James Heddon was just killing time one day in the late 19th century, whiling away the hours as he carved on a piece of wood. Taking a break, he tossed it into the swirling waters of Dowagiac Creek. Suddenly a large bass rolled up, grabbed the piece of wood and disappeared into the depths.
A lightbulb went off in Heddon’s brain. Thinking about that event, he set to work carving another chunk of wood to the approximate shape of a minnow. Then he used his tool shop to add a set of hooks to it and painted it. With that act, he created the first artificial fishing plug.
Taking it out on the water, he found it did just what he hoped it would. It caught bass, and lots of them. Making several more, he fine-tuned his carving technique and hook mounting procedure. As the lures took on a more polished look, he set up shop and formed one of the country’s first lure manufacturing companies in 1894.
The Heddon Company was destined to produce some of the greatest fishing lures of all time. Almost every fisherman has heard of the Lucky 13. That’s one of Heddon’s creations. Some of the other lures his company produced include the Tiny Torpedo, Sonar, Bayou Boggie, River Runt and Crazy Crawler. All were great baits and eagerly accepted by the fishing public.
The Bayou Boggie was the precursor to the modern Rat-L-Trap and Spot lures. The Torpedo is still one of the greatest topwater lures ever made. It catches tons of fish every year in a wide variety of sizes from the “Teeny” on up.
But one of the most enduring lures Heddon ever devised was the Zara Spook. Anyone who is familiar with topwater fishing likely knows about this lure. It was originally called the Zaragossa, because it had a wiggle “like the gals down on Zaragossa Street,” said its creator, referring to a red light district in Pensacola at the time it was invented in 1922. Redesigned in 1939, the bait’s name was shortened to Zara Spook, in reference to the skeleton-like pattern painted on its flanks.
No other plug has the action of the Zara Spook for “walking the dog,” a side-to-side motion that skilled anglers give these lures that drives gamefish wild. Originally made of white cedar, the Zara Spook is now manufactured out of plastic, but still has the same seductive action.
Tactics: Cast out, let the lure rest for a moment, then rhythmically twitch the bait with sharp jerks, giving slack line in between. The lure should jump first to one side, and then the other. Once you get the hang of it, this “walking the dog” presentation is easy to use and drives bass pike, muskies and pickerel mad when they’re on shallow flats, near shore, or schooling on top in open water during summer and fall. Also try a more traditional approach of simply twitching the lure, then pausing.
The smaller Puppy and Pooch models are particularly effective for drawing strikes from river smallmouths. Try these on the Shenandoah River or nearby Potomac and Rappahannock on a hot sunny day when damselflies are skimming above the water and solid surface action should be your reward. The best retrieve in that situation is a twitching and pausing presentation.
Couple this lure with a few grubs, spinnerbaits and soft plastic jerkbaits and you’ll be set for a great day of smallmouth fishing.
Note: A reader pointed out that creating mineral licks as described in this column recently are not legal in many local counties, since special Chronic Wasting Disease regulations were established. In the CWD Disease Management Areas including Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah, Warren, Page, Loudoun, Fauquier, Rappahannock and Culpeper, mineral licks cannot be created. Be sure to use this deer project in counties other than these as long as these special regulations are in effect.