Bass-Oreno color chart from 1941 catalog.

Anyone who has fished for any substantial length of time or has a cursory knowledge of bass fishing history knows what a Bass-Oreno is. In “Bass-Oreno, World’s Greatest Plug,” I wonder if this old bait is indeed the finest plug to ever hit a lake’s surface. Frankly, I’m a little conflicted, but the Bass-Oreno is certainly on the list of contenders. But surely the South Bend Bass-Oreno was the world’s greatest plug of the first half of the 20th century…right? I guess it depends on how you define “plug” and how you define “greatest.”

I’ve been wanting to write about the Bass-Oreno for years. It’s the lure I grew up throwing almost before I was old enough to have my own rod, reel and tacklebox. My Dad threw a Bass-Oreno. So I threw one too. I loved the heft of the lure, the “ker-plunk!” sound it made when it hit the water, the way it bobbed slightly before it sat still and quiet, the beautiful wide back-and-forth wobble it made as I tracked it under the water’s surface back to the boat, and the absolute thrill of seeing a fat largemouth bass or northern pike appear out of nowhere to T-bone it before it got there. 

When I was little my Dad would take me fishing on Stump Lake in northern Wisconsin, a shallow lake where he grew up and his parents’ had their home. The name of the lake was also its descriptor. It was a shallow lake filled with tree stumps, and there were chunky bass claiming every one of them as home. It had a feeder creek that cut through my grandparents’ property and a deeper channel that ran through its middle and entered larger Rice Lake. We’d row up through the creek to the lake, with my Dad invariably casting either a Shakespeare Mousie or a red-headed South Bend Bass-Oreno. I’d watch with fascination as he’d cast that Bass-Oreno to the edge of a stump, let it sit for a half minute, give it a twitch, let it sit, twitch it, and wait for the blow up. If a bass did, in fact, inhale the plug he’d set the hook with a fury and the fight would be on. If a bass didn’t hit he’d reel the plug in slowly and I’d watch, mesmerized, as it would dance back and forth in the clear water. Once in a while a pike or bass would dart out and violently attack the red and white lure as it came in, which was mighty exciting because you could watch it happen in real time. It was thrilling. So yeah, I’m a little sentimental about the Bass-Oreno.

My Dad with a nice Wisconsin largemouth, 1966.

Bass-Oreno History

Let’s talk about the history of how the Bass-Oreno came to be. It’s a well-worn tale that’s been told in other places, but it’s worth telling again. Woodworker James Stanley Olds, born 11/16/1868 in Michigan, completed a fishing lure he called the Wobbler sometime in 1914. At the urging of a neighbor, Olds tried to get several lure companies in the region interested in producing the Wobbler. None of them bit, until he showed it to the struggling South Bend Bait Company, located in Indiana, about 40 miles away from Old’s home in Benton Harbor, MI. In February of 1915, the South Bend Bait Company and James Olds (along with Olds’ friend and attorney Wilbur Cunningham) signed a contract giving South Bend the right to manufacture the Wobbler. Interestingly, part of the agreement included the provision that Olds would get a penny royalty for every Wobbler lure that South Bend sold. If only James Olds knew what was to become of his revolutionary lure!

Olds filed a patent a few months later, and the following December, 1916, the patent was granted. South Bend initially sold the new bait as the South Bend Wobbler, but that name didn’t last long. They soon changed it to the Bass-Oreno. There’s some lore associated with this name change, and no one seems 100% confident as to which story is accurate, but every story centers around the word “oreno,” which, phonetically, was part of a slang term – “peacherino” – of the day used to describe something special, sexy, or desirous. Both stories involve South Bend owner Ivar Hennings. One being Hennings’ offhand remark that he wished he could think of a better name for such a “peacherino” of a bait. Another story has Hennings in a diner when a pretty woman walked past. A customer exclaimed something like, “What a peacherino!” Anyway, “erino” stuck in Hennings’ mind, though he changed the spelling to “oreno,” and the Wobbler soon became the Bass-Oreno. It made perfect sense and rolled off the tongue. It rolled off the tongue so well, in fact, that South Bend named a whole mess of lures Oreno’s: Surf-Oreno, Pike-Oreno, Teas-Oreno, Dive-Oreno, Trix-Oreno, Plunk-Oreno, Strike-Oreno and more. But the Bass-Oreno was by far the most popular. Because the simple plug was a bass catching machine.

James S. Olds "Wobbler" patent, 1916.

The Bass-Oreno became the flagship product for South Bend, lifted the company out of financial danger, and helped make it a juggernaut among tackle companies. Upon its initial release it sold for 50-cents and came in six colors. Over the course of its nearly 90+ year production it would come in so many color combinations and production variations (tack eyes, glass eyes, no eyes, hardware changes, etc.) that it’s doubtful that anyone really knows just how many hardware and color combinations were made. The Bass-Oreno was manufactured for around 90 years, making it one of the longest production run plugs in existence, along with lures like the Arbogast Jitterbug and the Heddon Lucky 13 (which are still being made). It is also one of the most copied plugs ever, perhaps beaten in that regard only by the original Rapala Finnish Minnow and the Big-O. 

Original South Bend Bass-Oreno, glass eyes model.

In late 1964 Gladding purchased controlling interest in South Bend. In 1982 Luhr Jensen purchased the license to make South Bend lures. Then, in 2005, Rapala purchased Luhr Jensen and that was the end of production of South Bend baits. (Although I think Blue Fox, under Rapala’s ownership, still produces one of South Bend’s old lures, the Super Duper.) I was unable to find the exact date Luhr Jensen stopped producing the Bass-Oreno, but I found one source that claimed they made them right up until they were purchased by Rapala. I did also find one special, limited edition Bass-Oreno released by Luhr Jensen in 2005, so I’m assuming they did continue production of them until that time. Luhr Jensen did a fine job manufacturing the Bass-Oreno. The quality was good and they frequently released special edition runs to honor South Bend’s contributions to the industry. They even made a special red, white and blue collector’s edition Bass-Oreno for B.A.S.S., which was released, I believe, in the year 2000. This lure was an homage to the original red, white and blue Bass-Oreno that was reportedly given as a gift to people who bought $50 U.S. Savings Bonds during the Great Depression.

Original South Bend Bass-Oreno on the left, Luhr Jensen 80th Anniversary Special Edition on the right. Luhr Jensen did a respectful job in producing South Bend baits.
B.A.S.S. Collector's Edition red, white & blue Bass-Oreno.

World’s Greatest Plug?

As I said earlier, a fishing plug is a little hard to define. There’s a lot of variety and shades of gray when it comes to defining what is or isn’t a plug. Generally speaking, a plug is thought to be a hard-bodied (wood or plastic) lure with some sort of lip or indentation, bulky in nature, that has a vibrating or wobbling action when retrieved. Plugs generally float when at rest, but can dive, thanks to the lip, to varying depths when retrieved. But even this loose definition is kind of open to interpretation. Plug is kind of an umbrella term. The Bass-Oreno certainly qualifies as a plug, though that term isn’t used much these days.

And the greatest? Well, we could go by popularity or numbers sold, fish caught, production life, influence on other lure designs, etc. But how many other baits qualify for the title as well? The original Rapala? The Big-O and its children? The Jitterbug? Any number of plugs. But judging the world’s greatest plug is a lot like determining what the greatest rock band is. It’s different for each of us. It really comes down to personal preference. Since I grew up casting a Bass-Oreno and an original Rapala, my allegiances are mixed. My earliest memory is of the Bass Oreno, so it is my sentimental favorite. 

And frankly, I just used the “world’s greatest” bit as a hook to talk about the Bass-Oreno. It’s a great lure with a great history. It helped turn around the fortunes of a lure company, to become a force to be reckoned with. And for a lot of anglers it’s a plug that brings back memories of a simpler time, when we got to fish with our Dads, and that’s an important part of bass fishing history for all of us. So yeah, right now, as I write this and think about those days, the Bass-Oreno is the world’s greatest plug, you bet.

B.A.S.S. Collector's Edition red, white & blue Bass-Oreno.