The Middle School Plug Masters

A wooden plug is more than a fishing lure. It's a piece of art. And just like conventional artists, the people who build them are both revered and criticized. Snoop around on any striper-fishing message board and you'll find anglers and collectors arguing over which builders make the best-swimming plugs. Which do better paint jobs. And which have the best methods for through-wiring their lures. Certain builders that produce only a handful of baits a year can expect up to $100 for one of their beauties, and lines to get them at local tackle shows can stretch a mile. I once tried my hand at turning, sanding, wiring, and airbrushing wooden plugs. I gave up after the second one - it just took too much dedication. But when I asked Danielle Kraemer if making them was difficult, she smiled and gave a shrug as she flipped on the lathe. "Not really," she said. "It's pretty easy. I'm actually just starting on my second lure." Danielle is one of about 160 seventh-graders at Bordentown Regional Middle School in New Jersey taking teacher Greg Poole's industrial design class. All of these kids are turning plugs. And some of their creations rival those of professional builders in both quality and design.Joe Cermele
I watched Kraemer in awe as she precisely turned and sanded a popper that was as proportioned and well-tapered as some I have in my surf bag. At the end of last school year, when Poole found out he would be taking on sixth- and seventh-graders, he needed a hook. He was sitting on a beach, thinking about how he could tie his love of fishing into his lesson plan, when the idea struck. Why not teach them how to make plugs? So Poole approached Tom White, a long-time friend and an expert plug builder, about having his classes turn lures. White was more than happy to help him learn the craft and map out what it would take to get the shop set up.Joe Cermele
White, shown here holding two of his Danny swimmers, is a retired police officer who lives on Long Beach Island just a few blocks from the ocean. His garage is a surfcaster's dream, nearly overflowing with pencil poppers and divers in all different stages of development. But you won't find any of them for sale. White builds strictly for fun. "Plugs are great for bartering," he told me. "I make them to fish with and give some away." According to Poole, White can turn a lure in about seven minutes with the utmost perfection.Joe Cermele
The beauty of Poole's plug-building class is that it also allows him to incorporate some striper science. A few lessons in fish anatomy, behavior, and habitat helped the kids understand the project on a deeper level. "We talked about pollution and mercury," Poole explained, "but also the whole marine food chain and how big fish eat little fish."Joe Cermele
In the beginning, Poole says it was hard for some of his students to visualize how a block of wood would become a lure. But once they got a look at some of Tom White's plugs, the excitement level soared. On the day of my visit, White brought in a box of plugs the students marveled over. "These are awesome," one shouted out. "How much do you get for them?" White laughed. "I don't get anything. I'm retired. I don't make any money anymore," he said.Joe Cermele
It was clear from the start that the students were really into what they were doing. And they had been paying attention. Right after the "Pledge of Allegiance," Zack Merrion (left) and David Youssef jumped on the lathes. After they loaded the blocks and began to turn, Merrion pointed out that Youssef was using a medium gouge--not the large gouge better suited to turning a popper. "These are some serious custom baits we're making," Merrion later told me.Joe Cermele
Serious custom baits indeed. Thanks to the help of plug-building supplier NJ Tackle, Poole has absolutely everything you'd find in the shops of the pros. Sure, you could easily use screw-in eyes to attach the hooks, and paintbrushes to slap on some color, but Poole's goal is to teach the kids to do it right. Every lure is through-wired, every lure is primed and airbrushed, and every lure is sealed with the same epoxy used by Tom White.Joe Cermele
White has sat in on the class a few times, offering tips to the kids and guiding Poole through what is a new process to him. While impressed by the overall progress of the project, White is particularly taken back by some of the young ladies in the class. "They know exactly what they're doing and they have an intensity," he said. "In my day, girls couldn't take shop, only home ec. Now they're on the lathe turning lures. These are young sportsmen."Joe Cermele
I noticed it, too. Before Yancy Reyes began turning her plug, I saw her inspecting a block Poole turned that sits by the lathe as a reference. "What's that instrument you're using?," I asked. I wasn't testing her, I really didn't know. "It's a caliper," she told me without missing a beat. "I'm using it to check the diameter of this plug so I can match it when I turn mine." "So what kind of plug are you going to make?," I responded, impressed by her focus. "A Danny swimmer," she said, and set to work turning her block.Joe Cermele
Though Danny swimmers, poppers, and gliders served as general style guides, Poole lets the students turn their own interpretations of the classics. Here, Alec Odri shows off his popper. He quickly pointed out that he went for a larger head and thinner body than you'd see on others. Odri modeled his color scheme after a fish in his dad's tank. "They 're kinda like Spanish flag colors," he said. Odri hopes his tones will entice bruisers in the nearby Delaware River.Joe Cermele
Isaiah Mendez had just finished wiring his low-profile popper and was getting ready to add some glitter before sealing it. "Glitter will make it more colorful and flashy," he told me. "The fish will be able to see it from farther away and come grab it."Joe Cermele
Rashaad Kheiralla went with a green/black/red pattern hoping it would turn on some bigger bass. So far, he's only ever taken schoolies.Joe Cermele
Originally, Poole explained the importance of a white belly, and used that part of the paint job to get everyone used to the feel of the airbrush. But then the kids started asking to experiment. "I told them to try anything they wanted," said Poole. "Mix colors and just have fun."Joe Cermele
It wasn't shocking that many of the girls went with…well…girly colors. When I asked a few why they chose them, the common answers were, "I just liked them," and "they're my favorites." Ironically, it's pinks, purples, and pastels that often entice the heaviest stripers.Joe Cermele
After paint, it's on to hardware. During the afternoon class, Poole walked the students through wire-bending, adding a swivel for the belly hook, and jamming in the grommets. They all listened intently. "So we've got a tail grommet, belly grommet, and what else?," Poole asked. "Nose grommet," answered the congregation in unison.Joe Cermele
Once the plugs are rigged, they head over to the epoxy table to be glittered and sealed. Eighth-grader and avid hunter and fisherman Andrew Maimone often helps Poole with his shop classes. While I sat in, he was aiding the students in applying nice, even coats of epoxy. Poole transformed a rotisserie motor into a drying wheel - one just like professional builders use to stop the clear-coat from running or pooling during the long hardening process.Joe Cermele
Poole's lure-making project has apparently infected other classes. As an example, one computer teacher has the students branding and creating packaging for their mock plug companies. Names like "Fantastic Fishing Lures" and "Purely Psychotic Exotics" might one day be found at the finest tackle shops on the striper coast.Joe Cermele
Students like Cody Carr, shown here rocking his striper shirt, are eager to get their wood on the water. Carr went with a simple green and white color pattern because, "too many colors will just confuse the fish. Lighter colors look more like baitfish." His dream catches include a dogtooth tuna in Australia, and a blue marlin. Carr was pumped for an upcoming trip to Disney World in Florida, where he says there are "28-pound largemouth" in a lake nearby. I told him to please call me if he catches one that big.Joe Cermele
Many students said they planned to test their plugs. Others were going to give them to their dads and grandfathers. Sami Schenk, here with a superb swimmer, doesn't have a target species in mind for her lure's trial run. "I just get lucky sometimes," she told me. "I'm happy with whatever I catch." But it's Poole's hope that he'll be able to take future classes even further and get the kids casting on the water in the spring as part of a plug testing/ecology lesson tour of Island Beach State Park. "I'm not sure how these lures will swim yet," said Poole. "This is the first year I've done this. But for now the important part is that they have fun and make something they're proud of." I got the impression that the kids were all quite pleased with their work. They had a right to be - I'd use their lures with confidence in any blitz on any beach.Joe Cermele

The seventh-graders at Bordentown Regional Middle School in New Jersey are turning out some serious striper plugs in shop class. It's a project dreamt up by New Jersey teacher and angler Greg Poole, and with a little help from a master plug-maker and a group of kids genuinely interested in learning the craft, the result is some impressive poppers and Danny swimmers that any surfcaster worth his salt would agree will catch. This is their story.