Why You Should Consider Wooden Topwater Bass Lures
November 04, 2010
Wooden topwater lures are still preferred by some veteran anglers over newer plastic models. That's because these baits catch more bass!
In all corners of his office, wooden bass lures lay scattered and stashed. Dusty shelves overflow with vintage packages named Lucky 13, Dalton Special, Injured Minnow and more. Cardboard cartons nose out from under tabletops, revealing worn boxes printed with 60-year-old names like Paw Paw Bait Company, Florida Fishing Tackle Company, True Temper Corporation and more. Faded finishes and rusty hooks shadow the faces, flaps and fins of unidentified lures that hang haphazardly on an aged and yellowed retailer's display rack.
Lee Howard of Blackwater Bait Company shows off the kind of bass that wooden lures can fool.Photo by Bob Borgwat.
Dig through storage bins collected on a tabletop along one wall, however, and you find the wooden lures heaped here leap forward by decades -- Rapala, Poe's, Bagley and Bomber to name just a few.
"Those are fairly new, but discontinued patterns that have caught a lot of bass for me," said Lee Howard, who obviously is both a collector of vintage tackle and a bass fisherman. "And when they're gone from the store shelves, I'll have plenty of them to keep me catching fish."
But even when those models are gone, Howard will have still more wooden bass lures to cast across his favorite cypress lake or mountain reservoir. He learned long ago, explained the 48-year-old maker of wooden lures for Blackwater Bait Company, the wooden lures -- old or new -- he passionately collects, sells, displays, fishes with and manufactures can make better bass anglers out of average bass fishermen.
MODERN WOODEN LURES
To some anglers, it may seem like a step back in time to build fishing lures in wood. Plastic and the injection-mold production process are responsible for the success of the best-known names in today's lure-building industry. Cotton Cordell, Heddon, Lucky Craft, Rebel, Strike King, Bomber and others all rest their share of the bass-lure market on plastic lures.
But Howard views the creation of his lure company as a step forward that resurrects everything good about building and bass fishing with wooden lures. He credits wooden lures for many of his best bass fishing trips over the last 30 years as a fishing guide.
"You know, there are some really fine plastic lures out there. I fish with some of them like Lucky Craft. But time and time again, I find myself coming back to wooden lures when the fishing really counts," he noted, harking back to fishing his home waters with a Smithwick's Devil's Horse, a venerable classic among wooden topwater lures. "Those fish in cypress lakes just can't seem to resist lures like that," he says, "and at times, the wooden lures would out-fish their plastic counterparts four or five to one!"
Howard said wood simply lends itself best to both the creative process and the physical characteristics that prove the value in the investment. Yes, lures can -- maybe even should be -- investments in your fishing, he added. That's because wood lures often outlast plastic models -- if not physically, then in their designs and collectible value.
"Woods of many kinds are used for lure-making, and all of them have characteristics that make them more attractive to me as an angler than plastic offers. Look at some of these used plugs in my collection," he continued, lifting a cluster of collectible but worn lures from a nearby box. "Plastic chips, plastic cracks, and wood lures will too, but wooden lures can sustain a lot of abuse and still look good.
"The cell structure of wood can accept pressures -- like striking riprap rock -- without losing much of its painted finish. Paint on wooden lures is more elastic than the hard finish typically applied to plastic lure blanks. These lures are still around because their finish is more durable than the paint finish on a plastic lure."
Across the industry, lure manufacturers recognize that when plastic was first used for lures, it was done mostly for lowering the cost of production. A prototype lure is completed in wood, and a plastic injection mold carries the production process forward to create copy after copy of the original lure at much lowered costs. Lower production costs mean lower retail costs enabled a lot of anglers to buy lures they might not have bought in models made from wood.
"But a lot of those wooden lures, when manufactured in plastic materials, lost the look and feel, as well as some of the action, of the original wooden lure," Howard pointed out. "You just can't make a plastic lure do exactly what a wooden lure can do or look exactly like a wooden lure can look."
Longtime lure maker Lee Sisson agrees. Known for originating some of the finest wooden lures manufactured by Bagley, such as the DB, Killer B and Small Fry series, Sisson said a lot of plastic lure manufacturers switched to plastic even if they loose the features originally built into the wooden prototypes.
"Let's say you're a lure manufacturer and you just spent $35,000 on a plastic lure mold, but it didn't quite capture what you wanted. You're likely to produce those lures anyway. The cost of creating the mold almost requires you to do so," Sisson explained. "Sure, wooden lures are not always going to be exactly right, either, but when you build with wood, you just change the angles of the saw to correct the design. Sometimes, a 1/72 of an inch can make all the difference in the world."
A LOOK BACK AT WOOD
About 40 years ago, I cast my first bass lure -- a Rapala Original Floating Minnow -- into a tight clearing among standing reeds where red-winged blackbirds fluttered from stalk to stalk. Dark water wove in, out and around the reeds. Floating high on the water on its balsa-wood frame, the minnow-like twitch-bait fluttered, flipped, swished and spit with every short snap of the rod and line. The bass weren't far behind.
My fishing changed that day, as I graduated from bait fishing to casting lures I had only read about. Since then, every new lure I've added to my tackle box has led me to learn more and more about what lure to use and when.
Early on the new topwater plugs and crankbaits I purchased were usually made from wood. Among those were the Lucky 13, Hula Popper, Jitterbug, Bass-Oreno, River Runt and many more models of the Rapala Floating Minnow. I also learned how these lures and others were made, as well as how they were designed to swim "this way and that way."
I discovered, too, that arming my tackle box properly with these new lures was going to cost good money. There were a lot of lures out there. I wanted every one of them I read about in outdoor magazines.
But a young teen's budget that consisted of a few bucks a week from a newspaper route wasn't going to fill the trays of my tackle box. The new plastic lures that soon filled the display racks and shelves of tackle-shop stores in the late 1960s and early '70s soon filled my tackle boxes. I still buy them today. For decades, plastic lures have made some of the greatest bass lures affordable for millions of anglers. Some of the best are still bargains! I'm hard-pressed to tie on anything other than a Rebel Pop-R when the summertime topwater bite unfolds on my favorite smallmouth bass lake.
Lure manufacturer Dennis Gilmore of Gilmore Tackle Company in Pelsor, Arkansas agrees with me that the Pop-R is a good lure.
"And you most certainly can produce plastic lures like the Pop-R cheaper than wood lures," Gilmore admitted. "Decades ago, you built with wood by necessity. But they're expensive. Prior to painting, a wooden lure already will have cost about four times the cost of its plastic counterpart. Labor does that. And that cost ratio is only going up in completion of the lure.
"When you paint a wooden lure, it requires several coats from the initial conditioners and sealers to the finishing gloss," he added. "Plastic lures are typically racked and sprayed two or three times."
Like Howard, Gilmore also believes lure purchasing can be viewed as an investment.
"If you want a lure that your grandchildren can use, too, you buy wooden lures. I know a lot of guys who have topwater baits they fish that are 30 years old. Nobody has a plastic lure they're still using that's 30 years old," he points out. "Wood lures just hold up better."
He should know. Gilmore Tackle was unofficially established in 1949 by Dennis' father, Luney Gilmore. His first lures were flies, but he soon progressed to topwater bass lures. He incorporated the company in 1950, as he expanded his lure patterns and operations. In 1951 he created the venerable Jumper surface lure, which has long been known for creating some explosive bass-fishing action.
"The key to success with this lure is not only its design, but the materials it is made with. These are wooden lures," Dennis Gilmore emphasized, "and unlike the typical plastic counterpart, the wooden lures actually float like they are supposed to and are much more durable.
"We don't use the normal soft balsa, or the brittle cedar that some other companies use," he pointed out. "Instead we went outside the 'norm' and have used the extremely lightweight, high-floating, and strong sugar pine. Sugar pine supports heavier hardware while maintaining a high floatation. The lower in the water that a lure rides, the less disturbance it causes on the surface, which usually means less fish in the boat. The Jumper rides high in the water and causes a lot surface disruption."
The Jumper has frequently proven to Gilmore how wooden lures can out-fish plastic lures. He recalled one such day fishing on Missouri's Table Rock Lake. His Jumper was fished head-to-head against Heddon's Zara Spook.
The Spook was first developed in the 1930s as a wooden lure named the Zaragossa, but it was transformed into a plastic model around 1940. No one in bass-fishing circles can argue about the success the Spook has brought to topwater bass fishing.
"But the Jumper easily out-fished the Spook that day," Gilmore recalled, "and I was in the back of the boat! I was culling my limit long before my partner had his."
"They do fish better," agrees lure maker Craig Powers of CP Baits in Rockwood, Tennessee. Like Lee Howard, Powers is a relative newcomer in lure making, placing his crankbaits in the retail and online markets just one year ago. He's long-built his own lures, and he gives wooden lures a large share of the credit for his success as a pro angler. He earned more than $825,000 over a 10-year career in bass fishing that included the FLW Tour and EverStart Series of bass tournaments.
"I like to think of Fred Young's Big O as the original wooden lure," Powers said.
Hand-carved from balsa wood beginning in 1967, the Big O arguably is the best shallow to mid-depth crankbaits ever made.
"So I took the best characteristics of the Big O, as well as the Tennessee Killer and Little Petey -- a couple other great vintage balsa-wood lures -- and made the baits that helped me win a million bucks bass fishing."
Balsa wood? Not the harder woods like sugar pine, cedar, basswood and jelutong (a wood from Indonesia that's relatively "new" for lure makers), all of which stand-up better than balsa wood to the beatings bass fishermen can give their lures?
"Actually, balsa wood is useless," Powers admitted, "other than for building homemade crankbaits and model airplanes. The beauty of it is there's nothing more buoyant than balsa wood. It's like it's more air than wood!
All four of these lure makers agree: Building lures with wood has its problems. No two wooden lures are exactly alike.
"Wood isn't consistent at all," Powers said. "Build 10 identical lures out of it, all of them will work and probably better than plastic, but only three of them might work exactly the way you want them to in the water."
"I can remember pulling lure after lure out of their wrappers, looking for the one that had just the right action I was looking for," Lee Howard recalled. "Individual wooden lures will always have some variable characteristics. It's the nature of wood grain to be a bit different from one cut to the next. Each lure will have its unique look and feel -- that one action the angler really likes."
All four of these lure makers agree that fishing with wooden lures has its problems. Wooden baits dent and they do crack, especially near the nose and bill of the lures. Eventually, water leaks into the wood, it swells, the paint cracks and the bait loses its performance.
But, all four also agree bass fishing with wooden lures catches more fish.
"Vibration is the most important thing," Lee Sisson said, "and the right vibration is achieved by the cut in the wood. Visual senses are the least factor in getting a bass to take a lure. They feel the lure a lot earlier and longer than they see it. They feel it with their inner ear, swim bladder and lateral line. Color is only a blur to them."
Craig Powers noted that wooden lures give him greater confidence in his bass fishing.
"On any given day, a well-built wood plug will give me the advantage over other anglers, because I know that a quality wooden bass lure holds the features I need to catch more fish, bigger fish and maybe even win a tournament!"
Bass fishing lures come and go, but few have stood the test of time, as have wooden bass lures. If you don't hav
e wooden lures in your bass-fishing line up, you need to get on the ball! Wooden lures can make all the difference in turning teasers into takers!