Crafting Custom Marlin Lures

We asked some top designers for their input

marlin underwater on the lead
Let’s take a closer look at the top designers, and what makes their designs among the best in the world.Bryan Toney

The Unique Elements

One of the interesting things in talking with many of these makers—aside from the competitive nature of the business—is that there is a good deal of sharing of information and techniques after much trial and error. I also have seen an incredible amount of respect from them toward each other. Of course, they compete vigorously for a spot in your spread because it is the bread and butter their families rely on. However, they all pay attention to what the others are doing and often offer support and congratulations to each other. Without question, the price you pay for a lure is a bargain when you measure the effort, blood, sweat and elbow grease that goes into crafting these pieces.

I always marvel at how each maker has a signature creative thing. Rick Whitley, who makes Ohsnap Lures, does an incredible job with real fish-skin inserts. Imagine the effort he makes to go through the time-consuming process of catching the fish, then preparing the skins so that they can be attached to the insert, which is then poured and polished to perfection. Texan Ryan Doxey of Doxey Lures follows a similar process when he makes his signature rattlesnake-skin insert, which is as fine as any pair of expensive snakeskin boots.

Garrett Lee of Tsutomo Lures has learned the fish-head-insert craft and works hard to perfect it while also paying homage to the early guys who made this style of lure. So let’s take a closer look at the top designers, and what makes their designs among the best in the world.

a marlin on the leader boatside
The end result of a successful lure design: a blue marlin at boatside, nearly ready for release. This lure has earned its spot in the lineup.©️Scott Kerrigan/www.aquapaparazzi.com

Graham "Bonze" Fleet

I visited Bay of Islands, New Zealand, lure maker Graham "Bonze" Fleet, who gave up charter fishing seven years ago to make lures full time under the Bonze Lures name. He is as earnest as anyone can be about lure making, and his passion and commitment exudes from him as he talks about his craft. He is a blue marlin aficionado who has fished many of the world's best grounds along the way. He started at 15, making a lure for a school project, then caught a 112-pound striped marlin on it. The Kona lure makers inspired him: Marlin Magic's Gary Eoff; Eric Rusnak of Aloha Lures; Scott Crampton; Koya Lures' Eric Koyanagi; and the late Mike Rand and Bart Miller, among many others.

For his top three peers, Fleet looks to Andy Moyes, Joe Yee and Eric Koyanagi. His notable catches at the time of the interview were three marlin surpassing 1,000 pounds in a three-month period in 2018 on his Violator lure, which is also his favorite shape, with its angle cut and scoop.

His favorite lure to fish is his Ballistic, and his top seller is the D-Shackle chugger head. If he had to fish with someone else’s lures, his blue marlin spread would include: a Black Bart Extreme Breakfast as a tease; a Tado or Extreme Breakfast on the short corner; an Aloha Lures Smash Bait on the long corner or short rigger; Mold Craft Wide Range on the long rigger; and a Marlin Magic Baby Blue Bullet, a Bart RPP or a Koya Super Ninja on the long rigger or shotgun.

Fleet’s blue marlin spread of Bonze lures would look like this: a Violator on the short corner; Ballistic on the long corner; BTK on the short rigger; Angel or DLB Bullet on the long rigger; and on the shotgun, a lure called the Heat. He prefers rubber skirts over vinyl because he feels they fit better behind the head and also because he doesn’t like cutting vinyl.

a boat captain giving a thumbs up
Ohsnap Lures’ Rick Whitley says his Skirmish slant-head design is his most popular lure.Courtesy Ohsnap Lures

Rick Whitley

North Florida-based lure maker Rick Whitley got his start when serving as mate on a boat where the owner had a Bud Light logoed lure; they caught some fish on it, so Whitley wanted one. He started to see more custom lures that piqued his interest, but with little resource material and no internet, the thought languished. Several years later, the flicker turned to flame after reading Jim Rizzuto's popular book, Lure Making 101. He has now been turning by hand and selling custom Ohsnap lures for 13 years. He is 100 percent custom, creating exactly what a client wants.

Ohsnap Lures Skirmish
The Skirmish runs best in the long-rigger position.Courtesy Ohsnap Lures

Whitley is matter-of-fact about his journey in lure making. “I think any lure maker that has been producing for a decent amount of time is my peer,” he says. “We all have been through the processes. It’s not easy, it takes time, and what we charge probably isn’t enough for most. But we all love to create a beautiful piece that hopefully one day will be hanging out of a marlin’s mouth.”

His lures have produced some great catches, including a 700-pounder in the Gulf of Mexico on his smallest lure—the 9-inch Engage—and several more big fish of more than 500 pounds. His favorite shape to make is a plunger, and his top seller is the 10-inch Skirmish. His spread of other lure manufacturers includes: a jetted Waterdog and a C&H Plunger on the long riggers; Bianca 50 and Big Reidee or Asp on the short riggers; scooped- and slant-faced Murayamas on the flat lines; and a Rick’s Fancy on the shotgun.

His own spread has: a jetted Mechanix and Skirmish slant heads on the long riggers; Engage cup and Strutter slant on the short riggers; a Mechanix cup and a Big Chino on the flats; and the cupped Skirmish on the shotgun. Whitley also prefers plastic rubber shirts—but with a big lure on the flat, he will fish vinyl.

Brett Crane

The Dana Point, California, lure maker has made great strides in the time he has been making lures. Getting his start fishing with noted Maui lure maker Steve Elkins, Crane got hooked on making his own lures. Now that he has a family, he can’t fish as much, but through his lure making, he stays well connected to the sport.

In studying other lure makers, he looks at Marlin Magic by Gary Eoff and Marlin Parker as well as Eric Koyanagi and his Koya lures as the benchmarks for his inspiration. A student of the historic aspects of hand-pouring, shaping and skirting lures, he admires the art as well as the science. Notable catches include the largest blue marlin caught off San Diego waters since 1931 and many fish from the Costa Rica seamounts. His favorite lure to make and fish is the Trooper, which is also his best seller.

When picking a spread, Crane considers weather conditions the deciding factor in what he will fish. Using other makers in his spread, on the short baits he would fish: an Elkins Bonzoid and Koya 861; and on his riggers, a Marlin Magic Ruckus and Koya bullet.

Fishing his own lures, he uses a Big on the short corner and a Murdock on the long corner. The outriggers would carry: a Trooper; a Dirty Bird; and one of his 9-inch bullets on the shotgun. His biggest consideration in skirting is where in the world you fish. Crane feels that rubber skirts make lures more stable in rough weather, but vinyl might offer a cleaner bite; he likes skirts by Wild Creations and Cousins Tackle.

GT Santiago bullet lures on a map
Two sizes of the GT Santiago from GT Lures. Although he is based in New Jersey, Greg Thummel’s lures have earned a following in many blue marlin fisheries around the world.Courtesy GT Lures

Greg Thummel

Making lures in southern New Jersey has become a full-time thing for Greg Thummel. His GT Lures are fished the world over and his canyon-fishing background has helped him create some very popular yellowfin and bigeye tuna lures. Seeing a Joe Yee lure, he was bitten by the bug and began the quest to pour his own designs. He has been selling his wares as a professional for some seven years now.

He views Joe Yee, Scott Crampton and Eric Koyanagi as being at the top of their game. His lures have produced great catches of yellowfin and bigeye tuna, with one weighing in at 220 pounds on his Bigeye Bullet, as well as a Cape Verde grander in 2016 and several other significant blue marlin catches. His favorite shape is the Hawaiian plunger, while his favorite to make is his little Warthog. Thummel’s favorite to fish is the Bigeye Bullet for tuna and the 15-inch Warthog for blue marlin.

Check out our list of the top ten lures for marlin and sailfish.

Fishing a spread of others’ lures, he goes with: a Joe Yee Super Plunger on the left flat; a Crampton tube on the right flat; Joe Yee 501 on left short; and a Joe Yee Apollo on the right short. His left rigger would have a small Kaita plunger; a Ronald Shiroma 9-inch tuna bullet on the right rigger; and a Joe Yee 9-inch bullet on the center rigger.

With his own lures, he would fish: his GT Bigeye Bullet on the left flat; a Double XL Flathead on the right flat; a small Warthog on the left short; a Secret Weapon on the right short; a Santiago on the left rigger; a Large Tube on the right rigger; and a four-barrel jetted Bigeye Bullet on the center rigger. He loves the classics and prefers vinyl skirts—he feels they flow better—but Thummel also uses rubber skirts on his lures. He feels that making custom lures is an art and when fishing lures properly, the results can be amazing. As he says, “You can’t just set them and forget them!”

crew mate pulling a marlin boat side
Hawaii has long been a favorite proving ground for many lure designers (opposite).Carol Lynne

Garrett Lee

A visit to Garrett Lee’s Tsutomu Lure shop in Honolulu proves he and his crew are as dedicated and focused on lure making as anyone. A soft-spoken, keen-eyed craftsman, Lee is detail-oriented and uses his fishing experience to hone his lures. As a dyed-in-the-wool ahi fisherman, he originally focused on lures for tuna, establishing Tsutomu in 2010. He looks to his uncle, Mike Lee, and Dennis Odagiri—who make fish-head-insert lures—as his inspirations in getting started making lures. Garrett Lee marvels at the quality of Odagiri’s work and considers him a master. He also holds Odagiri, Koya, Steve Coggins, Gary Yamamoto and Lon Tanigawa in high esteem as high-quality lure-making peers.

Lee’s small bullets have caught many ahi from 255 to 300 pounds and his lures have produced a couple 1,000-pound marlin as well. His favorite shape is the 12-inch scoop; his favorite to make is the 7- or 9-inch bullet, which is also his favorite to fish.

In a spread of other makers’ lures, he would fish: a Magilla Gorilla by Bomboy Llanes on the short corner; a Koya 861 long corner; a Joe Yee Super Plunger on the short rigger; an Odagiri 12-inch scoop on the long rigger; and a Coggin Frosty on the shotgun.

aku fo real h1 bullet lure
Garrett Lee, founder of Tsutomu Lures, has an affinity for tuna fishing. His Aku Fo Real H1 bullet reflects that background—although it also has caught plenty of marlin. It is an excellent lure in the shotgun position.Courtesy Tsutomu Lures

Fishing his own lures, he has two spreads: one for tuna and one for marlin. He always uses weather conditions as his deciding factor.

His tuna spread includes: an H1 Bullet and a 9-inch invert on the flat lines; 9-inch invert and bullet on the short riggers; and an invert and bullet on the long riggers—all set at equal lengths. Lee’s marlin spread would be: a 14-inch Moke on the short corner; a 12-inch scoop on the long corner; a 12-inch invert on short rigger; a 9-inch invert on long rigger; and a bullet on the stinger.

Lee is constantly experimenting with skirts of all kinds for different conditions and lures. Look to Tsutomu to keep the fish-head-insert movement in lure making alive and growing.

For as long as fishermen chase marlin, lures will remain a subjective topic. What works in your spread might not work at all in mine, but that’s part of the attraction and beauty of lure fishing.