Every season outstanding new lures with plenty of whiz and PR bang make the angling scene. While most are innovative and effective, the reality is that many have deep-rooted ties to topwater lure designs that have been around since granddad was a pup.
Indeed, the pedigree of many of America’s front-line bass baits is made up of time-tested artificial lures that formed the foundation of modern bass angling. So it should come as no surprise that even today, many classic lures still shine. We decided to hit the water to try them out. The following 10 topwater plugs are classic oldies that still catch lunkers.
1. Creek Chub Plunker
Few lure companies have a more storied history than the Creek Chub Bait Company. Established by a trio of Midwest anglers in Garrett, Indiana in 1916, Creek Chub is perhaps best known as the company that made the famed Wiggle Fish, used by George Perry in 1932 to catch the world record largemouth bass. Rare is the angler today who doesn’t own at least one surface lure that resembles the Plunker.
The Plunker hit the market in 1927 and was an instant hit with bass anglers everywhere. Pike, smallmouth, tarpon, and snook fishermen took to it as well due to its compact size, easy castability, and superb surface-popping action. The Plunker easily could be worked in a fish-drawing, stop-and-go fashion, with frequent rod twitches that imparted a solid plunk or pop of the lure as it chugged along the surface. The noisy commotion of the Plunker drew fish from long range, resulting in toilet-flusher surface strikes and plenty of late-night tales among a myriad of fishing fans.
Early versions were carved by hand with no fewer than seven different sizes and shapes. Creek Chub’s wooden lures were made only from white cedar for superior flotation. Plunkers were painted with up to 14 coats of high-quality paint.
Plunkers were discontinued in 1965, when Creek Chub changed to plastic manufacturing, and were last advertised in 1978. While no longer produced, this style and type of chugger plug is widely imitated. The Creek Chub Company continues production of lures under the PRADCO brand.
2. Burke Top Dog
What made the Flex Plug line of Burke’s plugs especially innovative, and desirable to anglers, was that they were made of a soft, closed-cell foam-like material—a first in the tackle industry—and advertised to make fish hold the lures longer following a strike. Lure proponents said that the soft yet firm feel of the flexible plastic was a good imitation of baitfish flesh. The idea was a hit with anglers, and the company produced no less than nine different lures in the line.
The Top Dog was perhaps the most popular and innovative in the line. Due to its tapered-nose, tail shape, and stout 1/2-ounce weight, the lure cast well and was easily activated by rod manipulations. The plug was particularly suited for the walk-the-dog retrieve, which produced violent strikes from largemouth, smallmouth, spotted bass, stripers, pike, and muskies.
Because Flex Plugs had a rugged hook-line-tie harness design with an interior, stainless steel chain, the lures were advertised as the toughest made. The inside-the-lure-chain wiring system endeared them to marine anglers chasing brawlers like tarpon, snook, redfish and others, because hooks and line ties would not pull apart during a fish fight.
While the Burke Bait company dates back to 1914, the Flex line of plugs was the brain-child of then company owner Bing McClellan of Traverse City, Michigan in about 1962. Flex lures, and especially the Top Dog, were the darlings of many noted anglers, including well-known Sports Afield angling editor Homer Circle.
In correspondence between McClellan and tackle industry folks, his personal letterhead touted, “Put a Burke where they lurk, or I’m out of work.”
3. Storm Chug Bug
The good news is that the Chug Bug is still available today—though now Rapala makes it. The original Chug Bug, however, was produced by the Storm Lure Company, which began a line of well known and now classic lures in 1964.
The Chug Bug is an innovative topwater bait in several respects, which explains its longevity of production. Unlike many topwaters, both past and present, the Bug is a narrow, compact, and relatively short plug (2 1/2-inches long and 1/4 ounce, or 3 1/4-inches long and 3/8 ounce). This makes it ideal for fish with comparatively small maws, like smallmouths, spotted, white and striped bass. Such fish can more easily take a Chug Bug and are more likely to be hooked compared to some surface lures with more girth and length. The slimmer profile also makes for easier lure manipulation with light tackle, typical for smallmouths, spots, and other springtime targets.
Its cupped face makes for easy popping, and it can be worked fast in a walk-the-dog fashion. At rest, the lure orients head up, tail down, so its Mylar-dressed hook attracts fish and readily barbs ones that strike.
4. Cisco Kid Topper
The Cisco Kid Topper is a classic old-style, topwater plug with a bulbous head tapering to a smaller tail, with surface churning propellers fore and aft.
It’s oversized (4-inches long, 1 1/4 ounces), and was initially targeted at the muskie and pike market. But it scored big with all manner of serious anglers after heavyweight largemouth bass, especially night anglers who love the whirling and splashing that the lure’s counter-rotating spin blades produced. Because it was built muskie tough with three oversized trebles, and deep-seated hook ring eyes, it was notable for holding up to the toughest fight any fish could dish out.
The Topper was the brain child of Art Wallsten, of Chicago, who made a solid name for the company by producing a wide variety of plugs before moving the firm to Florida. Wallsten-made Toppers are coveted by some lure collectors, but today’s fishermen still can get new ones made by Suick Lures under the same Cisco Kid brand.
5. Heddon Zaragossa
This is one of the most iconic—and copied—plugs ever invented in America. Even the parent company Heddon has morphed this remarkable fish-catcher into so many different sizes, weights and configurations, that it takes a top antique lure collector to sort through the dozens of sizes, varieties and colors to learn their true origins and value.
James Heddon of Dowagiac, Michigan handmade the original wooden Zaragossa in 1920. Its distinctive shape somewhat resembles a thick cigar—fitted with a pair of oversize hooks and glass eyes. It was a winner from the beginning.
With a bit of experience, anglers learned they could make the lure zigzag across the surface in a nonstop left-right-left cadence that unnerved bass like few other plugs available. The lure set up a surface commotion, and created a large V-wake that attracted fish and triggered them into following and striking.
Anglers also learned that the lure not only worked for largemouth, but smallmouths, spotted bass, pike, muskies, and a wide assortment of saltwater fish from redfish and seatrout to snook and tarpon. The Zaragossa eventually became the Zara Spook and spawned an entire cottage lure industry of other plugs by other companies trying to mimic the mesmerizing action of the original model.
6. Dalton Special
This is a classic Florida-born bass plug dating back to Phillip Porter Dalton, born in Kentucky in 1878, and who started whittling white pine wood pieces into surface plugs after moving to South Florida in the 1930s. The Dalton Special gained notoriety in 1938 when Porter and some pals used the lure on Lake Okeechobee. Their banner catch of 55 largemouth was heralded in the Tampa Tribune complete with photo.
That story launched Dalton’s plug-making career, and he soon couldn’t keep up with hand-made wood-carving production. So he contracted with Shakespeare in Kalamazoo, Michigan to churn out his plugs to the tune of 100,000 per year.
The Dalton Special came in at least two sizes, 3 1/2- and 4-inches long, and in over a dozen colors and finishes. The large size (shown above) casts well, as it weighs 5/8-ounce.
There are double and triple treble-hook versions of Dalton Specials, and all have a unique cut-back nose that allows them to chug-skip at the surface during even a slow retrieve. The all-wood plug also has a spinner blade at the tail that rotates and churns water to draw attention from predator fish.
This is an iconic surface plug design that appeals to big bass as well today as it did during the time between the two World Wars.
7. Shakespeare Lucky Dog
While sometimes mistaken for a Paw Paw Moonlight lure, the Shakespeare Lucky Dog is a productive old bass catcher in its own right.
Made of wood, with surface-churning spinners fore and aft, this triple-treble-hook model floats high and is constructed to hold even the heaviest largemouth. It has an appealing baitfish-scale finish, and was made in Hong Kong for Shakespeare’s American bass market.
Its large painted eyes and red gill cover slots are baitfish-like, making it appealing to bass stalking the plug as it’s fished with a classic stop-and-go retrieve in calm, clear water.
Measuring five inches, it’s a big mouthful for even hefty predators, making it ideal for avoiding smaller yearling fish.
8. Eppinger Osprey Wobbler
Eppinger’s is famed for their superb Dardevle spoons, but few anglers are aware that Eppinger also produced a line of wooden plugs beginning in 1957. There were several sizes and designs of wooden Osprey Wobbler topwater plugs that purposely resemble the effective South Bend Bass Oreno.
Osprey Wobblers were popular with anglers in the Detroit area who worked nearby rivers for bass and walleyes, but the plug’s appeal spread quickly to anglers in other regions, as well. Osprey Wobblers cast well, floated nicely, wobbled and dove during a retrieve and still catch plenty of fish.
The little 2 1/2-inch, 3/8-ounce Osprey Bass Plug (shown above) was especially popular with smallmouth bass stream and river anglers.
The lures were made under contract to Eppinger by plant manager Ed Jurawitz, who used the same bright and durable paints and finishes that made Eppinger spoons a household name.
9. Creek Chub Darter
The all-wood Creek Chub Darter is one of the most recognizable of old collectible bass plugs. Minnow-like in shape and size, countless were made. Karl White, author of the widely acclaimed and definitive book Fishing Tackle Antiques & Collectibles considers it one of the first lures a collector should learn to recognize and perhaps own.
Creek Chub Darters were made in many models, sizes, and colors—some with glass eyes, others painted eyes, some with no eyes. A few even had spinners attached at the rear. Some old and rare wood models sell for up to $500, according to White.
The Darter floats at rest, but when worked it dives shallow, wiggles, and, well, darts—thus its name. This Midget Darter model is 3/8-ounce, wood with painted eyes, measuring 3-inches overall. Hooks are large and well designed with plenty of bite or gap to barb even the biggest bass or smallmouths that strike. Darters also were popular with snook and tarpon anglers because of their action, durability, and ease of casting.
10. “The Mystery Plug”
Properly identifying an old lure isn’t always easy, even by gray-beard anglers who’ve tied on countless plugs over many years. Such is the case with this lure. It has a classic minnow-like shape, with a subtle silver-gray scale finish and a pair of good-size treble hooks, with what seem to be glass eyes. It measures 3 1/4-inches, and weighs 3/8-ounce.
The most distinctive features of this unusual old topwater are the pair of pointed, angular wings molded into its head that position at the waterline when the lure is at rest. When a retrieve is started the wings cause the plug to dive a bit underwater and wiggle in a lifelike minnow fashion.
A pair of line-tie rings at the lure nose allow an angler to tie his line to one for a higher, presumably shallower diving retrieve, the other for a deeper dive. The plug looks good on the water and it catches bass. Who, when, and where the plug was made is a mystery. Let us know if you have ideas on its name and origin.