I’m betting that just about everyone who follows Bass Fishing Archives has cast a line with a Jitterbug or Hula Popper tied to its end. These lures are a part of bass fishing lore, and are so effective that they’re still in production and still catching bass today. They and several other iconic baits are the brainchild of one of the best bait designers in history, Fred Arbogast. Fred’s life story is a fascinating one and is the subject of a fairly recent book by Kevin Virden, titled “Fred Arbogast: A Biography of Akron’s Greatest Angler.”
Virden’s biography of Arbogast was published in 2017 by The Whitefish Press, publishers of “a wide variety of books on fishing history and fishing tackle.” It’s an easy read that quickly and concisely covers a lot of ground in hitting the high points of Arbogast’s life in the field of sport fishing. But while it’s a relatively short book – 185 pages – don’t let its brevity fool you. Virden has loaded his biography with black & white photographs, a great many quotes from people in Fred’s life, and an extensive bibliography. The man has done his research.
Virden lays a solid foundation by spending the first three chapters exploring the Arbogast family tree, beginning in the 16th century with Hans Arbogast, a German forefather to Fred. It was a perilous time for the Arbogast clan, with constant wars in the region of Western Germany. But the family persevered and expanded, eventually growing a branch of the tree in America in the mid-18th century, when 13-year-old Michael Arbogast (Fred’s great-great-great-grandfather) came alone to the New World in 1749. The Arbogasts became prominent citizens and players in the development of the newly formed America, and their fortunes continued to improve over the generations. It’s really an interesting and important exploration, because it reveals the kind of creative, hard-working stock that eventually spawned Fred Arbogast, the studious angler and innovative lure designer.
What I found absolutely fascinating in Virden’s biography was his detailed exploration of competitive casting and Fred Arbogast’s mastery of the sport. While most of us are probably aware that tournament casting competitions take place today, I have to say that the widespread popularity of the sport in the early 1900s took me a bit by surprise. Apparently, tournament casting was immensely popular, with national and world championship competitions being attended by throngs of spectators and the results publicized by major publications of the day. Fred Arbogast was one of the top championship caliber casters of his era, breaking more than one world record during his competitive years.
Virden presents a detailed look into the sport, of course highlighting Arbogast’s success as one of its premier competitors. He beautifully illustrates how Fred used his success as a champion caster in his other angling pursuits: one, to improve his bass fishing, to the point where he became well known and respected as a consistent and highly successful angler, and two, to successfully promote the bait company he started toward the end of his competitive casting career. It is this bait company which introduced Fred Arbogast to the larger fishing public and put his name in the annals of famous lure designers.
A passionate bass fisherman from an early age Arbogast was also, like many other anglers, a tinkerer and at-home designer of fishing lures. It seems that many anglers made at least a few of their own lures during the Depression. What made Fred Arbogast different was his passion for bass fishing. To him it was more than just a hobby or a way to put food on the table. Virden explains that following a day of fishing with his father where the two came home without a single fish, Fred became fairly well obsessed with the desire to improve his fishing so that he’d never get skunked again. This meant studying bass behavior, perfecting his casting, and designing the most natural, life-like baits he could.
Virden devotes specific chapters to each of Arbogast’s early iconic lure designs: the Spin-tail Kicker, the Tin Liz and its various permutations, the Hawaiian Wiggler, the Jitterbug, the Hula Dancer, and of course the Hula Popper. His discussion of each is detailed and fascinating, as he explores not only the history of each lure, but the materials used, the details of its patent chronology, the advertising employed and more. For vintage bait obsessives this information is invaluable.
Virden also discusses the inner workings and progression of the Arbogast company, from its early beginnings in Fred’s home to its later growth and ultimate purchase by PRADCO. He even has a chapter devoted to Arbogast’s fishing buddies, who played a significant role in both Fred’s personal life and in the history of his company. In short, Virden covers just about every aspect of Arbogast’s life and company that is angling related, and he does so in an engaging and enthusiastic style. It’s easy to see that Virden is a fan of Fred Arbogast, as his prose is littered with glowing references to Fred’s creative mind and acumen in the fishing lure business. It makes for fun reading and I found myself frequently smiling at Virden’s enthusiasm for his subject.
Fred Arbogast died way too young, at only 53 years of age. I can’t help but wonder what funky, imaginative and effective lures he would have designed had he lived longer. I will say that I won’t ever tie on a Jitterbug or Hula Popper again without thinking appreciatively of Fred Arbogast, “Akron’s greatest angler,” and his enormous contributions to the sport of bass fishing.
If you are interested in any of Virden’s books, a few of them can be found at The Whitefish Press. For Virden’s full list of books, you can find them for sale on his Amazon page. Trust me, you if you’re a fan of old bass fishing history, all of his books are worthy of reading.