Uncle Josh pamphlet, cover

Cal Johnson…the name is easily recognizable, to Midwest folks especially. Johnson’s primary claim to fame, in the memory banks of people today, is the musky he caught in the summer of 1949. A world record 67 1/2 pound, 60 1/4 inch monster of a fish. But Johnson was so much more than the world record holder for the “fish of a thousand casts.” He was also a prolific writer, longtime angling editor for Sports Afield magazine, radio and television fishing show pioneer, and a man who helped lay the foundation for many angling experts to follow. Johnson also lent his name to quite a number of how-to pamphlets published by tackle and lure companies. In Cal Johnson Writes for Uncle Josh, we’ll look at one such pamphlet as a jumping off point for further discussion of this remarkable man and his place in the history of fishing in general and bass fishing specifically.

The Uncle Josh Bait Company released the small pamphlet “How to Fish With Uncle Josh Baits,” I’m guessing, sometime in the early 1940s. There is no date on the pamphlet, but the general condition and look of the publication says, to me, to be of the 1940s era. If any readers happen to know the precise date of this publication please let us know. But the marriage between Cal Johnson and Uncle Josh would be logical in this time period, as Johnson was a well-respected angling expert and was at the height of his fame as a multimedia celebrity during this time. Besides writing for several newspapers, other magazines, fishing and boat motor companies, Johnson also authored at least two books on fishing, one on bass fishing specifically: The Fly-Rod for Bass, For the Novice and the Expert, published 1925 (reprinted 1934).

Johnson had also been the angling editor of Sports Afield and Outdoor America magazines since around 1930. He would be succeeded as Sports Afield‘s angling editor by none other than Jason Lucas, author of Lucas on Bass Fishing.

Johnson was writing in an era when multispecies fishing was the expected norm, and bass fishing was popular but still in its infancy. Trout and fly fishing were still the top dogs with many writers and the fishing public. But Johnson was from the Midwest, where non-trout species and baitcasting, I’m guessing, likely garnered at least as many, if not more readers. As such it would make sense for Johnson to write a book targeting bass anglers specifically, which is what he did with The Fly-Rod for Bass. And while Johnson’s focus in the book was fly fishing, he was recognized as an expert in both fly casting and bait casting. In fact, Johnson also showed his love for bass fishing in one of the several outdoor films he was featured in. Author and musky guide John Dettloff says that Johnson was featured in several Canadian Motion Picture Bureau motion pictures back in the 1920s. One of those films was titled The Quest of the Bronze Back, a “wildly popular” smallmouth bass fishing film in fishing clubs across the country at the time.

Cal Johnson with bass. Photo credit: John Dettloff
Page from Uncle Josh pamphlet.

Onto the Uncle Josh pamphlet. In reading Johnson’s text, one thing that caught my interest is that there seems to be a pretty big difference in how pork bait was used decades ago compared to how it’s used today. Today, pork is probably mostly used as a trailer, and rarely if ever used solely, by itself. Yet when this pamphlet was published 80 or so years ago, Cal Johnson talked primarily about how to use pork bait as a lure unto itself. He talks repeatedly about how to hook the pork bait, be it chunk, frog, or strip, with a single plain or weedless hook. Rigging the pork in such fashion, Johnson discusses how to impart action to the pork by instructing the angler to manipulate the rod, rod tip, and speed of retrieve. This is really good stuff, and I’m doubtful that 95% of bass anglers today use pork in this manner.

In discussing how to rig the green frog pork bait, Johnson admits there are several methods that can be used. He lists four of them, with the fourth on the list being to use it as a trailer on a silver spoon (Johnson Silver Minnow?). But I get the feeling that he doesn’t view the pork as a trailer in this set-up. Rather, he seems to imply that the spoon is added to give the pork a bit of flash. In addition to simply rigging the pork with a plain or weedless hook, other options are to hook it to a spinner rig, much like you’d attach a plastic worm or nightcrawler to a spinner rig. The star here is definitely the pork bait. It is the spotlight lure, and anything else that might be attached to it is done so to add to the attractiveness of the pork.

In one instance, Johnson even recommends adding a pork strip to a pork chunk, to create a livelier lure. “Or one can make a slit through the rear portion of the pork chunk,” he advises, “and thread a bass size pork strip through the slit to add action.” He also recommends pulling strips of red felt through the front end of an Uncle Josh Pollywoggler chunk, to serve as an added attractant. Manipulating pork as in these examples speaks to the view of pork bait as a stand-alone lure. It’s funny how we sometimes get so used to viewing something in one particular way, and how tough it can be to see that thing as something else. Truth be told, I’ve always seen pork as a trailer, never as a stand-alone lure that can be manipulated to behave in different ways. Cal Johnson and Uncle Josh, in this little pamphlet, have clicked on a lightbulb over my head.  I’m definitely going to attempt to bass fish this year using pork on a single hook, and try to impart action to it in my retrieves.

 

Cal Johnson in wooden boat, smoking a pipe. Photo credit: John Dettloff
Cal Johnson bass book ad.
Cal Johnson in boat. Note the Champion Outboard Motor and Aluma-Craft boat, both companies for which Johnson was a spokesman in the 1940s. Photo credit: John Dettloff

Johnson must have been an ardent bass fisherman, especially with a fly rod (although there are photos of him holding bass and baitcasting gear). Not only did he write the previously mentioned book, The Fly-Rod for Bass, but he touts the then-new Uncle Josh Fly Rod Frog as a killer on smallmouth bass. The Fly Rod Frog is the Mini-Me to the larger Green Frog pork bait, at only 1 1/4 inches long, 1/2 inch wide and 1/40 ounce. I’d love to get my hands on a jar or two of these, especially at the 1940s price of 25 cents for a jar of 6.

Johnson ends with what I gather might be his favorite Uncle Josh pork bait, the Pork Strip (the Bass Pork Strip, 4-inches long by 3/8 inches wide). He declares, “Action is perhaps the greatest merit possessed by any fishing lure. Regardless of what the lure is made of, If it does not have a lively action it proves a difficult lure to fish with. That’s where the pork strip lure ranks high. The thin, flexible, wiggly, wavey white pork strip is always ready to perform antics that attract game fish. The pork strip is alive with fascinating action–action that is possessed within the body of the lure itself.”

Cal Johnson with Wisconsin Governor Oscar Rennebohm and Johnson's world record musky. Photo credit: John Dettloff

This small Uncle Josh pamphlet is just one of a number of promotional writings Cal Johnson did for various fishing companies during his over 30-year career as a fishing celebrity. His prose is smooth and easily readable. His experience and expertise obvious. Cal Johnson was one of the early multimedia pioneers in angling and the outdoor lifestyle. I’ll rephrase what Cal Johnson expert John Dettloff says on his website dedicated to Johnson: You could say that Jason Lucas and succeeding angling writers such as A.J. McClane, Homer Circle and Stan Fagerstrom, were dining at the table set by people like Cal Johnson. Johnson also laid a few bricks in the foundation for multimedia anglers like Virgil Ward and Al Lindner, and shows like The American Sportsman.

Just as we tip our hats to angler authors like James Henshall, Jason Lucas, and Robert Page Lincoln, we should also acknowledge the contributions of other fishing writers who added to the history and catalog. Cal Johnson is one of those men. It just so happens that Cal Johnson caught one of the biggest muskies that’s ever been caught, a world record. That feat, which he accomplished near the end of his life, has eclipsed, in the minds of many, a 30-year career of prolific writing and broadcasting about fishing. It also pigeonholed Johnson as a muskie fisherman alone. But he was also a heckuva bass angler, with both fly rod and baitcaster.

We hope you enjoyed Cal Johnson Writes for Uncle Josh. To view each page and read what Johnson wrote in “How to Fish Uncle Josh Baits,” click on the first image in the gallery below, then use the arrows to scroll through. I think you’ll find it interesting, and Johnson’s discussion of how to use pork bait is just as relevant today as it was then.


GALLERY – CAL JOHNSON WRITES for UNCLE JOSH