I have a love-hate relationship with cedar plugs. I'm fond of the antiquated lures' ability to raise lots of fish, and I detest them because of the numerous fish that are lost to pulled hooks.
Recently I presented a Trolling Tactics panel for the SWS National Seminar Series at the Jersey Shore, in New Jersey, and expressed my views on cedar plugs to panel member Trey Rhyne, an ardent offshore-trolling authority and head of Over Under Sportfishing. Rhyne quickly replied: "Well, if you want to catch fish, put the cedar plugs out there. If you don't, keep them in the boat. I'd much rather get the bites and risk losing a fish or two than not get a strike." Valid point indeed, Trey! But then things got interesting when we got into why fish seem to pull free from them and how to possibly modify them to "stick" better. More on all this later.
Not the Pick of the Litter
When it comes to offshore-trolling lures, the cedar plug is arguably the plain Jane of the lot. It lacks the sleek design and snazzy paint schemes of most modern lures, many of which resemble Indy 500 race cars. In fact, the cedar plug is more akin to a '57 Chevy. But what this ancient lure lacks in modern luster, it makes up for in fresh meat. These lures have been used worldwide for decades, and the number of fish they've accounted for is mind-boggling.
In their basic form, cedar plugs are relatively short and plump pencil-like lures which dart frantically when trolled, not unlike walk-the-dog-style surface plugs. Their wild action and diminutive size make them attractive and easy-to-consume targets. They can be trolled solo or in a daisy chain. And as simplistic as they appear, there is some rhyme and reason to how and where to fish them. Enter Capt. Joe Trainor.
A Cedar Kind of Guy
Trainor is a noted big-game captain who plies the waters of the Bahamas and the Northeast for Over Under Sportfishing. I've fished with him on several occasions and scarcely recall him not dropping a cedar plug into the spread. "We fish them nearly every day in the Bahamas," says Trainor. "I fish them from the shotgun position, some 75 to 100 yards back, and as a daisy chain. I'll have three cedar plugs rigged on 130-pound-test monofilament leader, and each is staggered 18 inches apart. The first two cedar plugs are blue-and-white, and the last one, a natural wood color, is rigged with a 10/0 long-shank needle-eye hook. We catch yellowfins on the cedar daisy chain - and wahoo, dolphin and even the occasional blue marlin.
"When trolled around 6 knots, the first two plugs track right along while the last one darts more erratically; it looks like a confused and injured bait," he says. "That's precisely the action that gets the strikes." Furthermore, Trainor secures a large barrel swivel behind all but the rear plug (which has the hook). These barrel swivels act as stops to keep the plugs 18 inches apart. Another advantage of the swivels is that if the rear plug gets bitten off by a wahoo or shark, another cedar plug on an 18-inch lead can quickly be secured to the swivel, and the rig goes right back into the game. In the Bahamas, Trainor trolls just one cedar-plug daisy chain in a spread of seven to eight baits.
The Jersey Connection
Off the Jersey coast, Trainor fishes single cedar plugs. Often he'll use a pair that rides between 50 and 75 yards back off a flat line secured to a transom clip and short outrigger clip. Colors include red- and-white, blue-and-white, and natural. "This seems to be a good position for the yellowfins, and a productive trolling speed for them is around 6 to 6½ knots," says Trainor.
As in the Bahamas, each plug is rigged with 15 feet of 130-pound-test monofilament leader and a 10/0 needle-eye hook. "These join a spread of seven to eight baits and two spreader bars," Trainor says.
"Now, for school bluefins, fish averaging between 25 and 60 pounds, we fish two cedar plugs right in the prop wash, like from 15 to 40 feet back, from flat lines and transom clips," he continues. "I'll troll fewer baits for the bluefins, like six or seven, one spreader bar and then the two single cedar plugs. Our best bluefin trolling speed is between 5 and 5½ knots."
Trainor is a proponent of wind-on leaders, which eliminate the wiring of a cedar plug-hooked tuna. When someone takes the leader, the dynamics of the fight can be altered. And when that occurs, the lure may pull free. Trainor's preferred cedar-plug trolling setup is a Penn 50 International filled with 80-pound-test monofilament. A 15-foot 130-pound-test monofilament leader is joined to the fishing line with a 130-pound-test offshore wind-on swivel (which passes right through the guides). "I see guys pulling cedar plugs rigged to 6- and 8-foot leaders and large snap swivels," says Trainor. "I believe a large snap swivel placed so close to a cedar plug takes away from its action. Plus, the commotion from that swivel can spook fish and keep them from striking."
Color Me a Fish
An old-timer once told a friend that he was appalled at the wide variety of colors modern cedar plugs come in. His reasoning was that the original cedar-plug material enabled the lures to be soaked in menhaden or other fish oils (below); the cedar wood absorbed the oils and held the scent, lending yet another element to the lure. This individual claimed the newer hard-plastic ones - and even the painted wooden models - don't absorb oils and scents and, therefore, aren't as good as the old ones.
Yet color has indeed become a factor. Trainor favors red-and-white cedar plugs on sunny days but is quick to point out that blue-and-white remains a potent all-weather color combination, perhaps resembling flying fish. Other top captains troll cedar plugs in assorted colors and switch up if the fish are showing a preference for a specific hue.
Hold On, Gaff's a Coming
As mentioned earlier, my beef with cedar plugs has been over their dropping fish. Apparently this can be traced to the hook shank riding well inside the rear of the plug, with only the gap and point of the hook exposed. When a fish chomps on the plug, it's feasible the cedar plug could prevent the fish's jaws from fully closing and the hook from planting deeply and solidly. It's also feasible that, during the fight and especially when the boat maintains forward momentum, the plug design generates a certain amount of leverage that could work on the hook and free it.
Joe Trainor, Trey Rhyne and I have kicked around some cedar-plug rigging ideas to promote better hookups. The most obvious is to increase the size of the hook, where the larger gap/bite would likely penetrate deeper. My thinking is to add a few spacer beads and position the hook outside of the cedar plug, some 1 to 2 inches behind the body (above). This way, the hook would be free and clear of the plug and more prone to latch onto a fish. Also, it may have a tendency to snag, providing yet another opportunity to catch a short-striking fish.
And while we're on the subject of experimentation, I'm not so sure a circle hook rigged in this fashion wouldn't be the bomb for catching fish. Think about it. Once the plug slides across a fish's jaws and the circle hook sets, there is no way short of breaking the line that the fish will get off. It's not out of the question: At one time no one would have thought that circle hooks on diamond, flutter-style or traditional jigs would have worked so well, but they do.
Two things are for sure: Cedar plugs catch fish, and thousands of them will be in tow this coming season. And you can bet that guys like Rhyne, Trainor and me will be experimenting with ways to make them stick better. If we're successful, I can finally profess my unconditional love for this relic of a hell-raiser!