Today it is a three-hour drive--roughly 150 miles
on an Ontario paved road--from Thunder Bay to Armstrong, Ontario, the gateway
to what must be a million lakes full of fish and a wilderness for those
who want to get away from it all.
It took a whole day--daylight to dusk--some 40
years ago when Dan Gapen, one of Hoosier outdoorsdom’s favorite adopted
sons--drove his pickup camper up the mud/gravel clearing that was more
trail than road.
Behind us all the way was Dan’s 14-foot runabout,
topped with a 15-foot aluminum canoe, fishing and camping paraphernalia,
enough food, we thought, to keep a young army from starvation’s door, and
a force that drove us to search for streams that hosted native brook trout.
You see, Dan, a Minnesota fishing tackle manufacturer,
had “played” the Indianapolis Boat, Sport & Travel Show the year before
as the expert that he was/is, and I (as outdoor editor of the Indianapolis
Star) had spent a lot of time pumping information on brook trout from
the man who had guided brookie anglers on Ontario’s famous Lake Nipigon
and stream environs.
“Tell you what,” Dan said one-day as we talked
at the Coliseum tank where he displayed his fly-fishing prowess, “Let’s
go looking for brookies next summer in the area north of Armstrong.”
It was like waving a red flag at a bull. On a
Sunday of the following July I flew to Minneapolis, and early the next
morning we headed for the Canadian border. It was too late to tackle the
road to Armstrong when we arrived at Thunder Bay, on the north shore of
Lake Superior, but we were up and at it early the next morning. Likewise,
when we arrived at Armstrong, it was too late to head north on Caribou
Lake, but after a hearty breakfast we loaded our gear in the canoe which
we trailed behind the runabout with a special rope rig that Dan had mastered
as a kid while moving anglers and canoes around on Lake Nipigon.
The secret, Dan explained, is having the towrope
tied to forward thwarts on both sides of the canoe, and joined in such
a manner under the bow of the canoe to keep the bow up out of the water
at high speed. Rigged in this manner, the forward third of the canoe barely
touches the water. Heavy items ride in the back of the canoe. But even
with this rig, Dan says it is wise to run slowly when crossing the wake
of other boats.
At the north end of Caribou Lake, where this waterway
takes on river status, we pulled the runabout high and dry (hidden in the
buck brush) and stashed the outboard motor some distance from the boat.
Then we were off down this north-flowing river to Smoothrock Lake, which,
at that time, supported only one fishing camp.
When we were well into the swift water of the
river, Dan guided the canoe to a large flat rock at the middle of the 200-yard-wide
strip of rushing blue-black water.
“Let’s fix some lunch,”Dan said, pulling
a skillet and sauce pans from a pack, and tying a small, black jig-worm
combination onto the line of a spinning outfit. Then, with some driftwood
collected from the rock, he started a fire and announced we would have
walleye filets, fried potatoes, and corn for lunch.
This, of course, required catching the walleyes,
but two casts was all he needed to solve that problem. Once the potato
skillet was sizzling, two walleyes were cleaned and they soon were sizzling
in a skillet. Half an hour later we were having lunch. As we dined and
talked, Dan noted that we had never competed while fishing, but we would
do so soon as the dishes were cleaned up and the canoe was repacked to
continue our journey to Smoothrock Lake.
“You like spinner-bucktail lures,” Dan said, “I
have a new lure that I want to show you . . . it’s better than anything
you ever fished with.” With that, he picked up the spinning outfit with
which he had caught the two walleyes we had consumed and shook the lure
in my face.
“I call it The Hairy Worm,” Dan said, pointing
out that he had been experimenting with it for some time, and soon would
put it on the market with other lures he produced and sold.
“I want you to fish your spinner-bucktail lures
(they were not yet known as spinner baits),” he said and I will outfish
you with The Hairy Worm. We stood side by side casting into the swift,
As Dan’s lure settle toward the bottom he set
the hook and horsed out a nice walleye that he promptly released. His next
cast was an instant replay of the first, but this time he was much more
“Hairy Worm strikes again,” Dan yelled, noting
that the city boy and his spinner-bucktail couldn’t get a bite.
Dan made five casts and caught (and released)
as many walleyes, his vocal tirade growing with each fish. On the sixth
cast he was having so much fun deriding me and my lures that he lost the
fish before he could flip it up on the rock. That cooled Dan a bit, but
he made two more casts and caught two more walleyes for an overall performance
of e seven fish on eight casts, plus the loss of the other fish with his
tomfoolery. It all happened as I fished my best, but couldn’t get a bite.
To say that I was impressed is not a bad way to
put it. But I was also stubborn and finally tied on a lure known
as the Lutz Boomerang as we fished the big waters of Smoothrock Lake. This
lure, designed and produced by a Texan, brought good success for me and
I was able to compete (though I could not beat) Dan and his jig-worm combo.
Finally, though, I hung the Lutz Boomerang in
very deep water as I fished just before dark one day from a big rock outcropping
where we were camped. Dan dropped his dishwashing chores and went through
the motions of helping me retrieve my lure, but could not contain a vociferous
outburst of joy (and I think he was doing a little dance) when my line
snapped and the star of my lure stable was forever gone.
Like the nomadic anglers that we were, by day
Dan and I searched the bays of Smoothrock Lake for tributaries that might
host native brook trout. But while we did not find the little red-bellies
of our dreams, we did find great fishing for walleye, and occasionally
whitefish would offer their surface-feeding bonanza at dusk for fly rod
Dan maintained that landing a whitefish with a
fly rod from a canoe without a net was requisite to being a fisherman.
He qualified; I didn’t.
One night when the bacon, eggs and most of the
other foods had smelled up their last campsite, and we had been on a steady
diet of fried walleye filets, fried potatoes, and canned beans for several
days, Dan said he didn’t think he could stomach another walleye filet.
I told him I would fix the fish that night and
he would like it.
With skin and scales on the connected filets of
two walleyes, I wired them to a large, flat rock with wire fishing line
(skin side against the rock), smeared the white meat with butter and sprinkled
it with salt and pepper. I propped the rock up close to a beautiful
bed of coals, an when the potatoes and beans were ready we dined on what
Dan said was “the best walleye he had ever eaten.” The editor of Outdoor
Life Magazine must have like my culinary concept, too. A year later
the cover of that magazine featured a campfire scene with fish being broiled
on a flat rock tilted to utilize the heat of a campfire. And a month later
the magazine featured my Smoothrock Lake story.
I could say that this is more or less the end
of the Dan Gapen/Hairy Worm story. When we returned to Armstrong, and motored
back to Thunder Bay over a road that seemed to have gotten worse in ten
days, Dan gave me the small handful of Hairy Worms that he had left . .
. the idea being that I would try them on the denizens that called
Hoosier waters home.
Try them, I did. And I found the lure equally
as good in Hoosierland as it had been in the wilderness. Largemouth
bass, smallmouth bass, rock bass (goggle-eye), and many sunfish species--including
the feisty little red-bellies (long-eared sunfish), punkinseeds, minnows
of numerous species . . . they all hit the Hairy Worm like it was going
out of style.
The Hairy Worm quickly became the star of Dan’s
stable of artificial lures. They sold like hotcakes in Indiana, and I presume,
End of story? Not by a fisherman’s dilapidated
Dan found combining soft plastic with flat jig
heads, and rubber bands (for legs) so successful that in less than a year
he had the Hairy Worm’s mate--the Ugly Bug--on the market and that spring
he brought the tandem to Indiana’s newly-opened Monroe Reservoir (must
have been 1968) to give a gathering of Hoosier anglers a hands-on introduction.
But, at this juncture, Dan wanted to enhance these
lures (and the sales thereof) by adding an “L-shaped spinner.
Dan distributed both lures (with and without spinners)
to those of us who would be fishing (there were three or four boats), noting
that he would appreciate it if we would give some thought to a name for
the lures when rigged with spinners.
Shortly after noon we were fishing Boy Scout Bay
with great success for crappies, bass and a smattering of other species.
Anglers in all of the boats were enjoying fast action, but there was a
fly in the soup. Rolling in from the southwest were thunderheads that spelled
trouble, so we beached the boats, pulled the lunch coolers out and scrambled
to the Boy Scout campground that was so new, totally unused, that the pit
toilets became our shelters.
It was a violent storm, complete with crashing
thunder and jagged lightning bolts that chilled my spine as I stood on
a toilet seat and watched in awe through the four-inch opening between
roof and sides of our shelter.
All day I had been racking my brain for a name
for Dan’s lures. It came o me like a shot out of the blue:
“I got it, Dan! . . . I got it!” I yelled
at the top of my voice to be heard over a clap of thunder.
“You got what?“ Dan asked..
“The name for your lures,” I said . . . “Hairy
Worm Plus, and Ugly Bug Plus.“ So it would be.
End of story? Not quite, but maybe time for an
You see, Dan is coming back to Indianapolis Boat,
Sport & Travel Show this year after a 15-year hiatus. He will be in
a double Tackletown exhibit (Booths 421-422).
Although Dan has not marketed the Hairy Worm for
a few years, the Ugly Bug (with or without spinners) still is a fast-selling
pony in his stable. And though I find it difficult to admit, the latter
seems to out-produce the former.
Still, Dan has told me that, for old time’s sake,
he is going to try to put together some Hairy Worms for anglers of the
state that made the lure so popular.
Dan’s a busy man . . . running a hook shop is
not an easy chore . . . so I can’t guarantee the Hairy Worms. I can guarantee
the Ugly Bug, not to mention an interesting interlude if you stop to chat
with the best angler I have ever known.
on thumbnail image for enlarged view.
|Dan Gapen’s Hairy Worm (left)
with and without spinner, and their counterparts, The Ugly Bug, right.
||Dan liked my method of preparing
walleye filets so much that he tried his own version the next day