Pros on Plugs

Fourteen pros pick their favorite hard-plastic or wood plugs

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Like most fishing magazines, Sport Fishing has run features asking professional guides to name their favorite lures. Interesting, but perhaps a bit disingenuous. After all, the bottom line is that most of these guys are sponsored by lure manufacturers. That's worth a lot to them so, gee, who do you figure they'll name as their favorites? Fair enough, but with that in mind, I opted for a different approach here. I located a top pro staffer for most major and some smaller lure manufacturers. Thus we start with the premise that the pros’ “favorites” are the lures they’re paid to fish. But that’s okay because 1) most wouldn’t fish lures that didn’t work for them; and 2) within an often-considerable universe of models, sizes and colors, these guys still must have their favorites, and with good reason. So these were our basic questions: What’s your favorite lure, why and how do you make it catch more fish? And here are the results.
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BOMBER
Bomber's been making lures since 1946. Its LongA has for years been a mainstay among many inshore saltwater anglers. A few years ago, the Arkansas-based manufacturer notched things up a level for the saltwater market by establishing its Bomber Saltwater Grade division. (www.bombersaltwatergrade.com)
The pro: Capt. Chris O'Neill; Englewood, Florida; www.tailchasercharters.com
Years as a Bomber pro: Four
Favorite lure: BadonkADonk Low Pitch, 4-inch
Type of lure: Topwater walker
Targets species/situation: Snook; O'Neill considers this a top plug for the prized inshore game fish. He uses it often in Charlotte Harbor's backcountry shallows, particularly on slick, calm mornings when mullet dimple the water along mangrove shorelines. "Look for points of land with plenty of moving water and deeper troughs just off the mangroves," he advises, noting that he's caught plenty of big snook this way.
Favorite color: Silver mullet ("unquestionably")
Technique tips: The BadonkADonk's weight-forward design helps it cast like a bullet, says O'Neill, and that distance is a big plus when stalking spooky snook — "Florida's smartest fish" the guide says. "Work the lure with the current, just as a mullet would naturally swim along the shoreline." When casting to mangroves, wait a second or two before beginning your retrieve.
Rigging tips: For snook, tie the lure to a 30- to 40-pound fluoro leader at least three feet long. A loop knot ­maximizes the action, especially for walking the dog.
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BRAID
Dennis Braid started turning his hobby into an enterprise in 1982, initially focusing on designing wahoo lures for casting and high-speed trolling. Over the decades, Braid (a pioneering stand-up-fishing enthusiast) has expanded the company's line to hundreds of products for saltwater anglers, primarily offshore big-game-fishing equipment. Braid Products is based in Palmdale, California. (www.braidproducts.com)
The pro: Capt. Tommy Pellegrin; Cocodrie, Louisiana; customchartersllc.com
Years as a Braid pro: Two
Favorite lure: Tantrum Popper Stopper, 7inch
Type of lure: Topwater chugger/splasher
Target species/situation: Yellowfin tuna; Pellegrin looks for them busting offshore and maneuvers close enough so his anglers can intercept them with long casts.
Favorite colors: Black/purple, red/white (actually red-flame pattern in front and silver scale in back) and blue mackerel.
Technique tips: It doesn't get any better than popping for tuna when they're chasing flying fish, says Pellegrin. "Try to toss a Popper Stopper so it lands just in front of the flyer. Then, any tuna chasing the flyer will figure that's what hit the water and will crash it. Strikes that happen this way," Pellegrin says, "are far more explosive than any other." Another good bet for yellowfin: Let the popper sit for a bit after it's on the water. "Then start popping the paint off the lure and hold onto your heart. Use this lure to throw a lot of water."
Rigging tips: Nothing beyond the usual — heavy-duty rigging with a thick mono leader.
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GIBBS
All wood, all made by hand and all in the USA — those features distinguish Gibbs from most larger lure manufacturers. Based in Rhode Island, the company continues the tradition started by Stan Gibbs in 1946. They remain very popular regionally — in the Northeast — though certainly have proved their applicability in other areas/for other species. (www.gibbslures.com)
The Pro: Capt. Todd MacGregor; Fairhaven, Massachusetts; www.macatacsportfishing.com
Years as a Gibbs pro: 11
Favorite lure: Danny Deep Diver, 3¾ ounce
Type of lure: Subsurface darter/wobbler
Target species/situation: Striped bass; MacGregor favors the Danny (and at times the 3ounce Trolling Swimmer) in rips at dawn and dusk, and after dark as well.
Favorite colors: Herring and pogie (primarily brown). Also at times various ­combinations of blue, black, yellow and white.
Technique tips: As slowly as possible, troll rips, ­especially around submerged rocks and structure. "Boat speed should be just fast enough to make sure the plug swims at a steady rate and does not roll over or surge," advises MacGregor. "I've taken some very large stripers this way."
Rigging tips: MacGregor rigs with 90 feet of 50pound wire and 18 feet of 100pound leader, but fishes lighter when trolling on the surface if currents aren't too heavy.
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HALCO
Proclaiming itself Australia's largest manufacturer of fishing lures, Halco's history dates back to 1950 when the company got its start. Halco prides itself on lures designed by anglers and built tough enough to withstand Australia's brutal fishing. (www.halcotackle.com)
The Pro: Ben Secrest; San Clemente, California*
Years as a Halco pro:*
Favorite lure: Hamma 123
Type of lure: Suspending darter/wobbler
Target species/situation: Calico bass (also yellowtail and white seabass); The Hamma uses a system of interchangeable lips, or "bibs" as they call them Down Under. This is fairly common in Australia, so one lure may be fished at varying depths. Secrest says a short lip keeps the lure running about three feet down; with the longest lip, it will run to about 10 feet.
Favorite colors: Blue angel, green machine and sidewinder (gold)
Technique tips: Given its wide appeal, the Hamma is Secrest's go-to lure for casting to calico (kelp) bass around kelp beds and rocky shoreline as well as trolling just outside. "In colder water, when fish are less active, I've found that the most productive cadence is a jerk-jerk-stop-fast/quick wind-stop," Secrest says.
Rigging tips: When he needs a bit more depth, Secrest doesn't hesitate to rig with a torpedo sinker about three feet ahead of a Hamma.
*Halco has no true pro staffers in the United States; Secrest, a keen angler who fishes all over the world, has overseen distribution of Halco lures in this country for several years.
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MANN'S
Headquartered in Eufala, Alabama, Mann's was started by Tom Mann in 1956. It claims to be the most diversified lure maker in the United States, producing crankbaits/hard-plastic lures for fresh and salt water, soft plastics, spinnerbaits, lead lures and hollow-body (surface frog) baits. (www.mannsbait.com)
The Pro: Capt. John Rivers; Pensacola, Florida; www.megabiteinshore.com
Years as a Mann's pro: Five
Favorite lure: Tidewater Mid 1-Minus (2¾ inches)
Type of lure: Subsurface darter/wiggler
Target species/situation: Redfish (also seatrout); "If I could throw only one lure at reds and trout on the flats, this would be the one," says Rivers.
Favorite colors: Croaker holographic (black/gold/silver) anytime. For overcast days or muddy water — black/chartreuse head, and for sunny days/clear water — green mullet holographic.
Technique tips: Rivers uses the Tidewater Mid 1Minus as a twitch bait. "Fish usually hit it on the pause," he says. "If I spot a school (typically in one to four feet of water) tailing or making toward us, I'll position the boat so anglers can cast the Tidewater beyond them to retrieve it across their noses; this usually entices a strike."
Rigging tips: The guide advises a loop knot, as "it gives the lure more side-to-side action when retrieved," and the sudden stop when pausing it makes it seem all the more like an injured baitfish.
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MIRROLURE
In the mid-1930s, Harold LeMaster started selling MirrOlures that he whittled from walnut in his Illinois home; about 10 years later, L&S Bait Company began production of hard-plastic MirrOlures. Today, L&S is based in Largo, Florida, near Tampa, and produces a dizzying array of plastic minnows, twitchbaits, poppers, walkers and soft-plastic baits. (www.mirrolure.com)
The Pro: Capt. Ray Markham; Tampa; email flatback@tampabay.rr.com
Years as a MirrOlure pro: 20plus
Favorite lure: 94MR Top Dog ("R" designates rattle)
Type of lure: Topwater walker
Target species/situation: Seatrout (points with moving water, edges of potholes in grass flats, around mullet schools); snook (troughs and swashes around mangrove islands and oyster bars where mullet are jumping); redfish and tarpon (just before sunrise, for tarpon especially if rolling near mullet schools).
Favorite colors: 94MR21 (black back, silver sides, white belly) in clear water, 94MR18 (green back, silver sides, white belly) in clear water, 94MR808 (black back, gold sides, orange belly) in stained or turbid water, 94MRCFPR (chartreuse back, silver sides and pearl belly) in low light or turbid water.
Technique tips: "To master this lure, understand that a walking action requires minimal forward movement," says Markham, who advises short, sharp rod twitches that keep it in the strike zone longer for any following fish. Don't be afraid to stop working the lure at times, especially with seatrout. "Stopping the Top Dog when a trout is in pursuit and just letting it sit can allow the fish to home in and explode on it." Also don't be hesitant to vary your cadence on the twitch — that is, quick rod twitches for a tight zigzag pattern or slower, longer pulls of the rod for a longer, slower, darting movement. In warmer weather, Markham adds, you almost can't work a Top Dog too fast. And in windy weather, he says, the Dog still casts, walks and works well.
Rigging tips: Markham advises fishing a braid main line (he likes 10- to 15-pound), because "it gives me better control of the lure and the action I can impart to it versus mono." He likes a mono leader (Ande Clear or Pink or Backcountry copoly) because it's softer than fluoro; the latter's stiffness can inhibit lure action. Markham always goes with a loop knot to connect a Top Dog to the leader.
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PHASE II
Designed by Dick Fincher, who handcrafts his lures from cedar, Phase II is a popular Northeast brand, though Fincher has fished them in the Caribbean as well. The lures — swimmers, poppers, needlefish and others — are precisely weighted and through-wired for strength. Phase II is based in Westport, Connecticut. (www.phaseiilures.com)
The Pro: Capt. Roger Gendron; Westport, Connecticut; www.ctislandoutfitters.com
Years as a Phase II pro: Three
Favorite lure: Junior, 4inch
Type of lure: Topwater/subsurface walker
Target species/situation: Striped bass in shallow water near shore
Favorite color: Yellow/red
Technique tips: Twitch or jerk the Junior to give it a side-to-side motion, walking the dog, but just below the surface. Use a medium to fast retrieve, says Gendron; otherwise the lure might float to the surface. However, if you need it to, "this plug will work on the surface as well. If fish are swirling, I can stop and let it float up, and slide it like a top-water plug," Gendron says. "However, most of my better strikes, particularly from bass, come just below the surface."
Rigging tips: Fishing the Junior as described is most ­effective with braided line, according to the guide and, in a recurring theme, he also prefers a nonslip loop knot.
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RAPALA
Not exactly an obscure lure manufacturer, Rapala traces its genesis to Finland the 1930s when young Lauri Rapala (pronounced RAP-a-la) began experimenting with the idea of replicating wounded minnows from cork. Soon he was catching unheard-of numbers of fish, and his discovery led to the legendary Original Floating Rapala, which has spawned a global business turning Rapala into one of the most widely known names among fish lures in the world. Rapala, with U.S. headquarters in Minnesota, also holds claim to more world records produced on its lures than any other. Every lipped lure, the company boasts, is still individually hand tuned and tank tested.
The Pro: Capt. Jim Ross; Rockledge, Florida (Indian River/Mosquito lagoons); www.captainjimross.com
Years as a Rapala pro: Four
Favorite lure: Saltwater Skitterwalk
Type of lure: Topwater walker
Target species/situation: Seatrout and redfish; Ross particularly likes the Skitterwalk when fishing around schools of mullet.
Favorite color: Overall, Ross likes the redfish color; generally, he suggests a chrome finish for clear water, gold finish for tannin-stained water, and patterns with a white belly for dirty water.
Technique tips: Let the lure sit for a few seconds after it lands, then give it just a single twitch. "If a fish is close by, it will usually blast the plug. If not, I'll start my retrieve with a broken cadence of one to three twitches with a one-second pause." If that gets no results, Ross might up the twitches to seven or eight times in a row before pausing. "Trout usually strike on the pause (or as you start moving the lure again)," Ross says. "Redfish, on the other hand, usually strike while the lure's moving." In fact, he suggests speeding up the Skitterwalk's retrieve versus slowing down, which tends to make reds "rush the plug so it can't get away." In early-morning, glassy-calm water, Ross tries to get the lure into the path of tailing or waking reds, then at most move it barely an inch or two — just enough that the red will notice it; more movement than that is likely to make the redfish spook.
Rigging tips: Try tying a short piece of line from the rear treble and putting on it a light bucktail or plain jig with plastic tail. "This works extremely well for hooking fish holding in four or five feet of water that won't commit to coming up to strike the Skitterwalk."
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RIVER2SEA
River2Sea got its start in 2002 and has expanded rapidly to include more than 1,700 SKUs of (many innovative) lures and fishing accessories. (www.river2seausa.com)
The Pro: Larry Dahlberg; Brainerd, Minnesota; www.huntforbigfish.com
Years as a River2Sea pro: Four
Favorite lure: WideGlide 120 Subsurface
Type of lure: Topwater/subsurface walker (though with a much wider gliding action versus a tight back-and-forth zigzag)
Target species/situation: Tarpon (also snook and redfish)
Favorite colors: Red horse (brownish red to gold) and cisco (blue to silver)
Technique tips: "Use a super-slow, super-lazy retrieve with a tiny, supershort twitch, followed by slack and pause," says Dahlberg. The best situation is casting up-current to bring the WideGlide in front of tarpon. If down-tide, slide it slowly back one way, twitch and slack, then the other. "Let it slide back five to 15 feet in the current while thumbing the spool and twitching a few times," Dahlberg says. "Let it go back 100 yards, and let it go side to side or even just sit in the current."
Rigging tips: Use 80- to 130pound mono or fluoro leader, attaching the lure to it with a loop knot. In a current, Dahlberg sometimes uses a short section of 1/3- to ½-ounce, lead-filled Hollow Ace of 130- to 200-pound-test in front of the Wide Glide, especially when the tarpon are holding down 12 to 20 feet.
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SEBILE
The company bears the name of its founder, Patrick Sebile, of France. Sebile gave up guiding in Africa in the 1990s (after putting an angler on what remains the current all-tackle world-record tarpon in Guinea-Bissau) to start his lure company. On the strength of his cleverly designed, innovative lures and Sebile's own passion, Sebile Innovative Fishing has experienced amazing growth over the past six years. Earlier this year, Sebile was purchased by tackle-giant Pure Fishing. (www.sebileusa.com)
The Pro: Capt. Jay Withers; Port Charlotte, Florida; www.captjay.com
Years as a Sebile pro: Six
Favorite lure: Stick Shadd 155 Floating
Type of lure: Topwater twitch bait
Target species/situation: Tarpon, snook and redfish; Withers says this lure works effectively in almost all conditions.
Favorite color: Amber fashion (light gold with metallic flecks), silver liner, natural shiner, hollow greenie
Technique tips: First: "Walk the dog on a short leash," says Withers. Keeping the rod tip at about 11 o'clock, slightly twitch the rod tip with short snaps, just keeping up with the slack in the line. The result you're after with this lure, Withers says, is a narrow walk-the-dog action. Avoid reeling too fast. Second: "Twitch the slack." That is, Withers says, "I've found that when this bait is worked with a tight line, it limits the lure's freedom of movement." The Stick Shadd's Power Keel allows the lure to move very erratically from side to side with each twitch of a slack line.
Rigging tips: When fishing for tarpon (or other large fish), Withers goes to a suspending Stick Shadd, which works below the surface. He removes the rear treble hook, and then adds a second split ring to the split ring already on the forward (belly) treble hook. The second split ring allows the hook more swing for hookups, plus decreases the odds of pulled hooks. "Patrick Sebile perfected this while targeting giant trevally," says Withers.
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STORM
Founded in 1964, Storm Lures was based in Norman, Oklahoma, and grew to prominence on the strength of such stalwart names as the Chug Bug, Wiggle Wart and ThunderStick, and then with its strikingly realistic Wild Eye Live series of swimbaits. Since 1998, Storm has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Normark/Rapala. (www.stormlures.com)
The Pro: Capt. Eric Kerber; Belmar, New Jersey; www.omfishing.com
Years as a Storm pro: Two
Favorite lure: Kickin' Stick (8inch in spring when larger menhaden around; 5inch during fall when baits run smaller)
Type of lure: Slow-sinking, segmented, hard swimbait
Target species/situation: Striped bass and bluefish during their fall and spring coastal migrations
Favorite color: Black/chrome and chrome/bunker
Technique tips: Kerber locates schools of bunker (menhaden) but is careful to remain well outside them to avoid spooking the fish. Then his anglers cast Kickin' Sticks around the outside of the bait ball, with a steady retrieve punctuated by quick jerks that "make the lure look like a baitfish and easy target." In fall, it's mostly run-and-gun fishing, where feeding bass pop up very briefly underneath diving gulls. Then Kerber fishes the 5-inch Kickin' Stick rigged underneath eel teasers as described below for fast-and-furious action.
Rigging tips: For the fall run, Kerber rigs a leader with 40pound fluorocarbon leader tied to a 120pound barrel swivel. Below the swivel he ties a dropper loop to a sand eel imitator such as a Red Gill Eel Dropper, and three feet below that an 80pound snap (Kerber favors the Backlash Sport Fishing Fast Clip), to which he attaches a black/chrome Kickin' Stick. "This looks like a bigger baitfish chasing a smaller baitfish — and double hookups are not uncommon."
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STRIKE PRO
Based in Taiwan, Strike Pro has been manufacturing lures since 1973, but only for the past 20 or so years has it concentrated on hard-wood and plastic lures. Now, Strike Pro boasts more than 500 models and 4,000 color patterns. (www.strikeprolures.com)
The Pro: Capt. Billy Howell; Galveston, Texas; e-mail
billy.howell@hotmail.com
Years as a Strike Pro pro: Four
Favorite lure: Hunchback
Type of lure: Subsurface wake bait
Target species/situation: Redfish
Favorite color: Chrome/blue and black/yellow
Technique tips: Unlike topwater or subsurface pause-and-retrieve twitch base, this lure should be worked with a steady retrieve, Howell says. Running a half-inch to an inch below the surface, the lure puts up a serious wake "like a baitfish on the surface, lost from the school," in Howell's words. It's a lure anyone can work successfully since it needs only to be reeled in, and Howell says it's effective on windy as well as on calm days.
Rigging tips: Howell rigs for hard strikes since, from his experience, reds slam the Hunchback hard. He uses 40pound wire to a mono leader.
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WILLIAMSON
Williamson Lures was born in South Africa, where rugged proving grounds call for rugged tackle. Decades back, John Williamson spent long days in his father's garage developing lures that could work as an alternative to live bait. In 2003, Normark (Rapala) purchased Williamson Lures, and it continues to produce and expand the line of offshore lures. (www.williamsonlures.com)
The Pro: Steve Carson; San Diego;
www.stevecarsonfishing.wordpress.com
Years as a Williamson pro: Five
Favorite lure: Jet Popper5, 5 inches
Type of lure: Topwater popper
Target species/situation: California ­yellowtail (when "breezing" on top), yellowfin tuna, dorado (and others)
Favorite colors: Blue sardine, green ­mackerel, natural silver, dorado
Technique tips: Unless fish are in a "full-on boiling frenzy," try to cast ahead of the school or off to one side — i.e., avoid spooking the fish. Carson says he relies on a medium-fast retrieve with rod held high, using regular strokes of the rod to produce a steady splash.
Rigging tips: For larger tuna, Carson swaps out trebles to one size larger and/or a grade heavier. If wahoo are likely, he puts 7/0 singles in place of trebles. He likes to use a heavy snap to connect the lure for quick changes. Carson also has been known to rig the Jet Popper with no hooks — for example, in schools of small tuna, simply to experience the thrill of repeated smashing strikes.
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YO-ZURI
Japanese lure manufacturer Yo-Zuri has been producing highquality lures (and lines) for more than 50 years. The company prides itself on design and innovation, including some lures that change color depending upon one's (or a fish's) viewing angle. Yo-Zuri America was established in 2003, with headquarters in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
The Pro: Capt. Mark Henderson; Swansboro, North Carolina; www.liquidfirefishing.com
Years as a YoZuri pro: Four
Favorite lure: Crystal Minnow Deep Diver, 3½- and 5¼-inch
Type of lure: Deep-diving wobbling minnow
Target species/situation: Spanish mackerel, bluefish, little tunny during the early spring/summer run, and king mackerel
Favorite colors: For smaller fish, with the 3½-incher, Henderson likes red head, lime green, sardine, pink and hot tiger; with the 5¼-inch model for kings, his choices are sardine, pink and hot tiger.
Technique tips: Vary your trolling speed, Henderson advises. Also when going for Spanish, blues or bonito (tunny), make more angled turns on a bait school to allow the Deep Diver to suspend briefly or begin ascending to the surface followed by a quick dive when the troll catches up to the slack in the line. "Then, when starting its descent, the lure often entices a strike," Henderson says. Don't hesitate to cast-and-retrieve this lure either, he suggests. Vary retrieve speed — he likes to stop completely for a four count — then crank hard. Keep the rod tip low and use a "wave retrieve" with the rod moving from the 5 o'clock to the 7 o'clock position, keeping the rod tip parallel to the surface.
Rigging tips: Henderson connects Crystal Minnows via a short fluoro leader and a perfection loop. Sometimes, says Henderson, replacing factory-issue treble hooks with gold trebles adds "a little flash that can make all the difference with nearshore, toothy critters!"