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October 26, 2001

Think Thin

Minnow plugs provide attraction that leads to fishing action.

Some folks say lures are designed to catch fishermen, not fish. Indeed, vivid colors, holographic eyes, built-in rattles and celebrity endorsements help move plugs off store shelves and into tackle boxes. But if manufacturers strive for new ideas to catch anglers' attention, why do we find so many variations on one long, thin shape?
Fishermen use minnow plugs of all sizes and colors because these lures consistently catch fish. A slim silhouette triggers predatory instincts by mimicking common saltwater baitfish such as sardines, mullet and glass minnows. Keeping at hand a selection of floating, suspending and sinking minnow plugs allows an angler to thoroughly cover the water column and present his lure where active fish are holding.

Body Language
Lure bodies consist of wood or plastic; each material's inherent characteristics translate into advantages and disadvantages for anglers. Capt. Rick Banks, guide and lure maker from Cocoa, Florida, fabricates his Banks Lures from wood. "Balsa has the highest buoyancy of the different woods used for minnow plugs, but its lightness makes long casts difficult," he says. "I use aspen, which offers high flotation, good weight for casting and strength for securing hooks with screws."
Two leading lure manufacturers, Rapala and Bagley, mass-produce plugs from balsa wood. Tom Mackin, vice president of marketing for Normark (distributor of Rapala in the U.S.), touts balsa as the best material for minnow plugs, citing its pure consistency - lack of knots and imperfections - and high buoyancy. "And it has a unique wiggle. Balsa delivers better action than plastic," Mackin says.
Softness ranks as balsa's greatest disadvantage, allowing strong-jawed saltwater predators such as bluefish and mackerel to reduce plugs to toothpicks. True to its faith in wooden lures, Rapala makes the Magnum series from apache (pronounced "ah-pash"), which is denser and harder than balsa and therefore more appropriate for heavy-duty saltwater angling.
Jim Gowing, lure designer at PRADCO with over 20 years' experience, maintains that a plastic body offers the same fish-attracting action as balsa, as well as other advantages. "I shape my prototypes from balsa, then produce a plastic lure that performs exactly the same way as the wooden one," he says. "Plastic lures are more durable, and they help us offer a wider range of colors and finishes. For example, have you ever seen a translucent wooden lure?"
Reflective inserts, metallic coatings (such as Yo-Zuri's vacuum metalization process) and lifelike finishes make plastic minnow plugs quite attractive to both anglers and fish. Manufacturers of wood-body lures challenge the competition in the color game by using holographic tape, epoxy coatings and other techniques. Rapala has developed two innovations: a four-color printing process to apply complex color schemes such as its "dorado" pattern to three-dimensional lure bodies, and a method to coat wooden lures with a stainless-steel finish.
Manufacturers employ various types of plastics for lure bodies and, like different types of wood, each synthetic compound possesses unique characteristics. ABS enjoys widespread use because it's rather easy to work with. Lengthwise halves of lure bodies are molded separately and joined by a sonic welding process that leaves no visible seams. But both Gowing and Eric Bachnik, sales manager of L&S Bait (MirrOlure), contend that ABS shatters more easily than the plastics used in their respective products.
According to Gowing, PRADCO lures (Bomber, Cotton Cordell, Excalibur, Rebel and several other brands) rely on Lexan for strength. "Lexan is used in making aircraft windows. Besides having high impact resistance, its density is close to wood's." Bachnik says MirrOlure bodies contain a plastic called tenite propionate, which offers more impact resistance than ABS but can't be sonically welded. For that reason, MirrOlures undergo a head-to-tail construction process: front and back sections of a lure are molded separately and bonded with high-strength glue.
Dagger-toothed game fish can puncture plastic-body plugs, allowing water to enter the lure body and adversely affect its action. That's a problem not suffered by solid-wood models.

Sound and Shimmy
Built-in noise makers - small chambers containing metal spheres that emit a rattle when a lure moves through the water - represent another option available in minnow plugs. "Wood produces a lower-frequency rattle than plastic," says Banks, explaining how a lure's body material affects sound. And according to Bachnik, each type of plastic has its own acoustic qualities. He says bodies made of ABS create higher-pitched sounds than the synthetic material MirrOlure uses. Other factors that influence a lure's sound include the composition and size of the rattle's metal spheres.
In view of these differences, it's a good idea to try various rattling minnow plugs on any given day until the fish show a preference for a particular lure and sound.
Jointed minnow plugs, sometimes called broken-backs, feature an enticing motion as the tail swings freely from side to side. Banks feels this extra wiggle helps fool fish into striking in extremely clear water because the moving lure presents a less distinct profile.

Customizing Performance
Pretty lures are worthless if they don't hold fish that bite them. Manufacturers rely on several different methods - all of which work well - to attach hooks to lures without sacrificing balance and action. Rapala and Bagley use nose-to-tail wire harnesses to hang hooks on balsa lures. Yamashita incorporates a wire harness in its plastic lures, while PRADCO and Yo-Zuri solidly anchor individual wire hook hangers within plastic bodies. MirrOlure and Banks lures hold hooks with screws.
Like car tires, hooks should be replaced after extended use or to provide peak performance in tough conditions. The most common adjustment for saltwater fishing involves replacing factory trebles with stronger or larger trebles - but this change-out can add weight and upset the balance of a fine-tuned lure, reducing its seductive wiggle or, worse, causing it to spin. One solution offered by both Bachnik and Banks: Clip one or two points from each treble to lighten the load.
Catch-and-release anglers can crush barbs and remove the middle hooks from lures hung with three trebles. Replacing trebles with single hooks also reduces chances of injury to fish but, again, alters a lure's balance. In this case, weight may need to be added to get the minnow plug back on track. Banks recommends Storm SuspenDots and SuspenStrips (thin, adhesive-backed lead sheets) for restoring balance and action to customized lures. Lead tape, available in plumbing supply stores, also does the trick.
Whether you use them right out of the box or personalize your minnow plugs, take time to test them in a swimming pool to understand how each model performs. Knowing exactly how a lure swims helps you choose the right one for each situation you encounter on the water.