Salmon plugs have long been a staple of every west coast fisherman’s arsenal. They can be found in just about any tackle box in the Pacific Northwest. There have been many variants over the years, ranging from simple homemade lures, often made from old broom handles, to the beautiful hand-carved cedar plugs that can still occasionally be found by lucky anglers searching old tackle boxes at garage sales. The most common plug on Vancouver Island is the famous Tomic plug. For decades, these hand-painted plastic plugs have proven their ability to entice salmon and many other species of fish. They likely will continue to be an essential item for island fishermen for decades to come.
Tom Moss invented Tomic plugs
Born in Victoria in 1935, Moss grew up in the outdoors hunting and fishing like all children should. In his late teens, his love of salmon fishing really took off. He spent as much time as possible salmon fishing in Saanich Inlet and began experimenting with fishing lures. He teamed up with Jimmy Gilbert, who would go on to be another major figure in salmon lure innovation with his Krippled ‘K’ Lures. They both worked as salmon guides and spent their spare time trying new fishing techniques.
All was going well for Moss until 1954. He was still occasionally salmon guiding for Jimmy as well as cutting herring strip for Rhys Davis when he took a third job in steel construction in Victoria.
He was working on an old building in Victoria when a beam broke, dropping him three stories down an elevator shaft and breaking his back. After two years in a full body cast, he was told he would never be able to walk or work properly again. It turns out that Moss did not listen to the doctors. He fought through the pain and kept fishing. His son Wayne Moss relates a story of how Tom would row out to his anchored boat and struggle to drag himself in so he could go fishing. On one occasion, he fell overboard, and being physically unable to swim, he sunk to the bottom of the bay. By pure providence he came to rest by the anchor chain and was able to haul himself, hand over hand, up the chain to the surface. Luckily, he was then spotted and helped out of the water.
How Tomic Plugs Became Plastic
As Moss healed, he continued salmon guiding year-round as well as tinkering with lures. While he successfully used wooden salmon plugs, he noticed that as they absorbed water, their action diminished. They only worked so long until the salmon stopped hitting them. He tried drying them in the oven at home and then repainting them. This worked for a while, but they soon became waterlogged again. He also found great inconsistency in their action, as each hand-carved plug was slightly different. And even the good ones would start to lose their paint quickly. So, in 1961 he decided to develop a plastic plug. After perfecting a 3″ plug, he began producing it via injection-molded butyrate plastic. He spray-painted it with more durable lacquer paints, thus creating a rugged reliable lure.
Soon his plugs caught on with local salmon guides and commercial fishermen. They convinced Moss to create larger plugs and offer more colour patterns. As demand increased, he had to expand, creating a factory in Sooke. Before long he was running two shifts and 25 employees to meet all the orders. The Tomic Lure company was now born. Named after Moss and his friend Dick, the company continued to grow.
This was the era of large fleets of commercial trollers on the West Coast. At first, they provided the main source of customers for Tomic. With the downturn in commercial fishing, sport fishermen became the main buyers.
Today, their plugs are used worldwide for many species of fish. They are popular in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. The same plugs that are used in the Tyee Pool of Campbell River are also winning Atlantic salmon fishing derbies in places as far away as Sweden. They are used for pike and musky in lakes, as well as for Wahoo and Stripers in tropical seas.
In 2002, Tom Moss finally decided to retire. Now Cameron and Catherine Forbes of Critter Cove Resort run the company and continue the Tomic tradition. Both come from families with long pedigrees in the Vancouver Island salmon fishing industry. (Check the Tyee Pool records for confirmation.) After learning the ropes under Tom Moss, they moved the factory to Gold River and continued making Tomic plugs in same way Tom did. They still hand paint with airbrushes and small hand brushes, and the product still catches salmon just like it always has. Demand remains strong among sports and commercial fishermen. And Catherine tells me, “They are always looking for people to help, but not everybody is able to do the detailed work lures require.”
It would seem Tomic Plugs will continue to be a part of our future for a long time. It is very encouraging to see an island company succeeding at maintaining local manufacturing. Tomic Plugs are still used all over the West Coast. In fact, they are still so prized that many fishermen will pull out the tow bar and instead rig a bead chain through the plug. This allows the plug to float to the surface if the line gets snapped. They are the only lure I know of that fishermen will go back looking for after they lose. And at least for me, there is no type of lure I enjoy fishing more than a plug. With no flasher or other impediments, it is just you and the fish. So, remember the next time you rig up a Tomic plug, you are also tying a piece of Vancouver Island history onto your line.
This article appeared in Island Fisherman magazine. Never miss another issue—subscribe today!