Carving a Niche
Casters and crafters discuss angling’s ongoing fascination with wooden plugs.
By Brent Swager
Water Scout Streamliner
Back when the earth was just beginning to cool, my grandfather introduced me to fishing. His rusted metal tackle box was filled with cork bobbers, bits of line and hooks and two wooden lures he’d carved from a salvaged chair leg. Crudely painted and pinned with salvaged hardware, the plugs were more a work of pride than effective fish-enticements, but I was squeamish about hooking my own worms and as a result, caught my first lake bass on one of Grandpa’s homemade wooden lures.
Thirty years later, most of the plugs rattling around in anglers’ boxes are made of plastic. They are mass-produced, injection-molded with volume and affordability in mind. You can find any size, color or configuration you can imagine. Some have internal rattles, some holographic finishes, some better hooks than others.
But among fishermen of a certain age or mindset, there’s just something about those wooden plugs. For some the appeal may be purely nostalgic, but for others it derives from fish-attracting qualities that may seem hard to reproduce.
Is wood better than plastic?
No. Just different.
At a local flea market, I ran into Al Veach standing beside a display filled with wooden lures. Veach, of Tampa, has been turning out handmade plugs under the name Al-Lures for years. For him, it’s a question of function and flexibility.
“There are a lot of reasons to use wood,” Veach said. “For me, it was a natural fit; I love to carve and fishing is fun, so making a lure I can catch fish with is just two tangents coming together. “You can create subtle differences with wood that just aren’t feasible with plastic or composite lures. I listened to the old-time guys talk about the wooden lures they had success with and tried to capture the quality and detail they seemed to think so important.”
Veach is understandably proud of the lures he crafts and while the African mahogany, cedar and walnut lures generally draw a variety of lookers to his display, it’s the results his lures get that bring serious fishermen back for more.
Talk to anglers who favor wooden lures, and some common threads emerge. Action, how a lure runs on a particular retrieve, is a big subject.
“You can buy four or five wooden lures and one out of the bunch will float or wiggle just a little differently than the rest,” said Tony Banner, an avid fisherman from Wesley Chapel, Florida. “Maybe it’s the grade of the wood or the weight of the paint, but I think that adds to the effectiveness.”
Joel Richardson, a bass guide in North Carolina and Virginia, agrees. “No two wooden lures are alike,” he said. “Plastic is so perfectly made that each one comes back the same, but wood is different. You might get one that skips a beat every ten feet or floats a little different than the others and that’s what makes them so good.”
One feature a lot of plastic plugs offer that’s hard to duplicate with wood is internal rattles. Many anglers swear by the click-clack of a brass bead inside a hollow-body plug. On the other hand, there are situations when a quieter profile is desirable.
“Wood makes a natural vibration when it hits off blades of grass on top of the water,” said Todd Kersey, a bass guide on Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. “Wooden lures are particularly effective when you have a school of fish you don’t want to spook or when you are facing finicky fish. The noise they make is very lifelike.”
“A wooden lure is quieter than plastic, I believe,” said Kersey. “Too much sound is an alert to fish. Bass will spook if you make strange noises.”
Water Scout 1934
The versatility of wood inspires makers to experiment with different designs for different purposes.
“It’s not unusual for me to have a single body shape with eight or nine small differences I’ve addressed after trying it out or hearing feedback,” said Veach. “Everyone develops their own way to fish these lures; I often create lures for people based on their technique or on a lure they used to use and liked. I can build the lure to dive or plunk loudly or wiggle, depending on where it’s going to be fished.”