Old Crests on a New Wave
Simple lures tug at nostalgic heartstrings...and land the fish.
Mosey through the tackle drawers aboard a sportfisherman today and your eyes will strain staring at the collection of lures on display. Every color of the rainbow in infinite shapes and styles is represented among a clash of glitter and sparkling flakes. A fish psychologist might argue that the riotous selection is what makes the fish vacillate on those tough days when bites are few and far between. From the fish’s point of view, why settle for a glimmering pink-and-green electric-chicken lure when the taste buds are watering for a svelte balao?
The difference between a fisherman and a fish is simple. A fisherman looks at his lure for its color and style and wonders if it will work today. A fish looks at a lure and thinks dinner. Lure-company success is based on first catching the fishermen and then letting them worry about the fish. But I was reminded what works best when I recently pawed through a dust-covered tackle box given to me by the widow of a fishing buddy whom I had fished with for 20 years. Long before big plastic lures made their mark streaming smoke trails in the wakes, and certainly before political correctness was the norm, one of the most ubiquitous artificial lures for school tuna was a made-in-Japan feathered jighead known on the docks as the “Jap Feather.” The chromed lead head with a die-cast imprint of the word ‘Japan’ also featured a pair of faceted red glass eyes, and would simply be rigged with a length of number-9 tobacco-colored wire leader with the hook secured with a haywire twist.
The variations were limited to head weights and feather colors like red, black, yellow, green, blue, and white. Charter mates insisted the bright feathers were best on the sunny days while darker colors were more productive on cloudy ones. I don’t recall if the fish knew this but my fellow mates all agreed it was worth the comment to the charter party to ramp up tips in case the bluefins weren’t hungry, or the skipper failed to run over the fish in the first place.
Holding the Jap Feather in my hand I wondered if I had used this very lure fishing with my buddy because teeth marks scarred the head and one of the glass eyes was missing, salty signs the lure had swum miles behind the boat over the years. A pair of Jap Feathers rigged as a single slender lure would track through the wake like it was on rails and those tuna would hunt it down like a four-year-old rooting through a Halloween candy sack. The lure would continue to catch tuna, skipjack, bonito, and false albacore until the last feather was chewed off, which meant you could fish it every day for a month, which we often did. Rigged naked or sometimes with a strip bait from the silvery belly of a false albacore, it was the first lure that went over in the morning as soon as we entered the blue water favored by tuna and worked until we pulled the lines to head for the inlet. The lure’s trajectory was easy to follow in the wake and watching a tuna come up behind it and turn sideways as it felt the sting of the hook always meant an explosive splash.
The Jap Feather was a given on commercial tuna boats, which demonstrates the fishermen onboard were ahead of their time in the evolution of this popular lure, but they didn’t stop there. Reaching deeper into the box my eyes lit up with another old friend. Back when it was still possible to hunt for whales, whale bones were carved into fish-like shapes named “Jap Bones,” often rigged with dual hooks to enhance deadliness. At brisk trolling speeds, the lures had a spastic shudder not unlike the signature moves of the late British troubadour Joe Cocker. The Jap Bone drove tuna and skipjack nuts, always causing violent strikes, but it was imperative to rig them skillfully with a perfectly made haywire twist. Their undulating motion was too unforgiving for a mono leader and a poorly made twist would break a lure off in short order. The simplicity of the Jap Bone, the density of its body and the way it could be carved into various sizes for different mackerel species mimicked the Jap Feather in overall effectiveness, mostly because it resembled exactly what mackerel eat: other small fish swimming frantically to escape.
Good things always come in threes. At the bottom of the tackle box rested another historical treasure, the infamous “Cedar Plug,” basically a cylinder of western red cedar with a bullet-shaped lead head. To look at the lure you would think it could do nothing except troll like an arrow, yet the opposite is true; this lure quivers as it travels. Old timers worth their salt would likely agree that trolling a pair of each of the three lures was the basis of more tuna tales than they could remember to talk about. Next time I head offshore I’m using these lures and look forward to adding a few tales of my own.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.