By Vic Attardo
In the right hands, the trunk of a tree will catch fish.
Not being funny, substituting a limber piece of lumber for a rod, but, if on the business end, is a lure made of wood – balsa wood in particular – then you might have a work of art as well as an artifact of fish-catching wizardry.
I’m looking, in awe, at one of these magic tricks now lying on my desk made by Ben Kron, a craftsman in eastern Tennessee. It’s a thin-tailed crankbait with a shape a predator fish should crave and an air-brushed paint job as slick and detailed as any on a NASCAR speeder.
In eastern Tennessee, along the river of the same name, and in the Ohio River Valley is an unformalized society of lure makers that specializes in flat-sided balsa baits coveted by tournament anglers and collectors. These balsa baits have actions that call to fish like a siren to a sailor and, air brushed to perfection, sparkle as the bright sun on clear water. They are designed, sometimes hand- carved, sometimes saw cut, pieced together and painted with as much care as a Swiss watchmaker, and with the secrets of a Free Mason.
I have to go back 20 years when I first met some of these Tennessee Valley artisans. They worked in sheds, garages, and airless basements, their spaces splattered with paint, covered with tools and strange contraptions – like a makeshift drying wheel that reminded me of the water wheels I saw in disrepair, beside stonewalled mills, when I was a kid; now re-purposed in miniature on table tops and work benches and hung with dozens of the yet unfinished balsa baits.
I was on a fishing trip to the Tenseness River when my local host pulled up to the lair of one craftsman and I was introduced to this subset of fishing. It was like walking through a closed door at the Smithsonian. There were piles of unfinished, unpainted, semi-painted baits with unset eye rings and no hooks, piles and piles all waiting for their next step in their creation. In their rainbow array they reminded me of the cat’s eye marbles I once played with.
I talked with the maker, who I believe is now deceased, and though a fine Southern gentleman, he wasn’t forthcoming as to the finer points of his craft. At the time I chalked it up to the inherent hostility between a Confederate and a Yankee, but I was to learn this gangland-like silence was a character trait of the entire craftsmen clan – apparently even among themselves.
Ben Kron, my host on this trip, was nice enough to eventually gather some baits but he too was also tight-lipped to a degree.
“I have made baits in the past but got some guidance from on advancements that they have come up with to improve the quality of their product,” Kron wrote me in 2002. “(But) I would prefer not to disclose some of these techniques and procedures.”
A half closed zipper.
But Kron kindly revealed some broader details that are still worth sharing.
In a letter, on stiff white paper, that I still have, he wrote that the way that most of the Tennessee wood plug makers do (it) is to first, come up with a shape and cut them out of a base pattern. Then they work with numerous bill sizes and angles, weights and hook locations to function a prototype.
Then they cut out usually 100 or so baits and work them so that different steps can be going at the same time.
One thing I soon noticed was the crankbaits’ diving bills were sometimes made from a hard clear polymer, as you would purchase on modern plastic baits, but that others were fixed with a wafer-thin material that, upon investigation, turned out to be the base material of a computer circuit board, minus the circuitry.
Turns out the list of materials for a balsa crankbait is surprisingly numerous.
Kron also mentioned in the letter that basically these baits are made from balsa wood, a little lead to weight them, hook ties, bills, rattles, wood sealers to harden the balsa, glues, paints and a final sealer.
Something that stood out to me back then, and still does, is the weighting on some of the homemade baits.
Today’s plastic baits have a BB or some size ball bearing as part of the polymer bill. From fishing I know this gives the bait a hard, nose-down angle, often too hard of an angle for fishing shallow cover-laden water. But the weighted Tennessee baits I own have a double wire under the bill — each strand the thickness of a paper clip – the wire running from the center of the bill at the eyelet back inside the balsa body. How far back I can’t say because I’m sure not gonna ruin one to find out. This body cavity is plugged at the nose with glue and paint holding the wire in place. This weighting gives the bait a more evenly distributed angle when retrieved. The whole purpose of a balsa bait over plastic is for an appealing equilibrium and flotation.
Why balsa anyway?
This is what a top pro told me after winning a tournament on the Mississippi River, way back when there were socialized tournaments.
“Balsa baits are highly buoyant which allows them to come through heavy cover,” he said.
Fishing northern Cayuga Lake in New York, I found the balsa baits bounced off errant wood and rocks, then rose with an alluring wobble, more so than plastic. I remember working north of the Lock No. 1 one day after a huge vacuum-cleaning tournament. My Tennessee bait swept up more largemouths lurking in irregular and woody cover than some top pros had caught through the contest.
Balsa baits are a good summer bait in shallow water – even mass-produced balsa – eliciting the aptly-named reaction strike. Bumped off cover, the baits rise faster than yeast bread, and the Cayuga bass took them from the side and bottom up.
Way back I talked about the appeal of balsa to Bobby Murray, the winner of the first Bassmaster classic.
“Anglers like wood because they are often one-of-a-kind, and the people who make them are revered like duck decoy makers,” Murray said.
To this day I revere the skills of the makers I met.