The Crankbait Rembrandt

Can you really catch more bass on custom-painted lures? Ask the fishermen who happily send money to Tim Hughes.

Field & Stream Online Editors

A professional bass angler reaches into his own wallet in a tackle shop about as often as Gwyneth Paltrow reaches into hers on a date. After all, he gets paid to endorse nearly every bit of equipment he uses. But there is one thing the pros willingly pay for personally: custom paint jobs on their favorite lures by Tim Hughes, a former machinist turned fishing guide and lure meister in the hamlet of Reeds Springs, Missouri. His client list reads like a who's who of pro bass anglers: Kevin VanDam (winner of the 2001 BASS Masters Classic), Stacey King, Larry Nixon, Tommy Martin, Randy Blaukat, Rick Clunn, and Brent Chapman. In light of their sponsorship deals, no pro is eager to have it known that Hughes improves on a product the pro is paid to pitch as delivered by the manufacturer. But on the tournament trail, everybody knows Tim Hughes. In the last 10 years, his lures have won more than $1.3 million.

"Most lures are what you expect in a mass-produced item," says Hughes, who still guides in the clear mountain lakes of southern Missouri. "The paint jobs are uneven, there's no detail to them, and the durability is pathetic." He attributes his success to an age-old business formula: People will pay for quality. The pros buy his lures because they're in a competitive business where they'll do anything to get an edge on the other guy. But a lot of his clients are amateurs, guys who might fish a local tournament now and then but are mostly out there for fun. With $40,000 tied up in a bass boat, a few bucks more for a lure that catches fish starts as an indulgence and quickly becomes a necessity.

Nine-time BASS Masters Classic qualifier Stacey King has been using Hughes' baits for years. He particularly likes the way Hughes does crawfish and shad patterns. "I just had him do a batch of Storm Short Warts in an olive-green craw pattern, and they're gorgeous. He puts the base colors down and then overlays a template with some orange and black bars. The lure looks exactly like the real thing. And you know how when you see a shad up close and turn it, you see all these different hues and colors coming out on it? I don't know how he does it, but Tim gets that just right."

Do subtle variations in color really make a difference? "Darn straight," Hughes says. "I've done experiments with three guys in the boat throwing the same lure with slightly different colors. And on any given day, the fish-especially in these clear-water lakes-prefer a certain shade over another."

Hillbilly Ingenuity
Walk into the 10x30-foot workshop behind Hughes' garage and the first thing you see are four bicycle wheels sticking out of the wall like weird clocks, turning four times a minute on electric motors. A lure is clipped to the end of each spoke. "A little hillbilly ingenuity," Hughes says proudly of his invention, which lets the lures' epoxy finisher dry to near perfect uniformity. His lures are famous for their durability, the result of a special epoxy he applies in two coats: one that sets for eight hours, the second for four. He says the epoxy bends where other kinds chip.

The shop is jammed with airbrushes, exhaust fans, hundreds of tiny jars of paint and sparkle flake, sheets of colored holographic foil, tiny paintbrushes, and portable hair dryers. A big automotive V-belt dominates one wall of the shop. Studded with alligator clips, it holds baits in various stages of painting. As each is finished, Hughes or one of his two helpers-he hires two art students from the nearby College of the Ozarks-turns it by hand to bring the next lure into position.

The 50-year-old Hughes is a perfectionist, the kind of guy who doesn't consider one of his five-color crawfish lures finished until he has hand-drawn the tiny hairs that the real crustacean has along the edges of its shell. (Back in the 1980s, he tried his hand at taxidermy but found he couldn't make a go of it because he w always wiping out the details on nearly finished pieces and repainting them just a little bit better.)

Hughes got into the lure-painting business 10 years ago by accident. As a Bass Pro Shops pro staffer and guide, he found himself on the clear-water lakes of the Ozarks highlands 240 days a year, during which time he banged up many of his own lures and found scores more lost by other anglers. "I decided to get out my old airbrushes and paint 'em up, trying different colors," says Hughes. His most successful pattern was on a favorite of local anglers, a Smithwick Rogue, which he painted in the gaudiest colors imaginable: a purple back with banana-yellow sides. Strangely enough, the fish ate it up, and soon Hughes was cleaning up in local bass tournaments. "There's nothing in a fish's natural environment that looks like this, that's for sure," he says. "I think of them as shock colors. Fish get used to seeing certain baits. Catch them a time or two and they get wise. But they'd never seen anything that looked like this." He discovered that other fishermen were trying to copy his color scheme, only their versions "looked like they'd been painted with rollers" and didn't catch fish.

It wasn't long before the other anglers were asking to buy Hughes' lures. "I'd tell them, ¿¿¿You can't afford 'em,'" he remembers. "And they'd say, ¿¿¿Yes, we can.'"

Blue Blood, Firetiger, or Coach Dog?
Hughes now sells his lures through 19 dealers in the Midwest and on his Web site (hughescustombaits.com; 417-739-5881), where a riot of competing typefaces and colors direct the viewer to detailed photos of his most popular patterns. An interactive feature allows visitors to create their own custom lures by dragging different colors onto a bait's back, sides, belly, and eyes. He charges $10 to paint a lure, $17 if he supplies the lure himself, more if you want one of the superpremium lures now coming out of Japan (like the Lucky Craft Sammy, a floating lure with glass rattles inside that normally sells for $15). For another $5, he'll drill into your floating lure and weight it until it suspends in the water, increasingly popular among anglers who retrieve their bait past where a hungry largemouth might be lurking, then "kill" the lure, hoping to goad a bass into attacking something uppity enough to stop right in front of its nose. Hughes will paint your lure in any of dozens of patterns, from yellow perch to firetiger, blue blood to parrot, plum shad to coach dog (white with black spots).

Hughes guarantees to match any lure sent to him. The strangest paint request he ever got was from a guy who sent him a beat-up bait and wanted it reproduced exactly, down to dents and teeth marks left by years of fishing. He shakes his head when asked how long it took. "You don't want to know. Hardest paint job I ever took on. I was tempted to just paint up a new one and drag it behind my truck for a while."

I'm familiar with most of the patterns requested but have to ask about Phantom Red/Green. Hughes demonstrates by rummaging around on the workbench until he finds a Chug Bug, a topwater lure that floats and struggles along on the surface like an easy meal. It has a red sparkle pattern. "Now hold it up to the light," Hughes instructs. I do and am amazed that the red turns a green hue, showing tiny ribs. The secret is light-refracting paint, he explains. "Pretty cool, huh?"

He is secretive about exactly how many lures he paints a year, admitting only to "maybe a couple hundred" a week. But he's already branching out. He has teamed up with Jeff Thompson, a Kentucky craftsman, and will soon begin marketing a hand-carved version of the old Bagley Balsa B featuring a brass line eye that will sell for $22.95. "Nearly all crankbaits today have a steel eye," he says. "But brass flexes, so when you pull on it sideways with your rod, it makes that lure sort of hunt from side to side. It's much more realistic than a crank that comes back absolutely straight."

Another lure he's working on is a variation of a Zara Spook. Many such lures have rattles inside to attract fish, but Hughes has developed a better mousetrap: a special lead striker attached to a tiny length of a metal guitar string. Not only will the tiniest ripple make the lure rattle, but it also simultaneously emits a liquid gurgling sound. He calls it a Boing Spook and plans to sell it for $22.95. He's spending about $9,000 to have the molds made for that one. It's a lot of money for a small business, but Hughes doesn't think of it as a gamble. "Hey, man," he says. "A bass fisherman will pay a lot of money for a lure that puts fish in the boat."t's much more realistic than a crank that comes back absolutely straight."

Another lure he's working on is a variation of a Zara Spook. Many such lures have rattles inside to attract fish, but Hughes has developed a better mousetrap: a special lead striker attached to a tiny length of a metal guitar string. Not only will the tiniest ripple make the lure rattle, but it also simultaneously emits a liquid gurgling sound. He calls it a Boing Spook and plans to sell it for $22.95. He's spending about $9,000 to have the molds made for that one. It's a lot of money for a small business, but Hughes doesn't think of it as a gamble. "Hey, man," he says. "A bass fisherman will pay a lot of money for a lure that puts fish in the boat."