Uncle Josh Bait Company
Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin
by Jimmy Fee
Though it may seem a bit far-fetched, many of the striped bass I’ve landed from the beaches of the Northeast have been the indirect result of a frog shortage in Wisconsin during the summer of 1921. Let me explain.
You see, long-time fishing buddies Urban Schreiner and Allen P. Jones were both very fond of using live frogs as bait. When fishing season rolled around in 1921, the two planned to spend much of their time catching black bass in Wisconsin’s Jordan Lake. They liked to cast plugs during the morning and evening hours and fish live frogs during the middle of the day, when the bass became unreceptive to artificial lures. That summer, however, frogs were tough to come by around Jordan Lake, and with these amphibians being the best way to catch bass during the heat of the day, Jones and Schreiner contemplated how they might be able to “create” their own frog from other materials.
The quest to make their own frog brought them to a butcher in Oxford, Wisconsin, where they took a slab of fatback with the rind on and cut from it a number of frog-shaped pieces. Throughout the summer of 1921, the two experimented with the shape, looking for one with sufficient tail action and enough meat for the fish to smell and the angler to cast.
The bait turned out to be so successful that in 1922, Jones and Schreiner founded the Uncle Josh Bait Company in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin to sell their pork-rind creations. Jones’s “day job” was at the Jones Dairy Farm, where he slaughtered hogs and made sausage. This made starting a new company that makes baits from raw pork rind a relatively simple leap. The company was named for a farmer on Jordan Lake who reminded Jones and Schreiner of one of their favorite comedic characters – Uncle Josh, a rube with a penchant for fighting.
The first order was for $300 worth of the model now called the #11 Pork Frog. By 1923, the company offered several other baits; a bass and fly strip, which consisted of just the pork skin, and a “chunk,” which was an oval-shaped bait made up of both the skin and the fat. The original baits were white. Jones worked with a dye to turn the skin on some of the pork frogs green, but getting the dye to stay on the skin was problematic.
In addition to setting the dye, the greatest challenge for the Uncle Josh Bait Company was figuring out how to properly cure the pork fat and skin so that it wouldn’t spoil. Though Jones had experience curing bacon on his family’s dairy farm, curing the pork baits proved to be a bit more difficult. Once packed in glass jars, the baits would spoil and reek.
They did eventually figure it out, and today the Uncle Josh Bait Company puts 3-foot-long slabs of fatback through a two-week curing process before cutting them into baits and dying them. The baits are then packed into jars filled with a salt brine, which simply consists of a heavy dose of salt and water.
After World War II, better dyes were produced, and Uncle Josh began offering baits in colors other than green or white. Uncle Josh pork rind baits are currently available in more than 20 colors and more than 30 styles for both freshwater and saltwater fishing. Starting in 2011, some Uncle Josh baits will be available in scented versions as well. Of interest to saltwater anglers will be the squid- and bunker-scented 70-S Sea Rind. Instead of the salt brine, the scented pork rinds will be stored in squid or bunker oil.
On the water, most Uncle Josh baits work best when paired with another lure to give them more action. One of the most popular combinations is the jig-and-pig, in which an Uncle Josh pork frog is married to a skirted bass jig to make it resemble a crayfish underwater. A saltwater version of the jig-and-pig consists of a bucktail jig tipped with a pork rind strip. A variety of sizes and styles can also added to spoons and spinnerbaits in freshwater, and umbrella jigs, tube lures an even spreader bars in saltwater. The skin of the pork undulates tantalizingly on even the slowest retrieves, enticing a large number of gamefish in a variety of situations. The addition of the pork also causes the lure to sink more slowly, making it linger in the strike zone on the fall and allowing for slower retrieves. Plus, tipping lures with pork rind instead of soft-plastic baits has a number of advantages. Though soft-plastic baits are easier to store and come in a greater variety of colors and shapes, even the most supple soft plastics can’t match the action of a pork rind fluttering through the water. Pork rind baits are also much more durable than their soft-plastic counterparts. While even a glancing blow from a bluefish will render most soft-plastic baits useless, I have never had a single pork rind chopped by the yellow-eyed devils.
Just don’t forget to remove the pork rind from your hook and return it to the brine-filled jar after each trip. Otherwise, the bait will shrivel up and harden. This advice should be filed under the “Do as I say, not as I do” category, since I neglect to remove the pork rind from my bucktails so often that I think I could reconstruct an entire pig from the dried-up 70-S Striper Strips littering the back of my truck. But, if you can remember to restore your baits to their jars, a single pork rind will survive weeks, even months, of heavy fishing.
Though it changed owners in 2002, the Uncle Josh Bait Company is still headquartered in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, where all the baits are made. The company’s top-selling bait has remained the same since their first $300 order – the #11 Pork Frog. Ninety years after those first pork frogs helped Jones and Schreiner hook more bass, Uncle Josh products continue to help anglers around the world catch more fish. So the next time you hook up to a big striped bass on a jig tipped with an Uncle Josh pork rind, you can thank the frogs near Jordan Lake, Wisconsin for making themselves scarce just long enough to inspire the invention of a classic fishing lure.