After 20 years of building, Dave revisits the first plug he ever made on the lathe.
January 2023 marks a special milestone in my plug building obsession, it was 20 years ago when I first saw that a small group of striper fishermen were building their own lures out of wood. I remember lying in bed that December night in 2002 and finding it impossible to quiet my mind, I don’t think I slept a single minute. My stomach churned with anticipation as I wracked my brain about how I was going to procure to the tools to do this on the budget of a 22-year-old kid, in his first year living away from home and working at a hardware store.
I got the lathe from my future father-in-law, a table saw and chisels from my grandfather who had multiple extras in his cellar, I bought a drill press from a bargain store with the crisp $100 bill that my boss handed out for a Christmas bonus. My grandfather, a true master carpenter, stepped up with a whole bunch of other tools and I filled in where I needed to with my discount at the store. I don’t know if I would say I was “off to the races” but I was certainly armed and dangerous.
Shapes Of Intrigue
I will admit, without a shred of shame, that when I looked at those beautiful wooden lures online, I barely had any idea what they were supposed to do. I was still in the ‘honeymoon phase’ of surfcasting and was happy with the cheaper plastic plugs I was throwing to catch lots of smaller fish. I saw darters, needles, poppers and pencils, but the plug that really grabbed me was the Pikie. There was something about that scooped forehead that made it look like it had to be better than anything else. At the time, there wasn’t any NJTackle.com, so I was going to have to make the lip myself. A friend of mine who worked at a metal shop grabbed me some stainless sheet metal cutoffs and I bought some snips to cut it. In hindsight, I would tell anyone that’s looking to get into plug building to start simple, but I certainly didn’t follow that advice.
The builders at that time believed that using Alaskan yellow cedar (AYC) was an absolute must for any and all plugs. There was a belief that the wood contained oils that repelled water, which is, of course, completely untrue. But I had the guys in the lumber yard order me one 3-foot baluster – which would prove to be a truly hilarious purchase if I could just look a few years into my future.
Standing at my borrowed lathe, among my rag-tag assemblage of secondhand tools, I cut an arbitrary length of baluster and watched as it spun into a blur. The thought of touching it with a chisel seemed like a recipe for something to go careening in a dangerous direction, so I called my grandfather. He walked me through the process of positioning the tool rest “as close to your work-piece as possible” and using the gouge to take the corners off before switching to the finer chisels. With a headful of new confidence, a rigid jaw, and (cringe) no safety glasses, I turned my first shape on the lathe, which was basically rendered ‘sort of pretty firewood’. Ever the overachiever, my second piece would be a pikie. And without a photo, without ever seeing a pikie in real life, I turned a fish-like shape and declared it “good enough” to become a pikie.
That odd little teardrop-shaped plug did catch fish later that year and I remember the moment quite well. I was actually in a boat with my friend Don Robertson fishing inside a back bay, there were fish popping up here and there and I cast that swimmer into the moving tide, the plug dove to 3 feet with a decidedly non-pikie-like tight wiggle and a 25-inch bass jumped all over it. That was my first metal lip striper. But that swimming action is the reason why I’m calling it the Anti-Pike.
Back From The Dead
I’m covered in sawdust as I write this; I spent the last 30 minutes on a stepladder, reaching into the back of the attic above my shop. It’s kind of a strange feeling, holding this artifact of my past that I made when I was basically a kid, seeing how far I’ve come, but also that it’s not as bad as one might expect their first plug to be. I’m going to combine the naïve simplicity of this first attempt with what I have learned in the 20 years since to create something that honors the original, with the same action but made up to my current standards.
This plug is 4-5/8 inches long with a wide point of 1-1/16 inches, in keeping with the original, we will use AYC. Rip down a few squares of 1-1/4 x 1-1/4 AYC and cut a few 6-inch lengths, find the center at both ends and set one spinning in the lathe. Use a gouge to round off the corners (leaving about half-inch of each end square) and shut off the lathe. The shape is essentially an elongated teardrop, using a ruler and a pencil, lay out these marks and refresh them as needed.
|1-1/8 inches back
|1-1/2 inches back
I made maybe a half-dozen of these back in 2003, all by eye, and they all swam about the same, so I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape if yours aren’t perfect. Use a small skew or rounded chisel to rough out the body, all of the lines should flow into one fluid shape – sand on the lathe when you’re happy with the shape. The next step would be drilling the hook hole and the eye sockets (in my original I just glued on some tiny molded eyes). Start by drilling a 5/16 diameter hole at 1-3/8 inches back from the nose, make sure the hole is centered in the belly and drilled about 5/8-inch deep. Now swap in a quarter-inch forstner bit and drill your eye sockets about 1/8-inch above center and 1-1/4 inches back from the nose—these should be drilled about 1/16-inch deep.
Scoop & Slot
Next I recommend cutting the lip slot, use a band saw and cut the slot through the square end and back a Iittle more than a 3/4-inch past the nose. Try to keep it centered and straight—this is where you’ll see how important it is to cut accurate squares when ripping. Now take a 1-3/4-inch drum sander, chuck it in your drill press and raise the table until it’s just below the drum. Using the square ends as your guide, lay the plug on the table of your drill press and carefully sand the slope; it should stop between 1/8- and 1/16-inch above the slot and end about 1-1/8 inches back from the nose. Now you’ll want to thru-drill the plug, I recommend drilling from the tail forward on the lathe and then putting an NJTackle Danny 2 high-slot lip in the slot, marking the location of the hole and drilling from there back with a hand drill, I use a 5/32 bit for these holes.
At this point, you can cut the squares off the ends and give the whole thing a once-over with some 220 sandpaper to knock down the rough edges and smooth things out. This is one of those rare instances where the plug doesn’t require any internal weighting, all of the balancing comes from the hooks. Give your sanded ‘Anti-Pikes’ a bath in the sealer of your choosing and allow them to dry completely. Give them another sanding to knock down the sheen and texture of the sealer, prime and then paint them any color you like. I painted all my originals in ‘peanut bunker’ colors. When the paint has dried, give them a coat or two of you favorite clear finish. To assemble, slide a Danny 2 high-slot lip into the lip slot and bend it down to about 45 degrees. Then drop a size 3 swivel into the belly hole, run a pre-bent thru-wire through the plug and finish with a small tail grommet and neatly-wrapped tail loop. A pair of 1/0 VMC trebles and size 4 split rings will complete the build.
Throw these little swimmers anywhere small baitfish like peanut bunker, juvenile herring, mummichogs or mullet are present. They dive 1 to 3 feet and feature a pretty tight wobble. They hold well in moderate surf and medium currents and will work just as well in placid waters with no current. Small plugs don’t get enough press in the day and age of giant plugs for giant fish, in the right situations these swimmers will draw strikes from some pretty hefty fish. I could never have guessed that I’d be writing a story about at age 42 about the first silly shape I spun out on that old lathe, but I suppose it’s just as true that I would never have seen my journey going the way it has. I hope these little plugs serve, all you basement builders out there, well.