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Working the Wood – How To Work A Cedar Plug

The seasons come and go, each one crafted by the weather and water conditions for that particular year. Some are good — some not so good. But regardless of the final tally to make sure you caught your share you must select an offshore arsenal of top-producing tuna trolling lures that will withstand the test of time.

We are inundated with such a vast array of quality gear today that it often seems like there’s too much to choose from. The list of brand names is virtually endless and the amount of colors, sizes and shapes is ridiculous. For me, it definitely gets confusing. So I keep it basic and fish with a relative handful of time-tested top performers.

“One of my all-time favorites, without question is the lowly cedar plug.”

Before I had actually witnessed the magic of the cedar plug, I had often wondered how a stick of natural wood on a plain leadhead could fish so well. But the first time I slid one into the wake at trolling speed, and watched the brown wood morph to a reddish, squid-like tint and saw the magic in the motion, it was one of those special moments of clarity and it all became very clear.

cedar plug pacific edge

To this day, I am continually amazed that a hunk of lead and a shaped stick of natural wood can make such a deadly fish attractor. The cedar plugs work well right out of the packaging but with some attention to detail, a slight tuneup and carefully deployed by a skilled offshore angler, they’re downright deadly!

The cedar plug was one of the few real tricks East Coast anglers held over us “Left Coasters.” For many years they laughed at the disdain we professed, and admittedly, we were slow to catch on to the powers of this simple lure. But “working the wood” today is an accepted practice out here, but there are a few secrets to make your plug perform at peak levels.

Step it Up

First, it is very important to understand that not all cedar plugs are created equal. Subtle variations in shape and curve can have a profound effect on the ultimate action. I pick the ones with more girth and a symmetrical shape as opposed to those that are slim and trim. The fatter plugs swim much better with a more subtle motion in the water and are less prone to breakage.

Another seldom noticed but vitally important design feature is the offset keel that keeps a plug swimming instead of spinning. When picking plugs, stretch the leader tightly and horizontally then slide the plug away from the hook. Give the plug a good spin on the leader. Carefully note where it stops spinning then repeat several more times. A properly balanced plug will quickly stop in the same place each time, with the keel side down. Once you know “what’s up,” take a black marker and draw a line the length of your plug on the top or up the side to mark the preferred running position. When you slide the hook back up inside the lure, make sure to align the point so it’s on the upside. A properly keeled, thick-bodied plug will swim with a seductive wiggle that tuna and albacore find irresistible. The cheap knock-offs with no keel will usually spin out of control. You might as well go ahead and junk those spinners.

cedar plug pacific edgeThe next step in the tuneup is to take a small grinder such as a high-speed Dremel tool and carefully grind out a small notch in the back metal ring. Make sure to put the notch in the proper position and carefully shape the notch to the curve of the hook. When the shank fits snugly, it will lock in, stay in perfect alignment and keep your plug swimming perfectly.

Many stock plugs come rigged on heavy 130# or 150# mono leader. I swap out mine and replace it with a 4- to 6-foot piece of 80# fluorocarbon leader. I carefully crimp the leader to the hook, and then bind it with a drop of epoxy glue to minimize chafing. By going to a lighter line you will get more bites, however you need to check your leader for wear on a regular basis. Letting the fluorocarbon work its magic will substantially increase the effectiveness of the cedar plug, especially when fishing the over-worked porpoise schools once the yellowfin show up.

Sized Right

Cedar plugs generally come in three sizes. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the small 4-inch size. Properly rigged, they can do the job, but not with the same magic as the traditional model.

The 8-incher is not for everyday use, but if you use it for select applications this lure will definitely get the job done. They’re great for wahoo (rigged on wire) as well as bigger yellowfin, bigeye tuna and other special conditions. Keep this one around for those tough days when things aren’t going well and they might just give you the edge you need. They’ve been known to trick marlin as well.

Originally, cedar plugs only came in natural wood, with no paint or added color. Today, you can find all colors of the rainbow and plugs made of other materials such as aluminum. But maybe with a special exemption for black and purple, I prefer to stick with the natural wood — simply because it works.

In addition to the color, there is another reason I like the unfinished model — the natural porosity of unpainted wood. You can add some scent to the plug by crushing up a handful of sardines or anchovies in some water to cedar plug pacific edgemake a fish soup and soaking the plugs in it overnight. So now you’ve got a jig that not only swims well, it smells good too. It’s another one of those little things that makes a big difference.

Any serious craftsman knows a finely finished product demands a lot of work, but these simple tricks will help you to master the cedar plug and the technique I like to call “working the wood.”  Make some time, tune up your plugs and get out there to take a look.

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Well-known California captain, writer, speaker and tackle shop owner, Capt. Mark Wisch has been helping anglers catch fish along the West Coast for decades. As an author, Mark has written three books, including “Between Two and Twenty Fathoms,” “In The Gray” and “Lessons from a Lifetime on the Water.” He's currently working on his fourth book, “Way Out West, a Private Boaters Guide to Fishing Offshore Waters.” Mark owns and operates Pacific Edge Tackle (www.pacificedgetackle.com) and manufactures a complete line of live bait tanks. He also specializes in outfitting sport-fishing boats with electronics and fishing equipment. Mark graduated from Cal Poly, Pomona, with a degree in marketing and currently resides in Huntington Beach, California, with his wife Chris and their dog Emma.