The Origins of the Devil Bug
- Photography by: Ted Fauceglia
THE FIRST ONE I SAW WAS IN Harry Gantley’s hardware store up in the Adirondacks of northern New York some 25 years ago. It stared at me with a jaundiced eye—a black pupil floating in a yellow iris—from a high shelf littered with hardware-store flotsam, cracked-leather dog collars, stamped-metal fish scalers edged with rust, and a display card of miraculous things that somehow stopped leaking toilets from leaking.
“That’s a hell of a lure,” said Harry Gantley. He said that about all of his lures. “I’ve caught a lot of fish with that lure.” He said that about all his lures, too. “Thought I sold out of them before the War. Don’t know how the hell that got up there, but I’ll let you have it for fifty cents.”
Harry was an irascible old bastard who sold nuts and hammers and plumbing supplies to support his fishing habit, so I mentally questioned his generosity. If that lure was so great, he wouldn’t sell it. But perhaps he was growing senile. (He gave up fishing shortly thereafter—just couldn’t get around any more—and took up the pursuit of senility with the same fervor he once reserved for fishing.) Still, that lure enchanted me, and so I dug into my lint-lined pocket, past jackknife, bubble-gum wrappers, and a much-prized mink skull, for two quarters, which I slapped on Harry’s counter. “Deal.”
Outside on the grass next to the Bouquet River, which ran past Harry’s store. I inspected my purchase. It was deer hair, as best as I could tell, tied off with wire behind the eye and in front of the bend of an inch-and-a-half long hook. It had a mournful face clipped out of the stubble, a face like one of the shmoos in L’il Abner.
Behind that face the body bulged out, then tightened into Victorian proportions—then flared out into a hairy skirt. A red stripe ran down its back and between its yellow eyes. Its belly was scarlet. It was fine-looking lure to my nine-year-old eyes.
I fished that lure with a steel rod and a $1.20 reel—another one of Harry’s bargains—for the better part of a summer. From the leaky plywood punt anchored in the mouth of the river. I would twitch and jerk it around the lily pads and the stumps of flooded trees that lined the shore. Inevitably, a bass or a big perch—sometimes even a pickerel—would inhale it. It served me well that summer. Unfortunately, it disappeared over the winter—the probable victim of one of my mother’s purges. Had I known what to call it, I would have gladly forked up another fifty cents.
Twenty years later, I finally discovered the name of that beady-eyed bug. I was driving through Old Forge, a one-stoplight town on the western edge of the Adirondacks, and stopped in a hardware store not unlike Harry Gantley’s to buy a lantern mantle. As I was browsing through the fishing table—any Adirondack hardware store worth its salt carries fishing tackle—I spotted a jaundiced eye between the Taiwanese flies and the boxed Flatfish. And instead of hiding behind a dog collar, it sat in the middle of a display card among a dozen other jaundiced eyes. In the middle of that card was printed what looked like a Hopi Indian sand painting of a bat, rimmed with the words, “O. C. Tuttle’s Devil Bug.”
I tore several of those lures from the staples that held them—two like the one I had as a child, another with a pointed face, perky ears, and a flowing tail, and a fourth with wings like a creature printed on the card. I took them to the clerk and, as he stuffed them in a bag, asked him where they came from.
“Made right here in town,” he said. “Been made here for years.”
I asked the clerk where I could find the factory. He told me. In Mrs. Morcy’s basement.
That I had to see, so I called Mrs. Morcy and was cordially invited over. I was met at the door of a small ranch house by a gregarious woman in her mid-sixties, who swept me into her living room, sat me in a chair, offered up iced tea and cookies, and in a soft, even voice told me the history of that jaundiced eye.
Back in 1919, Mrs. Morcy’s parents, Orley and Lottie Tuttle, ran a hotel on the south shore of Fourth Lake, just outside of Old Forge. Orley apparently pursued his innkeeping with the same zeal that Harry Gantley applied to the management of his hardware store. It was a task to be done in order to support an addiction to fishing. Orley fished Fourth Lake all the time.
One evening while working the shoreline weeds, Orley saw a beetle drop into the water. The insect’s beating wings sent concentric ripples across the surface of the water, and in no time a smallmouth bass sucked in the beetle. Seconds later another beetle fell and another bass rose. Orley suddenly realized he had stumbled onto something.
He abandoned his rod and set out to catch one of those beetles instead of bass. When he was finally successful, some three nights later, he took the creature home, studied it, and attempted to build an imitation that would fool those Fourth Lake bass.
Orley took a #4 hook, built a body on it with twine, and then covered the twine with deer hair, clamping it off behind the eye and in front of the bend with wire. He trimmed the butts of the hair, but left the tips to splay out behind the hook. Some paint for eyes and markings, and he was finished. And duly proud. His creation, to him, looked exactly like that beetle.
Orley rushed into the kitchen and thrust his bug under the nose of his wife. “Lottie, what’s that look like to you?” he asked.
“Looks like the devil to me,” she answered.
And the Devil Bug was born.
Orley tested the bug, as he later would test all the lures he made, and found that it surpassed all his expectations. The tightly clamped hollow deer hair floated the bug high in the water, and a twitch from the rod would send it into a pulsating fit. Orley loved it. So did the bass.
So Orley went into the Devil Bug business. He tied the bugs, and Lottie, a good artist and sportsman in her own right (she was one of the first female licensed guides in New York), painted the bodies and eyes and created the artwork for brochures and posters. By word of mouth and through limited advertising, the fame of the Devil Bug grew. Soon demand for the lure outpaced production, and the Tuttles started farming out piecework to the families of Old Forge: One family would wind the bodies; another would apply the deerhair; a third would trim; a fourth would paint.
By 1922, the Tuttles were selling 50,000 Devil Bugs a year. They ran Lottie’s full-color ads in Field & Stream and expanded the line to include winged bugs, mouse bugs, trout bugs, and even a deerhair baby duck—death on muskies. With all the combinations of colors and models and styles, the Tuttles were marketing more than 800 different Devil Bugs, plus a few assorted handmade spoons and spines. Devil Bugs were big time.
But in the early 1930s, ever-tightening labor laws put an end to their piecework system, and as the cost of producing the hand-tied bugs rose, production diminished. In 1935, O.C. Tuttle had had enough of manufacturing—it was cutting into his fishing time, for one thing—and he turned the business over to his daughter and son-in-law, Clarence Morcy.
The Morcys scaled down the business to a hobby, tying the bugs themselves and selling them through the mail to the Devil Bug elite and through a few, select retail stores, from Abercrombie & Fitch to the Old Forge hardware store where I had rediscovered that jaundice-eyed bug. And now, Mrs. Morcy told me, her husband had died, and try as she might, she was having difficulty keeping the business alive.
In a trunk the basement she showed me her dwindling stock of bugs, perhaps 200 in all. Above that trunk and hanging from the wall was a display board, which, back in the 1920s, the Tuttles took with them for one sportsman’s show to another to tout the fame of their miraculous Devil Bug. The board held Devils of all shapes and sizes, including the pale-yellow baby duck, which looked as if it would be far happier in an Easter basket than bobbing vulnerable on the surface of a muskie-menaced pond. Between that display board and the half-filled trunk, I believed I was seeing the lifespan of a great lure. Mrs. Morcy gave me a Devil Bug souvenir, and we said our good-byes.
I underestimated the Devil Bug. It has returned, formidably so, and started selling in greater numbers than it ever did. It’s hard to keep a good, jaundice-eyed bug down.
Years ago (in 1977), the Eppinger Company, which makes the famous Dardevle spoon and other lures, bought the remains of Mrs. Morcy’s diminished stock and the Devil Bug name, and sent Karen Lichtenfelt, the daughter of
Eppinger’s president, to Old Forge to master techniques of tying up a Devil.
Karen returned to her home in Ovid, Michigan, with the skills to start what she thought would be a nice, part-time business. She hired four sisters to help her tie up Devils and went into production. With the help of Eppinger’s marketing and advertising expertise, she introduced the bug—reintroduced it, really—at a tackle show in September, 1977.
“The results were unbelievable,” she told me on the phone. “Immediately, we had more orders than we could handle. People would write to say that they had used Devil Bugs as children or that their fathers swore by them. One man at a fishing show saw that duck on the display board—we take it to shows to stress the tradition of the Devil Bug—and offered me $30 for it. Said he used one to catch muskies up in Wisconsin years ago.
“It’s a great lure, of course—it floats much longer than a clipped-hair lure, say a Muddler—but I also think people feel a certain nostalgia for the Devil Bug and appreciate the fact that it is still tired by hand. A handmade lure isn’t easy to come by anymore.”
Devil Bugs are still available from Eppinger Manufacturing, www.eppinger.net or call 1-888-771-8277.