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One million frogs later

Nobody catches big bass like New Englander Bill Plummer. One day he put a hook on a toy frog, and soon he had enough money to allow him to fish six days a week

Back in the days in Massachusetts when Senator Kennedy was Jack and Ted was Williams, a Westboro man named Bill Plummer developed a certain genius for catching black bass. His well-publicized achievements recalled the line: "The man who caught that fish is a liar." Plummer sneered at five-pounders, lifetime trophies for most northern anglers. Bass of six pounds barely made him smile. Seven-pounders were all right, and those of eight were just fine. But that was 20 years ago, and all Plummer did for an encore was more of the same.

In the passing years, the newspapers stopped telling his story, and suburbia closed in on his little town. But one ex-Bostonian never forgot. He was a bass fisherman, too—once he had even caught a three-pounder—and one evening this fall, in a nostalgic mood, he dialed Westboro information. Yes, there was a Bill Plummer listed. He tried the number, fretting about pollution and water skiers, thinking. "What if Plummer had to give it all up for golf?" Then Plummer's wife Norma answered. "I'm sorry," she said, "he's not home from fishing yet."

The next hour seemed like 10, but finally Plummer was in, and pleased that someone remembered him. The caller said, "I hear you're still fishing."

"Not as much as in summer, I'm afraid," Plummer replied. "I'm down to six days a week now."

"Still catching the big ones?"

"Well, 6½ pounds. Got him yesterday, but nothing really big for a while. Why don't you come along with me some day, maybe you'd bring me luck?"

Two days later, at 3:30 a.m., Plummer and the caller drove from Westboro, which is 30 miles west of Boston. Plummer, now 57, had eaten his usual "breakfast," as he put it, the night before, so as not to delay his departure. He said that he fishes only for bass, that he is on the water most days at dawn, that he would fish year round were it not for the ice, and that late in December he is reduced to driving around Massachusetts searching for open water, sometimes having to break shore ice for 100 feet to launch his boat. Bass are said to be dormant in those conditions, but Plummer catches them any time he wants to.

In his lifetime, he has landed more than 1,000 five-pound largemouth bass, hundreds of six and seven pounds, more than two dozen of eight and one of nine. One in five of the fish he catches is a smallmouth bass, which do not grow as large. A five-pounder is something to weep over. Plummer has caught dozens. But catching prodigious bass does take time, 2,000 hours each year, Plummer figures, and his companion could not help thinking of the proverbial room full of chimpanzees with typewriters who, if given unlimited time, would type the works of Shakespeare. And he kept wondering: "How does he earn a living?"

They were headed toward New Hampshire. The previous week Plummer had caught a largemouth of nearly seven pounds in Massachusetts. After a catch like that, most anglers would fish no-where else for the rest of their lives, but Plummer said, "Catching fish is not my main concern anymore. What I like is to explore, to find where fish are." That would appear to be the ultimate refinement of his art; he scores big in 50 to 60 different bodies of water each year, in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire. He estimates an annual catch of 1,000 bass of more than two pounds, despite eschewing modern refinements such as electric motors, high swivel seats and monster outboards, which are standard equipment on tournament bass boats.

Plummer detests tournaments. His boat is an unpretentious car-top model which he designed and had built, 12 feet and 80 pounds of red cedar covered with fiberglass, with low. fixed seats and a three-horse Evinrude to putt it along. As he says, "Those fancy boats are too heavy for carrying in to remote ponds, and so what if my seats are low and less comfortable than some? I'm also less visible to the fish, and I don't need a big motor because I'm not competing with other big motors." He thinks the sudden surge of an electric motor scares bass. He glides into prime water by means of oars that have a rubber coating where they touch the oarlocks to reduce noise.

Plummer turned down an unpaved road, not far north of Manchester, N.H. He lives in dread of crowds—three or four boats—on his favorite ponds. If he has a good fish on and someone comes along, he drops his rod in the bottom of the boat. This pond, which was about 85 acres, lay before him in the pre-dawn. It was classic largemouth water—shallow, dark and weedy—and deserted. Last summer Plummer had fished there twice, landing two bass of six pounds and dozens of smaller ones. Now he set heavy layers of tarpaulin in the bottom of the boat, again to reduce noise. He hefted a bait-casting outfit, the reel wound with 15-pound-test braided Dacron line tipped with a four-or five-foot length of 15-pound mono leader, the only kind of tackle he uses. He catches all his bass on four kinds of lures: jigs, and three of his own design—the Banshee, a spinner bait; the Water Demon, a bottom crawler; and a surface lure, the Bill Plummer Surface Frog. On the hook of a black feathered jig he slipped what seemed to be a four-inch-long piece of licorice. "Black pork rind," he said. "I soak it in anise to hide the smell of my hands."

The first bass weighed three pounds, and after landing one of 3½, worth at least a snapshot in his companion's opinion, Plummer changed lures—his typical response to success. Or maybe the size of the bass embarrassed him. He tried a Banshee, "the only spinner bait in the world with a soft plastic head." A skirt of white rubber ribbons flows back from the head. A No. 5 Gold Colorado spinner completes the lure. But as a final touch, Plummer attached a black plastic worm to the hook. He flipped the whole mess out. It stopped in mid-retrieve and erupted from the water in the lip of a bass shaped like a ham, then fell free. His friend looked quickly down, thinking silence the best reponse. But his sympathy was wasted. "About six," Plummer said, the way most men would say, "Pass the salami."

He was on the road again at noon, having caught and released eight bass of two or three pounds each. Plummer rarely keeps a fish. It would involve cleaning them instead of fishing, a waste of time. But then food of any kind holds little interest for him: while fishing he nibbles on a jelly sandwich or downs a few vitamins for lunch.

That night he stayed at a motel near his next morning's fishing. Neatly dressed, he might have been a tackle salesman, and it is fine with him if people think that. When he is asked what he does, sometimes he says, "I'm a millionaire." But now he was saying, "Even my mother doesn't understand what I do. She thinks I don't do anything, that I just go fishing. But I'm in an honorable profession. I fish, and I invent lures, and each week I get a check from the company that makes them." But talk like that is for the business pages. Plummer's story belongs with Ripley.

It begins one fateful day in 1957, in a dentist's chair, with a 5-year-old named Beth Plummer who had been promised a toy if she did not cry. She got a 10¬¨¬®¬¨¢ toy frog with a rubber bulb that made it hop when squeezed. That night her father picked it up, snapped the little rubber legs, and announced, "This would make a terrific lure." He rigged one up with a weedless hook he had patented a few years earlier, took it over to the Sudbury River and started catching bass.

He wrote to the Japanese manufacturer, and soon toy frogs had all but taken over the house. At the time, Plummer had a job. He would get up at three even then and fish until eight; by nine he had to be at the Westboro Airport, where he gave flying lessons. His students got a lot of practice flying low over water, which Plummer carefully surveyed for weed beds, rocks and logs. But he needed more time for closer inspection, and now he had the formula for getting it: sell a million or so frogs. Subtract one job. Result: an excuse to go fishing forever.

So for two years he made frog lures and drank coffee until 5 a.m. He dragged himself around to tackle dealers, sales grew, and finally a St. James, Long Island firm, Harrison-Hoge Industries, Inc., offered to manufacture and sell his frog—and any other lures he could dream up. The contract guarantees a weekly check based on sales, plus bonuses, which come along "every once in a while." The Plummer Water Demon appeared in 1968 and the Banshee in 1973, but the frog is the most successful and distinctive. There are very few other lifelike lures that can be cast into heavy weeds and obstructions without hanging up, and today sales are hopping, of course.

But the frog is a surface lure, and late fall bass rarely surface. At dawn on another pond, Plummer was saying, "We'll get them in the channel as the sun rises; nothing big, one-or two-pounders, maybe a three," and then he racked up seven bass in 10 minutes on a Banshee in the channel mouth—three of one pound, three of two and one of three. Then the sun rose and he headed home, with a stop in New Hampshire for three bass in a man-made pond where no one ever catches anything. Plummer had studied the contour charts of the bottom, and he found the bass in a drowned creek bed.

Most of the bass in the last pond that he fished had been lying in a tiny fraction of the water, with the rest of it barren. This concentration of bass in one small area holds true in all bass lakes and ponds, and Plummer has learned where that fraction is in hundreds of them. But the ones he knows best are those near home, and after a 20-minute drive from his house, afloat in yet another dawn. he pointed at a small island and said, "The first time I fished here I picked up a 7½-pounder, right there." But now the weather had turned bad for fall fishing, Plummer said, meaning Indian Summer perfect. He stared into thick beds of coontail weed, knowing what was hiding down there, and he said, "We need some kind of front to stir them up." That night he smiled when he heard the weather forecast: heavy rain.

Dawn had barely arrived when Plummer peered out on his sixth pond in four days. It would be perfidious to reveal how close it was to his front door. He headed his boat up the far shore and said, "We'll start here. It's rocky, and the bottom shelves off rapidly." Then there was no sound but the whirring of the reels, and then of raindrops. The Banshees left the rod tips and disappeared in the downpour, and suddenly Plummer began wrestling with something underwater. He seemed to be losing. The reel handle battered his knuckles, and for minutes he rocked back and forth. But when his hand reached down it came up loaded. "Seven pounds," he said. "Pretty fair."

"Just like the old days, right?" his companion said. He wanted reassurance.

Plummer nodded yes. "The bass are harder to fool now," he said. "There are so many more fishermen than there used to be. But I still have enough good days to know that there are just as many big bass as there ever were."