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September 21, 2007

Big Gamers

We asked three of the best lure makers in the country for their thoughts on finding and catching fish. Here's what they had to say.

BILLFISHING BLUE LABEL
A Hawaiian surfer changed the landscape of blue marlin fishing for good with his Super Plunger.


Illustration: Peter Stemmler
Joe Yee
Age: 76
Home port: Honolulu, Hawaii
Years in the business: 40-plus
Most popular lure: Super Plunger
Trademark style: For blue marlin, Yee runs a Super Plunger off the long corner position. He prefers pink-pearl but says the color means little if the lure action is off. Adjusting to conditions is critical to the lure's performance.

It's not surprising that Honolulu-born-and-raised Joe Yee started out making surfboards. After all, the 50th state has long been known as Tube City. What did surprise many fishermen, however, was Yee's proclamation that he could make a better blue marlin lure after walking the aisles of a local tackle show. That was more than 40 years ago, and the 76-year-old craftsman and founder of Joe Yee Lures has been making quality big-game lures ever since. And billfishing has never been the same.

Legendary Kona skipper Peter Hoogs promptly christened Yee's first offering, a Straight Runner, by landing a 1,143-pound blue marlin. Plenty of other monster billfish followed over the years, including a blue weighing 1,195 pounds in Bermuda, a world-record 1,146-pound blue marlin taken on 50-pound tackle and a 1,183-pound blue on the first Super Plunger. Yee's personal best is a 772-pound blue on 50-pound line.

Although autographed copies of his Super Plunger lure have sold for more than $800 at auctions, the soft-spoken Yee takes his company's success in modest stride.

Rhyme & Resin
Using liquid resin, Yee pours each of his molds by hand and then finishes the heads by wet-sanding.

Illustration: Diane Peebles

He rotates the lure molds every day so they don't overheat, and he is backlogged with orders. His son now helps with lure designs, and his product line numbers in the dozens. Yee also makes custom big-game lures upon request, albeit with a lengthy waiting list.

"I try to make my lures unique," Yee says. "I pour my own eyes and use a lot of patterns and inserts. Pink-blue and pink-pearl are my personal favorites, but I think fish are attracted to the lure's action more so than its colors. The Super Plunger, my bestseller, runs straight with a lot of pop and a long smoke trail. The fish can really home in on it. No matter what lure you're trolling, however, it's critical to adjust to the conditions. That makes all the difference in the world as to how well a lure will perform."

Super plunger
Joe Yee is a perfectionist when it comes to his Super Plunger lure. Using liquid resin, he pours each of his molds by hand. Marlin can't resist the lure's pop and long smoke trail.
To buy: www.meltontackle.com; Phone: 714-978-9192; Fax:714-978-9299.
Photo: John Keller/Cliff Gardiner

BREAKING THE MOLD
A tinkering engineer from south florida put Mold Craft's Soft Head lures into shape.


Illustration: Peter Stemmler
Frank Johnson
Age: 66
Home port: Lighthouse Point, Florida
Years in the business: 30-plus
Most popular lure: Wide Range
Trademark style: Johnson always adds a lure, such as Super Chugger or Spooler, to the end of his squid daisy-chain teasers while trolling six knots for white marlin and sailfish.

Nearly three decades ago Frank Johnson, an engineer with an aerospace firm, bought a tool-and-die company in South Florida and starting making various tackle products on the side. Among his many inventions were the aluminum Uni rod-butt and roller guides, lure keepers, rod holders and outrigger clips. A mold for a soft-plastic squid followed and two years later, with input from world-renowned skipper Peter B. Wright, the original Soft Head Hooker was born. The rest is angling history.

Today Mold Craft Lures boasts 1,000 products and a long list of sportfishing feats. The current all-tackle record for Atlantic blue marlin, 1,402 pounds on 130-class tackle, was taken on a Chugger-bird combination off Vit-ria, Brazil. The 80-pound-class record blue marlin of 1,190 pounds hit a Senior Wide Range Mold Craft lure.

The Perfect Fit
Multiple world-record-holder Stewart Campbell caught blue marlin of 1,028 and 1,141 pounds and released three more granders, among his many more notable catches on Johnson's lures. Captains Skip Smith and Trevor Cockle trolled Soft Head lures to set nearly 100 world records on the Madam & Hooker and Sound Machine. Other well-known charter boat skippers, including Dave Noling, Paul Ivey, Joe Lopez and James Roberts are all dedicated Soft Head fans as well. To date, at least 33 marlin weighing 1,000 pounds or more have been landed on Mold Craft lures, along with dozens of world records and countless tournament wins. Despite this impressive record, however, Johnson continues to tinker.

Illustration: Diane Peebles

"I released a 1,000-pound black ten years ago on a Senior Wide Range and killed a 722-pound bluefin tuna off Cape Cod more recently," Johnson said. "I caught it on one of my spreader bar squid rigs. And Jacko [Frank Johnson, III] and I won the Artmar-ina Father and Son Tourn-ament using our Tuff Hoo plastic ballyhoo and circle hooks. I've always loved experimenting with new designs. It's how I have been able to write off my fishing all these years."

Johnson typically starts trolling with a mixed color pattern and switches to lighter or darker shades depending on the response. Green-yellow to mimic dolphin and pink-white are his early picks, but his go-to lure is always a purple-silver-black Wide Range.

"You can go anywhere in the world and catch fish on that lure, especially if bonito are around," he said. "It's my all-time favorite."

Wide Range
Ask Frank Johnson, and he'll tell you his number-one lure is his Wide Range. It can be trolled at all speeds and does a great job of mimicking bonito.
To buy: www.meltontackle.com; Phone: 714-978-9192; Fax:714-978-9299.
Photo: John Keller/Cliff Gardiner

THE SPEED DEMON
The founder of C&H Lures shifted Florida's First Coast big-game fishing into high speed.


Illustration: Peter Stemmler
Don Combs
Age: 58
Home port: St. Augustine, Florida
Years in the business: 30-plus
Most popular lure: American Express
Trademark style: Combs runs straight-swimmers and bent-butt rods to maximize lure presentation. Trolling speed is a key factor and should be adjusted according to the boat.

When don combs left Alabama and his beloved Gulf of Mexico for Jack-sonville, Florida, to start a business in the early 1970s, he found very few big-game lures and just a few marlin fishermen. One of them was an angler named John Haucke. The two men had a mutual interest in catching billfish off the First Coast, so they began experimenting with lure shapes and designs using fiberglass resin. After Haucke lost interest, Combs continued to make lures in his spare time, testing them off Jacksonville and St. Augustine. By the late '70s the venerable Stubby, Deep Runner and Kong lures were perfected and Combs had landed one of the first blue marlin ever caught in northeast Florida. C&H (the H was kept out of respect for Haucke) was incorporated in 1985, and the company now makes more than 2,200 products.

C&H Lures have been credited with numerous tournament wins over the years. Combs continues to test all of his products, and among his impressive catches taken on high-speed trolling lures are a 67-pound dolphin, a 125-pound wahoo and a 147-pound yellowfin. He has also caught a 540-pound blue and three black marlin, all on Super Stubby or Kong lures.

Charge It
"I like straight-running lures that make lots of smoke, and I pull them at least nine knots," Combs says. "If you're not going at least that fast, you're not going fast enough. A billfish or tuna can swim up to 40 knots, so what's 15 or 18 knots to them? You need to adjust speeds according to the boat."

Illustration: Diane Peebles

Combs runs his spread with light-colored and dark-colored lures on opposing sides, then changes based on the response. He always keeps at least one light-colored lure regardless and also runs one lure 200 to 300 yards back off the center rigger position. Less drag is another, more recent refinement. For example, with 80-pound tackle, he uses only 15 to 18 pounds of drag at the strike setting. That reduced drag pressure has resulted in noticeably more hookups, especially with big dolphin, tuna and wahoo. One constant remains, Combs always pulls a blue-white Express lure with a white belly.

"One of my customers named that pattern," said Combs. "He told me, 'Man, that lure is like American Express - you never leave home without it.'"

American Express
Don Combs never hits the blue water without his American Express. He begins trolling with a mixed color pattern and always adjusts the spread from boat to boat.
Photo: John Keller/Cliff Gardiner