night in late winter, after a pot of eggshell coffee and a couple of corned beef-and-onion sandwiches, the chief handed Dad a half-dozen little cardboard boxes.

"Second engineer, he's coming back pretty soon, then I go home. You like to fish so you try these," the chief said.

Illustration © Tom Lowes

The boxes held peculiar little minnow-shaped wooden fishing lures, painted blue above and white below, each with a piece of celluloid under its chin. They didn't look like much to Dad, but the chief grinned enthusiastically and made big-fish gestures with his hands.

"They made from balsavood," the chief said. "They float. You pull them, they go down and they..." He made a sinuous motion with his hand.

"Swim?" Dad said. "Wiggle?"

"Ya!" the chief laughed. "Viggle! A man in my town make them, catch big pike."

Dad didn't know it, but he had been given the first Rapala lures in North America, handmade in Finland by Lauri Rapala. Billions of U.S. and Canadian fish that had never seen a balsa minnow were waiting, stupid and hungry, for the first Rapala to viggle by. But a foot of ice covered those fish at the time, and Dad left the lures on his desk at the shipyard until May.

And then came a Saturday morning with no welding, shell plating or tank tops to inspect.

Dad and I were back at Hartlaub Lake. We rented the same little boat with the same coffee-can anchor, the same leaks and squeaks. We tied two of the balsa minnows on our brand-new Shakespeare spinning rods, and rowed over to the lily pads that were the scene of my triumph two years before. We cast our minnows to opposite ends of the bed. We waited until the rings disappeared. We counted to 30. We pulled the minnows down to make them viggle.

And Smash! Slurp! We each hooked a bass. After those two, there were two more. And then two more.

Imagine yourself an innocent farm boy who's at the circus for the first time. You blunder into the wrong tent and discover the beautiful bareback rider in the act of removing her tutu. You've never seen such a thing. She looks over her shoulder at you, tosses her long blonde hair and crooks her finger. You know it's too good to be true, but you figure, what the hell.

Ilustration © Tom Lowes

That's essentially the way the bass reacted to our balsa minnows that morning. The lonesome bass of Hartlaub Lake didn't just bite the Finnish vigglers, they slobbered over them. They knew they'd regret it, but it didn't stop them for a second.

Our first slow row around the lake yielded 32 bass. The second time around we caught 17 more, along with a couple of tugger walleyes and a pike of nightmarish size. We let them all go.

Dad was counting. "Enough," he said. "That's 49 bass, and there's no point making pigs of ourselves for one miserable fish. Besides, I've got a backlash here that's like the Sunday crossword - it'll take a week to work it out."

Dad picked up the oars and started to row back to the landing. "Cut off those vigglers and hide them in the tackle box," he said, "and then tie on some Flatfish. The farmer who rents the boats has been watching us, and I don't want him to see what we've really been using."

At the dock, the farmer was enthusiastic. "Jeez, you guys were really catching 'em, enso?" he said, all smiles. He looked carefully at the lures dangling from our rod tips. "Flatfish, eh? Orange and black Flatfish. And sonny, you had a blue and silver one. Well, well!"

After the farmer left Dad sat down on an overturned boat and lit his pipe.

"I have never, ever, had a day of fishing like this in my life, and neither have you, nor are you likely to again," Dad said. "If we'd kept all those bass, we would have cleaned out the lake. We've got to keep these vigglers quiet. Very quiet. Otherwise everybody will be wanting one."

And then began a halcyon time in our lives: the viggle years. God, did we catch fish! The vigglers caught bass on High Lake in Vilas County, and just about everywhere else in the North Country. They caught walleyes and muskies on the Big Chip. They caught giant crappies on the Mississippi. And there was a day among the smallmouth on the Red Cedar River that was absolutely obscene.

It wasn't hard to figure out what was happening. A fish is a simple soul, and if you show him a lure he's never seen, chances are he'll take a shot at it. But if he hits that lure and gets off, or watches other fish being caught on it, he'll think twice the next time it comes by. The fish we were catching had learned to avoid the big wooden plugs thrown at them by thousands of fishermen. In time they would learn to avoid vigglers, too. But it would take them a long time to learn about vigglers when only two fishermen had them.

By now you've guessed the drawback to all this success: We couldn't tell anybody about it. Dad and I were the most productive fishermen in the state of Wisconsin, but we couldn't let on! It was awful. Other fishermen would see us catching fish; they'd ease over our way to see how we were doing it, and as soon as they'd get within a hundred yards, we'd have to cut off the vigglers and tie on something else, usually Pikie Minnows. It got to where we'd keep a pair of Pikie Minnows hanging on the gunwale of the boat, so they would be handy.

But it wasn't long before the gods of fish and fairness got their revenge. Our vigglers began to disappear. On one horrible day, two were stolen right off our rod tips at a boat landing. A month or so later, another was lost to a musky that simply overwhelmed us. Then a smallmouth the size of a sewer lid ran off with one in Jackson Harbor. After that, we began fishing the remaining two vigglers with heavy line and tuna-gauge wire leaders that killed their viggle.

The final blow was a stump on the bottom of the Manitowish River that claimed viggler number five during a bass fishing trip in 1956. Thank God it was Dad who lost it. We spent a half-hour trying to pull it loose before the line finally snapped.

There was a brief period of silence. Then Dad cut the last of the vigglers from the end of my line and held it up. "We should have kept a pair for seed," he said. "As it is, this guy's like the last passenger pigeon. He's extinct and doesn't know it."

The viggler years had come and gone. As Lincoln probably said, you can't fool all of the fish all of the time, and we were philosophers enough to understand that. But damn, it was tough to rejoin the ranks of ordinary unlucky fishermen.

The passing years brought their anodyne. As the fifties wore on, the shipyard got busy again and Dad and I spent more time shooting and hunting. The last viggler hung in a place of honor from a joist in our basement workshop. The memories it called up, of course, were indelible and did not need enlargement.

And then, one day in 1959, the inevitable happened. Dad and I stopped at Sporting Goods Supply in Manitowoc to pick up some shotgun powder, and Lloyd Bottoni pushed a couple of little cardboard boxes across the counter for us to look at. Inside were balsa minnow lures, each with a piece of plastic under its chin. Vigglers.

"These are the latest thing, Dave," Lloyd said to Dad. "Some guy in Finland makes them by hand and catches all kinds of fish with them. They're called Rapalas."

"But we had those. . ." I blurted. Dad caught my eye and shook his head. I shut up. Dad bought two of them and picked up the powder.

Out in the car, we took the Rapalas out of their boxes. They were vigglers all right, painted black on top and gold on the bottom.

"Well, they aren't extinct any more," Dad said.

"What's wrong with telling people we had Rapalas in 1952?" I asked.

"It would just be bragging," Dad said, "and the Good Book says that pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."

He lit his pipe. "Secrets are over-rated," Dad said, "but I think this one is worth keeping. Save it for your memoirs."

And so I did.

Dave Crehore is the regional DNR Public Affairs Manager in Green Bay.