STORIES THE VIEW UPSTREAM By: Keith 'Catfish' Sutton, WorldFishingNetwork.com The Jig That Changed Fishing One day a man named Bill Upperman single-handedly improved the sport of fishing The Upperman Bucktail invented by New Jersey angler Bill Upperman became one of the most popular fishing lures of all time. (Keith Sutton photo) Many anglers consider jigs the most consistently productive of all fishing lures. These simple enticements can be used to catch almost any type of freshwater or saltwater fish, from bass to barracudas. They’re relatively inexpensive; come in many styles, sizes and colors; and are found in the tackle boxes of anglers worldwide. No one knows for sure where or when jigs originated. The earliest versions were made centuries ago by primitive fishermen who fashioned crude renditions from bone or shell. Much later, but before the days of mechanization and mile-long nets, commercial fishermen working from dories on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland handlined bright diamond jigs for cod, pollock and mackerel. Strong-backed crews on larger boats in the Pacific used big feathered jigs, heavy bamboo poles and stout lines to catch tuna, bonito and albacore. It wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s, however, that jigs became widely popular with American recreational anglers, and we have a New Jersey fishermen – and the U.S. Navy – to thank for that. Bill Upperman lived near Atlantic City and loved fishing. He and his brother Morrie often could be seen in a boat plying the coastal waters of New Jersey for striped bass and other fish. Sometime in the 1930s, Bill was fishing under a bridge but not getting any bites. Digging through his tackle, he found an old-fashioned leadhead jig dressed with the stiff hair from a white-tailed deer’s tail. He tied it on, started casting and soon was reeling in fish. Because the jig worked so well, Bill soon started making his own, pouring spoonfuls of lead into small molds. Most jigs of the time had a hook eye on the lure’s “nose,” but this didn’t allow the bait to run naturally when retrieved. Bill changed the design so the hook eye was positioned on one side of the jighead – the same basic design still used most often today. With the eye thus positioned, the jig hung perpendicular to the angler’s line when trolled or vertically fished, giving it a much more realistic look fish couldn’t resist. Bill painted each jig and continued using bucktail for the dressing because it was much more durable than the feathers also used on jigs of the time. After some experimentation, he also gave the jig a unique lima bean shape. This, and the repositioning of the hook eye, eliminated another objectionable trait of prior lures – the tendency to produce a bubble as water passed through the hook eye. Fish often would strike at the bubble and miss the hook entirely. Bill and brother Morrie caught lots of fish on these redesigned jigs, and when word got around, other folks wanted the jigs, too. Eventually, Bill started selling so many that he gave up his contracting business to go full time into the jig-making business. He applied for a patent on the Upperman Bucktail on November 5, 1941, and the patent was granted March 30, 1943. Bill sold a lot of jigs in the late 1930s and earliest part of the 1940s, making them with deer tails purchased from several sources in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New York. But on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed the American fleet in Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. That might have dealt a death blow to the infant Upperman Bucktail business, but by a strange quirk of fate, the government had a special need, and Bill was able to fulfill it. The Navy included survival kits in all life rafts aboard military planes and ships. The items inside were those best calculated to sustain life if the crews were cast afloat for days, or possibly even weeks. Officials wanted to include a fishing lure for food gathering, and after testing many different ones, the Upperman Bucktail was chosen for its compact size, durability and, most of all, its outstanding ability to quickly tempt almost any fish that swam. Bill was soon supplying hundreds of thousands of his bucktails to the Navy. Exactly how many servicemen those jigs saved will never be accurately counted. But countless fishermen were introduced to the Upperman Bucktail as a result of the war, and many, upon their return home, began purchasing the lures and using them to catch a variety of fish in both fresh and salt water. Many imitations appeared on the market, but none had the star billing Upperman’s Bucktails received as a result of World War II. Bill’s business exploded. An ad for Bill Upperman’s Bucktails, published after World War II, says, “Fishermen: Here is the lure you’ve been looking for. The hand-tied Bucktails are proven fish catchers in both fresh and salt water. The Upperman Bucktail is designed to fish with an action that is natural and lifelike at any depth. There is a Bucktail for every type of fishing: surf rod, plug rod, spinning, fly rod … They will catch fish with a minimum of manipulation. Eight sizes – 8/0 to No. 4. The right size for every type of fishing and every type of line. Whether you fish in lakes, rivers or oceans, you’ll bring home a bigger catch with an Upperman Bucktail.” No doubt publicity like this helped sell many jigs, but the best PR for the lure came on Aug. 5, 1959, when Bill’s brother Morrie, trolling with Bill and a friend, used an Upperman Bucktail to catch a world-record and New Jersey state-record striped bass weighing 62 pounds, 9 ounces. Dubbed Big Ben, the huge fish was taken to a local bar where it sat on black-draped buckets of ice for a proper funeral. Hundreds of worshiping fishermen stopped by to pay their respects. The fish was then skinned for a wall mount, and its fillets were eaten by the Uppermans and their friends. The mounted fish hung on the bar wall for decades, no doubt prompting many people who saw it to buy their first Upperman Bucktail. Bill Upperman died in 1960. But even today, almost 75 years since he received the patent for his groundbreaking lure, Bill’s bucktails and their imitators still find a place in the tackle boxes of untold millions of anglers who consider them on of the most effective fishing lures ever invented.