Larry Welcome of Cutchogue has been hooked on fishing since his dad took him for the first time at age 5. Like most anglers, Welcome started fishing using bait and targeting smaller, readily available species from shore. As he got older, his fishing techniques grew more sophisticated and he began using artificial lures.
"I threw mostly small lures like bucktails and rubber swimbaits," he explained, "but as I started catching larger fish in the surf like striped bass, bluefish and weakfish, I found myself needing bigger and better lures called ‘plugs’ in fisherman’s parlance."
As Welcome, 71, tells it, each step up in fishing proficiency required a leap in lure size and design, along with a similar increase in the skills required to make an effective presentation. "Of course, money also figured into the equation," he said, smiling. "Even back in those days, big plugs weren’t inexpensive, and I needed to fill my tackle bag. Since I wasn’t making much money in my younger years, I eventually started making my own surf plugs. It really was a natural progression when you think about it."
At first, Welcome concentrated on making plugs for his own use in a small machine shop to which he had lunchtime access. Later, he set up a shop in his home and, as his reputation and business started to grow, his operation ultimately landed in an out-of-the-way building on the North Fork.
Today, Welcome enjoys a hard-earned reputation as one of the top designers and builders of surf plugs on the East Coast. While the plugs he sells through his company, North Bar Tackle, are now cast in plastic, he continues to create dozens of wooden plugs each year in his prototype shop to test out before approving production runs. These he uses himself or gives away to close friends and fishing "sharpies" to field test, ensuring each new design receives a thorough trial and returns proven results long before it sees mass production.
"I guess that’s the short story for most of us who build these things," said Welcome. "We get drawn in over the years. We love the feel of the wood in our hands, all the steps it takes to shave and model a block of wood until it somehow resembles a real baitfish in size, appearance and the way it moves through the water.
"We appreciate all the hard work that goes into creating the perfect lure for catching big, smart fish, and we marvel at the changes in motion and results that even small alterations can make in a plug’s performance. Once you get started making plugs, there’s really no turning back," he said.
Chris Voorhies, 46, of Harbor Isle, agrees.
"There’s a need that triggers the progression," he said with a laugh. "That might be a desire to have the best lure for the type of fishing you like to do, or a need to save or even make money. There are plug builders who consider themselves artists, craftsmen who love working with wood, and even a few people who want the peer recognition that comes with producing a truly productive lure.
"Personally, I love the intricacies of a flawlessly designed fishing plug, from the curves and angles of the head and body to the lip — or lack of one — that produces the ideal swimming action," Voorhies said. "Then there’s the paint jobs that light up fish and anglers alike …"
No doubt there are many reasons plug builders get into the trade, but both Welcome and Voorhies said the need for bigger lures that catch lunker fish is always near the core.
"My downfall was the winter season," explained Voorhies. "I was so passionate about fishing that I needed a way to stay connected during the colder months, and plug building proved the perfect venue. As a kid I was always tinkering with old lures and repainting them. As a grown-up, I bought the machinery to do it on a grander scale." (You can find Voorhies' plugs at instagram.com/cvoorhies.)
Relatively new to serious plug building, Voorhies has 20 years’ overall experience, though he has only recently been acknowledged as an expert in his craft. He turns out 400 to 500 custom wooden plugs a year from a machine shop in his garage. In terms of fishing, he likes to key in on big baits, like bunker, in deeper water than most anglers, so he designs larger, deep diving, wooden lures. "For me, these lures are tools. I know collectors think they look great on their walls, but I build them to catch fish, pure and simple," he said, admitting he has gotten better at painting in the past few years. "I do get a lot of satisfaction out of finishing a plug that looks really sharp."
Welcome, by comparison, has a considerably larger machine shop and has built between 50,000 and 60,000 handcrafted wooden plugs in his lifetime while his company has produced more than a million plastic plugs. His preference is to fish in rips (areas of strong current), for which he likes a large, yellow darter or similar big-bait mimic. He also sees his lures as a means to an end. Although every custom plug he designs and tests is highly detailed and finished, styles that don’t "catch" are quickly altered or retired.
Combining form, function
While these two custom plug builders may not find their craft particularly "artsy," most people who catch sight of one of their lures suspended in a tackle shop display case admire its beautiful workmanship and sleek, polished appearance. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of plug building activity on Long Island, most plugs sported one or two primary colors; body and lip designs were limited to a few basic styles, too.
Today, though the number of serious plug builders in the area has dwindled from dozens to a precious few, the products the best of the lot turn out are masterpieces of appearance, form and function. They have a lifelike sheen to the finish, wild-looking eyes that mimic a large, panicked baitfish, a smooth, natural blending of colors transitioning from back to belly, and even gill slits painted or etched into the body just behind the head. It’s no wonder many anglers collect plugs from better-known builders, hanging them throughout the house or placing them into shadowboxes where they’ll never be used but never be lost.
Still, the magic of these huge lures, many of which measure 6 to 10 inches long, runs deeper than their beautiful exteriors. "Do you realize how much work goes into making some of these lures?" chided Welcome. "Each one probably takes 20 to 30 steps to complete, and a lot of time can be necessary between some steps. Unless you are highly experienced at this, it can take several hours to complete a single plug."
Indeed, there are more than a dozen basic plug designs — from metal-lipped swimmers and darters with angled heads that drive them deep on the retrieve to surface poppers, shallow swimmers and even a plug called the "needlefish," which is shaped like a thin cigar and often catches big fish at night when retrieved as slowly as the angler can bear.
Yet construction of just about any surf plug follows the same basic steps. As Welcome explained it in abbreviated version: a length of wood is cut to the approximate lure length and width; it’s then placed on a lathe and trimmed to the desired shape. Next the lure is pre-drilled to accept body weights that add casting distance, balance the lure in the water and allow for a through-wire that provides a line tie at the nose while securing both the belly and tail hooks that will be added after painting is completed. After serious sanding, the lure is sealed with a water repellent or waterproof material and allowed to dry. Five to 15 coats of airbrushed paint later, plus more sealant and commensurate drying times, and the plug is ready to do its thing — whether that be to tempt a record striper or shine in a shadowbox down the hallway.
Catering to customers
Craftsmen like Welcome and Voorhies generally have "standards," which allow them to replicate measurements quickly and easily. Still, all that time and work invested comes at a premium price for the angler or collector. Available in tackle shops that cater to surf fishermen, at outdoors shows and, of course, online, custom-crafted wooden surf plugs can run anywhere from $30 to $75 a pop, and sometimes much more.
Ken Morse, proprietor of Tight Lines Bait and Tackle in Sag Harbor, doesn’t make surf plugs, but he sells them, fishes with them and collects a few as well. "It’s great to have custom plugs here in the shop," he said. "Our customers appreciate all the minute details plug makers cut in these days, and there’s no doubt these lures catch big fish, especially stripers. From a sales perspective, they really stand out amongst the mass-produced lures."
While Morse, who also lives in Sag Harbor, is happy to sell plugs, he keeps part of his personal collection in a large custom case on a shop wall — and those aren’t for sale. "I love to collect squid plugs," he explained, "I find squid to be among the most intelligent and interesting creatures on the planet, so when I see a nice custom squid plug, I usually buy it. I’m not wealthy, but I’ll spend up to $130 for a plug I find unique. I picture the plug builders looking at a squid photo and then using their airbrushes to make the wood come to life in vibrant colors."
At age 86, Don Musso of Farmingdale, is the reigning dean of Long Island plug builders, acknowledged by many, including Voorhies and Welcome, for his influence on their own designs. Musso started Super Strike Lures, in 1976, a wholesale seller of plastic replicas of Musso's originals. These days, his son Steve, 53, of Amityville, a plug builder in his own right, runs daily operations.
"It’s amazing to look back to the glory years of plug building here on Long Island," said Don. "In the 1960s and ’70s there were plenty of us because the only way to get the big lures we needed was to custom-build them ourselves. We had more big bass in our surf waters then, so there was a lot of demand to produce original work, introduce new styles and build upon earlier successes."
The elder Musso still builds wooden prototypes. "I never stopped, never will," he said boldly, "and I’m proud to have influenced many of the custom plug builders we have today. We didn’t care about how artistic our lures were when I started out. We just wanted them to work — and work they did. We never imagined they might someday be collectibles."
Voorhies said he can relate to that, and while he’s never been much for collecting plugs, he is glad that other people have. "We can look back and see how master plug builders like Stand Gibbs from Cape Cod, Dan Pichney of Queens and Donny Musso made design improvements and tackled different problems," he said. "Maybe we can even incorporate a little of their paint schemes into our own work as tribute.
Who knows, maybe one day when I’m gone someone will be inspired by one of my lures they find in a collection. I think I might be OK with that — even if my plug ultimately ended up on somebody’s wall."
Simple tips for catching bass on plugs
- Larry Welcome of North Bar Tackle: "You can’t go wrong with yellow for striped bass."
- Chris Voorhies of Voorhies Customs: "Go deep for big fish."
- Don Musso of Super Strike Lures: "Blue and white plugs work great if there is a September mullet run along the South Shore."
- Ken Morse of Tight Lines Bait and Tackle: "Nothing beats a pencil popper for raising bass and blues to the surface."
5 great plug types
Pencil poppers: Great for long casts to reach big fish breaking on the surface. Work rapidly for big blues, slower and more deliberate for large striped bass.
Needlefish: Known as a "do nothing lure." Fish it on the midnight shift with a retrieve barely fast enough to keep the line tight.
Darters: Use in strong currents, allowing the lure to naturally sweep left and right while retrieved against the flow. An occasional slight pause followed by two pumps of the rod sometimes triggers vicious strikes.
Metal-lip plugs: These plugs feature a big metal lip on the front that causes the lure to dig in and wiggle seductively. Some run on the surface, some just below, and others swim deep. Use around large baits like adult bunker.
Swimmers: With a slimmer profile than darters and metal-lip plugs, these lures imitate smaller baits like spearing or sand eels. Productive in daylight but awesome at night. Comes in both surface and subsurface versions.
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