Lately, I have been reading Harry Lyons magazines from 1985 and finding that he wrote nuttier stuff than I do, so I feel comfortable with the following column lede:
“… to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence
“…to me at 8 knots, all lures are created equal …” Capt. Skip Smith, The Madam and The Hooker
If Skip is correct, and his track record indicates some insight on this subject, then why are so many fishermen seemingly obsessed with the myriad of colors, shapes, styles and inserts of fancy trolling lures?
Hawaii lure makers are riding a nice wave right now, even with global competition. Anglers appear to think the more extravagant the lure — and the higher the price — the better. And they don’t want just a few, they want boxcars full.
The current state of “lure love” around the world is a complete about face from the past.
Most fishermen in the “outside world” resisted or flat out ignored Hawaiian lures, until the late 1980s, despite many world records and granders. They preferred to fish with what they knew, not something they considered new.
Reader, please indulge some reportorial latitude as I offer some personal recollections of the resistance to Hawaii lures in the ‘70s and ‘80s — from the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the Coral Sea.
On the Gulf coast, we experimented with lures after “The Dads” brought some back from Kona. Even though they had seen “proper” lure fishing there, for some reason, back home they instructed us kids (their crew) to only put one lure out amongst our spread of various dead fish baits.
Our results were unimpressive. Many fish would come in and give the lure a good bashing, but we rarely hooked one. A Dad would yell, “get that damn thing out of the way so it can eat a REAL bait!” Nine times out of 10 — if we caught it — we caught it on a natural bait.
The lure was working. Trying to fish it like a bait was not.
Most of the pro captains in the Caribbean were fiercely dedicated in their resistance to adding “Kona Heads” to their arsenal. They were too invested in their system. Crews would spend hours and hours, day after day “juicing” Spanish mackerel with formaldehyde, turning a real fish into a hardened fish (a lure, really), while dissing easily rigged Hawaiian lures.
“That’s talentless fishing. No skill needed,” they said.
In the early ‘80s at St. Thomas, East Coast veterans taught me the Juiced Mackerel technique.
Peter Wright always told us, “Work hard but work smart,” so turning a fish into a lure seemed contrary. Also, being lazy by nature I thought all that work was ridiculous, and promptly had Robbie Engelhard send me some lures from Kona.
The East Coasters’ resistance was absolute. Only after we had a fair few fish in the log did the pressure to produce lessen and their curiosity greaten. One day, they allowed one lure in the water with the dead baits, no further back than the second wave. They didn’t want it to “screw up the baits.” Adding more handicap, it was pulled from a rod in the chair. Juiced mackerel were towed faster than Hawaiian lures and St. Thomas seas were rough. Wash and foam was everywhere. The lure was all but invisible, to us anyway.
The East Coasters stared long and hard in the distance all day, watching their baits. They wanted them in blue water which was far behind the boat. They could see sure them though. A juiced mackerel didn’t swim much, it skipped, often jumping high and flipping from wave to wave. I never did understand why they wanted baits flying through the sky when marlin live in the ocean.
The lure was below the surface and marlin climbed on it left and right. Being in the prop wash we never saw one eat. The reel would just start screaming, shocking everybody. With eyes glued out the back, the short bait was easily forgotten, and the East Coasters got the bejesus scared out of them every time it went off. Then they started getting mad that it was going off so often — more than their mackerels were. You can guess what transpired next.
The short rod was pulled from the lineup and the lure went into the drawer. In this case, denial was a river in Egypt.
In the early ‘90s, some Aussie skippers were a little more open to trying lures. Most resisted because on the Great Barrier Reef, “granders” were targeted, not numbers. Natural baits were big and hooks were almost always about three sizes larger than what would fit in a normal lure. When decking for Brian Reeves, I was prohibited from putting a hook out smaller than a 14/0.
Capt. Peter Kirkby invented a floating lure that worked well when towed at slow dead bait speed. Pete likes experimentation, so we would fish a big bait short and a swimming scad long, as per normal. However, he was happy to have one of his floating lures popping in between, and it worked. When fished from an outrigger clip with drop back, we hooked black marlin just as well as if it were a natural bait. We even tried Nerf Footballs, because they were shaped like aku.
This got Capt. Laurie Woodbridge curious, and on mornings when we were caught up on chores and spearfishing, we’d go out and try lures. Big black marlin are usually deep in the morning, eating purple back squid. Woodbridge, however, found small blacks feeding in the shallows behind Linden Bank, on the run out tide. It was a great feeling to have two or three marlin tagged by the time the other boats even started fishing. However, in the afternoon when the truly large ones started to rise, we were back to dead baits.
The Aussie veterans had a simplified approach because there are so many fish over 800 pounds there. Only two lines were trolled. No one wanted to lose a grander because of the time it took to clear multiple lines, or by having “the one they wanted” get tangled in multiple lines. To catch big fish effectively, they also wanted heavy drag. To fish heavy drag, they needed big hooks. To most skippers in Oz, lures couldn’t give them what they wanted.
As Billy Fairburn once stated, “Mate, when I have the next world record on, I want me angler standing in the chair with seventy or eighty pounds of drag and at least a 16/0 hook down deep in that fish’s gob.”
Fast forward to 2019 and the number of blue marlin granders caught on lures far exceeds any other type of bait. Hook options have improved and now some lure size hooks are just about as strong as the big hooks used with giant dead baits.
In Australia a 1,431-pound black was caught on a lure, just last year. The standing blue marlin world record is 1,376 pounds, caught on a lure in Kona, and lures have caught marlin even larger that did not qualify as a record.
The first Kona lures are usually credited to George Parker and Henry Chee in the 1950s. Parker’s were made from chrome and wood. Chee poured polyester resin in drinking glasses “molds.”
Molds later became rubber, allowing experimentation with shapes. Then came the Softhead, a rubber lure that was also developed in Kona, by Jeff Fay and Peter B. Wright. Back in the ‘70s they thought that they could improve upon the hard lures by making one that felt more like a fish — to a fish. They reasoned that a marlin would try to eat a lure that felt natural many times until hooked, whereas hard lures might scare it off. Their prototype was a bicycle inner tube, rolled up into the shape of the hard lures of the day.
Anglers fishing with Capt. Skip Smith have set 49 world records, but there have been 87 caught from The Hooker, almost all involved Softheads. The crews in Costa Rica are turning in daily catch tallies of 10 to 20 blue marlin these days, almost all from teasing fish up with Softheads and then pitching them a real fish bait.
Despite stats like this, people are gaga over hard lures these days. There are almost as many photos of lures on Facebook as there are of lunch.
Invented in Hawaii, lure fishing has now gone intergalactic. Lure Love has become almost cult like, at least online. People often post the brand of lure, the style name and even the hook rig used. This is a far cry from the “old days” of Lure Disdain.
At what point are these lures for catching the fisherman, more than the fish?
To find out, we asked around:
“How many lures do you have on your boat?” And, “Do you use hard and/or soft lures?”
Capt. Chris Choy, Sapo : Honestly, I have about 300 lures on the boat and I use the same four every day! And when I worked with Gene on the Sea Genie in eleven years I bet I only saw twelve different lures go out.
Capt. Bryan Toney, Melee: Not that many, only maybe thirty. I only keep eight or so rigged because we like to keep the hook rigs fresh. Sure, I use Softheads, I think they are one of the greatest ever made, but not all the time. I’m also still tinkering with my rubber chucker. I got one in and I’m not happy with the material, so I’m going to make another!
Chip Van Mols, EZ Pickens: I think there are only about 15 lures on EZ Pickens now. They are all Tantrums. I helped Nick Durham develop the Tantrum line, and I can give Capt. Chuck just about any combination he may want to see on any given day. And they work! While I was skipper of Luna, I towed mostly Koya and Aloha Lures, made here in Kona.
Capt. Gene Vanderhoek, Sea Genie II: I think I may have 50 odd lures on the boat. I even have some that have caught granders that never get used these days, which sounds odd. Things change and evolve. Lures are fun and creative. I use Softheads for bait and switch, like Skip, but when trolling I like to mix up the action of the baits, and I’m partial to my own plungers! I’m not sure if lures are equal at eight knots, but I’m pretty sure that lure fishermen are not equal at eight knots.
Hows that, Thomas Jefferson?!