Custom Stickbait: Ultimate Guide To Deadly Walk The Dog And Spook Baits!
Warning: Stickbait fishing is incredibly addictive. Read this article at your own risk!
Stickbaits (aka ” walk the dog” lures, spook baits, walking baits) are incredibly fun to fish. Splashy, heart stopping visual strikes are the name of game…… And nothing I can say will prepare you for the incredible intensity of watching as a fish creams a lure you made with your own two hands. In this guide I’ll take you through everything you need to know, from designing making custom stickbaits to fishing them with confidence!
Contents: Ultimate Stickbait Guide
Introduction To Stickbaits
Making Wooden Stickbaits
Fishing With Stickbaits
Chapter 1: Introduction To Stickbaits
Stickbaits (aka “Walk The Dog Lures”) are fun to fish with, exciting, deadly on many species, long casting, visual……. and yet, totally underrated! In fact, I’d go as far as saying that of all of the hard body lure styles, the humble stick bait is possibly the least appreciated.
So this post is all about inspiring you guys to experience the exhilaration of a splashy surface strike and the fish of a lifetime on a handmade lure…….
So…..What Is A Stickbait Anyways?
Well, on the surface (pun intended), stickbaits are pretty simple lures. Historically, they were usually lathe-turned cylindrical or cigar shaped wooden lures. But these days stick bait lures come in plenty of other shapes too. Minnow and shad styles, for example. Plus there are soft plastic stickbaits, which are obviously not made of wood, so we’ll leave those for someone else to write about 😉
One characteristic of all stickbaits is that they don’t have diving lips, propellers or other external parts to give them sound, vibration or action. So if you simply cast a stickbait out and crank it back you’ll probably find it has little or no action at all. But worked properly, they’ll zigzag, duck and weave and bob about enticingly. And since stickbaits range in size from tiny micro models to XOS jumbo models, they can be used to target almost any predators that take prey from the water surface.
Zaragossa Spook Bait….. Where It All Started.
Apparently, the first wooden stickbait to be made commercially was the “Zaragossa”, developed by James Heddon around 1902. In the late 1930’s Heddon started producing a plastic version known as the “Zara Spook“. The plastic lure was so successful it’s still manufactured to this day. I only mention this because I know not everybody wants to learn custom lure making, so if that sounds like you, give the spook a go!
But of course most people who come to this website are interested in wooden stickbaits. Particularly custom models they can make for themselves – so getting back to the original question: What is a stickbait?
You’ll sometimes hear topwater stickbaits referred to as “walk the dog” lures. This refers to the kind of jerky retrieve used to make them work with a zigzag action. But of course, there are more ways to fish these lures than just the classic walk the dog fishing technique.
The other notable style is the “pencil popper” or “pencil bait”. Despite their name, these long, cylindrical, tail weighted lures are definitely stickbaits. They’re usually associated with saltwater fishing, often from the beach or rocks – and they’re dynamite on many species.
You’ll also hear people refer to sinking stickbaits. These are pretty similar to their floating cousins, but obviously they’re worked below the water surface, rather than on top. Sinking stickbaits are probably more correctly called “gliders”. In any case, for this post we’ll be sticking with the traditional floating varieties.
Making your first stickbait isn’t too difficult, although newbies often find that there’s a little more to it than meets the eye. Stickbaits are fairly simple lures in many ways, but subtle variations in the way they’re built can change their performance.
Like all wooden lures, a number of design factors must all work together for your handmade stickbaits to have a killer action. The main ones are lure body shape, internal weighting and towpoint/hook hanger locations.
Also of critical importance is getting everything properly aligned and balanced. And of course, choosing the right lure making timber to use in the first place.
Luckily, it doesn’t take long to develop a good understanding of all of these factors. and start making killer lures. There is no diving lip, prop or other hardware to complicate the lure making process, so most newbies pick it up quickly and can quickly be making some pretty good stickbaits.
Stickbait Body Shapes
These days the range of stickbaits come in wide range of body shapes. Lure casters are no longer restricted to lathe-turned, cylindrical or cigar shaped lure bodies. That means greater flexibility when it comes to lure presentation…. and more opportunities to hook fish.
But exactly what effect does each of the different body shapes have on the action of your lure?
I’m glad you asked! There are 3 basic stickbait body styles that I regularly make and use: cylindrical/cigar, minnow/shad and keel belly.
- Cylindrical bodies. These are usually lathe turned, cigar shaped baits with the tow point on the nose or just under it. As you’d imagine, this style of stickbait takes a fair bit of rod tip action to get it working. Without good rod work their streamlined design allows them to travel in a straight line.
- Minnow shaped. These look more like a crankbait than the cylindrical stickbaits. But there is no diving lip and of course they work on the water surface, unlike most cranks. This style can’t be lathe turned, so wooden ones are usually hand carved or shaped with the help of jigs.
- Keel bellies. These are kind of banana shaped stickbaits. The curve of the belly helps impart a fair bit more action than the other styles.
Weight: The Secret To Successful Stickbait Making!
If there is anything at all complex about making stickbaits it’s the science of weighting them properly. This style of lure pretty much always has internal weight. How much it has and exactly where it’s placed inside the lure body can make or break a stickbait. In fact, I reckon weighting them properly is about the most important aspect of making this style of lure.
Although stickbaits are topwater lures, they need a little internal weight to get them working properly. Not enough to sink them….. But a little lead in just the right place is what causes stickbaits to zig zag when they’re worked properly.
A well designed stickbait will float “head-up” to some degree while at rest. When the line is drawn through the water the lure will momentarily duck “head-down” as it moves forwards. When the line goes slack, the tail sinks slightly and acts like a rudder, sending the lure to one side orthe other. So the aim is to get the lure to sit correctly in the water at rest.
For me, there are two ways that a good stickbait can float: The first way is almost flat on the water surface, with the tail slightly submerged. This type of lure can be worked super, extra slow, keeping them in front of the fish for longer. They’re my choice on flat, calm water and many of my small freshwater stickbaits fall into this category.
The other way I like to weight a stickbait is tail-heavy. Tail weighted stickbaits need a little extra speed and a bit more rod movement to impart a good action, but they’re great when the water surface is rippled to choppy. They cast beautifully and are perfect for oceanic speedsters.
Exactly how much weight to add to your lure (and where to add it) usually takes some trial and error. Unless you’re doing my stick baits course….. then you can just follow the tutorials 😉
Towpoint And Hook Locations
Often the tow point (line tie) of a stickbait is right on the nose of the lure. Other times it’s below the nose, especially on those keel-belly styles.
By putting the towpoint a little under the nose of the lure we can increase the randomness of the gliding action. Generally speaking, the further under the nose the tow point is located the more action the lure will have and the slower it can be fished. When I fish a stickbait with the towpoint on the tip of the nose I expect to have to use more rod action to bring it to life.
Hook hangers need to be carefully placed, too. Hooks add weight that can either be beneficial or detrimental to the underside of the lure. This needs to be factored in when you’re experimenting with the weighting of your lures. I often place my front hook on a stickbait a little further back than I would for other hard body lures. This helps with weighting the tail of the lure. It’s important that the front and rear hooks can’t snag each other though, or you’ll be frustrated by a lot of wasted casts.
2.3 Wood And Other Stickbait Making Materials
What’s the best wood for making stickbaits? There’s no correct answer. Sorry, I realize that’s a pretty lame answer, but the wood you choose really does depend a lot on the style of lure you’re making and how it will be fished.
I’ll tell you this much though – I’ve always had best success with lightweight timbers like balsa, jelutong and cedar. Heavy, dense timbers give less flexibility when it comes to weighting your lures. They tend to make a stickbait with a slow action that needs extra rod work to bring it to life. Light timbers give a much better action and can often be fished slower, which keeps them on the fish’s radar.
Screw eyes and twist eyes are fine for use as towpoints and hook hangers on smaller lures. But I favor a through wire for any lure that’s likely to be fished on 12lb (6kg) or heavier tackle – especially where the lure bodies are made from balsa. Through wires can be made from marine grade (316) stainless steel wire.
A few other bits and pieces you might want to consider include:
- Small ball sinkers or drill weights for weighting your stickbaits.
- Short lengths of brass rod if you want your lures to be lead-free.
- 3D eyes are optional, but can really bring a lure to life.
- Epoxy adhesive (get the 24hr curing stuff)
- Clear coat (I prefer Envirotex Lite)
- Paints. I use Autoair and Wicked airbrush colors.
Doc’s Minnow 50mm Walk The Dog Lure
Material: Balsa, twist eye construction
Description: A small shad-style micro stickbait that can easily be handmade using the simplest of tools and materials. Nice walk the dog action attracts plenty of attention from smaller freshwater and saltwater predators.
Template And Video Tutorial: Free. Register or log in here to download the template and watch the full video tutorial.
“Chunky” 4″ (100mm) Stickbait Project
Material: Balsa, screw eye construction
Description: A medium-sized stickbait suited to freshwater and light saltwater applications.
This lure can be easily handmade using the simplest of tools and readily available, cheap materials.
Template And Video Tutorial: Available in my Stick bait making mini-course
Sammy Inspired 3″ (75mm) Stickbait
Material: Balsa, screw eye construction
Description: A small to medium-sized stickbait suited to freshwater and light saltwater applications.
This lure was inspired by the famous Sammy stickbait, but is stouter and more tail weighted. This design makes the lure push up a bigger wake and create a little more surface commotion. Plus it casts like a bullet – long and accurate!
Difficulty Level: Basic.
Template And Video Tutorial: Available in my Stick bait making mini-course
Chapter 3: Doc’s Guide To Fishing With Stickbaits
Stickbaits are surprisingly versatile and can be used in lots of different situations. In fact, because of their very different action, they’ll often catch fish when other topwater lure styles like poppers and fizzers don’t. In certain circumstances I’ve found that poppers attract a lot of fish, but not a lot of actual strikes. When I see fish chasing but rejecting a popper I’ve found that switching to a stickbait often gets an instant strike!
Of course, the most obvious time to tie on a stickbait is when the fish are actively feeding on the surface. Sometimes it’s obvious that this is going on. Seeing pelagic species carve up a bait ball. Or watching baitfish jump and scatter across the water surface. In freshwater, watching a frog or insect disappear with a heart stopping splash. Those are all times when tying on a stickbait is a “no brainer”.
But just because you’re not seeing surface action doesn’t mean a fish won’t come to the surface to nail a stick bait. On the inshore reefs I’ve witnessed several species come from the bottom in 18-20m (50-60′) of water to smash a stickbait of the surface. In freshwater you’ll often find fish lurking beneath overhanging vegetation of patrolling lily pads waiting for something to fall in. So it never hurts to put in some time with a stickbait and see what happens.
Because they operate on the water surface, you can work walk the dog style lures through lots of places where other hard body lures are a bit challenging. Over shallow snags, weed beds, shallow rock bars and reefs, brush piles, oyster leases and so on. And of course you can float them on a current under overhanging vegetation or banks where casting is impossible.
Rigging And Fine Tuning Stickbaits
The deadly action of a stickbait is largely a function of the way it’s weighted, the body shape and the technique employed by the angler. But weighting is critical, especially with the smaller lures. So if you attach them to your line with a heavy snap or swivel you just may kill the action stone dead.
I rarely use snaps when I’m fishing stickbaits, preferring instead to attach them to the leader with a good loop knot, usually “Lefty’s Loop”. It’s important not to snug a clinch knot up to the tow point of a stickbait, especially if you’re forced to use a heavy leader. The more freedom the lure has to swing on the line the better the action you’ll get out of it.
The hooks to use for stickbait fishing are a common source of fights between anglers, with two main camps: inline singles or trebles. I use both, though I’ll confess to leaning toward inline singles whenever I can. Which option choose depends once again on species and conditions. You might consider referring to my lure anglers guide to hooks for more information.
I love large single hooks when I’m throwing stickbaits at tuna, trevally and large pelagics. These fish rarely fail to find a single hook and tend to stay hooked when they are pinned by a single hook…… plus they’re safer and easier to unhook and tend to suffer less damage prior to being released.
Treble hooks are fine too, and I often prefer them for smaller or more timid species. More points means a higher hook set rate, so trebles are worth using when you’re missing a high percentage of strikes. The trick is to experiment though. For example, heavy hooks can weight down some stickbaits and spoil the action. On the other hand, most stickbaits work best if the back half of the lure is beneath the water. Sometimes heavier hooks and rings can help get this balance right. Experiment until you find what works, that’s the key.
It doesn’t hurt to have a little lead wire, strip lead or some suspendots in your stickbait fishing kit. As I said earlier, most stickbaits seem to work best when the rear half of the lure is beneath the water surface while the lure is stationary. Adding as little extra weight in just the right place is a simple way to fine tune your lure on the fly. Just wrap some lead wire around a hook shank or stick a suspendot on the belly and you’re good to fish!
3.2: Tackle For Stickbait Fishing
Stickbait Fishing Rods
When it comes to fishing stickbaits, a rod with a little softness in the tip is your best friend. Not too much softness though, you can’t work a stickbait with a limp noodle…… it’s a case of getting the balance right. This softness is particularly important for the “Walk the Dog” stickbait technique in particular. The cushioning of the line tends to encourage smooth side to side movement, while a stiffer rod tip can rip the lure too harshly. It can even pick the stickbait up from the water, particularly if there is a little bit of surface chop on.
Remember, stickbaits can account for some very large and powerful fish. That means setting heavy duty hooks and putting some serious strain on tackle. So while we might need a little softness in the rod tip we also need plenty of strength and power through the rod blank.
Owing to the popularity of this style of fishing a number of manufacturers now make dedicated line of stickbait rods. These range range from light duty outfits up to the super heavy ones used for big offshore predators.
Reels, Lines And Leaders For Stickbait Fishing
When it comes to reels, nothing particularly special is required in order to work stickbaits. Spin and baitcast gear are both fine for stickbaiting, which one you choose depends on personal preference. The main thing is that your reel is balanced with your chosen rod and the style of fishing you’ll be doing. And the usual requirements of rugged construction and a silky smooth drag system also apply, of course!
My personal preference is to fish stickbait lures on baitcast tackle, unless super long casting is a requirement. This style of lure is tail weighted, so they can be cast with pinpoint accuracy using a decent quality baitcaster – or thrown a mile with a decent spinning reel.
A lot of guys prefer mono lines for fishing stickbaits. But for me, it’s hard to go past braid. Fishing with a soft rod tip and the stretch of mono can be like fishing with elastic! Braid helps offset the soft rod tip that’s needed to get a great action to the lure. Plus braids tends to float better than mono, which crucially helps keep the front of the lure from being dragged down and makes the lure work better.
I use the lightest and softest mono leader I can get away with for the species and conditions. Of course, in many situations I need toughness and abrasion resistance to avoid being rubbed off by the fish, so there are often compromises to be made. Soft, supple mono’s are great for lure action, but more prone to abrasion.
I avoid fluorocarbon lines for stickbait fishing. They might have less stretch, better abrasion resistance and lower visibility than mono, but they sink. That creates drag on the front of the lure, which really doesn’t help much with the action.
Hooks And Terminal Tackle
If you search around online you’ll find plenty of heated debates about what types of hooks should be used on this style of lure – the mud slinging between the single hook and treble hook fans is particularly fierce!
Personally, I use both styles. Here’s my take:
- I tend to use inline single hooks any time the fish are biting freely and always when I’m fishing for large, tough pelagic species. Single hooks do less damage to the fish and are less dangerous to the angler. Plus, they’re harder for a fish to dislodge.
- I use treble hooks if fish are slapping at the lure but not finding the points. I’ll often use barbless hooks, or crush the barbs a little to make releasing fish easier.
There is a fair bit to know about hook selection, so if you’d like to know more, please read my Guide To Fishing Hooks For Hard Body Lures.
Now, split rings! I know they all look the same, except for the price tag …….. but they’re not. Make sure you get quality, strong, stainless steel rings.
3.3: The Important Stuff: Stickbait Fishing Techniques!
As I’ve already mentioned, if you were to simply cast your stickbait out and crank it back in, you’d probably find it has very little action. Many stickbaits will have none, in fact. So you need to learn to work your lures properly – and that may take a little practice.
“Walk The Dog” Fishing Technique
This is the most popular and common way to use stickbaits and involves getting the lure to literally zigzag it’s way back across the water surface. With practice it’s possible to get the lure doing a rhythmic, fluid dance. But baitfish don’t move in uniform ways or at constant speed. So if we want our stickbaits to imitate a stricken baitfish it’s better to create a more random action.
I’m telling you this because newbies often struggle to get that perfect, uniform action. But in fact a more random action is not only fine, it can be better!
Now, there are plenty of good tutorials for working walk the dog lures on Youtube, and I’ve mentioned a couple of them in the resources section below. But here’s how I do it:
- Cast your lure out and let it settle on the water surface for a little while. In freshwater especially, fish will often hear a splash and will come to investigate. Giving them a chance to do so before you move the lure can often be effective.
- Point your rod tip at the lure and wind up the slack, then give the lure a sharp downwards jerk. At the end of the jerk, move the rod tip back upwards sharply, throwing a little slack into the line. This is important for allowing the lure to pivot and swim to one side.
- Wind a little of the slack up and repeat.
If you want to keep the lure “in the zone” longer, then avoid winding up too much slack line between twitches. With a good lure and the right technique, a stickbait can be made to twitch enticingly almost on the one spot.
“Sweep And Pop”
This is the other way I sometimes fish stickbaits, especially larger lures for saltwater fishing. The basic technique is to move the rod sideways in a wide sweep, then move it forwards as you wind the slack. This causes the lure to dart forward on the sweep, then “pop” back up onto the surface on the slack line. Unlike the walk the dog technique, sweep and pop moves the lure relatively quickly, so it’s better for fast moving, hard hitting pelagic species.