Handcrafted Artificial Lures

Whittle away the winter while making your own lures

Wintertime temperatures give the Mid-Atlantic coastal region a Scandinavian feel, and I am reminded that the first Rapala lure was handmade by working-class Finnish fisherman, Laurie Rapala, in 1936. The 4-inch-long blank of carved balsa wood went on to forever change sportfishing worldwide.

I, too, spend winter days carving many of my own lures. I like to think I’m carrying on Laurie’s work the way Bob Dylan thought of himself as continuing the folk music tradition of Woody Guthrie. Whether you consider my homegrown artificials handcrafted or homemade is largely a matter of personal bias for or against one-of-a-kind objects. I prefer the term “handcrafted.” I am not a snob, but a fisherman must retain his dignity. One friend, a collector, thought the lures should be signed and saved.

“This is heirloom tackle, for sure,” he said. “Put some of these away and your grandchildren will be very happy.”

Like the pioneering Laurie, I roll my own partly for economic reasons. Moreover, as I age, everything I do becomes a form of therapy. But, my central justification for lure-making is probably the same as another man’s justification for fly-tying, which is the primary justification for all fishing activities—it gives you something to do. And, I cannot deny the fact that I like to personalize everything I use.

This is heirloom tackle, for sure

“This is heirloom tackle, for sure”

Legend has it that Laurie and a couple fishermen-friends would sit around talking and whittling early prototypes for lures, each man adding his own variations, a little something of himself, into his design. They used local materials and hand tools like pocket knives to create their originals. The first colors they applied were monochrome, relatively unpolished gold and silver.

I also use all local materials, making surface poppers and diving lures from scrap wood, primarily pine and cedar, and using discarded silverware for spoons. In addition, I have designed and shaped an improved “spoon” made from beef bone. Super Glue is my standard adhesive, latex paints my finishes of choice, and high-gloss polyurethane my usual final coating.

Divers And Stickbaits

My basic wooden blank for divers and stickbaits is a scrap of pine board, roughly 4 inches long by the standard ¾-inch thick. The width of the scrap, which will become the dorsal-to-ventral width of the lure, I cut to 1 inch.

Divers And Stickbaits

The next step is to cut a saw kerf in the belly lengthwise down the middle to accommodate a stainless steel leader wire (I use 18-gauge), cutting about halfway up through the width. (The wire will later have a loop or eye twisted into both ends, one to fasten the lure to the line and the other to accommodate the hook.

I use a 10-point or 12-point handsaw to cut the kerf and sometimes add a thin keel of flattened lead after inserting the wire. Inserting lead makes the lure dive on a slack line and then rise on the retrieve.

Next, I carve the simple shape of the lure I am imitating. It’s essentially a matter of tapering the ends and rounding the edges of the blank so that it takes on the characteristic shape of a Rapala or Rebel stickbait.

Into the kerf, I insert the wire with loops twisted fore and aft to accommodate the hook (aft), and the eye (fore) that will be connected to my terminal line with a snap swivel. Using a through-wire ensures that even if the lure is destroyed by some traumatic action, the intact wire will keep me tight to the fish. I glue the wire in place and (if I’m using one) set the lead keel strip into the kerf, also embedded in glue. I use a surfer’s instant fiberglass ding repair product called Sun Cure as my one-step filler because it comes in a tube, dries fast, and can be easily smoothed and shaped.

If I’m going to give the lure a lip so that it dives upon retrieval, I just cut a diagonal kerf near its front tip and insert a piece of highly-reflective plastic (that’s sold to repair car mirrors) because this makes the mirror-like lip an added attractant.

After everything dries, I sand and paint my lure. Lastly, I add the armor which consists of any needed split rings and hooks.

stickbait

Poppers

For surface poppers, I’ve come to rely more on dowels for my stock. They tend to be harder, heavier woods than pine or cedar so that I can use either a through-wire in a kerf or substitute screw eyes front and back in place of the wire. If the face of the plug is cut on a flat plane, the plug will spin upon retrieval and does not need a keel. If the popper face is gouged out at a 45-degree angle, then a thin keel will be needed to keep the plug upright. I’ve used a thin lead strip, a piece of cut copper wire (#12 or #14), or furniture tacks to weight the bottom. (The addition of a second, ventral hook will also provide the necessary weight to keep the plug floating belly down.)

First, I cut the dowel to the desired length and give it a flat or a 45-degree angled face. The hollow in the face is easy to carve using a curved woodcarving gouge, although I know some shapers who drill into the face with a drill bit wide enough to provide the desired hollow. I add screw eyes front and back, then clip a split ring to the rear eye. The, I paint or finish it, adding the armament last.

Spoons

Most of us know the handcrafted spoon in its two ubiquitous forms. One is made by taking the bowl, drilling a small hole at either end, then adding a split ring and hook at the wide end. The other is made using a portion of the handle, likewise drilling holes front and rear, to fashion a Hopkins-type metal. Both work fine, and I prefer the weight of silver plate over lighter, cheaper stainless spoons.

A particularly interesting variation is to make spoon-shaped lures from beef bone. The bone is a very durable material, although I typically add a leader wire with loops front and rear, with the wire passing through front and rear holes drilled in the bone. What makes it a great variation is the fact that the bone is porous and absorbs any essences in which it is soaked. For example, when the fish are hitting on shedder crab, I soak my bones in crab essence. A bone lure casts and retrieves well and presents a white, ovoid target smelling of shedder crab.

Clouser Minnows

Finally, we have the hand-tied Clouser Minnow, which is extremely easy to make. Its effectiveness is legendary, with the most widely-known tally credited to Lefty Kreh, who has landed over 80 species of fish with variations of this one lure.

A hand-tied Clouser Minnow

A hand-tied Clouser Minnow

To make one suitable for saltwater panfish, I begin with a size five longshank Bridgeport hook held in a vise with the hook pointed down. On the top of the shank near the eye of the hook, I attach store-bought lead dumbbell eyes using a figure-eight wrap of sturdy black thread finished off with a drop or two of glue. Attaching the lead eyes in this manner will make the lure travel with the hook facing up, thereby making it less susceptible to snags. I next tie on long chartreuse hair strands, beginning just behind the hook eye and just before the dumbbell eyes and continuing to wrap over and under the dumbbell eyes until I’ve wrapped behind them, thereby forming the minnow’s “head.” I add a little glue to the wraps and am all done.

Just like me, you can learn new skills and fill your tackle box with your own creations. You’ll be poised and ready, as Laurie Rapala was poised and ready, looking through the frosted panes at the bare trees, watching for the first signs of spring.

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