July 13, 2012
Are cedar plugs the original fool-proof lure?
How long have cedar plugs been around?
A fruitless investigation into the history of these lures led me to this conclusion: They were invented before papyrus and, therefore, have little recorded history—except in modern times. The Egyptians probably invented them and towed the fish-catching lures behind their multi-oared, captive-powered boats as they navigated to distant conquests.
That said, what is the draw of these cigar-shaped, leadhead fish-catching wonders? From what I can tell and other reliable dock talk, it's the action. Cedars shimmy and sway, darting to and fro like some kind of crazed baitfish on the verge of consumption. They're great surface lures that also bubble and burp and vaguely imitate small tuna, frequently referred to as “bullets” by offshore fishermen.
Cedar plugs know no bounds. The easy-to-rig artificials catch fish just about anywhere beyond the surfline 'round the world and they really shine in blue water—the primary feeding grounds of tuna, wahoo, dolphin and billfish. Using these simple lures, Florida anglers record impressive catches every year in the Gulf, Atlantic, Mexico and The Bahamas.
To better understand the dynamics of a modern cedar plug, pick one up. You'll immediately notice the heavy head, streamline shape that resembles a torpedo without a propeller and the hole that runs the length of the lure from stem to stern. Not much there to provide any action is probably your first thought. And you're right. That is, until you throttle the boat up to eight or nine knots and drop that puppy in the wake and push the lever drag into gear. Then that hunk of wood, metal or plastic takes on a different character, dancing behind the boat.
Catches made with traditional cedar plugs and their newer aluminum and plastic counterparts border on the fantastic. Charter skippers and tuna fanatics around Florida and up the Atlantic seaboard regularly run cedars in lure spreads. The reason? It's hard to argue with success.
A lower link to the offshore food chain.
“Cedar lures are part of my daily lure spread,” attests St. Augustine charter skipper Robert Johnson. Johnson, like many other Ledge and Rolldown trollers off Northeast Florida, breaks out the lures when tuna—blackfin and yellowfin—migrate into local waters. Same story for wahoo. Standard practice when adding a cedar to a lure-and-bait combo spread up here is to run it long—way behind the boat on the shotgun line. On days when tuna seem to be everywhere, local skippers often run a spread of cedars tight to the boat. Many trollers say that positioning the cedars between the first and fourth waves behind the transom gives the lures better action.
Palm Beach county captain and Florida Sportsman Radio Show host George LaBonte had great luck recently trolling aluminum cedar plugs in The Bahamas. LaBonte focused his efforts on yellowfin tuna traversing the Northwest Providence Channel close to Port Lucaya, on Grand Bahama Island.
“We went over there rigged for bear,” LaBonte began. “We had everything—lures, ballyhoo, feathers, cedar plugs—you name it. The most consistent tuna catcher? A light blue aluminum cedar plug measuring 1 inch around by 5 3/4 inches long—the Yellowfin model—manufactured by MP Lures in Stuart.” LaBonte normally mixes in a cedar plug or two in his Bahamas trolling spread, except when tuna crash the party in force. On those days, he runs a spread of all MP Yellowfin lures and staggers them evenly behind the boat. In other words, left and right flatlines are the same length as are the short 'rigger baits and long 'rigger lures.
This brings us to another question: What is the best position to run these lures? That varies according to conditions and how the tuna are feeding. LaBonte typically positions flatlines loaded with cedar plugs about 100 feet back. Short 'riggers are between 200 and 250 feet and the long 'riggers are way out there, approximately 350 to 400 feet behind the transom. This arrangement seemed to work time and time again for Northwest Providence Channel yellowfins, but it's not carved in stone.
Many veteran trollers run cedar plugs tight to the boat, particularly off the Outer Banks and other Mid-Atlantic ports where yellowfin tuna are a daily regimen throughout summer and early fall. Typical drill here is to position the plugs between the first and fourth wakes. Outer Banks guys say this makes the plugs run better. Sure, they pop out of the water a little more, but near the boat cedars swim like crazy and when the bite's red hot, fish don't seem to mind swinging close to nab plugs.
Wahoo frequently whack "shotgun" lures.
Canaveral tuna chasers who dial in birds with radar some 100 miles offshore rarely, if ever, run lures tight to the boat. They string 'em out long—way out yonder. Heck, the shotgun line may be 400 to 500 yards back or more. The reason for this tactic is that out here it's best to drag the lures, not run the boat, through tuna schools busting the surface. If you've never done it, have pity on the poor angler who has to reel in the shotgun line. Do this once or twice and you'll beg for mercy. That retrieve takes on a new meaning when you've got a 60-pound yellowfin struggling on the other end.
Although cedar plugs are some of the oldest lures around, recent advancements could once again splash this style of lure into the limelight. Perhaps the most noticeable tweak—and one not possible with wooden models—is honing out the rear of the plug to accommodate ring-eye hooks. For years, trollers rigged these lures with needle-eye hooks that fit into the rear socket. Manufacturing lures out of plastic and machined aluminum allows lure makers to open up the hook socket and lets anglers forego needle-eyes in favor of ring-eye hooks that don't chafe mono leaders nearly as much. Other design improvements include adding a flange at the back of the bait that manufacturers say increases the action. Weight distribution is also under constant experimentation as is lure size. Check out some of the newer offerings and you'll see that cedars come in many sizes ranging from around four inches long (perfect for blackfins and bonito) to almost a foot (for full-grown bluefin tuna).
Another refinement likely to catch your eye is the addition of skirts to cedar-style lures. The skirts add visual attraction, but change the performance. It's imperative to slow your trolling speed when pulling plugs with skirts as skirts take away from the lure's natural action. Troll too fast and that side-to-side almost disappears and with it the lure's attraction to many fish. But, if you keep speed under seven knots, skirts add a depth to the action that pleases many striking fish species such as king mackerel and dolphin.
Jetheads, on the other hand, increase the lure's bubble trail and allow you to kick up boat speed due to the head's heavier weight. Something to keep in mind when trying to keep up with a moving tuna school.
Rigging-wise, not many lures come close to cedars for terminal simplicity. Many lures come pre-rigged straight from the factory. Most wooden models come with about 8 feet of 125- to 150-pound mono, a Mustad 3412 10/0 needle-eye hook and a swivel to reduce line twist. If you plan on rigging your own, get familiar with crimping. It's easy, quick and if you carry crimping gear aboard the boat, a great way to remedy any nicks and abrasions caused by the needle-eye hook. Simply clip off a few inches of leader and crimp on the hook.
You can also rig many aluminum and plastic cedars with ring-eye hooks, provided the hook cavity is large enough to accommodate the larger hook eye. LaBonte prefers rigging his favorite aluminum and chrome-over-brass lures with six to eight feet of 150-pound mono or fluorocarbon and a Mustad 3407 9/0 hook. He's also been experimenting with circle-type hooks, primarily the Mustad 7691, and finds that if you don't set the hook, tuna hookup ratios almost match J hooks. The secret he preaches, “is to never try to jab the hook home. Tuna hit cedars so hard they set the hook anyway.” Makes sense when one ponders the speeds at which tuna attack bait and lures.
Add a few lures to your trolling spread to get the drop on yellowfin tuna.
Cedar plugs, although old as the hills, are not ready for retirement just yet. Too many species slam them to leave them out of your lure cache. And the new refinements open up more doors. Possibilities include rigging three or more lures as a teaser, a trick some bluewater trollers are slow to reveal and mix-matching plug sizes to home in on the tuna's flavor of the day. Next time the bite slows, think cedar and you may catch one whopper of a surprise.
Sink and Swim
Cedar plugs and their aluminum, plastic and chrome-over-brass derivatives not only perform when trolled at 8 to 10 knots, they're also great for probing a little deeper in the water column. Heftier, chrome-over-brass models inherently run a tad deeper because of the added weight. Same is true for natural cedars that sport larger leadheads.
All styles, however, draw fish from deeper depths if you add a stop-and-go trick to your trolling repertoire. The tactic, made popular by kingfish and tuna anglers, is simple: Just take the boat out of gear in waters where you mark bait pods on the fishfinder or where you suspect predators below. Putting the boat into neutral allows the plugs to sink. Once they're down, shove the throttle back into gear and resume normal trolling speed. Many times, kingfish, tuna, dolphin and wahoo nail 'em as they track toward the surface.
Cedar Plug Manufacturers
MP Lures: www.mplures.com
; (772) 223-6400
Sea Striker/Got-Cha: www.seastriker.com
; (252) 247-4113
Bluewater Lure Company: www.bluewaterlures.com
; (561) 394-6497
C & H Lures: www.candhlures.com
; (800) 458-5873