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Hand Made Lures
By Dick Dailey

I'd like to thank Dick Dailey for permission to publish this important article.  While it doesn't deal with fly fishing per se, it is a fabulous overview of a lost art.  Simply put, many of us aren't exclusively fly fishers.  I'm happy to use whatever tackle is needed for the conditions at hand.  Like many of you, I have a full complement of spinning rods, casting rods, fly rods, etc.

 

Here's a thought - in addition to making plugs for your spinning or casting set-up, why not try making fly rod sized balsa plugs, too?  Certainly we all know that before spinning gear made its way into our lives shortly after World War II that the fly rod plug was a staple in the long rodder's arsenal!

 

─ Joe Cornwall

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Creating and carving wooden lures can be very satisfying. Trying new lure designs and actions is a large part of the fun. Trial and error may result in a fish catching lure with a unique appearance or action that you never intended. “Aquadynamics”, a word coined from the term aerodynamics, comes into play when hand made, new lure designs are developed. The size and shape of a top water lure and how and where it is weighted affect how it will react in the water. Crank baits are similarly affected. Also, the angle, shape, size and configuration of the crank bait’s diving lip are major factors affecting action.

A brief discussion of wood suitable for the purpose is in order at the outset. Softwoods such as basswood, balsa, cedar, redwood and pine are preferred over harder wood as they are more buoyant and easier and quicker to shape and finish. Depending on the lure, wood thickness can range from ¼” to 1” or more.

The lure chosen is named the Rocker because of its’ curved belly (think of how rocker affects a canoe’s performance). This configuration gives it an easy walk the dog motion as long as it is properly weighted. Our lure will be made from basswood. Its’ dimensions will be 5/8” X 2.5”.

Materials

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Stainless or galvanized 19 and 20 gauge wire

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Super Glue and 30 minute waterproof epoxy

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Wood filler and wood sealer

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Paints (economical spray cans, water based acrylic paints, or airbrush and paints)

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Tough, waterproof clear top coat

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Toothpicks

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50 grit to 400 grit sandpaper

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Variety of wood in different thicknesses

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Crank bait lip material (aluminum, brass, circuit board, poly, fiberglass, or lexan sheet)

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Lead weights (bbl. sinkers, bass sinkers, etc.)

 

Tools

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Coping saw or band saw

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Needle nose pliers and wire cutters

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Electric drill and bits

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Wood files, carving knife or pocket knife

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Dremel or other rotary tool is handy

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Paint brushes

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Tools (cont’d)

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Electric drill and bits

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Scissors and tin snips

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Paint and dust masks


Making the Lure Blank


First, prepare a stiff paper template that outlines the shape of the lure. This template should be kept for future use. Trace the outline onto a 5/8” basswood sheet and saw out the lure blank.

Trace a pencil center line completely around the entire lure as shown on the belly of the lure in Exhibit 1. Take care when you mark a balsa lure as the wood is very soft. The center line is your reference point to drill holes for hook hangers and the belly weight for the lure, as well as, a reference point when you shape the lure. You can measure the center line with a rule. A tip for more precise measurements is to use brass bar stock, or wood as a straight edge sizing template in 1/16” or 1/8” increments up to ¾”, or 1” for very large lures. Use the template that matches closest to the midpoint of the lure thickness. If necessary flip the lure over and run a second centerline as shown.

Making Hook Hangers and Line Ties

Cut a 6” or so length of 19 gauge steel wire. Stainless steel wire is best, but galvanized is also very good. This wire is soft enough to be malleable and strong enough to handle a musky; however, I use heavier 16 gauge or cotter pins for musky lures. Refer to Exhibit 2 for a picture of the finished hook hanger and the finished hangers and weight temporarily inserted.
An easy way to form the wire is to pound a nail into a 7” piece of 2x4 to accommodate the round part of the hook hanger. Cut off the head of the nail. Use Needle Nose Pliers to bend the upper round part of the wire around the nail. The lower part of the wire is bent and squeezed against the shaft as shown. This construction helps anchor the hook hanger when it is glued in place. The lower part of the hook hanger should be about ½” to ¾” long below the ring portion as shown in Exhibit 2. I typically use ¾” for bass lures unless space is limited for thinner lures, or other reasons. Use ½” or so if your drill would otherwise run into another part or all the way through the lure.

Weighting the Lure

For this lure, a #5 split shot will be centered in the rear quarter section of the belly as shown in Exhibit 2. Why number 5? Trial and error has shown this weight to be “about right” for this lure. Each time you make any lure, you should try it out on the water with the split shot snugged into place but not glued in the hole. You may want to change the weight to achieve proper action after you have retrieved it a few times on the water. Occasionally, the lure may not perform well enough to finish. More will be discussed about this later.

A KEY POINT to remember is to always mark the raw lure blank and drill all holes while the lure is square BEFORE any shaping or sanding.

WARNING! Always wear adequate dust or paint masks when drilling wood or lead, sanding or painting.

Mark the lure and punch with an awl where you want to place the 4 holes for hook hangers, line tie and a #5 split shot weight. Drill three 3/32” hook and line tie hanger holes about ½” to ¾” deep. You may need a shallower hole and a shorter hook hanger in the middle of the lure. A 5/16” drill bit should be the correct size for the weight. (TIP: If you don’t have a 5/16” brad point drill bit, you may want to use several smaller sized bits before drilling with the 5/16” bit. This will result in more precise centering of the hole and avoids damaging the lure blank.) When the hangers are glued into place, as described later, they will never fail.

Screw eyes can be used in place of hand made hook hangers, but they are not as durable and they do not have the smooth, finished appearance that hook hangers provide. Screw eyes are sometimes used temporarily prior to installing hook hangers to try out a lure to see if it is going to perform properly.

Remove the lead weight and the hardware to make the lures ready for shaping and sanding.
 

Shaping and Sanding


The lure blank can be carved with a sharp knife, files, sandpaper or a rotary tool.

Begin shaping the lure at the tail section and round off any sharp edges. Gradually narrow the tail section toward the hook hanger leaving about 1/32” of material around the hole. The hook hanger holes and the center line marks serve as a reference to uniformly round out the square edges of the lure. Be careful that you do not remove too much material in these first stages of shaping the lure as additional wood will be removed in later sanding steps.

Round off the head of the lure, the bottom and the sides. Once this rough shaping is completed, continue to progressively shape and sand the lure. Start with 100 to 180 grit sandpaper to smooth the surface and for further shaping. Then, sand with 220, 320 and 400 grit sandpaper for a smooth surface. Refer to Exhibit 3 to view the lure blank after shaping and sanding. You will note that the lure blank is well rounded, but has somewhat flat sides.

You are now ready to temporarily reinstall the belly weight and permanently glue in the hook hangers and line tie. Insert the line tie and hook hangers. Select and have ready 6 or 7 flat tooth picks. It is recommended that you take a dry run by inserting the line tie and hook hangers with toothpicks in each hole before gluing to be sure everything fits.

The following procedure is to be repeated separately for each hook hanger because of the quick setting nature of super glue. Remove one hanger and apply 5 to 7 drops of super glue in the hole. A bubble may prevent the drops from entering the hole. If so, have a wire or toothpick available to stick into the hole to clear the bubble and continue with gluing. Immediately insert the hook hanger in the hole and wedge a toothpick on each side of the hole to anchor and glue the hook hanger solidly in the hole. The first toothpick should bottom out easily. The second toothpick may require a little pressure with needle nose pliers to push it into the hole. All you want is a tight fit, so if one toothpick does the job, OK. If your hole is a little off center, insert the toothpick on one side or the other of the hanger as necessary to help center it. Bend the toothpick sideways and break it off next to the lure body.

(Note: Basswood used for this lure is fairly solid, however, when you work with balsa, exercise more care with this soft wood.)

Temporarily install the belly weight by reinserting it without glue. If it is a tight fit, the lure can be used to try it out on the water. If it is loose enough to fall out, a light layer of plastic wood over the top of the weight will hold it in place after it dries.

Final Preparations and Testing the Lure

Remove any toothpick edges that rise above the surface so that it is smooth enough for final finishing. Fill any cavities around the hook hangers and the line tie with Elmer’s wood filler and let it dry. Sand the wood filler so it is smooth and even with the lure body. Sand the entire lure again. Coat the lure with two coats of wood sealer. When the lure has dried, attach two #6 treble hooks with a #2 or 3 split ring.

A preliminary test can be performed in water in a sink or a bucket. Simply place the assembled lure in the water. It should float with the rear end under water and the head above water. The linear axis from head to tail should be in the range of a 30 to 45 degree angle. If it does, you are almost home free.

When you try the lure on the water, you will note that “normally” the lure with either a 30 degree angle up to about 45 degrees will readily walk the dog and catch fish. Generally, the steeper the angle, the wider the lure swings side to side on the retrieve. Either alternative may catch more fish than the other on a given day! Too much weight and the lure tends to bog down on the retrieve, whereas, a weight too light will not give enough action to readily walk the dog.

If your trial run was successful, proceed to the next step. If not, try different size weights. If all efforts fail, start over.

Use an awl or an ice pick to dig out the wood filler and the weight that was temporarily installed. Reinsert the weight into the hole and super glue it in place. Let the glue dry and fill the hole with wood filler so that it is mounded slightly above the surface of the lure. After the wood filler dries, sand the wood filler so that it is smooth and even with the body of the lure.
 

Finishing the Lure


Sand all surfaces of the lure with 320 to 400 grit sandpaper and recoat the lure again with wood sealer. When dry, sand the lure with 400 grit sandpaper before painting.

The first or base coat of paint normally, but not always, is white. I frequently use Delta Ceramcoat Acrylic water based paints ($1 to $2 at Walmart) with either a paint brush, or an air brush for the base coat and final coats of paint. Krylon and cheaper 89 cent spray paint cans from Odd Lots can also be used. Nail heads are used for spots and for eyes. Templates can be cut out for irregular spots or a coach dog effect. I have also found that a discarded felt highlighter or marker dipped in acrylic paints can make very effective dots, splotches and other markings that attract a fish’s attention to the lure. The point is that you don’t need a lot of equipment to make a nice looking lure. A friend of mine who makes lures does a much finer job of painting with cheaper spray can paints than I do with an air brush, spray cans or a paint brush.

Discount stores have curtain material of various mesh sizes to paint a scale effect on the lure. Snug the mesh onto the lure with simple clamping paper clips and spray through the mesh.

Bait fish typically have a light colored belly and sides and a darker back. There are times you may want a surface lure with a dark belly to give contrast from below in the low light periods of day or night.

Incidentally, plastic doll eyes from Craft stores are very lifelike on lures. I use them frequently, but the old standby is different size nail heads dipped in paint and pressed onto the lure for the iris and the pupil. The eyes and any other markings you want to add to the painted lure are the last things to add before the final protective finish.

Final finish clear coats include automotive clear coat lacquer (harmful without adequate ventilation and may bubble up on balsa baits), 2-part rod winding epoxy, or plain old 30 minute 2-part epoxy gives a tough, clear finish. Another smooth, long lasting finish carried by Walmart is “Dupli-Color Truck, Van & SUV Clear Top Coat spray. Several coats of finish are in order for good protection. The 30 minute epoxy may only require one coat. After the final clear coat finish has been applied and dried, you are now ready to go fishing.
 

A Lure to Try - The Buzz Tail


Here are examples of a lure blank and a finished lure which you can make following the procedures above. The lure is 1” x 2 3/8” balsa wood. Be sure that the balsa wood is dry and also seal it well. The wood is porous and requires extra attention when initial and final sealing coats are applied. Balsa makes excellent lures. A #2 Colorado blade colored lime, pearl and pink is attached to a swivel to allow it to spin. The line tie and two hook hangers should be positioned as shown in above. A #7 split shot is located close to and behind the center hook hanger. The colors are … Base coat: White Delta Ceramcoat, Belly: Pearl Satin Gold Createx, Sides: Felt tipped highlighter dipped in Black Ceramcoat paint for the “squiggly” marks and the Back: Liquitex Burnt Sienna. This is a fish catchin’ bait. It can be retrieved with walk the dog, sharp jerks, or buzz bait actions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

17" Hocking River smallie caught on a Dailey "Rocker" top water bait. This one is numbered No. 214. Photo courtesy of Rick Draper

 

Above: Dick Dailey with a fine bit of bronze!

Above: A collection of fish catchin' artwork!

The only limit is your imagination.

Can there be any doubt?

A selection of crawfish cranks.

"The Rocker"

The Lure Blank - Rough Finished

 Hangers, Line Ties and Weight Installed

 Lure Body, Shaped and Sanded

Finished Plug - A Fish Catching Machine!

Lure to Try

The Buzztail

One more look...

Crankbaits that work...

Completely original...

And one-of-a-kind...

Super-sized for muskie!

Or whimsical...

 

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