Lead into Gold: A Review of Kenn Oberrecht’s “The Angler’s Guide to Jigs and Jigging”(1982)
People sometimes ask me “Hank, why do you read these old fishing books?” My answer is “Shakespeare.” Awkward silence generally follows, or someone accuses me of being a professor.
Let me explain (that’s what professors do, after all). First, there is no such thing as an “old book.” Every book is new the first time we read it. And just like any other book, we ease into it, fit our mind to its author’s style in the early pages, slip into ideas and characters that it presents, etc. We all remember the first time we read Hamlet in high school. It was like learning a new language. If you stuck it out you were rewarded with a mighty drama about choice and regret.
Second, there is no such thing as a “fishing book.“ That’s just a phrase we use to describe writings composed by people who spend a lot of time holding fishing tackle around water. What we call “fishing books” are really just books that explain how a person thinks through a specific type of problem. The central premise of every fishing book is basically “How can I trick and catch a living animal that cannot directly be seen (most of the time).” As such, fishing books are really books about the art of tricking an aquatic animal. Or, if you prefer, books written by people who think too much about fishing.
Does thinking ever get “old?” I hope not. And what would life be without choices, or regrets? I wouldn’t want to know. For one, the fishing stories would be few and far between.
But thinking does change, and every person does it differently. Fishing and writing about it gives us a record of constant adaptation to new species, climate conditions, tackle and technique. It’s the adaptation that interests me. Frankly, it’s a thing of beauty, especially when it is written well. And that’s why I read so many old fishing books: I do it not only for the “mental reps” that take me through different fishing scenarios, but because I actually enjoy them.
Now, I don’t enjoy all of them. Kenn Oberrecht’s book turned me off at first reading. In fact, it was a lot like that first encounter we all have with Shakespeare: I simply couldn’t get “into it.” Am I comparing a book about jig fishing to Hamlet? No.
But readers of Hamlet will recall that the drama begins with a ghost visiting the night watch upon the walls. The guards wonder upon it – twice- then the ghost vanishes. The ghost appears again periodically thereafter, and the same may be said for the angler who narrates Oberrecht’s book. He makes an early appearance, then waits for his moments to return. You don’t waste a good haunting, after all. So if you want to read a book about a fisherman catching fish, Oberrecht’s is not for you, as his discussions of angling are few and far between. But if you want to learn some things about jigs, then this is a book to read. Frankly, the book’s author is not just haunter by jigs – he is completely obsessed.
So why did I tough it out? Well, I didn’t. When I first sat with the book, I made it twenty pages in and gave up. But I’m old enough to know that if you really want to learn, you sometimes have to read what you don’t like. And besides, I don’t fish jigs very often. When I look at a jig, I see a perfect lure. Rationally, it makes sense. You can fish it anywhere, at any speed, at any depth. Add a trailer to mimic local forage, and it looks even better. But when I attach one to my line, I become aware of some problems. First, to fish it effectively, you have to fish it slowly most of the time. As a result, you cover less water. Second, it gives the fish a long time to look at the lure. That isn’t always a good thing. For example, I often fish for Largemouth Bass. Bass are ambush predators, and many are caught on reaction strikes.
Still, I recognize the jig is a deadly lure. I just talk myself out of using them. And so the lure is a last resort option for me. A selection of jigs is never far from reach; I just don’t reach for them often enough. I had two obstacles to overcome when I opened this book the second time – the writer’s writing style and his fishing style.
So I returned to Oberrecht’s book and forced myself to read it. And when I did, I finally got it. It was of course the same “old” book I gave up on before. What had changed? I did. Specifically, I approached it less as a “manual” about what jigs are and more as a discussion of how to think like a jig fisher. When that happened, my eyes were opened to a whole new world.
I’ll begin my discussion of the book by saying that the author is completely obsessed, and when I say obsessed, I mean out-of-his-mind, “I chew on jigs in my sleep” crazy. The book’s first 10 pages are an argument for why the jig is the most effective lure ever invented. I often regard such arguments with a skeptical eye. Oberrecht presents the case in short statements. He doesn’t care if you believe the evidence. He knows it is true, so he mostly lets it speak for itself. This turned me off at first. Now I see he simply doesn’t care – he writes with the conviction of an angler who has seen it all. This is the first visitation to the night watch..
But just when you think the author would start telling fishing stories, the book takes a turn in another direction. Chapters 2 and 3 review the diversity of jig styles. This is where Oberrecht’s book probably seems “old” to some: it reads here like an encyclopedia of facts about different types of jigs. It almost feels like a biology textbook at times, listing details of shape, weight, size and function. What to some might appear as a boring list to others might seem a tour de force in descriptive prose. I recently joined the latter group of readers: I learned more about jig variety in these pages than in all the hundreds of articles I ever read on the subject.
Whereas the first third of the Angler’s Guide to Jigs and Jigging may seem a bit technical to some, the middle sections exhibit some personality. This is where the “I chew on jigs in my sleep” author reappears on the castle walls. This section constitutes chapter 4, 5 and 6, where the topics are casting jigs from lead, tying and painting jigs and molding soft plastic trailers for jigs. Here too Oberrecht further explains the reasoning behind some of the many jig types outlined in the first section where, for example, the logic of the body types, or the shape of the head, justifies the relationship between plastic and lead shape.
But my favorite parts of these chapters are those where the relationship between fly tying and jig making is apparent. Oberrecht makes several allusions to tying flies, and at first these seemed merely comparative. But then I saw the analogy for what it is: anglers who make their own jigs are just as creative and crazy as trout anglers who tie their own flies. They pay close attention to materials. Take, for example, the several pages that Oberrecht devotes to finding cheap lead sources. He visits tackle shops, scrap metal dealers, tire dealers, battery manufacturers and plumbing supply stores. His quest: to find the purest lead at the cheapest price. He writes
“I found one battery manufacturer who told me he had a pile of used batteries I could haul off at 12 cents a pound, which might sound like a bargain, but probably isn’t. If you can get battery lead at a price cheaper than wheel weights, don’t buy the latter. But if you have to salvage the lead yourself, you could lose on the deal. It’s my guess that lead can comprise no more than half the dry weight of a battery – though I’ve never checked this. If batteries cost you 12 cents a pound than the lead salvaged will be 24 cents a pound or more. And you must consider the time spent tearing the batteries apart and the time and fuel spent hauling the scraps to a disposal site.”
This is clearly the work of a person who thinks a project through. Note, for example, the phrase “dry weight.” Oberrecht knows that batteries contain a certain amount of liquid acid, so he begins with the assumption the weight should be calculated after the battery acid has been drained. It’s a subtle but important observation. I also learned more about metal alloys, slag and lead pouring in these pages than I ever thought necessary. What does it confirm? That the author pays more attention to his lure-making cost and materials than most, or any person, should. It’s also an entertaining bit of prose, I would add, to read Oberrecht hounding various sources for lead. Not gold, not platinum, not silver or copper – but lead. The ghost is an alchemist: his wizardry transforms dross into the precious metal of handmade fishing lures. For a few pages, the book lights up.
Oberrecht begins the book with the argument that jigs are the best lures ever made. As I noted, he then proceeds in early sections to description of the varied types. That is followed by discussion of how to harvest lead, pour, dress and paint jigs and associated plastics. In part three, he reviews the combinations, or rigs that are made by matching jig heads with plastics. It’s a meticulous approach – each chapter sets up the next, and as I reader I kept expecting it would culminate with a clutch of tremendous fishing tales.
But it doesn’t. Right when you think, “Okay, here comes the big one,” Oberrecht circles back to the subject of jigs. Take for example the two sentences that open chapter 10:
“I don’t rise before dawn has ever dreamed of cracking, drive countless miles each year, wade slippery bottomed streams, float endless miles of river, hike over dunes of talcum powdery sand, wrestle the helm of a boat in evil winds and worse waters, and spend untold dollars maintaining all my gear just to catch a few small fish. I do it to catch a lot of big fish.” (225, italics in original)
Most readers want the next sentence to begin with “That’s what happened when I zeroed in on a school of massive Walleye on Lake Erie last year.” But no. Oberrecht takes a detour. First, he proclaims his love for fishing, then weighs the matter of live bait versus artificial bait, then brings those two subjects back around to – you guessed it – jigs. Specifically, how to tip jigs with live bait and artificial lures.
By the time readers reach the discussion of fishing tactics in the book’s final two chapters, it is too late. The dawn Oberrecht has not yet dreamed of cracking has come up, with “russet mantle clad,” as Shakespeare writes, and there is no space left for a thorough discussion. Yes, the angler’s ghost haunts these last two chapters, and the narrator tells a few fishing stories. But the fact is that Oberrecht wrote a book about a lure, not a book about fishing with them. Angler’s Guide to Jigs and Jigging is undoubtedly a book of its time, and some of the companies mentioned in it no longer exist, while other references are also dated. But to learn from a book like this you have to see what is old as new again.