Anatomy of a Trolling Lure

Learn the various offshore lure shapes and how to fish them.
Glen Booth

Trolling skirted lures for game fish, particularly marlin, is extremely addictive. At times, fishing live bait is more effective, but successful lure trolling is a fascinating science that goes beyond the shape, size and action of the lure head. Leader lengths and diameters, hooks, hook size, where they sit in the skirt, the cable or wire between the hooks, and of course where the lure is positioned behind the boat all play a role in the success of a lure.

Some lure designs are crazy, some delightfully simple, and the small-scale custom lures are works of art. True lure connoisseurs appreciate the maker's dedication, skill and imagination. But when it comes to the way a lure swims, it is all about the basic shape and features.


Largely a Hawaiian development with the longest point tracking uppermost, slant heads come in a multitude of shapes: plungers, tubes, straight runners and short double tapers. All have specific performance features and idiosyncrasies. Half the fun is working them out on any given day under changing conditions. Sometimes it only takes an adjustment of a couple of inches back or forth on a wave to get them ripping. Other times a new position in the spread altogether makes the difference.

From zero to 40 degrees, the angle of the face determines much of a slant head's performance. The lure's sharp lines can be fragile. Skippers love successful lures so woe betide the careless deckie who chips the leading edge of a resin head or doesn't secure the lure at the top of the leader when a fish is boatside.


The beauty of cup-faced or 'chugger' style lure heads is that they're less temperamental than slant faces, perform in all sea conditions, and can be run just about anywhere in a spread. They're easy to rig, one hook or two, so crews with minimum experience can get them to boogie. Most importantly, fish just love 'em.


At trolling speed, the action of these various pointy-headed, straight-tracking lures is probably best described as lame, but that might be part of their attraction to attacking game fish (a soft target and therefore easier to catch).

At high speeds though, straight runners can really rip. Their streamlined shape means they'll hang in the water better when run back further than the shotgun lure position. The bites are violent, and expect to see a lot of line in the water by the time the boat slows down. Tuna in particular like a sub-surface lure, whether it be a bibbed or bibless minnow, or just a weighted, straight running skirted head.


These lure heads have a somewhat odd hourglass-like shape, and as their name suggests they do resemble a doorknob. Much copied, the original Area Rule Doorknobs perform exceptionally well at a range of speeds, but hang in there beautifully at high RPMs without tumbling.

Already a successful design, it was afforded legend status when the doorknob nailed a 1,062-pound blue marlin in the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament back in the 1980s, cementing its place in lure making history.


The generic Kona head (and its sibling the jointed Knucklehead), with its scooped nose and offset pulling point is a wild lure, never happy sitting still for long, which can be its downfall as it tends to duck out of the way as a fish closes its mouth. One of the original Hawaiian lure designs, the Kona head has fallen out of favor in the face of more stable patterns such as cut face and chugger styles.

Sevenstrand began making them en masse in the 1970s, and certainly had a big part in taking skirted lure trolling to the rest of the world.


Soft heads as typified by the well-known Mold Craft Wide Range, has an envious reputation the world over for producing bites. Little has changed since Mold Craft first began manufacturing its injection-molded soft lures because they keep catching fish.

Lacking the bells and whistles of other lures, soft heads' main advantage is that an attacking billfish comes up against a realistic squishiness when it bites down, as opposed to the rock hard resin or metal of other lures. This may make fish bite again if they miss the hook on the first pass. Soft heads are also less expensive than custom-built lures. Run with a tuna belly flap rigged under the skirt, these lures are arguably the world's number one teaser lure as well.


Jetted lures have four to six brass, nylon or drilled tubes running through the lure head or out the sides to increase the bubble trail. Resembling a Gatling gun when viewed from the front, jets are every bit as deadly. While originally incorporated on mostly bullet-head designs, jets are now popping up on cup and slant-head shapes.


What goes inside the lure head probably doesn't have much bearing on whether the fish eats it or not, but we all appreciate the added bling that these lure making artisans incorporate into their designs. Reflective prism tape wrapped around a central block of resin or plastic is popular, as is pearl and Paua (abalone) shell, fish skin (often queenfish), while glitter impregnated resin also looks cool. Clear, tinted and opaque colours also work, as does stainless, and some have gone to the trouble of using real fish heads for the most realistic of inserts.

Lead or weighed inserts, usually camouflaged in a colourful outer wrapping, help the lure grip better during rough conditions. Two identical heads, one weighted, one not, will have markedly different actions through the water.

Big eyes are popular on lure heads, and are considered an attacking reference point for predatory fish. What the fish make of it all remains unknown, but in a nutshell, if it doesn't first catch the eye of the angler in the tackle shop, the fish are never going to see it.

Lure eyes can be fashioned out of prism tape cut with a hole punch, doll's eyes, or anything you like, from bottle tops to buttons to coins. Plenty of lures without eyes catch fish too, so ultimately it comes down to skipper and crew preference.

One must also consider the tubing that runs through the lure for the leader. For decades, brass tubing was about the only option as leader tube, but these days plastic or nylon spaghetti tubing has plenty of fans. The downside with brass is that it can abrade the leader material over time if it hasn't been smoothed off properly, whereas softer nylon tubing avoids this.

A small piece of tubing, heated with a cigarette lighter, and splayed across the front of the lure head will eliminate a lot of abrasion issues in brass tubed heads.


In the early days, captains made skirts from inner tubes, garden furniture, bunting, dyed feathers and even wine cask bladders. Cloth-backed vinyl (Naugahyde) was also popular and is very much back in vogue. It's cheap, tough and available in a range of colors. It is a bulky material, but that can be good for controlling wilder head shapes. You don't want a large underskirt to kill the lure's action so strips of slap skirt made by the likes of Newell and Mold Craft, or even offcuts of standard vinyl skirts provide color contrast without bulk.

Octopus style skirts are the most popular and we are blessed with a kaleidoscope of colors from a variety of manufacturers in a range of sizes. The quality has improved markedly, not too thin or flexible, which leads to tangling around the hooks, and not tearing or splitting as much as they once did. Unless the skirt is way too big for the collar, those unsightly bulges behind the lure head are also less common. Manufacturers add violet additives to make skirts glow with that ethereal blue of a mahimahi cutting through the wake.

Lure skirts are either glued in place with any number of different types of adhesives, or tied on inside out with waxed thread and then folded down over the connection. Purists prefer tying, but it depends on the quality and bulkiness of the skirt. The advantage with tying is that skirts can be changed easily, even in the field, whereas gluing usually means destroying the skirt to remove it from the lure collar.

The lure's two-stepped collar is either molded or turned up on a lathe. The collars provide a step to tie on an underskirt and top skirt. Some lures only have one collar. The dimensions are designed to match the most popular skirt sizes without having to over stretch and perhaps tear the skirt, or have a loose and bulky fit.

What we don't want is skirts to flare behind the head, creating unnecessary drag that might dampen the lure's action. The last piece of the puzzle is color choice. Choosing the best color is a wide-ranging subject that varies depending on the conditions. It's best to have a tackle center full of lures in every color so you are never left empty handed.

There are nine basic lure styles. From top: plunger, doorknob, cupped face or chugger, short double taper, scoop face, tube, soft head, bullet and jet head.
Modern lure trollers are spoilt for choice with the range of octopus skirts available these days. The quality has improved also.
Once a feature of straight runners or bullet head designs, jets are available in most lure head shapes these days.
Straight running bullets and jets like this well worn collection do their best work run long off the central shotgun 'rigger..
A big Super Plunger carves up the Pacific.
The scoop faced Konahead has been superseded by more stable designs.

Naugahyde vinyl is great for customising lure skirts and is extremely hard wearing. Strips of slap skirt work well underneath Naugahyde outers, giving colour without bulk.

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