Articles

A Work of Art in Plastisol

Posted on September 4, 2007

Pouring your own soft plastics to match the profile, action, and color of natural forage.
Guest Article by Jeff Little

Have you ever sifted through an entire aisle of soft plastics to find a pack of tubes with a specific shade of green? Have you ever had to settle for a color of fluke that was almost right because the right one was out of stock? I’d bet that you were not as patient with that wrong color. Your confidence in that bait was not 100%, and you didn’t catch as many fish. Your buddy might be right next to you slamming fish on every other cast with that “wrong” color fluke. But because it’s not the color you really wanted, it just isn’t working for you.

My own picky nature led me to working with soft plastics for the first time several years ago. The Fat Salty Special Tubes that I had special ordered in bags of 150 seemed to arrive progressively thinner. I used to be able to sit down the aisle of a now closed tackle shop in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and sift through a bulk bin of these baits to select the fattest ones, and toss the thin ones back. Each bag of 150 might have had 20 or so that were of adequate girth.

So I decided to plump them up myself. I initially tried melting down old soft plastics to their liquid state so I could redip the heads of the thin ones, making them fatter. My first run of “Godzilla” tubes was named by Jeff Kelble as we floated the mainstem Shenandoah one early January day. The surface of the tube’s head where it was redipped was dark green, bumpy, and blistered, much like the skin of Godzilla. The process of making them produced a product that I was not that happy with, not to mention that it created a lot of smoke and caustic fumes, giving me a headache.

Looking for a better way, I ordered a 5 gallon bucket of fresh plastisol from Lurecraft, some green pumpkin coloring agent, and some purple glitter. Other suppliers that I have used since then include Ozark Tackle, DelMart Molds, and Barlow’s Tackle. The next batch resulted in a smooth coating of green pumpkin with purple flake.

Besides redipping tubes, entire baits can be created. My next soft plastic creation, the Crawzilla had the bulbous tail section of a Fat Salty Special Tube, and the “pig” part of a jig ‘n pig. To make the two piece mold for this bait, I used water putty, a disposable aluminum baking pan, some petroleum jelly as a release agent, and some pop sickle sticks to make the mold fit together tightly when pouring. I learned that bleeder canals need to be cut between the two surfaces with a Dremel tool to let the air in the mold cavity escape. A pouring spout cut into the mold also made the pour go smoother. The mold was successful in creating the idea I had, but the action of the bait in the water was not what I had envisioned.

Too often, anglers place too much emphasis on a baits color. Obviously, bait placement is paramount to all bait attributes. But a do it yourself soft plastic maker needs to look beyond color alone. The baits action can be modified by several additives, and by selecting the right plastisol to begin with. Saltwater soft plastic holds up to the toothy slashes of a bluefish blitz better than baits made from standard plastisol. But it is far more rigid, and does not have as fluid of an action. The softest plastisol (Formula 536 in Lurecraft’s catalog) imparts a great action for finesse baits like ribbed worms. Additionally, this soft plastic will float on its own. When used on a jighead, the plastic will orient up, making the lure more visible on a rocky bottom. This buoyant quality works very well as part of a Carolina rig. A crawfish imitating bait on a 1/0 EWG hook will scoot off the bottom, settle to the bottom slowly, then angle with its claws up at a 45 degree angle, just as a threatened defensive postured crawfish would.

An opposite action is important in lures that imitate baitfish. The three inch soft plastic stick is a lure that has recently become a staple item in my tackle. The first batch of these lures I poured did not do a good job imitating a bait fish. I used the same floating Lurecraft Formula 536 to make these. I had trouble casting these small low density plastics until I added some salt. The salt made the lure sink, presenting the bait to the middle of the water column, where baitfish are more likely to be found.

After fine tuning the sink rate, I then focused on color. To match the natural forage, I sat down in the middle of the shallows, waited for the mud to settle, and then slowly submerged my waterproof camera. After a few minutes of remaining motionless, the kinds of fish that I would expect a larger fish to eat appeared in the viewfinder. I’ve netted small fish before and taken out of water photos. The underwater photography was an eye opener for me. The difference amazed me. Water filters light. Backgrounds change how baitfish shade their scales. Some baitfish are translucent, and take on the color of whatever is behind them. A photo of a young of the year smallmouth laying in my hand looks like a completely different species than the same fish in its aquatic habitat.

The color that I favored the most took a while to figure out. It needed to have a base color similar to that of the sandy river bottom, have a golden sheen, but also reflect the slight green shade of the water. The coloring agent that I used as a base color was called caramel. I added a small amount of gold super highlight. Super highlight is a powder additive that gives many soft plastics an overall shiny quality. I added a few drops of green pumpkin. Green pumpkin is one of the colors where a little bit goes a long way. It’s also a nice color to have if you come up with a color you don’t like. It will overpower whatever color mistake you have made. Lastly, I added some medium sized dark gold glitter to give the appearance of a baitfish with a few scales out of place from injury.

Once these baits were poured and trimmed, I added eyes. After trying several different paints and markers unsuccessfully, I found Lurecraft’s soft plastic paint. This paint is the only thing that will stick to soft plastic. Markers bleed into the plastic. Paints like car touch up paint, or acrylic paints don’t stick and often won’t even dry on the plastic. Using a dowel rod shaped by a pencil sharpener, and cut with a razor blade, the eyes were of uniform shape and size. The eyes are often the only thing a predator fish may see when looking at a well camouflaged minnow.

With the 5 ounce swimbaits I hand poured, a simple black dot was not enough. Details on larger baits must be more exact. The 3-D adhesive eyes in the Barlow’s catalog were a perfect match for my sunfish and white perch swimbaits. Crazy gluing them into the eye socket made them a permanent fixture on the bait. The swimbaits looked like the respective sunfish and perch, but they did not swim upright, a sure sign to any potential predator that the offering is bogus. To provide a keel, I cut a flap and a cavity in the abdomen of the lure, and glued egg sinkers inside. This corrected the problem, and allowed me to target deeper structure.

Another much smaller hand poured bait that required weight was the Toad Bomb. This bottom dragging bait was the next lure in the line of designs stemming from the Fat Salty Special Tube. To make the original blank a symmetrical shape, I turned a block of bass wood on the lathe. After applying some petroleum jelly to the bulbous shaped wood, I placed it into the cake batter consistency water putty. The one piece mold hardened, and then I used two different Dremel bits to create the tail of the bait. The one piece mold was sealed with Valspar weatherproof sealant. While pouring, both a ¼ oz egg sinker and a glass rattle from HawgHead Baits were dropped into the still hot plastisol. The result was a rattling, snag resistant bottom dragging bait.

Other materials can be added to the still hot plastisol to make a more detailed bait. Round rubber is usually thought of as a material for tying flies or jigs. By incorporating two single strands of brown round rubber, my beaver style soft plastics look just like a crawfish trying to feel its way around with its antennae. The round rubber, like the Formula 536 plastisol is somewhat buoyant. The antennae float up above the bait, allowing a fish to find the bait that may have settled in the craggy rock bottom.

A crawfish in its natural environment.

My rendition of a crawfish in a defensive position: claws raised, antennae probing. The floating nature of Formula 536 makes this position happen automatically.

Making your own molds isn’t the only way to go. The Lurecraft catalog and website feature several hundred molds that you can purchase for about $10 a piece. These flexible molds produce smoother finished baits than the ones I’ve made from my own water putty molds. They also sell the materials needed to make your own flexible molds, a project I plan on doing soon. The baits release easier from the flexible molds, and do not transfer heat as much as the ones made from water putty.

While talking with my friend Mike Naylor of Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the issue of light penetration in deep reservoirs came up. Mike has extensive scuba experience, and mentioned that once you go below 20 or 30 feet, the amount of light is greatly diminished, especially in turbid waters. A few days later while thumbing through the Lurecraft catalog, the phosphorescent light bulb went off in my head. An additive that I have been using in Carolina rig soft plastics actually makes the lure glow in the dark. Carrying a flashlight on my reservoir kayak, I charge the glowing white perch imitators every few casts. Now I feel more confident that the fish are more likely to find the lure in the dark depths of Prettyboy Reservoir.

Other additives for soft plastic pouring include super floater bubbles, scents, hardener, heat stabilizer, worm oil, and glitter of every color, shape and size. I tried the floater bubbles, and found that if you use too much of this marshmallow consistency additive, that the bait becomes stiff and spongy. The worm oil helps the baits release easily from the mold. With the water putty molds, worm oil is a must. I put some in a spray bottle to coat the inside of the swimbait molds before pouring. If you use the hardener, be sure to heat it slowly and stir frequently with a screwdriver. I have scorched several batches that I added hardener to. A cheap microwave oven and a pyrex measuring cup is the easiest and cleanest way to heat soft plastics. Heat stabilizer prevents scorching, but is not needed if you stir frequently. Good ventilation is a must when heating and pouring soft plastics. My shop is set up in a two car garage. I open both doors when pouring and have the ceiling fan on high. Wearing goggles and latex gloves is also a good idea to protect against splatter burns. The plastisol reaches its liquid state for the second time at approximately 325 degrees. A candy thermometer can be used when learning how to recognize the plastisol’s readiness.

This citation smallmouth, caught by Mark Darrell, hit a soft plastic that I designed, poured, and decorated myself. Seeing fish caught on something you made adds a new level of satisfaction.

Pouring your own soft plastic is like any artistic endeavor. Your creativity is the only limiting factor. Take your inspiration from the profile, action, and color of natural prey items, and your confidence and catch rate will skyrocket. Catching any fish, particularly a large one on something you made yourself adds a new dimension of satisfaction to the experience.

Some soft plastic works of art by the author. From top to bottom starting on the left: Hand painted bluegill swimbait with internal weight and tubing, spinnerbait trailer, swimbait on 1 ounce spinnerbait frame with harness, ribbed minnow, floating hellgrammite, toad bomb with internal rattle and weight, soft stickbaits weighted with sand and/or salt, beaver style baits with molded in round rubber antennae, glow in the dark minnow, green minnow, gliding white perch with embedded jighead.

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Copyright © 2007 Jeff Little
Published on RiverSmallies.com with permission.

Jeff Little instructs kayak fishing on the rivers, reservoirs, and tidal waters of Maryland and Virginia. His new book, In Pursuit of Trophy Smallmouth Bass: My Life In A Kayak has finally arrived. To order a copy, go to Jeff’s website at www.blueridgekayakfishing.com.

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