Strategic Angler: Elite Stickbaits for Tuna and Stripers

The 10-year evolution of Merv Rubiano and his custom lure company, Strategic Angler.

Strategic Angler Custom Lures

Backlit by the rising sun, the breaking tuna were visible from a distance as Captain Bobby Rice yelled, “Hold on!” and motored his SeaCraft into range. Bobby handed me a rod and throttled back. I unhooked the lure from the first guide, flipped the bail, and cast a Strategic Angler lure into the melee.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the perfect lure for me to throw. A novice at pursuing tuna with spinning gear, I’d never thrown a stickbait and didn’t know how to bring it to life. But, “life” was built into the design of the Strategic Angler Frantic and, combined with a beautiful, hand-painted finish, created a lure capable of fooling large, keen-eyed pelagic predators, even in the hands of an inexperienced angler.

“Just reel,” Bobby advised as the lure landed, and with a few moderately paced cranks of the reel handle, I felt the impact of 60-some inches of bluefin tuna colliding with the lure.

Strategic Angler Custom Lures
In addition to lures painted with lifelike baitfish patterns, Merv uses them as a medium for his art, painting some to be displayed and not fished.

Some five years earlier, in the same waters, Merv Rubiano was casting into similar bluefin tuna blitzes. He’d made the trip to Cape Cod from his home near Atlantic City, New Jersey, to experience the burgeoning spinning rod tuna fishery on the Cape. He’d been intrigued by the idea of throwing lures at giant fish since learning about it on 360Tuna, one of the online fishing forums popular at the time. He’d seen that there were few tuna-specific lures available to spinning rod anglers at the time, and the ones that were available and imported carried price tags of more than $300. Others were beefed up striper plugs, often needlefish, which fooled the tuna, but not consistently.

The lure he ended up using aboard his tuna charter with Captain Alan Hastbacka on the Cape was not one of the imported ones. It was a rudimentary stickbait, little more than a wooden dowel with hooks. While he had multiple casts into the fish, the lure came through untouched. While Merv would catch his first spinning rod tuna that day (on a dead-sticked soft plastic), he returned to New Jersey mulling over a quote by Ferdinand Porsche: “I couldn’t find the sports car of my dreams, so I built it myself.”

At the time, Merv was managing the Apple Store on The Pier in Atlantic City. He’d fish before and after work and carve lures on his breaks at the office. “There’d be wood chips in the keyboards,” Merv remembered, laughing.

Strategic Angler Stickbaits
To create the finished product, Merv sands each lure four times and uses 4 to 5 coats of epoxy.

After seven months of experimenting with different designs, weighting, and paints, he took a prototype to the Atlantic City surf, cast it out, and watched as it snaked through the water on a straight retrieve.

The revelation, Merv said, in finding a lure that swims on its own, was finding its point of imbalance. A balanced lure would track straight, but a lure that’s just slightly imbalanced would veer and course-correct, leading to a natural swimming action on a straight, steady retrieve, with no further angler input.

The lure that first snaked through the Atlantic City surf would evolve into the Frantic series, the same lure I’d snake through a ball of sand eels to connect with my first spinning rod tuna. The name for the series came from the lure’s tendency swim more frantically the faster it was retrieved.

At the time, Merv had no intention of turning his lure making into a business, but he was spending an increasing amount of money on tools and materials. A friend suggested that creating an LLC, provided he sold a few lures, would help with the mounting costs, especially if he began buying raw materials in bulk. So, on January 1, 2011, Merv Rubiano founded Strategic Angler, LLC, naming the company for the anglers whose methodical approaches to fishing helped them catch the most fish.

Strategic Lures Bluefin Tuna
The Frantic was the first lure design for Strategic Angler. It swims with a side-to-side action that appears more frantic as the retrieve speed is increased, hence the name.

In May of 2011, Merv posted on 360Tuna after a successful final lure test on what would become the Frantic Series, mentioning that after nearly two years of making prototypes that needed to be “molded, re-cast, weighted, and re-weighted again,” he was able to begin making the lures a few at a time. A few months later, the first ever bluefin tuna was taken on a Strategic Angler lure.

Lure making had become a major obsession for Merv. Reading through the archived posts on 360 Tuna, you can see his passion for lure building grow and his skill at designing and painting the lures continually improve.

After Steve Jobs passed away in the fall of 2011, Merv decided it was time to leave retail management and venture into uncharted waters. Armed with a marine biology degree, he dove full time into his lure-making obsession, applying what he studied to his craft.

It took Merv three years to refine the process of lure making that he uses today. Every Strategic Angler starts with a solid injection-molded blank that’s weighted and wired. It then gets sanded and scrubbed before getting its primer and the first coat of epoxy. After it cures, the lure is sanded a second time, at which point Merv applies the foil followed by the second coat of epoxy. Once that cures, Merv cleans any epoxy out of the wires and sands the lure again. Then comes the base coat of paint, along with any pearls and transparents, followed by another coat of epoxy. Then Merv sands the lure again with a finer grit, to prepare it for detail work, like the fins, scales, and eyes. He signs the lure at this point, adds the model number, and after two more coats of epoxy (that’s four sandings and five coats of epoxy), and final wire cleaning, it’s ready to fish.

Merv did most of this work in a shed in the back of his house, but because the shed lacked running water, he had to do the sanding in his kitchen. “There were bins of lures in the kitchen, packaging in the dining room. We’d be picking epoxy chips out of our food,” Merv remembered.

“There were bins of lures in the kitchen, packaging in the dining room. We’d be picking epoxy chips out of our food,” Merv remembered.

His wife was less than pleased about Strategic Angler operations overtaking the house, so when the couple relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina, Merv found a building where he could work on his lures and display some of his artwork.

From 2012 to 2014, Merv focused on growing Strategic Angler to generate more income to buy more lure building supplies. As the popularity of his lures grew, fishermen began commissioning lures from Merv. It had become his habit to ask them to send photos of the fish they caught on his lures. Merv viewed it as a prime marketing strategy, sharing photos of big catches on Strategic Angler lures on social media to generate interest in his work.

One of the turning points during the first decade of Strategic Angler Custom Lures was when an angler commissioned a plug bearing his last name. It wasn’t an unusual request, so when Merv accepted the order, he asked the fishermen to share some photos of the fish he caught with the lure, to which the angler replied that this lure was destined for the mantle, not his tackle box.

So, Merv made him two plugs, at no extra charge, and when he shipped them, he included a note that said, “Here’s one to fish and one to save.” Merv never heard back from the angler and never received any photos of fish taken with the lures. He hadn’t thought much about it until a couple years later, when a man with the same last name that he’d added to those plugs got in touch.

It was the son of the man who’d commissioned the lures, calling to thank Merv. His father had a terminal illness at the time he’d asked for the plug and ordered it as something he could pass down when his time came. The son said he’d forever remember his father when he saw that lure, and that he’d carry on that tradition, passing down the lure to future generations. That conversation had such an impact on Merv that he began to approach his craft differently.

Nothing changed about the way he made the lures. Each one was still painstakingly sanded, painted, signed, and epoxied by Merv’s hands, but his purpose for making the lures changed. “The sale became secondary,” Merv said. Making the lures became more about creating a legacy. In hearing that one of his creations had become a family heirloom, Merv realized that some of his lures would long outlive him.

Strategic Angler Studio
Merv’s new studio, a major upgrade from the spare bedroom and office where Strategic Angler got its start.

Look at a Strategic Angler lure today, and you feel as though you’re seeing a piece of castable art—and that’s how Merv sees them. “Lures are my medium,” Merv said. “Some guys use canvas, I have my designs, my lures.” In addition to strikingly realistic baitfish patterns, mimicking everything from rainbow trout to blue marlin, Merv paints commemorative pieces that feature swimming koi, cherry blossoms, and abalone patterns that are destined to be displayed, not fished.

While fish tend to be the harshest art critics, they’ve given rave reviews of Strategic Angler over the past 10 years. In that time, Merv’s lures have caught fish from Cape Cod to Australia, including bluefin tuna, giant trevally, marlin, wahoo, and at least one 50-pound striped bass, caught in the Cape Cod Canal by well-known angler Roy Leyva.

As we spoke in April 2021, Merv sat in his studio—a major upgrade from the spare bedroom and office breakroom where Strategic Angler lures got its start—surrounded by 600 lures in various stages of completion. Having grown more efficient at producing lures, Merv is able to supply.

Strategic Angler Custom Lures to tackle shops on both coasts of the United States as well as in the UK, Australia, the UAE, and Israel.

Selling lures was never supposed to be a long-term plan, Merv says, it was always a means to continue doing what he loved—making and designing lures. Ten years and hundreds of lures later, he’s still going, growing his legacy with each memorable catch made on his lures, and each piece of castable art on display in an angler’s home.

The Strategic Angler Lineup

  • 8-Inch Frantic
  • 5-Inch Mikros
  • 10-Inch Walker
  • 12-Inch Kratos
  • 6.5-Inch Nautilus
  • 9-Inch Espada
  • 7-Inch Naia
  • 5-Inch Proteus

The first model of Strategic Angler was the 8-inch Frantic, and from there, Merv created the Mikros, a 5-inch stickbait that he conceived after a prototype Frantic clipped the side of his pool while testing and broke in half. Merv saw that the lure still had a seductive action and a quick tail wiggle and fine-tuned it into the Mikros available today.

After the Mikros came the 10-inch Walker and, following feedback from field-tester Captain Dom Petrarca, a heavier version called the Cruiser. These were more traditional stickbaits with tail-weighted designs and more angler input required to make them swim.

Merv then began making the 12-inch Kratos, a 10-ounce beast of a bait that’s geared more for giant trevally off Oman than tuna in the Northeast. Seeing its effectiveness, however, Merv made a smaller version, taking design elements from the Kratos and the Mikros and making a mid-sized stickbait perfect for Northeast bluefin, the 6.5-inch Nautilus. To mimic halfbeaks, Merv designed the 9-inch Espada, which fishes well with a sweep and dead-stick retrieve when tuna are feeding on those fast-moving baitfish.

Strategic Angler Frantic
Strategic Angler Frantic (8-Inches)

In 2019, Merv released the 7-inch Naia series, a clear-bodied hybrid stickbait and flutter jig enhanced with a UV additive. A proprietary internal ballast gives it a seductive side-to-side sinking flutter that can also be slow retrieved, slow-jigged, or twitched like a traditional stickbait. The tail-only hook option increases hook-up ratios and allows for safer releases. Smaller versions of the Naia series are now available in 4 and 5 inches.

The toughest code to crack for tuna fishermen and lure designers alike has been the late-fall butterfish bite. In October and into November, bluefin feed on small butterfish, rampaging through the bait on the surface but refusing nearly everything anglers throw at them. Merv’s answer, released in December 2020 was the 3.35-ounce, 5-inch Proteus. Also a clear-bodied bait, it’s modeled after butterfish. The Proteus wiggles as it sinks, and Merv recommends feeding it line after the cast and giving the tuna a chance to eat it on the initial drop, just like the Naia series.

Strategic Angler Skirted Trolling Lures

Lure-building continues to be an obsession for Merv, and the Strategic Angler line is constantly evolving. One example is the Cruiser, which will be transitioning away from the Strategic Angler lineup, but not completely. The Cruiser will be evolving into the Cruiser-T bullet, a skirted trolling lure made by a new company Merv is affiliated with, Small Lure Company. With the head of the Cruiser stickbait, the lure shimmies in the trolling spread, the action rippling through the skirt to bring up billfish, bigeye, and yellowfin in the canyons. This redesign was inspired by feedback from Hawaiian anglers who trolled the 8-ounce Cruiser in their spread. From the beginning of sharing the early photos of Strategic Angler lures on 360Tuna, Merv has always valued feedback from the anglers using his lures, using that feedback to further fine-tune his creations.

2 on “Strategic Angler: Elite Stickbaits for Tuna and Stripers

  1. TONY TUNA

    IT’S A GOOD THING WHEN ONE TAKES ON WHAT A LURE WITH A PROVEN COLOR, WEIGHT AND SIZE CATCHES THE ATTENTION OF BLUEFIN TUNA . I MYSELF FISHING YELLOWFIN,BLUEFIN,ALBACORE BOTH INSHORE AND THE SELF OFFSHORE EVERY FALL FOR 44 YEARS . ALWAYS SENT MY LIVE OR DEAD BAIT AND NUMEROUS TIMES A CHUNK FROM THE CHUM PAIL UNWEIGHTED WITH 135 LB. LEADER REGARDLESS THE DEPTH MARKING TUNA .ONE TRICK I USE IS PLACING A STEEL WEIGHT INSIDE THE BAIT SO THE LINE CAN HAVE A MORE VERTICAL PRESENCE THUS REDUCING SUN REFLECTION ON A OTHER WISE HORIZONTAL LINE . TRUST ME IT WORKS . I NEVER HAD AN OUTING WITHOUT CATCHING AT LEAST TWO TO HAS MANY AS 12 TUNA . OF COURSE THE HIGHER NUMBERS WERE BACK IN THE LATE 70’S,80’S AND A GOOD PART OF THE 90’S .THESE DAYS I AVERAGE THE LIMIT OF YELLOWS . THIS YEAR I WILL BE GOING IN THE SUMMER CHASING THE FISH AND WILL ATTAIN SOME OF YOUR LURES AND GIVE THEM A TRY . AS THE SAYING GOES, FISH ON

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