When I moved to Ontario, our neighbor’s teenage son helped us unload boxes. Spying copious boxes labeled “fishing,” the boy looked at me with excitement. He said he had been fishing almost every day that summer, and I told him to pick out something as a gift for helping us.
He was a little confused when he opened the first box and found wads of flamboyantly colored feathers and semi-preserved animal skins.
“What is this stuff?” he asked
I explained that these were fly tying materials and he nodded blankly, not able to connect deconstructed feather boas and decaying pelts to fishing. He picked out a couple lures from another box and seemed happy with the trade.
One week later, he came back.
“I was thinking,” he said, “maybe you could show me some fly tying stuff?”
That night I taught him the basics. He swapped the lures I’d given him for an old vise and some basic tools and materials. A couple days later, he showed me a few creations that amazed me: bucktail jigs, crankbaits trailing custom dressed treble hooks, tiny marabou ice fishing jigs, hand-tied spinnerbaits and bass jig skirts.
The kid’s imagination helped me realize that building lures by hand isn’t limited to fly fishing. I make all my own flies, why can’t I make my own lures as well?
A bit of experimenting (OK, Googling) turned up little information about making the jump from fly tying to lure making (perhaps I didn’t know where to look), so I called Brian Schmidt.
Brian owns Brian Schmidt Baits, and makes some of the coolest lures I’ve ever seen. In a previous life, Brian was the fly manager for Umpqua Feather Merchants, who produce many of the flies found in your local fly shop. He seemed the perfect person to help me understand how principles of design and craft cross over from fly tying to conventional lure making.
Brian explained that the divide between creating flies and lures was mostly in my head.
“Fly tyers and lure makers share a similar skillset and use a lot of the same tools. There isn’t a lot of difference between making a streamer and tying a jig. People who currently tie flies will have no problem transitioning to lure making, and people who don’t have any experience using a vise or a bobbin will usually pick it up quickly.”
I asked Brian why someone might get into lure making when there are shelves full of great lures available at sporting goods stores.
“Taking your fishing to the next level. The concept of matching a forage base is something that applies to all types of fishing with a lot of success,” Brian said. “Don’t get into it because you’re trying to save money. Get into it because you see a specific need, or you want to make something that solves a problem or addresses a unique situation. If you want to have a holy shit moment, Google crayfish species and look at the variety of colors and sizes. Having a bait that specifically matches the species where you are fishing is a huge advantage.”
I asked Brian what types of lures the average person could make and was surprised at the array that an average angler can build with relative ease: spinnerbaits, soft plastics, swimbaits, buzz baits, crankbaits, plugs, every type of jig imaginable, spoons, spinners, and poppers are all doable.
Every type of lure requires a few unique tools, but one lure that catches almost anything that swims and requires minimal tools is a jig. Whether it’s a hair jig for ice fishing or a heavy punching jig for bass, Brian recommends starting with the type of jig you will use most often.
“Jigs have a broad appeal and you tend to lose them quite often, so it’s good to have a bunch. There is a lot of tinkering that can be done with jigs. If you understand what you are trying to do—to mimic something in nature—you are already a step ahead.”
Like anything else, lure making depends on how much you want to get into it. Brian laughed when I asked him if he thought you could save money making your own lures.
“I have hundreds and hundreds of dollars in powder coat alone. Do you know how many rods I could have bought with that? And that’s just powder coat. Every category is its own steppingstone down the rabbit hole—molds, lead, hooks, skirt material, the list goes on and on.”
That’s not to suggest lure making can’t be simple. Brian runs a commercial bait making business. The average person doesn’t need a warehouse of specialty tools and materials, but it was a good reminder of how slippery the slope can get.
If you’re interested in making jigs, custom trebles, spinnerbaits, or buzz baits start by getting a good vise and a stout bobbin. They will last you a lifetime. Other tools include a whip finisher, scissors, a pair of pliers, and some quality super glue. Pick up a few basic materials like hooks with jig heads, various feathers, and rubber skirts, and you’re ready to start creating.
Tying jigs, skirts, or dressed treble hooks is pretty straight forward. Select whatever jig or hook you want, make several overlapping wraps of thread on the hook shank, and then trap your materials with the thread. Always start at the back and work your way forward. No matter what I’m making, I like to combine a variety of materials like feathers, flash, and bucktail. When you are happy with what you’ve got, use the whip finish tool to tie a knot that will keep everything from coming unraveled and coat the knot with strong glue.
If soft plastics are more your thing, there are a ton of great molds and starter kits available. Once you have a kit, all you need is a microwave to start pouring your own senkos, lizards, or grubs. Using different dyes, you can create colors that perfectly match prey species in the waters you fish.
A friend of mine uses a pocketknife, sandpaper, and spray paint to shape balsa wood into simple poppers that he uses to catch largemouth bass all summer long. It’s a slow, tedious process, and nowhere near the professional quality Brian makes in his workshop, but he loves whittling away during the winter, dreaming of seeing his creations disappear into big, green mouths.
Whatever area of lure making you decide to jump into, Brian emphasizes keeping the larger picture in mind.
“Know what it is you are trying to make. It’s more important to get the size, profile, and color where you want it than worrying about how many legs are in a jig skirt. What is it you are trying to mimic and how do your materials move in the water?”
For me, making lures and fishing are inseparable. I wouldn’t get as much enjoyment from fishing if I used store-bought tackle. I can’t explain it, but a fly or lure I made myself, or one a friend made for me, just has more soul.
Without a doubt, my coolest creation to date was a set of 80 crappie jigs I gave to my grandfather for his 80th birthday. When he opened the box, he knew I had made them.
“These are nicer than the ones you get at the store,” he said. “They should last me a while.”
Feature image via Tosh Brown.