Jul 10, 2018

Alluring Artwork

Custom baits are a work of art in themselves – the perfect cornerstone to the ‘jewelry box for men’

By Tara Porter

I often joke with my fishing buddies that a tackle box is little more than a jewelry box for men.

Think about it. Copious amounts of money are spent accumulating more options – to fit any circumstance or condition – than could possibly be used in a lifetime, and all those colorful, sparkly, flashy baubles have the sole purpose of attracting attention and “luring” in the “prey.”

It’s an appropriate analogy and both go to great lengths to avoid being caught without the “perfect” accessory in their collections.

In the jewelry world, new and more exciting options continue to surface. But aside from occasionally seeing ads for the LeVian chocolate diamond and hearing Richard Kessler and his designer daughter, Monica, talk about their exciting custom diamonds on the radio, I proudly admit I’m ill equipped to elaborate on the numerous new ways to the fill coffers of the female version of the jewelry box.

I have, however, become very familiar with the emerging, colorful world of custom lures which – with renewed vigor -  is offering an excitingly artful and creative dimension to a sport that is becoming rapidly inundated with advanced technologies and high-dollar gadgets.

I have nothing against technology and I admit that I enjoy fishing with new, more practical and efficient gear. Powering up a new touchscreen HD GPS graph, pushing a button to signal your bowmount to follow a particular track, or taking out a “sparkly” new glass boat with updated graphics or a custom wrap carries an excitement all its own. But most of these technologies will only get us to and help us find the fish. They won’t help much with getting them to bite. That takes finesse.

But maybe, that entirely unique and never-seen-before accessory will be just alluring enough to get that fully-sated fish to bite.


A long tradition

Custom lures are nothing new. My great-grandpa used to carve and paint his own lures in the basement of his Fox Lake home. We have a whole tree full of vintage custom baits that I am sure some would not find suitable décor for the living room, but I think they’re beautiful. And I’ll bet that most of them would work just as well now as they did 80 years ago.

In 2010, Field and Stream writer Robbie Pavey voted the Bass Oreno lure, made by Indiana’s South Bend Bait Co., “one of the best all-time fish catchers.” It’s been around since 1916, and was only recently discontinued after 96 years. With more than 400 sizes, colors and eye detail styles-without a single duplicate, it was an impressive example of how custom lures can stand the test of time.

As with the Bass Oreno, most of these vintage baits have found their niche and purpose in the homes of nostalgic fishermen and women, seafood restaurants, and local bait and tackle shops. They’ve essentially outlived their original purpose, to catch those elusive piscivores, in the time and place in which they were designed and created.

This brings us to the modern custom-bait trend, where the inspiration, tools and materials available to artists have evolved to allow for much broader artistry and greater capability to account for fickle conditions and the vagaries of local fisheries.

Some larger lure companies like Reefrunner of Marblehead, Ohio still hand paint all their crankbaits and blades, and they are painting primarily for the local body of water and conditions, which qualifies them as a kind of “custom.” And though it’s possible to go online and find endless bait, color, and pattern combinations, it’s the local artists who hand paint lures for finicky and “bait loyal” neighbors, a particular body of water, and often a set of context-specific conditions.


Exceptional Value

As you can imagine, custom baits aren’t cheap, but they are worth every penny … especially when they catch fish. And sometimes they do.

Our first experience with these new custom lures was several years ago, when we heard that the hot bite on a frozen Lake Poygan in Winnebago County was a little gold perchy, sparkly jigging rap with diamond eyes. We drove all the way around Lake Winnebago to Fishtales north of Oshkosh to order, and then finally purchase our own “golden ticket” to ice fishing success.

Whether it was a lack of familiarity with Lake Poygan or our seeming inability to catch fish on that particular lake, after a good six hours, a Packer loss and a 12-pack of beer, we went home empty handed. Of course, we tried other lures, but we so wanted that little sparkly custom from a local artist, painting the latest hot bait amidst piles of half unpacked boxes, hastily stocked shelves, and an impressive stock of provisions to do the trick. We did not have a flasher, our ice auger was from 1970, and we didn’t have even a pop up at the time, but we still had fun trying to catch fish on that local, custom lure. Just imagine if we had.

Either way, we were hooked. Designing and creating our own lures, and then catching fish on them, is living the dream. It’s not only about choosing the right accessory, but anticipating it.

Even if it is just luck – or talking to people about what they are catching on, or even doing research online – it is the fishing equivalent of playing the stock market. There is the hefty initial financial investment, hundreds of dollars on the airbrush, airbrush cleaners, eyes, skins, sparkles, epoxy, brushes, bulk quantities of baits and blades and paint, lots of paint. Then there is the equally hefty investment of time, hundreds of hours perfecting airbrush techniques, trying new designs and color combinations, designing eye or pattern templates, epoxying, drying, preparing the baits and workspace for painting, assembling or re-assembling the baits, and tying harnesses.

But ask any lure artist, and I’m sure he will agree that it’s worth the all the time and money. But it’s not really about the money, it’s about the artistry and the value added to the fishing experience.

On our last trip to Lake Erie we took several customs – some were ours and some we bought from local bait shops, just to see what they would do. Lake Erie is a very forgiving fishery, especially in spring, so I felt pretty comfortable with the gamble. I caught my first 30-inch walleye on Swee’ Pea, a custom blade harness we designed, painted and tied. Amazing.

Then I caught my first Erie smallmouth on a custom-designed and painted crankbait, “Bare-Naked Prom Queen.” When we went out to Erie the next year, I ran nothing but customs. What a rush. And, unlike other forms of artwork that simply hang on a wall or collect dust on a shelf, custom baits can actually help you catch your dinner.

Over where I live in Stockbridge – on the “quiet side” of Lake Winnebago – we have several local artists: Bill Lodi, at Rippin’ Lips Bait and Tackle, Jim “Schuey” Schumacher at Schumacher’s Shanty Bait and Gun, and Mike Parker of Team Fishcock Custom Lures. Team Fishcock does some beautiful work, and they take special orders so you can design your own bait and they will paint it for you – your very own, truly custom lure.

So, if you want to support local artists, and you are looking for that perfect accessory for the 2017 fishing season, try creating your own truly custom lure and, even if it doesn’t work, you can hang it on a tree.


Tara Porter grew up in Oshkosh, but now lives on the "quiet side of the lake" in Stockbridge – the sturgeon center of the world. She’s right down the road from High Cliff State Park, where she loves to ride her horses. She also enjoys bow hunting in her backyard, ice fishing and sturgeon spearing. Since she is an English teacher at Chilton High School, she can fish all summer long! A local walleye tournament regular, she strives to catch all her fish on custom-designed and painted lures and harnesses she designs and ties herself.