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Getting A Handle On Homemade Lures

by Fishcarver, Dan Blair

(Revised from his Fishin' Guide Publications article printed 1978)

I couldn't help but notice the handle clutched in my cramping hand was very distracting, and kept my focus more on my favorite past time than it did on the tedious and tiring job of painting the garage. As I waved the paint-dipped wand back and forth in front of my spattered face, I visualized the handle fitted with glass eyes, screw eyes, and treble hooks.... zig-zagging back and forth through a blue-green pool of a North woods lake and about to be inhaled by one of the giant Pike or Muskies that were known to inhabit that region of the upper Midwest.

The more I looked at that handle, the more I could easily recognize the similar shapes of some of my own name-brand tackle...legendary lures by Rebel, Rapala, and more. The vision was so compelling that I couldn't wait to get into my carving shop to turn that handle into something more productive.....a custom, homemade fishing lure!

Needless to say, all of a sudden, I couldn't wear that brush out fast enough. And when they won't wear out fast enough, once can simply "forget" to clean the paint out to render it almost completely worthless just over night. (At least bad enough to justify to the little woman the need for a replacement.) Over the years, I have bought more than a few NEW brushes, but have thrown away practically none. Not only have I shopped for new brushes based more on their aqua-dynamics rather than on the quality of their bristles, but I have also gone to swap-meets and garage sales hoping to find someone else's worn out (or not) paint brushes as well. Some of them, I consider to be great discoveries. (I recently discovered a 5 pack of new brushes with very suitable shapes for less than $4.00 at Wal-Mart.)

You will notice almost all of the quality brushes on the market today are made from only two or three materials; hardwood, plastic, or some other synthetic composites. (Just like most of the good fishing lures, right?) Not only do these materials work well for making lures, but they also respond well to the variety of carving power tools that I normally use in my shop for carving wooden fish. Because the handles are already fish shaped, modification into lures usually only means cutting off the bristle end at the narrow waist of the handle and rounding off the end at the cut off point.

Because of the density of the material of which most handles are made, it easily takes and securely holds the eye screws I insert, which become the attachment points for split rings, treble hooks, or the snap swivel on my steel leader. I can also add different sizes and shapes of plastic or metal "lips" to the lure, which I can buy from the many online tackle component companies listed in the back of my favorite fishing magazines. Larger tackle shops and mail-order companies also carry a large assortment of parts and pieces for making new tackle or repairing the old. Consider adding rattles, flashers, holographic decals, buck-tailed, feathered, and rubber-skirted treble hooks, etc. to give your lure more attractive action and eye-catching appeal.

Another convenience of the commercial handles is a ready-made eye socket already in place. The "hang-up" hole for keeping the brushes hanging on your peg-board shop wall makes an ideal place to epoxy glass eyes (inexpensive red or yellow are my preferences) which can be purchased from the same taxidermy supply company from whom you purchase your airbrush paints and other wildlife art supplies. Less expensive and less durable eyes made of plastic can also be found in your local craft stores, but in red, yellow, and also clear to paint in colors of your own choosing. (Note: If you use the glass eyes, you can install them before painting, and then paint right over the glass which easily scrapes clean with an Exacto knife blade. However, the more easily scratched and damaged plastic eyes should ONLY be installed after the lure has been completely painted and clear coated.)

When painting the handles, I can utilize all of the tricks of the trade for painting fish carvings. Because I paint fish carvings almost exclusively with an airbrush, I can make stencils for spot patterns, use crinoline mesh to create scales, and use a variety of airbrush-applied pearl-essence, fluorescent, iridescent, metalics, flip-flop colors, and so on to make the lure look as fishy (or not) as I desire. What's more, I can apply the same aerosol clear finishes used on my fish carvings to clear coat the finished lure.

To handle the lure during the painting process without smudging the wet paint, I use the same forceps that I would keep in my tackle box for removing fish hooks from deeply hooked fish. The long-nosed medical tools make handy holders for hanging the wet painted lures up to dry by looping a finger hole over a nail head, wire, etc. so nothing touches the paint during the curing process.

When the lure has "cured" for a couple of days or so, I attach the treble hooks where needed with split rings, and then take the lure for a swim. Sometimes it will be necessary to to move a belly hook or nose eye forward or backward to get the best action. Trial and error testing will determine where to put the lip, and what shape and size of lip works best to reach the depths you prefer. Still other lips will cause the lure to vibrate and tremble with more or less action, depending on the lip's angle and design. And the most variation you can get WITHOUT adding lips to the lure is by changing the location of the eye screw where you tie to lure to your line or leader. (Notice the lure in the pictures is made to troll frontwards or backwards and has an appropriate tie-on point at both ends.)

Trial and error is the only way I know to find the best location for the eye screws and hooks, but look at some of your commercially made tackle to get ideas about where to start. Swimming the "handle-lure" will help you decide which way to move an eye. Be sure when you predrill a small hole to thread the screw eyes into your lure that the hole is as close to center as you can make it. Otherwise, your lure will track to one side or the other, or roll over on its side, twisting your line as it goes around. Sometimes, it will be necessary to twist the eye of the screw slightly left or right to get the lure to track perfectly straight behind the line. But once you have a lure fine tuned and running true, LOOK OUT!

One lure I made from a large wooden paintbrush handle from Sears had so much action that just reeling it in was fun. In the rod holder, the rod dipped and plunged under the action and erratic zig-zagging of the plug, giving the false impression that there was a "Fish On!" One of my taxidermy school employees and I were trolling it across the largest of Northwest Iowa's Great Lakes, (Big Spirit) when I lost it.....and to what, we will never know. But after the short time I was tied to that fish, I realized that I would make another lure as close to it as possible, and then I would come back. I have made a few dozen of the paint brush lures since then, but I have never again hooked into the likes of that great fish. But just the ever exciting memory of that moment keeps me trying.

Today, in Colorado, I find myself painting my son's office. And again, I find myself contemplating the handle on another almost worn out wig-wagging old paintbrush....only to rediscover my mind and wayward imagination once more wandering and wondering.....about "getting a handle on homemade lures." By the way, you aren't planning on throwing away any of those old paint brushes out there in the garage, are you??? ;o)

Dan Blair is considered by many to be one of the true pioneers of fish carving. With over 40 years as a professional carver/artist, he has been honored with awards numbering in the hundreds and has taken no less than 19 Best Of Show wins for wildlife and western art.


He is a former associate editor of Breakthrough Magazine and assisted in co-producing three Breakthrough Books. He was the show manager and a judge for the 1987 World Fish Carving and World Taxidermy Championships, and was a seminar instructor for the 2005 World Fish Carving Championships.  A reptile group "wood carving" Dan entered in the World Taxidermy Championships took second place.


Dan is currently an owner/moderator for the largest fishcarving group on the Internet, Fishcarving2 (Click HERE for more information.) He continues to judge shows and teach woodcarving classes across the continent.