Jitterbug still catches its share of topwater bass

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The first bass I ever caught on a topwater lure came more than 50 years ago, but that event is etched in my memory as clearly as if it occurred last week.

I was in my early teens and had ridden my bike to a large pond in the early evening. My tackle was a flimsy, solid-fiberglass rod and a cheap spinning reel. Tied to the end of my line was a ™-ounce Jitterbug lure, white with a red head.

I don’t recall what I paid for that lure back in the mid-1960s, but I’m sure it put a sizable dent in my meager fishing-tackle budget at the time. Back then, Jitterbugs came packaged with a sheet of guidelines detailing some recommended methods for fishing that unique topwater bass bait.

I had dutifully studied those instructions and chose what seemed to be the most plausible strategy for that evening. I crawled up to the edge of water on my hands and knees to keep a low profile and avoid spooking any bass cruising the shoreline. Once in position, I launched the Jitterbug out onto the surface of the pond. As per the directions, I allowed the lure to sit motionless until all the ripples from its landing had disappeared and then cranked the reel handle to move the lure just a few inches. A large swirl ensued after that maneuver, and my little Jitterbug disappeared into that shadowy vortex.

Although overcome with a combination of disbelief and amazement, I quickly leaned back on the rod to set the hook. The line tightened with the weight of the fish, and I reeled furiously. Shortly, the largemouth was flopping about at the water’s edge, allowing me to clamp my left thumb on its lower jaw and hoist it up, just like all the pictures I had seen in the outdoor magazines. That bass was a good one, 16 or 17 inches long, and by far, the biggest fish I had bested so far in my young angling career. That experience, however, also hooked me on fishing artificial lures and accumulating thousands of them in the decades since that fateful evening.

The persistent rain in recent weeks has kept me off the water more often than not, so I’ve used some of that downtime to attempt to organize my out-of-control lure collection. As I inventoried a stack of boxes, one of them contained several Jitterbugs in various sizes and colors. That brought to mind the story I just related and also the realization that I probably haven’t even cast, much less caught a fish on a Jitterbug in 20 years or more. I plan to rectify that situation in the coming weeks (if it ever stops raining) and stowed several of those classic baits in my working tackle bag.

The Jitterbug is indeed a classic bass lure that has been around for 80 years, and one that still will catch its share of bass. But like so many old-time favorites, it has been shoved aside by so much of the “latest and greatest” stuff shoved on us anglers by slick advertising and “pros” who are well paid to “like” whatever their sponsors make. The Jitterbug was created in 1938 by Fred Arbogast of Akron, Ohio. Arbogast was an avid fisherman and a competitive caster who set several world records during competitions in the 1920s. He began tinkering with fishing lures and started producing lures commercially by the early 1930s. The Hawaiian Wiggler and the Hula Popper were two of his early creations.

Arbogast’s first Jitterbugs were fashioned from wood and featured a streamlined oval body and the unique metal lip that gives the lure action like no other topwater bait. That wide lip on the Jitterbug makes the lure slowly wobble from side to side on retrieve as well as making a subtle plopping, gurgling noise. That commotion probably sounds like some small injured creature swimming along the surface and triggers the predatory instincts of bass and other gamefish.

A Jitterbug can be fished with a stop-and-go retrieve like the one I used to catch my first big bass. In clear water, it seems like bass will come close to inspect the lure at rest and will then attack it when it begins to move again. In dirty water or after dark, a steady retrieve is often the ticket as bass seem to home in on the steady plop-plop-plop action of the Jitterbug. I have many fond memories of listing to listening to a Jitterbug gurgling in the dark on some night-fishing excursion. Most of the time you will hear the strike, in the form of a loud splash, before you feel it. Just make sure not to set the hook at the sound of the splash. Keep reeling and the bass usually grabs the bait. When you feel the fish, hit him. Many times in the dark, a bass will blow up on the lure without taking it, and if you swing at the sound and miss the fish, you will have a lure coming at you at high speed in the dark. Take it from someone who has been hit by a few after-dark topwaters, it’s not fun.

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