Getting Started in Plug Fishing for Striped Bass and Bluefish from Shore in the Northeast – Aubrey Theall

Introduction and Basic Equipment Primer

Anyone who’s ever visited Plum Island, MA (where I do the better part of my fishing) between May and October will agree, there are a lot of bait fishermen on the beaches.  And by that I mean there are a lot of guys that fish bait for striped bass and bluefish, exclusively.  There are also those that toss a few lures from time to time, but ineffectively.  I know, I used to be one of those guys.  And even though I put in my time on the beach and caught fish, I’d run into a few salty characters creeping around in the wee hours with nothing but a plug bag and rod and wanted to catch fish with plugs like them but didn’t have a clue how to get started.  I have never been completely enamored with bait fishing (unless, of course, I’m raking fish) and eventually made the decision that I had to try and figure it out.  I’m still a long way from being a really good plug fisherman but I have put in a lot of time and have spent more money than I’d care to admit trying to figure the problem out.  The good news is that I’ve learned a good deal, mostly by trial and error but have also received some useful tips and instruction from some of the sharpies along the way.  I’m a gear junkie and I like knowing that my gear isn’t the reason when I fail (which we all do inevitably as surfcasters).  Having quality gear gives me confidence, on the other hand it just drives me nuts when things don’t perform!  I don’t pretend to be a sharpie myself, my hope is that i can share some of what I’ve learned with the next fellow getting started out with plug fishing and maybe save them a couple of hours or a couple of dollars.  I think my point of view on these matters is valuable to the guy starting out as I’m not that far removed from being a beginner myself, also I don’t work for a tackle outfit or bait shop or get free stuff or sponsorship dollars.  When I name names (which I have tried to do), it means its something I’ve paid cash money for and liked (or in some cases didn’t like).



My bait fishing arsenal consisted of a 10 foot heavy action Tsunami rod and a Shimano Baitrunner reel.  It served me well for that purpose.  I quickly learned once I studied the matter, though, that this setup wasn’t going to be effective tossing plugs.  And this is the first reality that the new plug fisherman, in my opinion, should face up to.  One surf rod isn’t going to serve your bait and plug fishing needs.  There is a bit of overlap on the light end of bait fishing and the heavier end of plug fishing but not enough and if you try you’ll wind up handicapping yourself.

What you’re eventually going to find is that one plugging rod isn’t going to cover all of your needs either, but for the purposes of getting started it certainly will.  My advice for surf fishing for stripers and blues in New England is to seek out a medium or medium heavy action rod in the nine to ten foot range, rated roughly one to three ounces.  You want something with some flex when you wiggle it and not a pool cue.  A rod of this sort will allow you to work many different plugs effectively.  I own a lot of different rods and honestly, I don’t have a favorite.  I’ve got a $300 Lamiglas 11 foot Ron Arra rod that I like for long casts and big fish, a 10 foot St. Croix Premier that I like most anywhere, except for pencil poppers (cost about $190) and a nine foot Tsunami Airwave that I like that cost me about $100 that also works well most places and with most lures except for the big wood or heavy metal or unless I need really long casts or expect to fight larger fish in current.  They’re all good rods.  In fact, the $100 Tsunami rod has the best guides of the three, which is one of the mysteries of life.  The overriding suggestion I would make is to buy a rod made by a brand name manufacturer (Lamiglas, St. Croix, Daiwa, Shimano, Tsunami and Tica are good brands that come immediately to mind) and budget at a minimum of $100.  Buy it at an independent tackle shop on the advice of the folks there as they will know what works well in your area.  Even better, if your budget is on the higher end, consult with a local custom rod builder and have them construct a rod tailored to you, your area and your needs.  As for the question of one piece or two piece rods, get a one piece rod if your ride permits.  I drive a sports car and it doesn’t.  So I fight with 2 piece rods.  They aren’t that bad other than they tend to get out of alignment during extended casting sessions, which means stopping to re-align them in the dark.  A little wax on the ferrule helps but doesn’t always eliminate this issue.

As for reels, its a different story than rods.  You can get away with one reel if you want to share it among multiple rods,  and pretty effectively actually.  One reel won’t work well on any and all rods, but there are a good number of reels that will work pretty well on the bulk of the rods you might consider using.

VS275 Spinning Reels

There are really two basic types of surf fishing (spinning) reels out there, those that are sealed and those that are not.  The list of those that are sealed is exceedingly short, only Van Staal and Zeebaas.  They start at about $700 and go up from there.  I’ve heard some guys claim that the latest generation of Shimano Stella and Daiwa Saltiga reels are also fully sealed, but I’m not going to be the guy to test that claim out on my dime.  I think they’re pretty well sealed against water, but sand worries me with their tight tolerances.  Sand, in my experience, is what will grind a reel to a halt in the middle of a tide.  Penn also has what they claim is a sealed reel ready for release later in 2009 or perhaps early in ZeeBaas Z-Rough (ZX27RB)2010.  As for whether it is a good surf reel or not, the jury will be out for a while.  If you’re going to buy one my advice, since its a lot of money, is to go with the most proven reel and that’s the Van Staal.  They work well with braided line, they’re simply built and not prone to failure, they generally only require annual maintenance, they are water tight and sand can be rinsed out with salt water without damaging the reel.  In many ways the more of a googan you are the more a waterproof reel can benefit you.  I am constantly doing dumb things like dropping my reel in the sand when trying to unhook a thrashing blue or taking a wave over the head because I’ve waded our a little farther than I should.  Because I mostly use the Van Staal, I usually don’t pay for these mistakes.  When the reel starts to grind I just rinse it out in the surf.  You don’t want to try this with most reels!  I like the Van Staal 250 most as I like its drag and huge line capacity, with the 150 being good for your lighter outfits (9 foot rods and under).  The 200 isn’t a bad choice if you could only have one and it could be used on almost any surf rod except maybe a 7 footer or some 8 footers where it would seem a little awkward.  I don’t have much use for the larger 275 and 300 models but I hear some of the Canal guys like the 275 because it has a faster retrieve and that’s handy there.  They have bailed models out now if you don’t think you’d like a bail-less reel although I found there was virtually no learning curve when it came to learning to use a bail-less reel.
The universe of non-sealed reels is by contrast quite large.  Again, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you stick with a name brand manufacturer.  Shimano, Daiwa, Penn and Quantum all have good reputations and are reels I have used with good results.  You can get a quality reel starting again at about $100.  I have a general preference for metal bodied reels, which seem to hold up better under hard use.  Try your best to keep your reel dry and away from sand (this is a lot harder than it sounds!).  It will significantly shorten the lifespan of your reel, or at least will require frequent tear-downs.  As a rule of thumb, if my reel has been submerged in water completely or if its making sandy grinding noises then its time to disassemble, clean and lubricate it.  This is easier with some reels than others.  More sophisticated features like worm gears, lots of ball bearings, etc. are less tolerant of contamination by sand and water and you probably want to avoid them.  Simple reels are most often better!  Having a reel that you can self service will mean that you’ll probably service it more and that it most likely will live longer.  I’ve found the Penn SS and Slammer reels to be among the easiest to self service.  One tip I’ve found with these reels is that if you coat the HT-100 drag washers (the carbon fiber looking ones) with a very light coat of Cal’s or Shimano drag grease (only use drag grease, not blue marine grease or anything like that) that it improves their performance, particularly if the reel gets wet and especially with the Slammer which only uses one very large washer in the drag system.  One note about the Penn SS reels is that they do not work especially well with braided lines but do work pretty well with Fireline.  They are based on an old design.  The Slammer reels do work well with braid.  The Daiwa Black Gold Series is similar in design the Penn SS and similarly easy to service.  The meat of Shimano’s saltwater line are the Spheros and Baitrunner reels, which are a good reels for the money and ones I also use a fair amount.  They do, however, have pretty tight tolerances and don’t like sand much.  I can remember one trip to the Hampton River in NH where a fish pulled my rod and Baitrunner reel out of a sand spike and into the water while I was getting ready to toss a plug with another rod.  I managed to retrieve it (lost the fish) and the reel sounded like it was full of gravel whenyou cranked the handle (which it basically was).  A trip to Shimano for service straightened it out and I still probably have caught more fish on that reel than any other.  The Baitrunner feature is handy and don’t let the name put you off, they are a fine reel for plugging as well.  Daiwa has a couple of new saltwater reels out, the Exceler and the Saltist.  I have a Saltist and have just started testing it out.  It seems nice, although it has a blazing fast retrieve.  My advice in selecting the right size for surf fishing is to look for a reel that holds at least 200 yards of 20 pound test monofilament line, unless you’re fully committed to using braid.


On the topic of line, you’re probably going to want to start out with a quality monofilament line.  There are quite a few manufacturers of monofilament line and I’ve had good results with Berkley Big Game.  I rarely use monofilament of less than 20 pound test, except on very light outfits.  If I need the extra casting distance of a thinner line, I go with braid.  The newer braided lines are very popular but they also have a bit of a learning curve and you’ll want to practice a bit with them before hitting the night tides and untangling a bunch of wind knots in the dark.  This is definitely the voice of experience.  Braided line tangles much more easily and on the safety front it can cut you badly.  It also is not as resistant to abrasion damage, in my experience.  Some of the guys that fish around a lot of rocks all of the time don’t like to use braid.  I still fish with both at times and each has its place.  Among the braided lines I think Berkley Fireline is easiest to use and least prone to tangles.  It comes in a white color and I’ve even seen bright green in a few places but all I’ve ever tried is the smoke gray color and it works just fine.  I like the 20 pound test for surf fishing.  Its actual breaking strength is way above 20 pounds. Nerdy types will point out that its not technically a braided line, that its constructed using a different process.  They’re right, not that it really matters.  I have also had pretty good luck with Sufix braid, however, I do find it much more limp and more prone to tangles.  Its also significantly more expensive.  With braided lines like Sufix or Power Pro I stick to the 40 or 50 pound tests unless I’m using a very light outfit where I use 30 pound.  I find the ultra thin braids of 20 pounds or less to be too prone to tangles when long casting or facing windy conditions.  In any event, have your braided line spooled by machine at the shop if you can.  You’ll have more tangles if its not spooled on nice and tight.  Re-pack the line on the spool yourself from time to time by casting out a heavy lure and reeling it back in while pinching the line, or even tie the line off to a fixed object (like a truck trailer hitch or tree), walk backwards for a long distance and then reel the line back in under tension.

Whether you use braid or monofilament, I recommend you use a leader.  It offers much better abrasion resistance than your main line will and it gives you something meatier to land a fish by.  I usually use leaders between two and three feet.  Landing a fish by grabbing braided line, in particular, is likely to earn you a nasty slice across a bare hand.  Depending on what plugs I’m using I’ll usually use either 30 or 50 pound test flourocarbon leader for stripers.  I’ve had good luck with pink Yo-Zuri.  I had one night on Martha’s Vineyard where I ran out late one evening when I couldn’t sleep and had forgotten to tie any leaders.  I wound up digging a crusty old one (tied with 50lb pink Yo-Zuri) out of my car trunk.  I landed 5 fish upwards of 15 pounds each in the rocks and heavy current in an hour and that leader, while frayed and scraped held up.  If there are a lot of bluefish around I will sometimes bump the leaders up to 80 pound test monofilament.  I find the 80 pound test offers better (but not foolproof) protection against bite-offs while still not putting off the bass.  I don’t like wire leaders and rarely use them.  I find they spook stripers a fair amount of the time and I almost can’t remember the last time I was bitten off by a bluefish on a plug.  It usually only happens when I make the mistake of working the middle rather than the edges of a surface blitz where blues will swipe at the plug lodged in the maw of another.  You’ll also get the occasional blue that swipes at a piece of seaweed on your swivel and cuts you off but there isn’t much you can do about that, wire leader or not.

The other things you’ll want if you don’t already have them are a set of waders, a wader belt and some kind of raincoat/splash top or dry top.  You will always need the wader belt on the waders, its essential safety equipment.  You may or may not need the waders or top for a particular time or place but if you’re going to do much plug fishing you’ll need one or both regularly.  Pick waders based on the warranty.  My experience is that they don’t have long lifespans, regardless of brand.  I think Orvis is going to eventually ask me to not shop in their store anymore, although to their credit, they have not yet.  If they ever do, I’ll try another brand.  I’ve yet to make it through half a season of surfcasting without putting a hole in a pair of waders.  You’ll also want a pair of Korkers if you’re going to fish the rocks or jetties.  They are another essential piece of safety equipment.  I used to wear gloves or a finger guard to protect my casting finger from cuts with braided line but have been dissatisfied with all of them so far for one reason or another.  It was recently recommended to me to try waterproof tape, the sort you use to tape on bandages and so far the results have been good.  It doesn’t tear or cut and stays on even through an all-night fishing session.

Suitably equipped with a decent rod and reel you’re ready to hit the wall of plugs at your local shop and fill up your bag, which will be my next chapter.

Aquaskinz Phantom Semi Dry Top

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