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PENCIL PLUGS OF MICHIGAN
In that great state of Michigan, where the art of wooden fishing plug making began, so also began the creation of the wooden pencil bait. The early french explorers called that entire waterway from the foot of Lake Huron to the headwaters of Lake Erie the "Straights of Detroit". The word Detroit in french actually means straight. This area in which I'm talking about is the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River.
Father Louis Hennepin description of Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River region in 1679.(when in company with LaSalle on the first sailing ship of the Great Lakes "The Griffon")
"The banks of the Streight are vast meadows, and the Prospect is terminated with some Hills covered with Vinyards, Trees bearing good Fruit, Groves, and Forests, so well dispos'd, that one would think Nature alone could not have made, without the help of Art, so charming a Prospect. That Country is stock'd with Stags, Wild Goats, & Bears, which are good for food, and not fierce as in other countries; some think they are better than our Pork. Turkey-cocks and Swans are there also very common; and our Men brought several other Beasts and Birds, whose Names are unknown to us, but they are extraordinary relishing.
The Forests are chiefly made up of Walnut Trees, Chestnut -Trees, Plum -Trees, and Pear- Trees, loaded with their own Fruit and Vines. There is also abundance of Timber fit for Building; so that those who shall be so happy as to inhabit that Noble Country, cannot but remember with Gratitude those who have discovered the way, by venturing to sail upon an unknown Lake for above one hundred Leagues".
This area was not only known for its large duck populations, but also the fishing is fantastic too. One fish in particular known to inhabit this fast running straight is the walleye, and it is the history of the unique style of fishing them I will address.
Probably the first method to catch walleyes on this straight was the hooked live minnow. As far as can be ascertained, the first use of artificial baits were produced in the mid to late- nineteenth century. Before the advent of the outboard motor the method of fishing walleyes from the river was by row boat. This early method usually required 2 men in the boat with one man rowing against the current while the other man wire lined the usually home-made pencil baits and McGintys. Before the advent of the trolling reel, river fisherman would use a flat notched wooden pine board to wrap their wire line around. To submerge the pencil bait to the proper depth a large 1 1/2 pound trolling sinker was used. This large sinker was necessary in the 6 mile an hour current of the St. Clair River.
The very earliest pencil plugs were always hand painted and were nothing more than a tapered wooden dowell with either a rounded off nose, or a slant back nose (no dado). These types of old pencil baits are the hardest to find. They vary in size from the smallest I've seen 1 inch, to the largest ones being 5-6 inches in length.
The next earliest type coming shortly later is the pencil plug which I call the "River Jack Type". This would be any pencil bait that has an inserted metal blade in the nose to control wobbling action. I have found some of these early plugs to have copper and aluminum nose blades. Some were either squared off or rounded off. Again these baits were entirely hand made and painted. Some time in the later stages of development in the river jack plug the use of an airbrush was applied for a more exact finish.
Currently known makers of this type of plug are; Walter " Bob" Strubing- Marine City, Michigan circa. 1930's (also a duck decoy carver)
Surecatch Co. - River Jack plug Circa. 1940's- St. Clair Michigan.
The last and most common pencil baits are what I call the cut dado, or V cut head. It is in this style that we are able to pinpoint and identify the most makers. This model of pencil plugs shows the wide variety of airbrushed finishes that we see today. I would say that this model was probably experimented with after the birth of the South Bend Bass Oreno in 1916. So to say it co-existed with the earlier river jack type would be accurate. Usually a good rule of thumb to identify the maker a dado nosed pencil bait is the eye. Almost all pencil bait makers were consistent in their partic- ular eye patterns. They used the same colors in the eyes, whether it be a red iris- black dot pupil, white iris- black dot pupil etc.. Although the maker would use thousands of paint patterns on his plugs, he almost never changed the eye style. As in any old fish decoy, it takes a trained eye to pick out the old paint patina on an old dado fronted pencil bait. I currently collect known makers of pencil baits in the 1950's or before.
--------THE EVOLUTION OF THE PENCIL BAIT IN PORT HURON, MICH-------
Port Huron, Michigan is located at the foot of Lake Huron and at the headwaters of the rapids of the St. Clair River. This area has always been known for its great walleye fishing. In the old days the Indians would row out to the passing steamers at the south end of Port Huron. The steamers would throw out a line to them and they would hitch a ride to the headwaters. They would then break away and drift down the fast river current jigging a live minnow for walleyes. The first pencil bait in the Port Huron area was nothing more than the cut off back of a wooden fountain pen. After the back was cut off the nose was rounded off. They were either painted black and silver or red and silver. These were the major colors found on this type of plug. One maker of this type of pencil in Port Huron was Joe Christy. They were made in the 1920's and 1930's, and the reason no lip or slant was applied to the nose was because of the fast current of the St. Clair River in this area.
The next maker of pencil baits I will address is Fred Slyford. Fred made his pencils in the 1940's and didn't have any problem selling them in war time to the many fisherman. What set his plugs aside from the rest is that they were all mostly small and delicate ranging from 1 1/2" to 3" in length. Most of them I've seen are all bullet nosed and they are hand painted. They have gold heads, white bodies with red spots.
Now we are coming to the 2 best known makers in Port Huron and they are Roy Meyers and Curley Searight. Roy and Curley made plugs together. Roy was born in Carsonville Mich. and moved to Port Huron in approx.1940. It is shortly after his arrival in Port Huron that he began making pencil plugs. His plugs varied in size from 3 inches to 5 inches in length. One of his trade marks was a patch of airbrushed red under the chin of the plug. He made a long tapered bullet nosed plug as well as a more blunt nosed bullet. All of his bullet noses were usually shorter than his dado nosed plugs. The next maker I would like to cover is Curley Searight. Curley may have learned pencil plug making from Meyers and he definitely was in business with Meyers as I have a plug card with both of their names stamped on it. Now Curley was a man who knew how to make a pencil bait. His plugs were all ran on a lathe and were made from red cedar blanks. He was probably the first to use the loose paint method in his painting process. The majority of his plugs were all dado head, except for a few examples that I have seen that are bullet nosed. If you have any plugs that look like they have a swirl paint pattern, hold on to them. To this day asked any walleye fisherman for a "Jakes Special",--orange, black and white swirls; or a "Mousie" --black, grey and white swirls, and you will have a hard time getting them away. These two plug patterns that Curley made are probably the most successful plugs for walleyes ever made. Curley also experimented with other paint patterns besides the swirl, but these are harder to find. Curley also made stubbys. Stubbys are a smaller and fatter walleye plug and they look very similar to the South Bend Babe Oreno. They are used in the mid summer months when the walleyes feed on crawfish. Curley painted his eyes with a red iris and black pupil when he painted other patterns besides the swirl. I've also seen white or silver iris's an black pupil. His very early baits were bullet nosed and were smaller than his later plugs. The taper to the tail was also more delicate. Some early plugs were stenciled on the bottom with an ink stamped "curley plug"., in silver lettering or red lettering. I have found that these marked plugs are hardest to come ac- cross. Curley was very prolific making thousands of plugs to be sold in gas stations, bait shops and hardware stores in the Port Huron, and Marysville area. He died in the 1970's.
The last maker of pencil plugs i would like to cover is Frank Weakland. Frank was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Marysville Mich. in the 1940's He owned a boat livery and bait shop on the St. Clair River from 1970- 1986 in Marysville. Frank was taught by Roy Meyers thus his plugs looked similar to Meyers'. Like Roy Meyers and Curley Searight, Frank made a Jakes Special and Mousie plug to keep up with the demand of the fisherman of of this area. Frank used sugar pine for his plug bodies hand lathing each one one at a time. Frank also made stubbys and most of his paint patterns found on his pencils were also found on his stubbys. Frank almost always made the eyes of his plugs sharp white iris and black pupil. Also a characteristic of his plugs had a slight bulge in the middle. Frank made tens of thousands of plugs from 1970-1995 thus making him on of the major plug manufactures of this region. Pencil plug collecting in my opinion is still in its infancy and many can be still bought at a reasonable price.
Here is a full card of pencil baits made by Roy Meyers out of Port Huron, Michigan All of them are in the swirl paint pattern which was perfected by himself and Curley Searight also out of Port Huron Michigan. Roy Meyers was born in Carsonville, Michigan and moved south to Port Huron sometime in the early 1940's. Many pencil plug makers on the straights tried to copy his swirl paint pattern to no avail. Do to the heavy competition along the river to sell their pencil plugs, both Meyers and Searight were reluctant to show others their painting technique.
Here are a few pencil plugs made by Steve Oravec out of Detroit Michigan. Oravec made plugs as early as the 1920's and can be considered the major pencil plug maker of the "straights". Aside from pencils he also made an enormous amount of McGinty lures, which are also used to troll for walleyes at night. An unusual trait he used for making pencil plugs was the die stamped manufactured lip that he attached to each of his baits with 2 screws. It is said that he made enough money from the sale of his trolling baits to build a house on the St. Clair River
Here are a few pencil plugs believed to have been made by Woolfred Minnich from Algonac, Michigan. Notice the large painted eyes. Woolfred and his brother Ed both owned a bait shop near the North Channel of the St. Clair River where it empties into Lake St. Clair.
Here are a group of pencils made by Fred Slyford out of Port Huron, Michigan. Fred's plug style was unusual in that they were bullet nosed and without the cut dado heads usually found in this region. In the strong 6 knot current of the headwaters of the St. Clair River, these worked very well when trolled for Walleye. This was his style of making plugs and he made very few in the late 1940's and 1950's.
Here are a group of plugs made by the"Peters" bait shop. They are all dado nosed and are quite large for a pencil bait. This small company was located near St. Clair Michigan. The plug in the middle is stencil painted "Peters". This allowed identification for the other 4 which were unmarked, but in the same body shape and paint pattern. These plugs looked to be made in the 1940's.
Joe Christy from Port Huron, Michigan. These are fashioned from the backs of wooden fountain pens used at the time. These were normally found in 2 colors. red-silver, black-silver as the ones you see here. note: ( It wasn't necessary to be too fancy with colors on your pencil baits back then because of the abundant numbers of walleye in the straights). Joe would have made these in the 1930's
Here is a very early pencil bait found in Marine City, Michigan. What is unusual about this bait is the carved fish tail at the back of the plug. Marine City, with its close proximity to Lake St. Clair, had many walleye trollers who were also spear fisherman in the winter months, carving their own fish decoys for spearing pike.
Here is a group of very old pencil baits and bass baits from Marysville,Michigan. These baits were all hand carved and painted. The paint patina on them suggests they are very old.
Here is an old pencil bait of the river-jack type from St. Clair Michigan. This particular plug is old and shows up quite often in the St. Clair area. This one I would like to identify. Any help would be appreciated.
Here are 4 very early pencil plugs from the St. Clair River. Notice the primitive design "slant back head" and "bullet nose head". The one on the top was hand carved without the use of a lathe. These are baits that would have been trolled by rowboat and used with an early flat notched pine board that contained the copper braided line.
Here are some River Jack plugs made by the Surecatch bait Co. out of St. Clair Michigan. Notice the inserted metal lip in the nose of the plug. They also have a painted pressed eye which trademarks them as being Surecatch. These plugs are fairly recent being made in the 50's and 60's. Again, they were sold on cards up and down the river.
Here are some old Ed Minnich pencil baits. Ed was an important maker of pencil baits out of Algonac, Michigan. Algonac is situated near the St. Clair River Delta. Ed's baits are easily identified by the "V" cut dado in the nose of the plug. You can notice the slight bulge in the middle of the plug...which the fisherman called the "Mae West" plug. It is noted that Ed made plugs from the 1930's all the way up to the 1960's.
Here are some beautiful Frank Weakland pencil baits painted in the Rainbow Trout pattern. Frank had a bait shop on the St. Clair River near Marysville, Michigan. He was one of the last known painters to paint in the swirl paint pattern. He was taught by Roy Meyers and bought out much of Meyers's equipment before he died. Frank was a recent plug maker making them from the 1960"s all the up until his death in the late 1990's.
Here are 3 very old handmade Trolling Boards with braided copper line. These were used before the advent of the trolling reel and it would take 2 men in a boat to fish this way. One would row, and the other would use the board, lowering their handmade wooden pencil plugs and McGintys to the bottom.
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